July has been the deadliest month so far for American forces in Afghanistan, with 55 killed already this month. Despite the trend toward Americanization of the conflict, however, today’s crash of a RAF Tornado fighter brought the month’s toll to 19 British troops killed. Given the extreme controversy over the war in the UK, that may be far more politically significant.
As Sonja Pace notes for VOA, Rising casualties have sparked a political debate about the country’s involvement in Afghanistan and why more and more of its soldiers are dying.”
Military analyst, Malcolm Chalmers of Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, says until now the public has not really paid much attention to events in Afghanistan. “The debate has become more intense and all those involved in the debate are looking at their answers and finding out that a lot of their explanations are not very convincing because the situation in Afghanistan is very difficult indeed and there are no quick solutions.”
The military and Government are doing what they can to assure the public that the losses are not in vain.
Every casualty is sad, every casualty is deeply felt by us in the military. I mean, they are part of our military family. The losses, of course, are felt most by the real families of those involved and the bereavement is terrible,” Air Chief Marshall Jock Stirrup, the chief of defense staff for Great Britain, told CNN in an exclusive interview.
“These casualties are pretty one-sided. Sad though our losses are, they are very small compared to the losses that the enemy is taking,” he said in an interview at the British Embassy. Stirrup, whose position is equivalent to Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the government wants people to know that the sacrifices are worth it. “This is a military operation and on military operations, you engage in fighting. That’s why we have militaries and, sadly, you take casualties. The real issue is, first of all, are we getting something of sufficient strategic benefit to justify the price that our people are paying?” he said. “Secondly, are we doing everything we can to ensure that we achieve that strategic benefit with the minimum possible number of casualties? And those, I think, are the key arguments in which we have to engage.”
The British military has been criticized for using vehicles that cannot withstand the blast of a roadside bomb. Stirrup told CNN that the British troops are conducting missions that forces them out of protective vehicles.
“You can’t engage with the population of Helmand from inside several inches of steel. You have actually to get out on the ground,” Stirrup said. “Our people have to get out there, they have to engage with the population and close with the enemy and that, alas, exposes them to risks and sometimes those risks materialize. Have we got the right equipment? Well, we have excellent equipment on the ground and our troops will tell you that.”
This is very much in dispute, Pace reports.
But there has been criticism from some top military brass. Army commander General Richard Dannatt has called for better equipment for troops to protect against roadside bombs.
Former soldier and now opposition member of parliament Adam Holloway, of the Conservative Party, says questions about troop levels and equipment are valid. But, he says the real problem is that the government’s strategy is wrong for not focusing enough on helping average Afghans. “We have only got one bit of the war going. We have got the big bang-bang war going. The battle for the people we are losing for sure,” said Holloway.
Nor is this merely the opposition party taking advantage of tragedy. Patrick Hennessy and others at The Telegraph have “Labour at War Over Afghanistan.” The controversy was over a report the “the Government turned down the chance to buy 12 ‘cut-price’ helicopters, which were close to being ready for operational use in Afghanistan, preferring to spend more time and money upgrading its own machines.” This set off a round of public squabbling culmination in former defense secretary John Hutton telling the Sunday Times, “We have got to commit the right resources to ensure we can win this conflict” adding “When it comes to the numbers and the equipment it is absolutely essential politicians listen to advice from the military. Politicians must not become armchair generals.”
But it’s not just Tories and Labour backbenchers. Philip Webster and Michael Evans reported last week for The Times that the Brown Government rebuffed the army’s request for additional forces. Foreign secretary David Miliband, writing at his blog, noted the sacrifices being made by British soldiers and their families and that every effort must be made to get the Afghan government and people to pick up more of the burden, further signaling that the UK’s patience for carrying a heavy burden is finite.
Not surprisingly, there have been reports that the debate in the UK is causing concern in Washington. Then again, Gates, while emphasizing that victory remains “a long-term prospect,” acknowledges that support for the war even in United States has perhaps another year absent signs of substantial progress.
It’s not at all shocking that democratically elected governments are feeling pressure after more than seven years of war, especially when the trend in casualties is moving decidedly in the wrong direction. What is somewhat surprising, though, is that we are seeing an end to one of the truisms of the 1990s interventions in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere.
It was once thought that the outsized participation of the United States was vital at the outset of a mission, both to signal our political will and because we had such an advantage in high tech warfare. But, it was said, the value added that the Europeans and Canadians brought to the table was patience. Long after the Americans were ready to move on to something new, its allies would stay behind and do the tedious but necessary duty of stabilization, reconstruction, and peacekeeping. It remains true in Bosnia, for example, where a remant NATO forces remains, sans American troops. It has not been the case, however, in Iraq or Afghanistan.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.