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Rising British Casualties in Afghanistan Sparks Growing Debate

By Robert Ridgwell
Wootton Bassett, England
17 July 2009

Britain has suffered a sharp rise in casualties in Afghanistan with 15 servicemen killed since the beginning of the month, eight of them in one day of bloody fighting last Friday. The rising death toll has sparked renewed debate in Britain over the war and opinions are mixed. VOA reports from Wootton Bassett, a town that knows only too well the human toll of the war.

It is their final journey home. On board the Royal Air Force jet, the bodies of eight British soldiers - three of them just 18 years old - killed in just one day.

One by one the coffins are taken off the plane and loaded onto a hearse. A few kilometers away, a crowd gathers and waits.

The town of Wootton Bassett lies on the route from the airbase to the coroner's. Here the grim news of yet more fatalities has spread quickly.

Church bells signal the approach of the cortege and of respect for the sacrifices being made a world away on the frontline.

Until recently these repatriations were low key and little-publicized affairs. Now this sleepy town has become the center for a national outpouring of grief.

Britain has over 9,000 troops in Afghanistan, engaged in some of the fiercest fighting they've experienced since the invasion in 2001. Operation Panther's Claw, the latest offensive against the Taliban is underway in Helmand Province.

But analysts say back home, the rising death toll is sapping public support for the mission. Military analyst, Malcolm Chalmers of the Royal United Services Institute. "Until now, public perception of what's been happening in Afghanistan has been limited. So the debate has become much 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," he said.

The deaths have sparked heated debate in Britain - not just among the public but also in parliament where questions have been raised about whether the troops are adequately equipped and where Prime Minister Gordon Brown has warned of a tough summer ahead.

Troops on the ground are all too aware of the rising death toll - which now is higher than the casualties suffered by British forces in Iraq. Word from the front is they are committed to the mission.

But back home progress is difficult to see given the human cost. So, just when the United States is beginning a troop surge in Afghanistan, questions are mounting over Britain's commitment.

"If there aren't results in Helmand then people will be saying, 'well we tried and it failed and we should get out,'" Chalmers states.

The government insists it remains committed; that the war in Afghanistan must be fought.

The people in Wootton Bassett know this will not be the last time the church bells signal the approach of another soldier lost in battle half a world away.



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