By Jill Lawless Associated Press
LONDON — The deaths of five British soldiers gunned down by an Afghan policeman as they made tea after a patrol has shaken public support for the war in Afghanistan, intensifying debate about the human cost of the conflict and increasing calls for a pullout.
If British troops can’t trust the Afghan colleagues they are supposed to be training, critics asked today, how can they fight the Taliban? And where does it leave an exit strategy that depends on handing over control to Afghan forces?
The deaths dominated newspaper front pages, television news shows and radio phone-ins, even as the Ministry of Defense announced the death of another British soldier today in an explosion in Helmand province.
Several newspapers used the same photo, of the bloodied flak jacket of one of the victims.
“Gunned down as they had tea” said the Daily Mail. “A bloody betrayal,” said The Times, while the Daily Mail asked: “What kind of war is this?”
Hundreds of people used Facebook and other sites to post tributes to the dead men, who included 18-year-old Guardsman Jimmy Major of the Grenadier Guards and Regimental Sgt. Major Darren Chant, the regiment’s most senior noncommissioned officer.
“I don’t think we ever should have gone there,” said midwife Jane Cooke, 49, expressing an increasingly common view about Afghanistan. “There is an inner conflict going on there, and it’s never going to be resolved.”
Armed Forces Minister Bill Rammell insisted British troops must stay in Afghanistan until the country’s own security forces are ready to take over.
“We do believe that the approach of partnering, mentoring and training has to be the right approach because it’s about building Afghan capacity,” he said. “We do not want our troops to be there forever and a day.”
Britain is the largest contributor to NATO forces in Afghanistan after the United States, with about 9,000 troops in the country and 500 more committed by the government last month.
The mission had strong public support after the 2001 invasion, which came soon after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States. But that backing has waned as casualties increase among the troops in volatile Helmand province, where the Taliban insurgency is growing.
The five British soldiers, who had been advising Afghan policemen, were shot and killed Tuesday at a checkpoint in Helmand where they were living. The gunman escaped. It was not clear whether he was a Taliban insurgent who had infiltrated the police, a genuine policeman recruited by militants or a rogue officer acting alone.
In London, sympathy for the troops was tempered by a sense of hopelessness about the conflict.
“I’ve got some mates in the armed service and they say it’s going to take a hell of a long time, longer than the government says it will take to create stability there,” said Craig Howkins, 25, from Towcester, central England.
“I’ve seen a lot of our soldiers get hurt and killed, so I’m 50/50 on whether or not we should be there now.”
Rosie Wells, a 22-year-old from Leicester in central England, was more certain.
“We are interfering and they don’t want us there,” she said.
Britain’s Labour Party government and the main opposition Conservatives remain committed to the Afghan campaign. But cracks are starting to appear in the political consensus.
Even before Tuesday’s killings, former Foreign Office minister Kim Howells broke with Prime Minister Gordon Brown and called for a phased withdrawal, arguing that the money could be better spent protecting Britain’s borders.
Another Labour figure, former defense minister Peter Kilfoyle, told the Daily Mail that the latest deaths meant “it is time we should bring our troops home from what is an impossible task.”
Training and operating jointly with Afghan police and soldiers are vital to NATO’s strategy of stopping the Taliban-led insurgency and, ultimately, allowing international forces to leave Afghanistan.
The latest incident, which followed two shootings of U.S. soldiers by Afghan police last year, raised questions about whether international forces are trying to recruit and train Afghan police too quickly.
Malcolm Chalmers, a research fellow at military think tank the Royal United Services Institute, said training Afghan security forces inevitably involved risk.
“You can’t train effectively in a classroom,” he said.
Chalmers said the killings “will make some of the British personnel involved more nervous for a while, but they know it’s a central part of their work.”
The prime minister’s office acknowledged that more could be done to win support for the conflict. Downing Street said Brown would make a major speech on Afghanistan Friday, although it did not disclose its contents.
“There’s always more that can be done to explain to the British people what we are seeking to achieve in Afghanistan,” Brown’s spokesman Simon Lewis said.
The British deaths come as President Barack Obama decides whether to send tens of thousands more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Thursday offered condolences to Britain on behalf of Obama and said the president was weighing the security threat posed by al-Qaida in Afghanistan against the difficulties involved in waging war there.
“The connection between Afghanistan and our own homeland security is one of the key factors the president is weighing in making the decision about what to do next,” she told reporters in London. “What is the connection between Afghanistan abroad and the security of Americans at home and the security of our allies, such as the U.K.? He has to weigh that against what commitment of resources is necessary.”