LONDON: Britain announced the end of a bloody offensive against the Taliban in Afghanistan, as a poll showed Tuesday that most Britons think military operations there are “unwinable.”
Prime Minister Gordon Brown praised the “heroic” efforts of British forces in the southern Helmand province, where the troop death toll has surged since the assault was launched late last month.
Brown claimed success in Operation Panther’s Claw in the province, as officials announced the end of the first phase of the offensive, with troops now focusing on holding ground and then bringing development to the province.
“The efforts of our troops in Helmand have been nothing short of heroic,” Brown said. “There has been a tragic human cost. But this has not been in vain.
The comments Monday came as two British soldiers were killed in the region, taking the death toll since operations began in Afghanistan in late 2001 to 191, higher than the number in Iraq.
The surge in troop deaths has sparked a political row over proper resources for troops, with Brown forced to defend Britain’s strategy in Afghanistan, following calls for more equipment and boosted soldier numbers.
According to a poll in the Independent newspaper Tuesday, more than half of Britons now think military operations in Afghanistan are “unwinnable” and want troops should be withdrawn immediately.
Fifty eight percent see the offensive against the Taliban as a lost cause. Only 31 percent disagree, according to the poll conducted for the newspaper between July 24 and 26.
Fifty-two percent of the 1,008 Britons polled want the troops out while 43 percent want them to stay put.
Britain has around 9,150 troops in Afghanistan, the vast majority fighting Taliban militants in troubled Helmand.
Foreign Secretary David Miliband on Monday sought to reassure his compatriots about British operations and urged NATO allies to carry more of the burden.
“The biggest shift must now be towards the Afghan state taking more responsibility,” Miliband said in a speech at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, aimed mainly at the British public.
He also warned Afghan leaders that their next government must do more to defeat the Taliban and drive a wedge between the insurgents.
The British military insisted Monday that the first phase of Panther’s Claw was a success, with 3,000 British-led troops inflicting heavy losses on the Taliban since the operation was launched in late June.
“What we have achieved here is significant and I am absolutely certain that the operation has been a success,” Brigadier Tim Radford, commander of Task Force Helmand, said from the province.
There are about 90,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan helping local forces stabilize Afghanistan, with thousands most recently deployed to the south to try and secure the restive area ahead of presidential polls on August 20.
The August 20 vote, a key test of US and NATO-backed efforts to install democracy in Afghanistan after decades of war and conflict, will be only the second time that Afghans elect a president.
President Hamid Karzai is favourite to win a second term, but has come under fire from his rivals in the election for not doing more to improve security in the country since he assumed office after the 2001 fall of the Taliban.
On Sunday, one of Karzai’s vice president candidates Mohammed Qasim Fahim escaped unscathed after a gun and rocket attack hit his convoy in the northern province of Kunduz, the latest in a surge in militant violence.