LONDON - A steep rise in casualties has sparked a soul-searching debate about the value of the Afghan war inside Britain, the major international partner for the U.S. in the battle against Taliban extremists seeking to regain power there.

The debate about the purpose and progress of the faraway war - launched after the Sept. 11 attacks - follows the deaths of 15 British soldiers so far this month. The overall toll of 184 now surpasses the number of British troops killed in Iraq.

On Monday, a beleaguered Prime Minister Gordon Brown had to defend his war policy in Parliament against charges that British forces are poorly equipped and pursuing pie-in-the-sky objectives that cannot be achieved.

"It has been a very difficult summer and it is not over yet, but if we are to defeat this vicious insurgency and make Britain and the world a safer place, then we must persist," he said, asserting that commanders on the ground have told him they have the manpower and equipment needed.

With other European nations unwilling to send in more troops - and Afghan forces not ready to take up overall security - Britain's support is crucial to any American effort. Middle East experts warn that the Taliban and its al-Qaida allies believe the British and American public will eventually tire of the war and force their governments to pull out.

Britain's 8,000 troops are fighting in southern Helmand province with thousands of U.S. Marines in a major offensive intended to disrupt Taliban insurgents and cut their supply lines to Pakistan before Afghan elections planned for next month.

Much of the debate in Britain has focused on whether its troops are properly equipped to defend themselves, particularly whether they have enough helicopters and if Viking armoured vehicles are effective.

David Cameron, leader of the opposition Conservative Party, said Monday that the government must immediately provide more helicopter support. He urged Britain to persuade other NATO countries to supply airlifts to reduce the amount of time soldiers travel by road, where they are vulnerable to roadside bombs.

"It is a scandal that they still lack enough helicopters to move around in southern Afghanistan," Cameron said. "The government must deal with this issue as a matter of extreme emergency."

Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth told Parliament that British forces are involved in hazardous, hand-to-hand combat and cannot accomplish their goals from the relative safety of helicopters and heavily armoured vehicles.

"Our people have to get out," he said. "They understand that and I think the British public accepts that."

He said it is vital that the August elections are credible and bring Afghans an improved government.

But Richard Kemp, a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, said the government should acknowledge that the goal of establishing a Western-style democracy in Afghanistan is probably beyond reach. Instead, he said, Britain should adopt the more realistic goal of keeping Afghanistan and Pakistan from being used as a base for planning international terror attacks.

"Our objectives should be to provide sufficient domination in Afghanistan and Pakistan to prevent further terrorist attacks against the West such as 9/11, the London bombings, the Bali attacks, the Madrid attacks and so on," he said.

The government should drop more "idealistic" goals - such as achieving equality for Afghan women, or helping the country establish a judicial system - and focus on reducing the security threat, Kemp said.

That means U.S. and British forces have to control enough of Afghanistan to make it impossible for al-Qaida to use it as a planning and training base - but even this more modest goal will take years to achieve, he said.

President Barack Obama has also said he has a "very narrow definition of success when it comes to our national security interests" in the region. "And that is that al-Qaida and its affiliates cannot set up safe havens from which to attack Americans," Obama told The Associated Press in an interview this month.

Obama has ordered 21,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan this year. There are about 57,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and the number is expected to rise to at least 68,000 by the end of this year. The British toll of 184 killed in Afghanistan is less than a third of the 657 American forces' deaths, according to U.S. figures.

The rising British toll - three of those recently killed were 18 years old - has created fresh political pressures, but so far no signs that public support for the Afghan intervention is waning.

A new poll published Monday indicated support for the war has actually increased compared to polls taken three years ago. The ICM Research poll published in The Guardian newspaper shows 47 per cent of the public support the war in Afghanistan while 46 per cent oppose it. The pollster said support was 15 per cent higher than in 2006.

ICM interviewed 1,000 adults by telephone on Friday and Saturday, as the news of the latest casualties was emerging. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Charles Heyman, editor of the Armed Forces of the United Kingdom, said there is ample support for the troops doing the fighting but little backing for Brown, in part because many believe he is not supplying the manpower and equipment needed.

"It's natural when our soldiers are fighting hard that the population says we support our troops but don't support our politicians," he said. "The British prime minister is in a difficult place. His popularity is really low so whatever he says is questioned. People are suspicious of him. He needs to support the British troops in Afghanistan, which most people believe he's not doing properly at the moment."


Associated Press Writer Nardine Saad contributed to this report.

Latest From ...