Global Policy Forum

Brown Pledges to Maintain Britain’s Afghan Force


By John F. Burns

September 4, 2009


With support for Britain's military role in Afghanistan weakening in opinion polls and among lawmakers in the ruling Labour Party, Prime Minister Gordon Brown recommitted his government on Friday to its partnership with the United States and other allied nations in the battle with the Taliban.

"When the security of our country is at stake we cannot walk away," Mr. Brown said in a speech that aides billed as a watershed moment in the debate in Britain over the Afghan conflict and rising casualties being suffered by British troops. He added: "A safer Britain requires a safer Afghanistan."

But the British leader accompanied his vow to stick with the British commitment with a fresh demand that other NATO nations accept a heavier share of the growing combat with the Taliban. He made no mention of the nations that British officials have identified in the past as laggards in their willingness to help with combat - principally France, Germany, Italy and Spain. But Mr. Brown spoke bluntly. "While it is right that we play our part, so, too, must others take their fair share of this burden of responsibility," he said. "Forty-two countries are involved, and all must ask themselves if they are doing enough. For terrorism knows no borders."

But the appeal seemed unlikely to make much impact on European leaders, who are faced with similar resistance from their own electorates to any wider Afghan role. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, who is running for a second term in an election later this month, faces polls showing that more than 70 percent of Germans are opposed to the country's existing 4,000-troop commitment. Polls show similar resistance in Italy, France and Spain.

Mr. Brown said the reluctance of some troop contributors to accept their share of the fighting has weakened the resolve of others in the 103,000-troop coalition and prompted them to consider withdrawing from the conflict. He mentioned Canada and the Netherlands, which have been involved in the bloody fighting in Helmand Province, and Japan.

The Brown speech was certain to have been closely watched in Washington, where President Obama faces a quandary similar to Mr. Brown's, with liberals in the Democratic Party and others increasingly in opposition to the American commitment in Afghanistan. Britain, with 9,100 troops, is the second largest troop contributor to the coalition, behind 63,000 Americans, and any hint that Britain might reconsider its commitment could send other nations hastening to the exit.

For Mr. Brown, who returned Friday from a brief visit to British troops and talks in Kabul with American commanders, the speech had broader overtones. It comes at a time when domestic critics have assailed him for undermining relations with the United States with his government's actions over the release of the only man convicted in the 1988 Lockerbie airliner bombing.

The 57-year-old prime minister made no mention of the freeing of Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, released two weeks ago by the Scottish government on compassionate parole from a life sentence for his role in the deaths of 270 people, including 189 Americans, who were killed in the bombing. Many in Britain have seen Mr. Megrahi's release as the most damaging event in relations with the United States in decades.

But critics at home have accused Mr. Brown of duplicity for allowing officials of his government to assure the United States that Mr. Megrahi would serve out his term in Scotland while high-level British emissaries were telling the Libyan government he favored Mr. Megrahi's going home to die from his terminal prostate cancer. Mr. Brown used his appearance before the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London to address the issue indirectly. "I am confident that the alliance between Britain and the United States is stronger than ever," he said.

But on Afghanistan, the prime minister is at an awkward crossroads. Opinion polls have detected a rising unease about the war among Britons in the wake of a wave of British military casualties, including 50 soldiers killed in the past four months. The British losses have tracked a similar rise in American deaths.

Recent polls have shown about 60 percent of those questioned in Britain opposing Britain's Afghan involvement - a sharp turnaround from polls taken in the conflict's early years, when British casualties were low. With Labour trailing the opposition Conservatives by wide margins in voter preferences for a general election next spring , Mr. Brown can ill afford to align himself with policies that alienate Labour's popular base.

On the eve of Friday's speech, he had what amounted to an early warning. Eric Joyce, a Labour lawmaker who was an aide to Bob Ainsworth, the defense minister, resigned abruptly over Afghanistan. Mr. Joyce, 49, who was previously an army officer, said in a letter to the prime minister that Britain should set a date for withdrawing its troops, since the public would not "accept for much longer that our losses can be justified by simply referring to the risk of greater terrorism on our streets."

In his speech, Mr. Brown acknowledged that most people in Britain were anxious to know how long their troops would stay in Afghanistan, but he said it would depend on how quickly the Afghan Army could take over the fighting. He said he had used his meeting over the weekend with Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the United States and NATO commander, to press for a six-month speedup, to November 2010, in the deadline for increasing the Afghan Army to 134,000 troops from its present level of 80,000.

The prime minister hinted, too, that he had told General McChrystal that Britain was not likely to agree to send more troops of its own if American commanders asked. Mr. Brown said he was pleased that General McChrystal agreed with the British view that the way to meet the Taliban challenge was to train more Afghan troops, and to do it more swiftly, an effort Mr. Brown said Britain planned to make a larger part of its own Afghan effort.


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