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UK's Afghan death toll mounts

BRITAIN'S involvement in the war in Afghanistan is set to pass a somber milestone in the coming days, with the death toll likely to exceed that in Iraq, raising questions about the military's strategy against the Taliban.

The Ministry of Defense announced yesterday the 177th and 178th deaths since Britain joined the US-led invasion in 2001, with one soldier killed by a gunshot wound and another hit in a roadside bomb blast in Helmand, a violent province in the south.

Nine troops, including four officers, have been killed in the past nine days, with increasingly sophisticated roadside bombs the chief means of attack as the Taliban steps up efforts to stall a US-British offensive across the south.

The death toll now stands just one fewer than the 179 troops who died during Britain's now-ended five-year deployment in Iraq, a war that was once perceived to be much more dangerous than that in Afghanistan, but which is now being surpassed.

Addressing foreign affairs experts in London earlier this week, newly appointed Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth warned of more deaths to come in Afghanistan, calling it a serious conflict with no end in sight.

"Let us be under no illusion. The situation in Afghanistan is serious and not yet decided," Ainsworth said, pushing to one side calls for more men and helicopters to be sent to bolster the 9,000 British troops now serving there.

Frontline troops

An area in which the ministry has been criticized is in the provision of vehicles and equipment to frontline troops, especially airlift helicopters to shuttle units rapidly around the battlefield.

Britain has a variety of lightly armored vehicles in use in Afghanistan that have proved good at handling the rocky, desert terrain but have been torn apart by the ever more powerful roadside bombs being planted by the Taliban.

New, more-heavily armored vehicles are due to arrive next year, but opposition politicians and defense officials say that is too late, and does not begin to tackle the array of shortages they say frontline troops face.

"We need to give our servicemen the full backing they deserve," Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said yesterday. "It's unfair, and it's a betrayal of the courage that they display, to put them in harm's way but not give them the equipment and support they need to do the job."


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