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Afghanistan war debate heats up in the U.K.

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LONDON – The war in Afghanistan is the top story here, following a sudden spike in U.K. soldiers killed. With 15 dead in just over a week, more British troops have now died in Afghanistan than in Iraq. The British anti-war movement marked the grim milestone with a demonstration outside 10 Downing Street, the residence of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, on Monday, July 13. 

While protesters hit the streets, the government in the U.K. is using the recent rash of casualties to ramp up its campaign for a prolonged, expanded war in Afghanistan.

The major U.K. newspapers are, unsurprisingly, solidly pro-war in their editorial lines, but some of the public’s anti-war sentiment is allowed to seep into their pages. Monday’s Guardian newspaper, for instance, was a study in contrasts. The front page featured a ham-fisted war boosting headline, 'Public support for the war in Afghanistan is firm, despite deaths.'

One had to read on well into the article to discover that, in fact, this new poll had found more people opposed to the war than supportive of it (47 per cent to 46 per cent), with a clear majority of 56 per cent in fact wanting troops brought home by the end of 2009. But on the letters page, it was a different story, with all four letters featuring cogent arguments for British withdrawal from Afghanistan. (One reader, furthermore, took the paper to task for their Orwellian headline in today's letters section: "The pie chart included also does not appear to bear the headline out. A total of 56% believe that troops should be pulled out now or by the end of the year. Again, is this 'firm support'?")

Then, of course, there is the matter of Afghan opinion, which has been turning steadily against the occupiers for some time now. It’s bad enough that U.S. and Canadian elites seem blithely unconcerned by the history of Afghan resistance to foreign domination, but for the British it’s just ridiculous. After all, they spent a good chunk of the 19th Century fighting (and ultimately) losing ‘counter-insurgency’ wars in Afghanistan. And yet the war continues today, with no end in sight. And so it goes in the U.K., as in the vast majority of the NATO countries with troops on the ground as part of the occupation in Afghanistan. There is broad support, or at least sympathy, for the demand to bring troops home. But it remains difficult to mobilize big numbers around the issue and, thus far, it has proven impossible to change government policy which seems bent on repeating the bloody lessons of history.

But activists will keep working to shut down the war machine. The Stop the War Coalition here in the U.K. is stepping up their efforts in response to the renewed public discussion of the quagmire in Afghanistan. This Saturday campaigners will hit the streets across the UK to collect petition signatures and spread the anti-war message.

Derrick O’Keefe is editor of rabble.ca

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