UK's Afghan death toll matches Falklands loss at 255

The death of two British soldiers, reported yesterday, means that as many British troops have been killed in Afghanistan as during the war to recapture the Falklands Islands from Argentina 28 years ago.

The 1982 conflict turned around the fortunes of then prime minister Margaret Thatcher, allowing her to become one of the nation's foremost 20th century leaders and helping to restore Britain's status in the world.

However, the Afghan war is much more complex for current premier Gordon Brown, who must call an election by June and is trailing in opinion polls. The rising death toll, which reached 255 yesterday, has sapped support for Brown's government and poses serious questions about what role Britain can play on the global stage in the future.

There was widespread support for military action when Britain joined the US in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan to oust the Taliban after the September 11 attacks. When Britain expanded its force and its mission in early 2006 in the opium-producing province of Helmand, the peacekeeping mission was only expected to last three years.

The then defence secretary John Reid said he hoped it could be completed without a shot being fired. Now there are 10,000 British troops in the country and more than 100 were killed in 2009 alone, the most deadly year since the 1982 hostilities.

"This is the war we stumbled into as opposed to the war we were told we were fighting," said John Curtice, politics professor at Scotland's Strathclyde University. "It does nothing for people's belief that this is a competent government."

In 1982, Thatcher's unpopular Conservative government was well behind in the polls trailing Labour and the newly-formed Social Democratic Party, when a 12,000-strong Argentine force invaded the remote Falkland Islands. During the 10-week war 255 British and 650 Argentine forces were killed, but the successful military action helped the Conservatives storm to a landslide victory in the 1983 parliamentary elections.

In contrast, the British deaths in Afghanistan have helped sour public mood towards Brown and his Labour government.

 

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