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Britons beginning to raise objections

November 04, 2001


LONDON: As an uncertain war carries on into day after day of bombing in Afghanistan, differences are beginning to emerge between the United States and Britain, its closest and so far its only military ally directly involved in the attacks.

Differences have begun to emerge at both the military and the political levels. If there is an area of agreement, it is among the people; a poll in The Guardian of London showed a decline in support for the bombing, as did a poll by The New York Times. The poll in The Guardian showed a drop in support for bombing from 74 per cent on Oct 10 to 62 per cent Oct 30.

A survey conducted by The New York Times along with CBS showed that though most said the war is going well for the United States, as many as 58 per cent said it was going only somewhat well.

Only 25 per cent said it was going very well, while 13 per cent said it was going badly. In both countries the majority were still supportive of the bombing, but a rapid decline over a couple of weeks has leaders in both countries worried.

The growing disillusionment with the bombing in Afghanistan as a way of seeking justice for the attacks of Sept 11 is beginning to surface sharply in the public, the media and in political debates in Britain.

The Observer said last Sunday that “this weekend, our confidence in that (Western) strategy lies shaken. The last week has seen a collapse in certainty about the objectives being pursued by the military alliance against terrorism.”

The Sunday Times said “intelligence gaps” were helping keep Osama bin Laden at large. A spokesperson for 10 Downing Street — the office of the British Prime Minister — said “there have been lots of stories in the last few days portraying every single setback as a major disaster”. But these stories say more about the impatience of the media, she said.

“You are seeing a wider debate on this in Britain than in the United States, which is not surprising,” Col Terence Taylor from the International Institute for Strategic Studies said. “The Prime Minister made his speech in Wales because of the different voices beginning to be heard in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, particularly in Germany.”

Prime Minister Tony Blair delivered a rousing speech in Wales Tuesday to rally Britons to the cause. The need for the speech was itself telling. But while public opinion is not a cause for immediate worry, signs of differences between military commanders in Britain and in the United States are.

Brigadier Roger Lane, commander of the Royal Marines, told the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) he would not send his troops into Afghanistan until “suitable targets have been identified”. Lane said: “We do not want to be too hasty. We need to be right.”

His remarks followed military reports that after more than four weeks and 4,000 bombs, little damage had been inflicted on the Taliban because the military was finding few targets. American jets had returned to base with bombs still in their holds as early as the second day of the bombing.

More commanders, following the brigadier’s comments, gave statements to media off the record. British commanders want to act decisively, but only on the strength of credible intelligence. They want to go in for the kill, but do not know what to hit. The Americans are being held up as the ones who have got the intelligence wrong.

The British military that had been sceptical earlier is now turning resistant to a continuation of blind bombing. The British government is faced also with strong resistance from strong Islamic groups within Britain in a way unseen in the United States.

Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon reacted sharply to claims that most Muslims in Britain would rather fight with the Taliban than with the British in this war. Hoon asked these groups to consider their own safety and that of their families’ and what would await them on a return to Britain.

Political differences have been simmering also between the government and the Liberal Democrats, the third but no longer an insignificant force in British politics. Liberal Democrats leader Charles Kennedy said that Britain must support the United States as a friend, not as blind follower.

Last weekend the chief of Britain’s defence staff Admiral Sir Michael Boyce said that the war could take many years. The campaign against terrorism could last half a century or more, he said.

In Washington the attention remains focussed on an end to bombing before the beginning of the Ramazan in mid-November. American leaders too have spoken of a war effort that could last years, but the focus in Washington has remained on achievements before the onset of winter.

The Americans have a handful of special forces inside Afghanistan and the British are ready to send in for now no more than 200 commandos, though the British say they can have a larger force ready at short notice.

Such differences within the military are not useful, Gohel said. “Think of the kind of differences you saw between Eisenhower and Montgomery during the Second World War,” he said. ”But there is nevertheless a growing awareness in the military in Britain that this thing is not being properly handled by the Americans.”

The differences have increased following reports of the achievements of the bombing. “A command control unit claimed to have been destroyed by the Americans has meant usually a phone inside a hut that does not work,” Gohel said. —Dawn/InterPress Service.