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Afghan War Questioned as More Bodies Flown Home


Mourners gather to pay their respects as a convoy of hearses containing the bodies of four British soldiers killed in Afghanistan passes through the village of Wootton Bassett in Wiltshire. (AFP/Carl de Souza)

LONDON - Most Britons believe the increasingly bloody war in Afghanistan is "unwinnable" and want troops pulled out, an opinion poll said Tuesday, as more soldiers' bodies were flown home.

The dead servicemen were honoured a day after Britain announced the end of a major offensive in southern Afghanistan and outlined a change of strategy following a sharp spike in deaths.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband signalled Monday that Britain would back talking to moderate Taliban representatives in a bid to isolate militant insurgents who have killed 191 British troops since 2001.

A total of 22 have been killed this month alone after British forces went on the offensive in Operation Panther's Claw, just weeks before crucial presidential elections.

Four more fallen soldiers' bodies were flown home to RAF Lyneham, southwest England, before a solemn procession through the nearby village of Wootton Bassett.

The ceremonies in the town -- which has become a focus of grief and support for British troops -- came after two more soldiers were killed Monday in Helmand province, the front line in the battle with the Taliban.

The surge in deaths has sparked a political row over resources for troops in Afghanistan, with Prime Minister Gordon Brown forced to defend Britain's strategy after calls for more equipment and more boots on the ground.

But according to the opinion poll in the Independent newspaper Tuesday, more than half of Britons now think the war in Afghanistan is "unwinnable" and want to see an immediate troop withdrawal.

Fifty-eight percent see the offensive against the Taliban as a lost cause. Only 31 percent disagree, according to the ComRes telephone poll conducted for the newspaper between July 24 and 26.

Fifty-two percent of the 1,008 Britons polled want the troops out while 43 percent want them to stay put.

Britain has around 9,150 troops in Afghanistan, most of them in Helmand.

In a speech at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Monday, Miliband stressed the need for the Afghan government to engage with moderate Taliban elements.

"We need to help the Afghan government exploit the opportunity, with a more coherent effort to fragment the various elements of the insurgency and turn those who can be reconciled to live within the Afghan constitution," he said.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai welcomed the British move, saying it was "a confirmation of the rightful position of Afghanistan".

But a Taliban spokesman reiterated there could be no talks without the withdrawal of foreign troops in Afghanistan.

"The problem in Afghanistan cannot be overcome by such statements by Miliband or Karzai," Yousuf Ahmadi told AFP.

"This problem can only be solved if the foreign countries withdraw their forces from this country and Karzai leaves (office) and repents -- then we will be ready for talks and this issue will be solved."

There are 90,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan helping local forces, with thousands most recently deployed to the south to try and secure the restive area ahead of presidential polls on August 20.

Karzai is favourite to win a second term, but has come under fire from his rivals for not doing more to improve security in the country since he assumed office after the 2001 fall of the Taliban.

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