By Daniel Dombey in Washington and James Blitz in London- Published: July 16 2009
Britain's increasingly heated debate about its role in Afghanistan has sparked concern in Washington about the sustainability of the military strategy and the US public's own willingness to commit troops for the long term, senior officials and analysts say.The death of 15 British soldiers in two weeks has led to agonising in the UK over the Afghanistan war, with the military pushing for more troops in Helmand province, opposition parties calling for better equipment and the renewal of discussion about why the UK is taking part.A senior US official told the Financial Times that there was "some level of anxiety" within Barack Obama's administration about the UK debate."It's hard to see our most capable partner struggling in this debate," the official said. "When it happens in a country like Germany, you think, 'well, that's Germany and they have special difficulties in light of the upcoming [German] elections', but when it happens in London it hits hard."The official added: "If we are going to have to backfill European countries that decide to leave, could we sustain that with US public opinion? That's an open question."Bruce Riedel, an analyst at the Brookings Institution who pulled together the Obama administration's policy review on Afghanistan and Pakistan this year, said: "The British are crucial to the Nato mission in Afghanistan. Public opinion here will be affected negatively against the war if our key ally in Helmand starts to look for a path out."Conversely, he said, a boost to UK forces would send a signal to the US domestic audience and the Taliban and Pakistan that "we won't cut and run".The review chaired by Mr Riedel committed the US to increased military and civilian resources, which will take the US to a 68,000 troops by next month, compared with 32,000 soldiers from other Nato countries and partner states. Britain has about 8,300 troops, mainly in -Helmand. France, which has almost 3,000 troops in Afghanistan, has said it intends to remain, but the Netherlands is committed to give up its lead role in Uruzgan province next year and Canada has promised to pull out its 2,800 troops from Afghanistan in 2011.Although US officials are encouraged by the UK government's stance in support of the war, and by opinion polls that show increased public backing, they are aware of the volatility of the debate and its inter-national reverberations.This week, after meeting Jan Peter Balkenende, Dutch prime minister, Mr Obama, the US president, voiced his hope that "even after next summer . . . there's the ability for the Dutch to continue to apply the leadership and the experience that they've been able to accumulate over these past years".However, he said: "All of us want to see an effective exit strategy where increasingly the Afghan army, Afghan police, Afghan courts, Afghan government are taking more responsibility for their own security."The US official said General Stanley McChrystal, the new US commander in Afghanistan, was likely soon to make additional requests "both in the civilian and the military field".Even apart from the push to keep foreign troops in theatre, the US is experiencing difficulty in raising the financing for the expanded Afghan police and army, which the country's -battered economy is unable to sustain itself.