LONDON, Aug. 3 (UPI) -- The bitter critique of the Afghan war from the British Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, drafted as the death toll for British troops exceeded those in Iraq, has thrown into question Britain's continuing commitment.
Britain is the second-largest contributor of troops to the Afghan mission, with more than 9,000 of the total 96,000 foreign troops deployed. The rising death toll, now poised to breach 200, has been accompanied by angry complains from relatives of the dead that their mission was under-resourced, under-funded and hamstrung by shortages of helicopters.
The report by the all-party committee is the most damning official critique of the Afghan war from any of the NATO members involved in the mission. And it implies that Britain could be on a collision course with its American ally over a conflict to which the Obama administration is fully committed.
The report said that the British military operation in the southern province of Helmand in 2006 was "undermined by unrealistic planning at senior levels, poor co-ordination between Whitehall departments and crucially a failure to provide the military with clear direction."
It questioned the overall strategy of the war, saying that the attempt to take a comprehensive approach by linking security with economic and social development was "faltering" because the essential basic element of security for the civilian population had not been achieved.
It stressed that the wider British mission to take responsibility for tackling the narcotics trade had been "a poisoned chalice" that had failed in part because of Afghan corruption and dependence on opium revenues.
The report was drafted as British troop losses peaked, with 22 deaths in July, which has turned the war into a controversial political issue just as next year's general election starts to loom over public affairs. So far, the Conservative opposition party has attacked the government's handling of the war, rather than the war itself, but as opposition members of Parliament claim that "the Iraq quagmire has been replaced by the Afghan quagmire," the war is becoming a prominent political issue.
The committee's report said the British strategy had been marked by "significant mission creep" since deploying to Afghanistan in 2001. The role of British troops had constantly expanded into socioeconomic roles, even as their military duties increased sharply since other NATO members refused to take up a fair share of the military burden.
NATO allies and the international community as a whole had delivered "much less than it promised" over the past eight years, and NATO's credibility as a military alliance was now at risk.
"Bearing in mind that this is the first ever NATO deployment outside of NATO's 'area,' this has now become a most critical and seminal moment for the future of the alliance," the report said. "The failure of some NATO allies to ensure that the burden of international effort in Afghanistan is shared equitably has placed an unacceptable strain on a handful of countries.
"There is a real possibility that without a more equitable distribution of responsibility and risk, NATO's effort will be further inhibited and its reputation as a military alliance, capable of undertaking out-of-area operations, seriously damaged."
Sixteen of NATO's member nations have troops in Afghanistan, along with Sweden and Australia. But Britain has more troops deployed than most of the other allies combined. Only France, Germany, Holland, Canada, Italy, Poland and Denmark have more than 1,000 troops deployed. The United States now has more than 60,000 troops in the country and shoulders by far the heaviest share of the mission.
"We recognize that although Afghanistan's current situation is not solely the legacy of the West's failures since 2001, avoidable mistakes -- including knee-jerk responses, policy fragmentation and overlap -- now make the task of stabilizing the country considerably more difficult than might otherwise have been the case," the Foreign Affairs Committee report said.
The report came as a new U.N. survey showed Afghan civilian deaths rising 24 percent over last year, almost a third of them from airstrikes.
"We welcome the government's recognition that its strategy must be grounded in realistic objectives," the parliamentary report acknowledged, before going on to question whether that strategy was either based on reality or achievable.
"However, it is not easy to see how this can be reconciled with the open-ended and wide-ranging series of objectives which form the current basis for U.K. effort in Afghanistan," the report went on. "We recommend that in the immediate future the government should refocus its efforts to concentrate its limited resources on one priority, namely security."
The problem is that the classic lesson from previous counterinsurgency campaigns is that simply seeking to achieve security is never enough and must be accompanied by other measures to provide good governance and economic hope to win civilian support.
But the prospects of winning that support are not promising, the report stressed, because of previous and continuing U.S. policies.
"The unilateralist tendencies of the U.S. under the Bush administration, and its focus on military goals to the exclusion of many other strategically important issues, set the tone for the international community's early presence in Afghanistan," it said.
"No matter how difficult the circumstances facing the military in Afghanistan, the use of air power and acts of considerable cultural insensitivity on the part of some coalition forces over an extended period have done much to shape negative perceptions among ordinary Afghans about the military and the international effort in Afghanistan.
"This problem has caused damage, both real and perceived, that will in many instances be difficult to undo," it concluded.