Richard Reeves

The Special Relationship Is Very Special

WASHINGTON -- The 300th British soldier was killed in Afghanistan last week, which means that, proportionately, Great Britain is paying a higher price in manpower and money out there. That's 300 dead in a 10,000-troop commitment compared with the United States' 1,126 deaths with a commitment of more than 94,000 troops right now.

The debate in London -- "Why are we in Afghanistan?" -- seems more heated over there, but the essentials of the arguments are about the same.

The new British prime minister, David Cameron, marked the death of the Royal Marine in a place called Sangin by saying:

"It is a moment, I think, for the whole country to reflect on the incredible service and sacrifice and dedication that our armed services give on our behalf.

"We are paying a high price for keeping our country safe, for making our world a safer place, and we should keep asking why we are there and how long we must be there.

"The truth is that we are there because the Afghans are not yet ready to keep their own country safe and to keep terrorists and terrorist training camps out of their country. That's why we have to be there. But as soon as they are able to take care of security for their own country, that is when we can leave."

So the Brits are still on board. Cameron and Obama are saying about the same thing these days. The important difference is the new prime minister emphasized that his people should keep asking, "Why? Why? Why?"

They are a tough people; it has always seemed to me that their virtues and vices add up to the same things: stubborn, determined, obstinate, pig-headed. I have always been a bit of an Anglophobe, perhaps because I lived in France for years, but I developed a tremendous admiration for them over the last three years, working on a book about the Berlin Blockade and Airlift of 1948-49. The impossible adventure of feeding and maintaining more than 2 million desperate people, enemies but three years before, by air for 11 months was actually a British idea, seized on with American determination and courage by President Truman.

When it was over, one-third of the 2.5 million tons of food, fuel, medicine and raw materials that kept West Berlin alive and working was delivered by British planes and pilots, even though they had far fewer resources than we did. More than that, there were times when food rationing in London (which only ended in 1952) was stricter than for West Berliners.

This is how rough it has been for Britain in this new, doomed adventure. In Sangin, a poppy-growing town of perhaps 15,000 people in Helmand province, more than 10 percent of all NATO casualties are being suffered by the Royal Army's 3 Rifles Battle Group -- even though that group represents less than 1 percent of NATO strength in the country. In other words, the group is taking 12 times the casualties of all other NATO units. Of the 300 British soldiers killed in Afghanistan, 96 died in Sangin, mostly victims of improvised explosive devices. "Sangingrad" soldiers are calling it, comparing it to the German siege of Stalingrad.

Actually, the first time British rifles came to Sangin was in 1878; it was the scene of one of the first battles of what the British call the Second Anglo-Afghan War. They came back this time as early as the summer of 2006 to beseige the town, which has always been a Taliban stronghold.

Always determined. Always brave. Always stubborn. But for how long this time? The conservative journal The Economist said this last week:

"It is hard to escape the conclusion that the war is now mainly an American show, with the British playing a side role. To British critics of the war, this is the time to start withdrawing British forces. ... The Dutch and Canadians are already preparing to leave, and America itself has promised to start drawing down troops from July 2011."

That seems to mean the British will always stand by us -- until or as we leave.

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