The War We Need to Win - Now Let's Be Clear about the Cost; A Mounting Death Toll in Afghanistan Highlights the Failures in Candour across the Political Divide

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Byline: Anne McElvoy

THE DEATH toll mounts , the flag-draped coffins come home, young faces look out from the pages of newspapers under their peaked caps and each Prime Minister's Questions session begins with its own anthem for doomed youth.

As the number of servicemen's lives lost in Afghanistan passes the levels of Iraq's fatal casualties on the British side, the question of what we are doing there and for how much longer reverberates loudly through British politics.

This war was greeted, rather oddly if you think about it, with unanimity by the three parties. For some time, there has been very little disagreement at Westminster about the correctness of committing troops to the front line in Afghanistan in the wake of a lengthy engagement in Iraq.

We have lived through a spooky period in which the leaders of all three parties were committed to the war, while many in the public had doubts about it The impact of this summer's offensive on the Taliban is not yet known. But its effect on the home front is there to be seen. Nick Clegg, despite opposing Iraq, firmly supported Afghanistan, but now accuses the Government of lacking a "reasonable goal" and "throwing away lives". Strong stuff. Mr Clegg might one day inform us which lives he thinks were thrown away and which were inevitable consequences of fighting a brutal enemy. One can't always have it both ways, even in the Lib-Dems.

David Cameron raises doubts about the Government's handling of the war, while insisting after every trip to Helmand that he is firmly behind our boys. He has a habit of homing in on particular aspects of wars as a pars pro toto for a proper statement of his own beliefs, in this case the injunction that we should "beg, borrow or frankly steal those helicopters" which would offer greater cover to soldiers on the ground.

Then read his defence spokesman Liam Fox's defence of the intervention in The Times yesterday. Such is Mr Fox's fervour that we would assume the Tories were about to guarantee the spending on better equipment they criticise Gordon Brown for not providing. Alas not. Mr Cameron is defending ringfenced spending on international aid, decoupled from our foreign policy or military objectives and subject to very little scrutiny - while failing to guarantee that he would spend money to equip those in front-line combat against the Taliban. Why, only he can explain.

One of the reasons that the spike in killings of British soldiers in Helmand has caused such an outcry is that the public has been so ill-prepared for a conflict which is by definition likely to be long and cost many lives. Any toll is too high for those who grieve but the point of a fighting army is to fight and sometimes to die - and the numbers as a whole are not huge.

If we really don't want that then let's accept that we will have a smaller army which does less important things. Ultimately, I suppose, it could confine itself to messing about on Salisbury Plain and a bit of light peacekeeping. Is that what we want? The people least keen on such an option are soldiers themselves. So while the risks should not be undersold, the point of an army as capable as Britain's of active participation in major conflicts is that it is able to take on major missions - and is prepared to take the consequences.

"Why are we at war? …