Britain announced its 300th death in Afghanistan on Monday, prompting Prime Minister David Cameron to pledge a withdrawal of British soldiers from the country as soon as he believes the war-torn state can handle its own security.
The grim landmark comes during a year which has already seen 55 British fatalities, the second-highest number since the American-led invasion began in 2001 and amid increasing signs that most Britons want troops to be pulled out immediately.
Cameron said that Britain was "paying a high price" in Afghanistan and that people "should keep asking why we are there and how long we must be there".
But the prime minister stopped short of announcing an immediate withdrawal and instead made justifications for a continued British presence in the country. "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… But as soon as they are able to take care and take security for their own country, that is when we can leave."
The latest victim, from 40 Commando Royal Marines, died in a hospital in Birmingham Sunday after being seriously wounded June 12 in an explosion in Sangin, Helmand Province, British defense ministry officials told reporters. The name of the dead marine has not yet been released to the press although his family has reportedly been informed of his death.
Britain currently has around 9,500 troops in Afghanistan, making it the second largest contributor, after the United States, to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. Its troops are based in the southern Helmand province, battling resistance fighters and training local forces loyal to the West.
There have been increasing calls in Britain for soldiers to be pulled out of Afghanistan. A BBC opinion poll in February found that 64 percent of Britons think the war is unwinnable while other polls have suggested growing support for a troop withdrawal.
Cameron warned last week that Britain "must be ready for further casualties over the summer months" and described 2010 as "the vital one" for overcoming the Afghan rebel groups. But many Britons and Americans question the morality of a continued presence in the country. At least 10 Afghan civilians, including five or more women and children, were killed on Saturday in a NATO air strike in Khost province.
Meanwhile, United States President Barack Obama has just awarded a new contract in Afghanistan to the Blackwater private military firm. According to recent reports, the Blackwater offshoot US Training Center will receive over $120 million to guard American consulates in two Afghan towns. The Obama administration has continued to employ Blackwater despite numerous controversies, including the indictments of five former company executives on weapons charges as well as the massacre of 17 Iraqi civilians by Blackwater guards in September 2007.