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Asia Crisis

UK's Brown tries to shore up support for Afghan mission

* UK's Brown seeks to bolster public support for war

* Government rejects criticism of equipment failings

LONDON, July 12 (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's government tried to shore up public faith in the Afghan war effort on Sunday after the death of eight British soldiers in 24 hours sowed doubts over the mission.

The surge in deaths has led to unprecedented soul-searching in Britain over the point of its intervention in Afghanistan and led to cracks in a political consensus in support of the war.

The number of British troops killed in Afghanistan -- 184 -- now surpasses the British toll from the Iraq conflict.

Brown and his cabinet ministers fanned out to television studios to reassure the public that a major British and U.S. offensive against Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province was succeeding despite the heavy toll.

Taking his message direct to the troops, Brown told the British Forces Broadcasting Service: "I know that this has been a difficult summer so far and it is going to continue to be a difficult summer."

Asked if he was worried that the Helmand operation could become Britain's Vietnam, Brown said: "The operation ... is showing signs of success."

The operation is aimed at making Helmand safe for people to vote in Aug. 20 presidential elections.

Brown and other ministers rammed home the message that the British troops were fighting in Helmand to deny a base to al Qaeda militants who could stage attacks on British soil.

SHORTAGE OF HELICOPTERS, TROOPS

Conservative former defence secretary Tom King told the BBC on Sunday British forces suffered from a critical shortage of helicopters and had never had enough troops "to do the job".

The government denies such criticism. Finance minister Alistair Darling said on Saturday British troops in Afghanistan would get whatever equipment they needed.

Britain has 9,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, the second largest foreign contingent after the United States.

U.S. President Barack Obama told Sky News in an interview on Saturday that "the contribution of the British is critical."

The British involvement in Afghanistan has been less controversial than its mission in Iraq, now largely over.

However, a ComRes poll for the BBC in March found 60 percent of Britons were unconvinced by the government's arguments for keeping British soldiers in Afghanistan.

Media coverage of soldiers being brought home in flag-draped coffins and grieving parents criticising equipment deficiencies which they say put their sons' lives at risk has only increased doubts.

Warwick University politics professor Wyn Grant said support for the war could crumble if there was a continuing high death rate. "When you get a high level of casualties, people ask what the point of the engagement is," he said.

The Independent on Sunday newspaper said that if Brown could not persuade Britons of the case for keeping troops in Afghanistan "he must bring our troops home."

Opposition Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg broke a political consensus in support of the mission by writing in a newspaper last week: "Our soldiers' lives are being thrown away because our politicians won't get their acts together."

With a national election less than 11 months away, Brown will be keen to avoid more headlines about soldiers' deaths. His Labour party already lags far behind opposition Conservatives.

However, no party is campaigning for a troop pullout. (Editing by Myra MacDonald)

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