The Daily Star
20 July 2009
By Michael Glackin
Last week, on a sunny afternoon in the sleepy English market town of Wootton Bassett in Wiltshire, around 4,000 people gathered and stood and watched as eight coffins carrying the remains of eight British servicemen were driven through the streets. It is a ritual that people in the town, which is close to RAF Lyneham, where the bodies of fallen servicemen are regularly flown into, are becoming numbingly used to.
But last week’s procession was different. The eight soldiers were killed in a bloody 24 hours of violence in Afghanistan, on what was the United Kingdom’s darkest day of combat. And their homecoming came at a time when the British public is becoming disillusioned and angry with the UK’s involvement in the eight-year Afghan war, an attitude that a raft of opinion polls in the last month has only confirmed.
As the death toll mounts, no victory over the Taliban is in sight. No political solution is on offer, save another term for the inept administration of President Hamid Karzai, who heads, according to Transparency International, the fourth most corrupt government in the world. The number of British troops killed in Afghanistan is now larger than British losses in Iraq. Prime Minister Gordon Brown is now regularly accused of being complicit in many of those deaths for sending troops into battle without adequate equipment.
The accusation is not new. It was made last year by the Oxfordshire coroner Andrew Walker during numerous inquests into the deaths of soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it is now being made by senior military chiefs, both former and current commanders. And last week, Parliament’s Defense Select Committee said a lack of helicopters was undermining operations and troop protection in Afghanistan.
Brown has faced a barrage of criticism over his government’s failure to supply front-line troops with the helicopters they need to take the fight to the Taliban. Official figures show that just 43 percent of combat helicopters were ready for action in June, even as commanders on the ground complained of a shortage. It even emerged last week that the head of the armed forces, General Sir Richard Dannatt, was traveling around Helmand province in an American Black Hawk helicopter because there wasn’t a British one available.
Despite the sharp increase in casualties Brown has insisted the shortage of helicopters has not cost lives. But when he faced Parliament’s powerful Liaison Committee last Thursday he sidestepped the issue, saying he could not discuss the numbers of helicopters in Afghanistan for security reasons. In a series of terse exchanges with the committee, Brown also refused to answer claims that earlier this year he rejected pleas from the military to increase troop numbers in Afghanistan by 2,000 men.
As public anger grows over both the rationale for the war and its prosecution, the government has accused Dannatt, who also called on the government to reconsider the resources and troop numbers it had committed to Afghanistan, of playing politics. However, Dannatt’s views are also representative of most Britons and, increasingly, many politicians. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, said last week that lives were being “thrown away” in Afghanistan.
In contrast, last week Brown called the war a “patriotic duty.” Perhaps. But it was Samuel Johnson who famously declared that patriotism was the last refuge of a scoundrel. Frankly, when it comes to Afghanistan, that is what Brown looks like. As prime minister, he has been keen on photo opportunities with soldiers. He has even inaugurated a British version of America’s Veteran’s Day. Yet while he was finance minister he steadfastly refused to properly fund the military. One of Dannatt’s predecessors, General Lord Guthrie, in charge during the early stages of the Afghan war, has stated that Brown had caused the deaths of servicemen because he was “unsympathetic” to military appeals for funds as finance minister. As the general put it: “[Prime Minister Tony] Blair found it difficult to deliver Brown in the Treasury.”
Brown’s contempt for the military stemmed from his acrimonious relationship with Blair. Brown felt that Blair had cheated him out of becoming prime minister. When Blair wanted to use the military to pursue his political agenda, Brown did what he could to avoid paying for this. Blair was too spineless to stand up to Brown.
It is of course a brutal reality of war that soldiers die in combat zones. Combat deaths are, as the Duke of Wellington observed, “the butcher’s bill.” And it is hardly unusual for the military to demand more funding. However, the current row has left the public questioning whether the government still believes in the war.
What Brown needed to do during his testimony to the committee last week was to make plain to everyone what exactly British war aims are in Afghanistan, and whether there is anything like a realistic chance that they can be achieved. He failed to do that, and his failure will further convince the public that British troops are dying in a faraway land for no good reason at all.
If Brown still believes that the war is necessary to combat terrorism and build something akin to a stable government in Afghanistan, then he has to “deliver” and put his full weight behind achieving this. If he doesn’t, he should have the moral courage to withdraw British troops now.
Sadly, the importance the government places on the war can perhaps best be seen in the fact that while 4,000 people turned up in Wootton Bassett to greet the arrival of eight dead soldiers, there was not a senior member of government among them.
Michael Glackin is former Managing Editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.