The Mail on Sunday (Scottish) article on Afghanistan

Mail on Sunday

I wrote this article for the Scottish Mail on Sunday and thought I’d whack it up for those who don’t:  a. Read the paper, and b.  Live in Scotland. Comments appreciated.

Mail on Sunday click here once then a second time when the next link comes up to read my article. It’s a little slow, as there’s a big piccy on the article, so do be patient!

An MPs scathing view of..

For more information on the Scottish Mail on Sunday click here.


Labour in the Sun

The Sun’s treatment of Gordon Brown over his letter to Jacqui Janes and his subsequent ‘phone call, sought to tread a fine line between attacking the PM for alleged neglect of our troops and mocking him for physical imperfection. I’m not sure they succeeded.

Moreover, many folk I’ve spoken with think that this newspaper seems to relish systematically exploiting a bereaved Mum: not a good look for any paper.  To be honest, I’m not sure that it quite does justice to Jacqui Janes, who’s clearly highly articulate and well able to look after herself.  And I also suspect that political journalists, such as Political Editor Tom Newton-Dunne, are less comfortable with the strategy than some higher up the tree.

Nevertheless, there is another fine line the Sun is walking and perilously close to stepping off.  It’s their attempts to attack the government on defence policy in Afghanistan without attacking any service personnel, who are responsible for planning for maintaining appropriate equipment levels for troops, overseeing operations in theater and making timely, albeit often very difficult operational decisions.

The simple fact is that every attack on the Labour government for equipment levels in Afghanistan is an attack on our uniformed services.  Ministers don’t just decide, in the first analysis, on equipment specs for any deployment.  They ask the services to put together force packages and then  more detailed planning is done by the same folk in uniform.  For example, it’s said we have around 20 helicopters in Afghanistan and that that’s far too few for the job. Well, when the decision was taken to deploy at our current levels, ministers would no more know the appropriate number of helicopters than they would be able to strip and assemble an SA80 – those are the jobs of uniformed professionals.   Those uniformed experts are of course presented with logistical constraints by their bosses, but if those bosses (including General Dannett) didn’t think the final force packages would work, they wouldn’t recommend them to government ministers.

It’s true that there will always have to be adjustments during conflict and that more kit, such as helis, are always welcome, and politicians are core to those  discussions and resource decisions.  But those who say that there should be twice as many helis, or  other technology and that includes comments about body armour etc, are literally attacking all those service personnel responsible for procuring kit and planning operations, not the government.

And here’s another harsh truth; sometimes people die because of command decisions taken on the ground.  Commanders are profoundly aware of this – it’s a heavy responsibility – that’s why they speak with passion when they laud the characters of their men and women who die.  Again, by knee-jerk blaming of politicians (rather than the enemy) for all our casualties, the Sun risks inviting other news agencies to look much more closely at command decisions.  At present, that thankfully doesn’t happen in the same way it does in other professions, such as social work.  Such a focus would hardly be welcomed by or helpful to our brilliant service folk.

The Sun’s game is essentially an extension of the Tories’.  But Liam Fox et al have the luxury of being able to used nuanced language rather than outright accusation – the latter is the Sun’s job.  So if the effect of ignorantly blaming every casualty on ministers is to bring greater media scrutiny of the military judgement of service personnel (and the Sharon Shoesmith-style vilification of some?), it’ll largely be on the Sun’s head.  There’s still time for them to step back and I do hope sensible professional journalists at the Sun take this opportunity with both hands.

General Richard Dannatt

I was asked to make comment on BBC Newsnight tonight on General Dannatt . However, I was told not so long ago, by  the most insightful person on the planet, that my appearing on telly is for me a ‘negative multiplier’.  I often seemed arrogant and even hateful. A tough judgement, but right.  So I thought I’d make few points here instead.

I listened to Richard Dannatt’s R5 interview earlier. It was full of  “old chap” and delivered in a style people will come to ridicule. It seems to me that he’s quite unprepared for what’s about to happen to him. For example, he didn’t seem to understand that he’ll have to resign immediately from the job he was sworn into today as Constable of Tower of London.  And did he consider that he might have harmed this colleague Sir David Richard’s chances of becoming head of the armed services? Most significantly, his military service has been, without question, of the highest order but he will now be forced to trade on it for the Conservative party. His military reputation will be diminished by the political process as an election draws closer. That will be more painful (and more unfair) than he thinks. Politics can be the most satisfying thing to do, it truly can, yet it can also be personally brutal.

And what of the wider politics? Well, it’s a blow for Labour, of course. Commentators will say that Gordon Brown never really appreciated the military and that Labour has misjudged it’s relationship with the Armed Services. Yet no-one really doubts GB’s genuine human concern for people  here and abroad. If his deep worry about casualties is reflected in a policy decision to send as few additional troops to Afghanistan as possible) then that’ll reflect strong public opinion.

I welcome the recent elevation of Defence to the top of the political agenda but it’s unlikely to last. And General Dannatt will very soon be required to do something i know plenty about –  subordinating his views to party loyalty.  A very smart Scottish colleague told me a long time ago I’d got it badly wrong and should have stuck to speaking out for soldiers instead of sometimes looking stupid in lieu of more senior players, and of course he was right. I had a reasonably successful half-career in the services – for General Dannatt, his hugely successful full career will be the negative multiplier, I think.

As the Parliamentary recess ends and the Tory conference finishes, we seem to be moving towards a new kind of politics. Gordon Brown has made ministers of surgeons, lawyers, business people, trades unionists, Admirals – a good thing – but the very few days which have passed between the General’s retirement and entry into politics is very significant.  Until now people inside and outside the military have thought the armed services ‘different’.  Soon to be ex-constable and new Lord Dannatt, along with the Conservatives, has just put an Improvised Explosive Device under that idea.

Afghanistan and General Dannatt

Former Army Chief, General Sir Richard Dannatt, is reported in today’s Sun as criticising the government over its level of commitment to the Afghanistan deployment. There’s no doubt at all that he was a very fine officer, yet ironically his words may have the opposite effect from the one he hopes to give us. On the whole, soldiers naturally want to soldier and to be as professional as they can be, but politicians must take growing public opinion about this matter carefully into account when they make the big decisions. The stock line politicians use to justify our present commitment levels in Afghanistan  is that we must do all we can do to keep our streets  in the UK safe. However there are more and more people ready to point out the obvious truth about our European allies’ much lower commitment in Aghanistan.  They are left wondering  if it is really true that our streets are more safe than they were before 911 or more safe in London than Berlin, France or Rome.

The fact is, I think, that the decision on whether to upscale troop levels now or in the future is very much one for President Obama. If he decides to go ahead and put more troopps into Afghanistan, then that is what will happen,  regardless of the  decisions that are made by NATO or European allies. The real question for the UK government is therefore whether we can, in the face of growing public opinion against high deployment levels, still justify our disproportionate commitment.

General Dannatt’s words make it less likely. If the UK is requested to send extra troops by the USA and then doesn’t, it will be a blow to Obama not because he can’t do it without us, but because US public opinion is even more strongly against the deployment than ours. If Britain fails to give ‘allied’ political support at this time the situation is serious for Obama. I think that in the face of the  modest contributions given by our European allies it’s becoming close to intorerably difficult to justify asking for more British troops to take life and death risk on behalf of all Europeans.

We are approaching a tipping point and it’s not at all guaranteed that President Obama will go ahead with the increase in numbers his field commander wants and many in our own military would support.