Support the Troops, Prime Minister Brown!
When the war in Afghanistan makes it on the front pages of the British papers and the top of the TV bulletins, it’s a sure sign that things aren’t going well. And right now, Afghanistan is very big news indeed.
July was the worst month for British forces in the country since the conflict began, with 22 soldiers killed at the time of writing. The U.S. also suffered its worst month of the war, losing 38 troops; however the U.S. has roughly six times as many troops in the country, and taking into account the relative populations of the two countries, the British casualty rate is comparable to that which the U.S. was suffering during the worst months of the Iraq conflict.
Military chiefs have warned that further sacrifices will be required as British forces, along with U.S. and other allies, try to drive back Taliban insurgents ahead of the presidential election later this month. But while the British public has yet to turn against the war in significant numbers, there’s little evidence that Gordon Brown’s government understands what’s required if the country is to be stabilized to the extent that NATO and U.S. forces can begin to contemplate a withdrawal.
With the death toll mounting in Afghanistan, military chiefs have opened a second front against their political masters back home. A steady stream of senior soldiers, both serving and retired, have attacked the government for under-resourcing the war effort. The biggest complaint is the lack of helicopters available to troops, which commanders say is responsible for at least some of the deaths.
Brown has insisted that the army has enough helicopters, but his assurances were somewhat undermined when the head of the armed forces, General Sir Richard Dannatt, had to travel in an American helicopter to visit British troops in Helmand province. Further evidence of the lack of direction in the government came when Lord Malloch-Brown, the foreign office minister, admitted in an interview that there was “definitely” a shortage of helicopters, before being forced to "clarify" his remarks under pressure from Brown’s staff.
Brown has attempted to silence legitimate criticism by accusing political opponents of undermining the troops, and one senior Labour figure went even further, accusing military chiefs of giving “succor to the enemy." It also emerged that Labour ministers are plotting to smear General Dannatt if he continues his criticisms of the government after stepping down from his post.
The prime minister’s claim of doing everything necessary to support the troops was further dented recently when the government launched a legal battle to claw back compensation paid to two wounded soldiers. Brown never liked funding wars when he was Tony Blair’s chancellor of the exchequer, and he isn’t any more keen on it now -- a billion more spent on the armed forces is a billion less to pour into the bottomless pit of public services.
The extent to which the government is failing its armed forces has become apparent at a time when public backing for the troops has never been higher. Thousands of people have been lining the streets of Wootton Bassett, a small market town in the west of England, to pay their respects to those killed in Afghanistan who are repatriated to a military airbase close by. The ceremonies have become depressingly regular affairs in recent weeks.