Author: By Kim Sengupta and Nigel Morris
Plans to reinforce the beleaguered British force have been drawn up after Downing Street consulted senior military commanders. But in a dramatic indication of the level of friction between the Government and the head of the Army, Downing Street excluded General Sir Richard Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff, from the negotiations.
Ministers are also making clear that the 700 additional troops deployed to Helmand to reinforce the “surge” against the Taliban will remain for the foreseeable future. Additional explosives officers are also expected to be sent to counter roadside bombs and mines. At the same time special forces units which have been withdrawn from Iraq are also due to be sent on to Afghanistan.
The moves came as the latest member of the British forces to die in Afghanistan was named last night as Rifleman Aminiasi Toge, 27, of 2nd Battalion The Rifles. He died in a roadside explosion while on a foot patrol on attachment to a Danish battalion in Helmand and was the 16th British victim in two weeks.
His death on Thursday took the number of UK troops who have died in Afghanistan since the start of operations in October 2001 to 185, six more than the total death toll in the Iraq war.
Rifleman Toge, 27, was born in Suva, Fiji, and joined the British Army in 2007. His commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Rob Thompson, said “He was one of 35 heroic Fijians in this battalion who add huge value, character and noise to all my companies across Helmand. Rifleman Toge was one of the toughest riflemen under my command and he was adored ? heart-breakingly so ? by all who had the privilege to encounter him. We have lost a courageous man of great stature ? there was no truer moral compass in the Battle Group.”
As the action to improve security ahead of the Afghan elections next month continued, Sir Richard used a radio interview to issue a “shopping list” of demands to the Government. It included more helicopters and extra unmanned surveillance drones, as well as more “boots on the ground”.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, the Chief of the Defence Staff, also delivered a rebuke to the Prime Minister by contradicting his insistence that no British soldier had died because of the helicopter shortage. The decision of Sir Richard, who has just come back from Helmand, to go public with his concerns over the support for Operation Panther’s Claw was an extraordinary snub to the Prime Minister. The two men are believed to have not spoken since the general returned from Afghanistan.
Sir Richard said the succession of deaths from roadside bombs ? so-called improvised explosive devices (IEDs) ? could undermine public support for Britain’s presence in Helmand. He said he would present a “shopping list” of demands to ministers for bolstering the campaign. He said the extra money could come either from the Treasury or from other parts of the Ministry of Defence budget.
Sir Richard, who retires next month, said: “We have really got to win this offensive counter?IED campaign. What do I mean? I mean we have got to be able to see what the Taliban are doing better ? overhead surveillance, we have a certain amount of capability. We have got to be able to target where they are laying these things, which means by technical means we have got to be able to do it.” He added that the international forces had to have “sufficient people on the ground” so they could prevent the Taliban planting mines.
The general won the support of Sir Jock Stirrup, who met the Prime Minister in Downing Street yesterday. Sir Jock said he was “busting a gut” to draft as many helicopters as possible into service, admitting that lack of aircover could put put foot-soldiers at risk. He said: “In this situation where you have lots of improvised explosive devices, the more you can increase your tactical flexibility by moving people by helicopters then the more unpredictable your movements become to the enemy. Therefore it is quite patently the case that you could save casualties by doing that.”
In the face of the demands, Downing Street signalled that extra resources would be found for the Afghanistan operation. A spokesman said General Dannatt’s recommendations would be examined “very seriously”.
Lord Mandelson, the First Minister, also promised: “[British troops] will not go without whatever they need to carry out their very important operations in Afghanistan.”
Senior officials in Downing Street and the Foreign Office are said to be deeply upset that Sir Richard had used his valedictory visit to the battlefield to “make political points” about the lack of troops and helicopters.
Senior defence and diplomatic sources say that various options to provide additional troops and aircraft for the Helmand mission were already under consideration before General Dannatt’s highly publicised trip.
No final decision would be made, however, until the new American commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, presents his military blueprint for the Afghan campaign in the next two months.
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