Author: By Andy McSmith and Kim Sengupta
The Chief of the General Staff was due to give a television interview yesterday, where he was expected to renew his call for better support for frontline troops in the war against the Taliban, but pulled out at short notice because of the risk that his remarks could be misinterpreted. The row over helicopters carried on without him.
David Cameron denounced the Government’s failure to supply more helicopters as a “scandal”. The Tory leader spoke soon after the former defence secretary, John Hutton, called for more manpower, helicopters and protection for troops. But the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, insisted that “intensive discussions” were taking place within the Government about the equipment needed in Afghanistan, and promised it would not be affected by public spending cuts.
General Dannatt risked the wrath of Downing Street during his visit to Afghanistan last week, when he told the BBC he would be returning with a “shopping list” of kit that the British Army required on the ground. While he was there, he travelled in an American Black Hawk helicopter.
His remarks threatened to set off a briefing war between ministers defending the Government’s record, and service chiefs lobbying for more troops and equipment. Other senior commanders were also irritated, including the Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir Jock Stirrup, who feared they could damage negotiations with the Government.
After he pulled out of an appearance on BBC1 yesterday, General Dannatt said: “There have been a number of assertions made in recent paper and broadcast coverage that have misrepresented my actions and motives in relation to both my personal, and the MoD’s, ongoing dialogue with Downing Street on Afghanistan resourcing.
“I have therefore decided, given the over-politicised and often misinformed nature of this coverage, to withdraw from my planned appearance on The Andrew Marr Show. To be absolutely clear, this is my decision and my decision alone.”
The issue of whether the Army is properly equipped in Afghanistan threatened to become a political scandal after eight British servicemen were killed in a 24 hours a week ago. The war continued to take its toll yesterday, when a helicopter carrying 16 civilians working under contract to Western forces crashed after taking off from the main Nato base in the south of the country, killing everyone on board. An Australian soldier, 22, was also killed and several others injured by an anti-personnel device.
The Ministry of Defence has confirmed that ministers turned down two offers to buy Black Hawk helicopters, opting instead to upgrade British-made Puma helicopters. Sources say that once the decision to go for the cheaper option of upgrading the fleet was made, the Army was stuck with it because of the time it would take to re-train pilots to fly Black Hawks.
Mr Cameron claimed the problem could have been avoided years ago. “It is a scandal and we have been warning about it for three years,” he said. “Of course it is partly about money, but a lot of it is really about commitment. If three years ago, the Government had really put its shoulder to the wheel, it could have delivered more helicopters. As we stand today, the British military has over 500 helicopters and yet less than 30 of them are actually in Afghanistan. That is not good enough.”
Earlier, Mr Hutton warned in a newspaper article that more logistical support was needed. “Politicians must not become armchair generals. They must make decisions based on clear military advice,” he said.
Lord Mandelson replied: “John Hutton may not be aware that intensive discussions about these future needs are already under way and those will be properly assessed when the firm recommendations are made.”
He added: “The Government would place defence alongside other frontline services which it is our ambition to maintain adequate spending on.”
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