More helicopters available says Defence Minister

Author: By David Hughes, Press Association

After a bloody start to July, which saw the death toll in Afghanistan pass
that of the Iraq war, Mr Ainsworth said no amount of helicopters could have
prevented the rising casualty rate.

Labour MPs accused the Conservatives of playing politics over the issue after
Tory leader David Cameron today stepped up pressure on the Government to
increase the number of helicopters available to commanders in Helmand
province.

In a sombre start to Commons question time, Mr Ainsworth paid tribute to the
15 men who had lost their lives over the last 13 days.

“We have now lost 184 lives in this conflict and each and every one of them is
a terrible loss.

“This last week has been a hard week for those serving in theatre but their
resolve is incredible.

“In the face of these tough times they are determined to get on with their
mission and in the teeth of heavy resistance they are making progress.”

He called for politicians on all side to be “unfailing” in support for the
troops.

There had been a “huge uplift” in the availability of helicopters, he told MPs.

Under questioning from Tory James Brokenshire (Hornchurch), the Defence
Secretary said there had been an 84 per cent increase in availability of
helicopters.

By the end of the year Merlin helicopters will be sent to Afghanistan, with
further Chinooks being deployed in 2010.

But, he said: “The changes in the way in which the operations are being
conducted leads to more ground operations and these cannot be conducted from
helicopters.”

The current Operation Panchai Palang, or Panther’s Claw, involved soldiers
clearing Taliban compounds in their heartland, he said.

“There has been hand-to-hand fighting that has resulted in some of the deaths
that we have experienced, sadly, over the last week or so.

“This cannot be conducted from inside a highly armoured vehicle and it cannot
be conducted from a helicopter.”

Former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell accused the Government of
lacking a “comprehensive strategy” to defeat the Taliban and stabilise
Afghanistan through military, political and economic means.

“Until a comprehensive strategy is agreed and implemented, we will continue to
struggle in Afghanistan,” he warned.

Mr Ainsworth insisted there was a strategy aimed at building up Afghanistan’s
capability to govern and secure itself.

“It will be a long time before they can do that. Afghan tax revenue has
doubled in the last year but they will be dependent on international
donations for some long time yet,” he said.

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