Britain's most senior military chiefs warned John Reid not to commit UK troops to "a war on two fronts" in Iraq and Afghanistan more than 18 months ago, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.
Despite clear advice that a "significant" withdrawal of troops from Iraq was needed before a new mission, Mr Reid went ahead with the Afghan deployment after coming under pressure from Tony Blair. The advice, prepared by military planners and endorsed by the Chiefs of the Defence Staff, was given to Mr Reid on his arrival as Secretary of State for Defence in May last year. Despite the warnings, he went ahead with the deployment in January.
Mr Reid was accused last night of having taken "a gamble" by the Conservative spokesman on foreign affairs as the political and military fall-out from the conflict continues to grow. The present Secretary of State for Defence, Des Browne, has been forced to deny persistent reports that military chiefs are pressing for significant withdrawals from Iraq in order to shore up the Afghanistan operation.
On the eve of the fifth anniversary of the war this Saturday, stark new evidence of the suffering being endured by British troops on the ground emerged in a series of leaked emails published in The Mail on Sunday. They amount to a harrowing account of terrified soldiers tormented by heat and sandflies engaged in brutal combat with Taliban fighters. One soldier wrote: "You see the Taliban cutting around on dirtbikes, their weapons in one hand, their kids in the other. They think we will not shoot them. There have been some terrible incidents. It is horrible to kill a kid, nothing could prepare you for it."
In another email, also sent by a member of 3 Para, a rescue operation is described in vivid detail. "I could not believe we were going to charge off this helicopter into a wall of lead. Not everyone wanted to get off, one guy actually defecated." The operation came too late for the French forces who had been ambushed by the Taliban. One of the Afghan survivors said the French had been tied up then gutted alive by the Taliban. "It is one of the most shocking things I have ever heard," said the British soldier.
The MoD has been accused of seeking to censor reporting from the front line, but a spokesman last night welcomed what he described as "these gritty, hard-hitting reports".
"The 3 Para battle group has performed magnificently in extremely difficult circumstances. We salute them."
Meanwhile, a detailed statistical analysis of the mission, obtained by this newspaper, shows British soldiers fighting in Afghanistan are dying at six times the rate of those engaged in combat in Iraq. Forty UK soldiers have been killed and 86 wounded in Afghanistan since 2001.
Britain has nearly 5,000 troops in Afghanistan and 900 more on the way. Around 7,500 UK troops are serving in Iraq. Keith Simpson, the Conservativespokesman on the Middle East, said: "It is clear that Reid took what he probably regarded as a low-risk gamble."
A spokesman for the Home Secretary failed to deny that planning assumptions for the Afghanistan mission in May 2005 involved a significant withdrawal of troops from Iraq. "The force package for Nato was not finalised at that time," he said.Reuse content