Helicopters row puts Brown on defensive

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Indy Politics

Gordon Brown was again forced on to the defensive over Afghanistan today as a senior minister admitted British forces "don't have enough helicopters".

Lord Malloch-Brown, whose Foreign Office brief includes Afghanistan, issued a hurried clarification this morning after his remarks re-opened the row over the UK military's resources.

In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, he said: "We definitely don't have enough helicopters.

"When you have these modern operations and insurgent strikes what you need, above all else, is mobility."

But he released a further statement today - shortly before the Prime Minister was to face a press conference in Downing Street - saying that he wanted to "clarify" his comments.

"On the issue of helicopters in Afghanistan, I was making the point - as the Prime Minister and commanders on the ground have also done - that while there are without doubt sufficient resources in place for current operations, we should always do what we can to make more available on the frontline," he said.

Mr Brown dismissed any suggestion that British lives were being lost due to a shortage of helicopters, insisting troops had all the resources they needed for the Operation Panther's Claw offensive in central Helmand.

He said today that the Government had already increased the numbers of helicopters deployed in the country, with more due in the coming months.

"I am satisfied that Operation Panther's Claw has the resources it needs to be successful," he said.

"I think the fact that it is making progress at the moment and yielding results already shows that that is the case. I am confident that we will bring this operation to a successful outcome.

"It is very important to recognise what the commanders are saying on the ground, the increase we have already made in helicopters, and what we are going to do in future months."

The premier was challenged about Chief of the Defence Staff Sir Jock Stirrup's claim last week that more helicopters would "patently" save lives.

He replied: "More helicopters in general, yes. That is why we are putting them, of course, into Afghanistan. More helicopters are being ordered for Afghanistan.

"But in the operations we are having at the moment it is completely wrong to say that the loss of lives has been caused by the absence of helicopters."

He added: "For the operation we are doing at the moment we have the helicopters we need."

Mr Brown said he would also press Nato allies to do more to help the war effort in Afghanistan.

"I will continue to press our allies to help us do more," he said.

"But don't forget the other factor in Afghanistan is this: that the Afghan national forces, the army and the police, have got to play a part in the reconstruction of Afghanistan."

The Prime Minister's claims were immediately challenged by a former commander of UK troops in Helmand, who insisted the military effort in Afghanistan was "insufficiently resourced" to counter a widespread insurgency.

Brigadier Ed Butler said while the Panther's Claw offensive may have the equipment and helicopters needed, the wider campaign was suffering.

The retired officer told BBC Radio 4's The World At One: "What is (Mr Brown) defining as the mission at hand?

"He may be referring to Operation Panther's Claw but I think the wider campaign in Afghanistan, and this has been the case from the early days, has been insufficiently resourced to undertake a proper counter-insurgency.

"I was the commander of British forces in 2006 and I made the case very clearly then that we had, only just about, enough resources to do what would be seen as a very steady state task."

But he said he warned at the time that if it developed into a counter-insurgency operation "then we would require more helicopters, more intelligence and more boots on the ground".

Lord Malloch-Brown, who is leaving the Government at the end of this week, also admitted in his interview that the public had not been prepared for an increase in the intensity of the campaign.

Recent weeks have seen a sharp rise in British deaths in Afghanistan with 18 killed in the past month. Since 2001, the number of UK service personnel to be killed in Afghanistan is now 187.

"We didn't do a good job a month ago of warning the British public that we and the Americans were going on the offensive in Helmand," Lord Malloch-Brown said.

"This is a new operation; the whole purpose is to win control. These deaths have happened ... after we chose to go on the offensive."