Short's criticisms cause cabinet row

War on Terrorism: Aid
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Indy Politics

A cabinet row erupted on Thursday after Clare Short, the Secretary of state for International Development, stepped up her criticism of the United States over Afghanistan's humanitarian crisis despite government attempts to ease the diplomatic tension.

As William Farrish, the US ambassador to London, was called in to Downing Street for talks, an undeterred Ms Short gently mocked the Americans for dropping "jam and crackers and peanut butter" on refugees.

The divisions between members of Tony Blair's war cabinet became public after Ms Short accused the US of lacking commitment to the humanitarian effort and urged the rapid deployment of troops on the ground to ensure aid was delivered. Many members of the Bush administration are known to oppose the commitment of large numbers of soldiers.

On the eve of a visit to the Middle East, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, poured praise on the Americans' humanitarian work and insisted Britain was at one with the US on military strategy. He said: "The US commitment to humanitarian effort is shown by the fact that even before 11 September, the Americans were providing 80 per cent of all foreign aid to Afghanistan."

He added: "I have seen no divergence in priorities between ourselves and the US. They are as committed as we are to the three-pronged strategy – military action, the political process and humanitarian support."

But his attempt to defuse any diplomatic row was undermined when Ms Short criticised America for the "regrettable" delay in sending in ground troops. She told Radio 4 that without a speedy dispatch there could be a "terrible amount of human suffering". She said: "We and the French were ready to go – and others talking about going – to be there briefly while order is established ... and there has been delay."

In the Commons, she denied suggesting there was a rift between London and Washington over aid to Afghanistan. But she added that she "stood by" her view that there "did seem to be a problem with the US, a country made up of diverse nationalities, that it had turned inwards and was rather insular".

Asked about reports that some food parcels released by American planes had destroyed homes, Ms Short said: "The only aid that's been dropped by air up to now was the US 'hearts and minds' parcels, if I might call them that – jam and crackers and peanut butter. I don't think they were heavy enough to cause houses to collapse."

Minutes later, in the Commons, Mr Blair told MPs that Britain and America were in "complete agreement" over their military, humanitarian, political and diplomatic objectives in Afghanistan. He insisted that any decision on deployment of troops to the war zone would be made "in full consultation" with the US.

Downing Street distanced itself from the Cabinet's most outspoken member last night. Mr Blair's spokesman said: "Clare Short speaks for herself."

Underlining the Government's confusion on the issue, he went on: "She speaks as a member of the government. Clare Short's position for getting aid into these areas is well known. We're working hand-in-hand with the Americans."

The spokesman said of her demands for rapid troop deployment: "We are all impatient to see this campaign finished as quickly as possible."

Mr Farrish held talks in Number 10 over the progress of the military campaign yesterday morning. Downing Street said the meeting was part of a series of "regular contacts" but there was little doubt the apparent strains in the transatlantic alliance would have featured on the agenda.

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