Clegg: Lives 'thrown away' in Afghanistan

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The Independent Online

The cross-party consensus on Afghanistan was rocked today after the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg criticised the Government's handling of the campaign.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, he said British soldiers were not being given the proper equipment and their lives were "being thrown away because our politicians won't get their act together".

His comments come after the deaths of seven British soldiers in the past seven days and amid signs of disquiet within Whitehall at the growing public dismay over the lengthening casualty list.

Mr Clegg said: "As leader of the Liberal Democrats, I have been keen to maintain the cross-party consensus on Afghanistan that formed after September 11, and has not faltered since.

"But recent events have led me to question, for the first time, whether we're going about things in the right way.

"I am concerned that we are simply not giving our troops the means to do their difficult job. We must not will the ends without being prepared to will the means."

He said two of the recent British fatalities - including Lt Col Rupert Thorneloe, the highest ranking British officer to be killed since the Falklands War - were killed while travelling in a vehicle "unable to withstand a roadside bomb".

"I am appalled that so many of our soldiers have been killed because of inadequate equipment, and disturbed to hear from experts that we don't have enough forces to hold and rebuild territory once it has been won," the Lib Dem leader said.

A total of 176 British servicemen and women have died in Afghanistan since the start of operations in 2001. There are about 8,300 British troops based in the country.

Mr Clegg questioned the level of UK troop deployment, saying British forces have been "relegated to the background" in Helmand after the US moved its own troops into the area.

He said: "I can only imagine how demoralising it must be for our troops to feel they have to be bailed out by Uncle Sam."

He added that a co-ordinated political strategy was needed to run alongside the military campaign.

"Britain's lukewarm support for European co-operation in defence and security planning has contributed to the fragmented nature of operations," Mr Clegg said.

"Our soldiers' lives are being put at risk because our politicians won't get their act together.

"To help them, we need a single individual or institution with a strong mandate, co-ordinating the actions of all international players."

He also rooting out corruption in Afghanistan needed to be given a higher priority, saying it was holding back progress in the country.

Mr Clegg said: "If the Taliban are to be defeated, the Afghan people need to learn to trust state institutions - a huge challenge in a country that never had effective central government."

He concluded: "The future of Afghanistan is of huge importance, but it will never be secured with troop and equipment shortages, an un-co-ordinated political strategy and a blind eye turned to corruption.

"We must think again - not about pulling out, but about doing things differently. There are many options: the only one I would rule out is following the current course. It is a halfway house that lets our troops down by asking them to do the impossible."

Yesterday Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth warned that success in Afghanistan would take "courage and patience", also predicting that more British lives would be lost in the fighting ahead.

But he insisted that progress was being made and that it remained essential to ensure al Qaida was denied a renewed foothold in the country from which to launch fresh terror attacks against Britain and the West.

"Isolating the Taliban and holding the initiative in Helmand is an imperative," he said in the keynote speech. "This is hard fighting and, as we have seen, the risks are considerable. But we are making progress.

"Let us be under no illusion. The situation in Afghanistan is serious - and not yet decided. The way forward is hard and dangerous. More lives will be lost and our resolve will be tested.

"If we are to succeed we will need both the courage and the patience to see it through. There is no defined end date - only an end state."

Mr Clegg said that British troops were being put into the "worst of all worlds" through a combination of a lack of proper equipment and the lack of an effective strategy.

"What makes me angry is that we have put brave British servicemen and servicewomen in harm's way, asked them to do a job, but haven't provided them with sufficient troop numbers. the right kind of equipment, and they are fighting this conflict in a political vacuum," he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

"There is no strategy in Afghanistan to co-ordinate the aid, the reconstruction, and the military efforts.

"You can't fight a war by muddle. You've got to either do it properly or not do it at all."