Ministers take flak from the Army on visit to Afghanistan

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The Independent Online

The Government came under concerted attack from all ranks of the Army yesterday as soldiers who have endured the bloodiest tour in Afghanistan to date called for more troops.

The growing rift between the military and ministers was sharply evident as General Sir David Richards, the new head of the Army, insisted that more soldiers would mean fewer casualties. His comments were echoed by men who have survived this summer's tour.

During an unprecedented joint visit with the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, the Defence Secretary, Bob Ainsworth, asked Staff Sergeant Kim Hughes, a bomb disposal specialist, what he needed most.

"More troops on the ground," was the blunt reply. The 30-year-old, a specialist with the Joint Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group who has had two friends killed during this tour, said afterwards: "It's been a ridiculously busy, ridiculously hard tour. Clearly more troops are needed – but then the same could be said for equipment." His officer commanding, Major Eldon Millar, 35, added: "We are so stretched across Helmand because it is such a large area."

Mr Ainsworth responded: "We know that there is a request for increased troop levels coming from [ISAF commander] General [Stanley] McChrystal. It's got to be a coalition effort. It takes time. You can throw money at this and it still takes time."

His visit came as 19 Light Brigade prepared to hand over to the 11 Light Brigade this week, after a summer that has seen 71 Britons perish in Afghanistan, more than double previous deployments. On Saturday, the 219th serviceman to die since operations began in 2001 was named as Senior Aircraftsman Marcin Wojtak, 24, from 34 Squadron Royal Air Force Regiment, who was killed in an explosion near the main British base at Camp Bastion.

Captain Doug Beattie, whose bravery in Helmand earned him the Military Cross, said: "The troop numbers out there are nothing short of scandalous."

The pleas for more boots on the ground were matched by the new Chief of the General Staff, General Richards. Just weeks after taking over the job, he said: "If you put in more troops we can achieve the objectives laid upon us more quickly and with fewer casualties."

He told the Sunday Telegraph that British forces, Nato, and the Government needed to demonstrate to Afghans that they offered a brighter future which was more secure, with jobs, and education and better healthcare, than the Taliban did. General McChrystal has requested 40,000 extra troops.

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