Major-General Julian Thompson: This is a deadly phase but we must keep the pressure up


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This is very sad and sobering news and of course it is heartbreaking for the families and friends of those who have died. But we are at war and we as a nation have to accept that there will be more losses to come.

I do not think that the Government has adequately explained to the British people what is entailed in Afghanistan. That is partly because the Iraq war is controversial and unpopular and the feeling appears to be "Let's not talk about the war" when it comes to Afghanistan as well.

But we are not only in a war now, we are in a particularly active and violent phase of this war. We are taking the campaign to the Taliban and they are hitting back. We must keep up the pressure on the enemy, gain ground and hold it. We also must recognise that this campaign will go on for quite a long time. This means that the rate of casualties will, inevitably, go up.

But there are crucial matters that must be addressed. There is understandable concern about inadequate protection afforded by some of our armoured vehicles and obviously that is something which needs to be rectified. But let's not fool ourselves, there can never be 100 per cent protection. Each time we upgrade and deploy armoured vehicles the other side tries to produce something which will penetrate that and injure and kill members of our armed forces.

The real answer then is to get more helicopters. Of course the Taliban can, theoretically, shoot them down with ground-to-air missiles. But they have, thankfully, not been successful in doing that so far, at least partly because of technological defences, the details of which are best not discussed in public.

To get helicopters – chartering them and buying them – costs money. And here we come to the crux of the matter: to mount continuous engagements abroad, as this Government has done, one needs money, an enlarged defence budget.

We know that we are living in economically straitened times but that is the bottom line. Thus the Strategic Defence Review, which has just been announced, must look at how best to utilise the resources and jettison some projects so that our force in Afghanistan gets the best protection possible.

What has happened does, of course, look very grim. But let's not forget that between 1971 and 1974, no fewer than 236 British soldiers were killed in Northern Ireland. There were 19 killed at Warrenpoint alone. The British public learned to live with that and the same will happen in Afghanistan, but the Government must do a much better job of explaining to the people what the war is all about and what the proposed endgame is.

Major-General Julian Thompson is former commander of the Royal Marines and is professor of war studies, King's College, London University

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