Sarah Sands: Sir Richard simply told me the truth

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The Independent Online

How do you explain this? I interview General Sir Richard Dannatt, the Chief of the General Staff, to find out how our troops are faring in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is new to the job and ushering in a style of openness. It has been government policy, particularly since Geoff Hoon, to keep the Army quiet. Any account of military operations comes through a political prism, which you could also call spin. General Sir Mike Jackson has waited until his departure to write a book, in which I believe he will criticise the Government for making the case for war in Iraq on a false premise.

Sir Richard gives an honest account of facts on the ground. We are nearing the limits of what we can achieve in Iraq and should not outstay our welcome. The expression openly used by the military is "holding the ring". Sir Richard talked of the ongoing process of reducing troops and concentrating on our mission in Afghanistan, the great war on terror, if you like. He also said (what an American intelligence report explicitly stated) that our presence in Iraq was not the cause of Islamist threats elsewhere, but did exacerbate them.

I asked him to assess the situation from a military point of view and that is what he did. He spoke up for the interests of the Army. And yet every conspiracy going has been directed at this interview. The question I have been asked most is: "What was he playing at?" Was it a calculated assault on a weakened prime minister? Was it a plot hatched between Sir Richard and the Secretary of State for Defence, Des Browne, to speed a Gordon Brown premiership? Or was it cooked up with the Tories to get in David Cameron? Was Sir Richard naive, or cunning? What would the Americans say? And, perhaps my favourite, proposed by the First Post internet site: was he the victim of a honey trap? This is what happens if you allow yourself to be interviewed by women rather than chaps.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind put it neatly when I ran into him in a TV studio. "I am afraid it is a case of an honest soldier among wicked politicians in a wicked world," he said, shaking his head wisely.

Sir Richard made clear his intentions during our interview. "Truth will out," he said. Is it a terrible policy to tell the truth about the situation in Iraq?

Iraq is reported as a catastrophe or a great work in progress, depending on your point of view. Sir Richard chose realism. We are not going to achieve the pro-West liberal democracy of the Allied dreams. If we can leave the country broadly stable and with the prospect of oil income, that may be as good as it gets. Heis thinking of his troops and their mission rather than political pride.

Some Labour politicians and newspaper columnists have accused him of breaking constitutional rules, of poking his nose into politics. Meanwhile, the public have taken him at face value. Is there anything he said that you could disagree with? Why shouldn't he speak? He has merely expressed a view held privately by everyone with any experience of Iraq or Afghanistan. His crime was not what he said, but that he did not use the authorised, coded manner.

Everyone knows we are drawing down on Iraq. Everyone can see that our army is stretched and that we cannot fight wars on two fronts. It is comparable to the fact of Tony Blair's departure. We all know he is going, so it is just the "presentational how" that concerns us.

The support for Sir Richard was thunderous. Any minister calling for his resignation would have been lynched. Once the honest general had emerged from the other side of the media maelstrom, his words were, after all, the still small voice of calm. What was the row about? It was about a soldier telling the truth.