Sarah Sands: While we argue over Iraq, we are losing Afghanistan

The Army is a backdrop for politicians seeking glory
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The face of General Sir Mike Jackson is part biblical, part game reserve, and one does not take criticism from him lightly. So when he chided me just before his Dimbleby lecture last week for "ambushing" his successor, General Sir Richard Dannatt, in an interview, I shifted uncomfortably. Then I protested: "It needed to be said." "In private," Jackson replied.

In a BBC2 documentary about the implications of the Dannatt interview, the constitutionalists were out in force. Nobody disputed the General's account of facts on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan or his right to advise the Government. His sin was to let the public know the truth.

In whose interest is this constitutional nicety? Certainly it suited John Reid, the former Defence Secretary, who said that he hoped we could leave Afghanistan without a shot being fired. The tenures of John Reid and Geoff Hoon were marked by their rule of silence from the soldiers. Sir Mike may have held his counsel, but he was finding it harder. In the summer I accompanied him on a trip to Afghanistan, and heard him crying out to his advisers: "They won't let me speak."

"They" were the MoD civil servants at whom he struck out in his lecture. Why would they want an old soldier to speak, when things can be explained so much better by politicians? The Army is a marvellous backdrop for politicians seeking glory. If the soldiers themselves are short of safe transport and equipment, let alone sleep, who is to know?

The great difference between Iraq/Afghanistan and Vietnam is that we no longer have a conscript army. It is not our sons we are sending to the front line, so if Tony Blair decides to use the Army more and the Treasury to fund it less, then the public won't squeal. We mind about the defence of the realm on home soil. We lost interest in what was happening in Northern Ireland, so we are not going to lose much sleep over Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sir Mike played by the constitutional rules, and where did it get him? As he said: "Tony Blair says the Army can have what it needs. I await the manifestation of this." But by the time General Dannatt took up his post, he knew that he did not have time for political choreography.

The mission in Afghanistan was dependent on moving British troops out of Iraq by the end of 2006. The "reinforcements" for Helmand province have been meagre, and General Dannatt is looking for an extra battle group in the spring. From where?Was he to have started his job parroting "leave when the job is done"?

In his first weeks in the job, General Dannatt visited Afghanistan. He returned with a quiet observation: "Is £1,150 take-home pay for a month's fighting in Helmand province sufficient?" When I interviewed him in October, he made some further observations: that the Army did not have the resources to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that we should be concentrating on Afghanistan, which we have a chance of winning; that our presence in Iraq may indeed be making the security situation worse.

Sir Mike also noted in his lecture that the "strategic main effort shifted to Iraq, arguably to the detriment of Afghanistan". There is no time now for reflection. Since General Dannatt spoke out, almost everyone has opened their wrists over Iraq. There is hardly an American official who has not made public their once "private" concerns.

While we debate Iraq, we are losing Afghanistan. As Generals Dannatt and Jackson have said, the military covenant has broken down: we demand the blood of our soldiers and we will not hand over the treasure. We cannot continue to pretend that British soldiers are nothing to do with us.