Leading article: A crisis with roots deep in the sands of Iraq

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The Independent Online

The recruitment crisis in the British Army continues. It is estimated that 90 per cent of the Army's fighting units are under strength. And this is having a knock-on effect on the Army's capabilities in the field. Senior officers are reported to believe that some regiments will be incapable of taking part in operations without significant reinforcements from other parts of the Army.

This recruitment shortfall has already resulted in the merger of all the old Scottish infantry regiments, completed earlier this year. And today we learn that recruitment chiefs have been reduced to offering members of the infantry and Royal Artillery payments of £1,300 to recruit their friends into the service of Queen and country.

The Army has attempted to explain this shortfall by pointing to a strong economy and greater educational opportunities for the type of young man who would normally have been expected to consider a career in the Army. This has some truth in it. But as an explanation of the present crisis, it is grossly misleading. It does not explain why the shortfall has escalated so precipitously in recent years. Our economy has been growing for the best part of a decade, so have educational opportunities.

Part of the problem is that the Army has been failing to provide an adequate duty of care to its new recruits. The Deepcut scandal, which disclosed a culture of brutality towards trainees, has gravely damaged the Army's reputation. And it has been further undermined by the recent emergence of a video showing an instructor assaulting a trainee. Tales of troops issued with shoddy equipment, and a lack of support for those returning from war with psychological problems, are also likely to have deterred potential new recruits.

But the larger truth behind this recruitment crisis is unquestionably Iraq. And for this, the Government, rather than the Army, must accept responsibility. The death toll of our soldiers, in what our leaders constantly tell us is a largely peaceful country, has been heavy. Since British forces entered Iraq there has been a surge in the number of soldiers going absent without leave. Even Private Troy Samuels, who was awarded a Military Cross for his bravery under fire in Iraq, left the military rather than return for another tour of duty there. The morale of military families at home is low. Dozens of women whose sons, husbands and daughters are serving in Iraq have joined a campaign for British forces to be withdrawn. This is not a climate designed to encourage recruitment. The casualty numbers are, however, only part of the story. Doubts about the morality of the cause have intensified. Is it any wonder that young people are not flocking to consolidate an illegal invasion by taking part in a deeply unpopular occupation?

In Iraq, our troops find themselves embroiled in an operation that lacks a coherent exit strategy. The same is true in Afghanistan, where 3,000 British troops are attempting to police the dangerous Helmand province. The situation is not expected to improve. The conditions in the south of Iraq, where 8,500 British troops are stationed, is deteriorating rapidly, as the country descends into full-scale civil war. In Afghanistan, the Taliban resurgence continues. It is only possible to see the crisis in morale and recruitment deepening.

The irony of the present situation is that during the early years of Tony Blair's premiership, the reputation of the British Army was boosted by the successful intervention of our troops in the Balkans. Yet now it seems that one of the Prime Minister's legacies will be the shattering of the morale, reputation and attractiveness of the British armed services.

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