There was a terrible irony to the fact that the seventh British soldier to die in the last seven days in Afghanistan was a serviceman from the Light Dragoons. For once again the accusation has been made that we are sending our troops into battle too lightly armed for the heavy task with which they have been charged. The Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg reiterated that indictment yesterday and there is clear force to his arguments.
Early in the campaign, troops were hampered by a shortage of body armour. Now they are travelling in vehicles which are too lightly protected. Lieutenant-Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, the highest-ranking British officer to be killed since the Falklands War, died while travelling in a Viking armoured car which does not have a v-shaped hull or substantial under-body protection. A coroner, holding an inquest into another Helmand death, has this week expressed concerns that the light vehicles were unsuited to the war in Afghanistan.
There are also concerns that British troops have too few helicopters in Helmand where the ground is littered with Taliban bombs. The Army has only the same number it had in 2006 – when we had half the number of troops in Afghanistan. There are questions too about the quality of the helicopters, in one of which a soldier has died in the past week. More have been promised; some Merlin transport helicopters are being transferred from Iraq and eight Chinook Mark 3s – which have been grounded for the past eight years because of a software problem – are being converted from SAS use to basic troop carriers. But they will not be ready for operations in Afghanistan until next year at the earliest.
The conflict in Afghanistan is complex and difficult but it is, on balance, a war worth fighting to crush the camps which train terrorists for assaults on Western cities. Until now there have been serious problems about the way it was conducted. There has been a lack of co-ordination between allied troops. There has been insufficient attention on Pakistan through whose porous borders the Taliban pass unhindered. And there has been too much reliance on air power which has killed too many Afghan civilians, at a rate of three every four days last year, when US air strikes rose by 70 per cent. The Obama surge is addressing all that.
But problems remain. A massive state-building exercise is required but the promised aid has not all materialised. A large amount of what has been paid has been absorbed in the profits of private contractors and consultants. And only 5 per cent of aid has been directed at finding alternatives to the opium-poppy growing industry which provides the livelihoods of more than 70 per cent of the population. Large-scale poverty reduction is required. So is better protection of civilians; the military should not just be rooting out insurgents but establishing law and order if the credibility of Hamid Karzai's government is to be restored throughout the country.
To enable all that there is a war to be fought. We have not provided enough troops to do it properly, so that our soldiers are unable to hold and rebuild territory once they have won it. We have given them, in the words of General Stanley McChrystal, the new commander of Nato forces in the country, tasks wider than their numbers will allow them to do. In war, the old aphorism has it, old men send young men off to die. Our old men, when they do that, should give our troops the resources they need to have a fighting chance.