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Fighting for his army
Cat : War Against Iraq
Date : 2006-10-15 22:35:07                      Reader : 272

listening to the General , they forced him to say the opposite, so as to match their evil plan to destroy Iraq.

Google News 15/10/2006

Fighting for his army
By Sean Rayment

It has long been a time-honoured convention that the Army's top general fights his Whitehall battles behind closed doors. While many previous military chiefs have complained privately that their expertise was often ignored, few dared to venture into the treacherous waters of public political debate for fear they would quickly find themselves floundering out of their depth.

That unwritten rule, however, was blown apart in the most sensational fashion last week when General Sir Richard Dannatt, the newly appointed Chief of the General Staff (CGS), appeared to launch a pre-emptive strike against the Government's foreign policy when he declared that Britain's presence in Iraq was exacerbating the security problem. The 55-year-old general also said that the military mission to turn the war-torn country into a pro-Western Arab democracy was too ambitious and, for good measure, he declared that there was a direct link between the Iraq war and "Islamist violence" in Britain.

Never in living memory has the professional head of the British Army created a furore on such a global scale. Overnight, the face of the previously unknown general was splashed across virtually every newspaper in Britain and the fallout from his comments reverberated around the world. While his strident views and his willingness to speak out on controversial subjects earned the general instant hero status among the Army's rank and file, his comments created a sense of complete panic within Downing Street and along the corridors of the Ministry of Defence.

But the storm clouds that gave rise to the general's comments had been building for months, if not years. Since the beginning of the war in Iraq, soldiers of all ranks had complained that they were suffering from the lack of an authority figure who was publicly prepared to articulate their fears and concerns. Many argued that they were being sent to fight wars for reasons of political expediency, rather than operational necessity. They were fed up with having tofight with outdated and unsafe equipment such as the "snatch Land Rovers", which offered troops no protection against insurgent bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Those who were injured fighting Britain's enemies were forced to suffer the indignity of being treated on mixed wards in NHS hospitals. Back in the UK, young soldiers were being housed in squalid Victorian barracks, many of which were infested with vermin, and the reward for their privations was an annual wage equivalent to that of a supermarket shelf-stacker.

A soldier jumps from a burning vehicle in Basra

Such was the frustration within the Army, and to a lesser extent the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, that a virtual trade union, the British Armed Forces Federation, was created to represent the interests of the country's servicemen. Many commanders, including Gen Dannatt, feared that such a body threatened to split the Army along political lines and that it would ultimately impact on discipline and morale. Yet they were also worried that the standards and values that underpinned the modern British Army were under threat and that the time had come for someone to give the Army the voice it had long craved.

It was in January this year, when it became public knowledge that Gen Dannatt would be the next head of the Army, that it is thought he became convinced of the need to create a vigorous public debate about the future of the British Army. But his willingness to enter the political arena first emerged in August in an interview in an obscure MoD publication called Defence Logistics Organisation News, when he appeared to criticise Treasury policy by comparing the demands placed on the Army with the level of Government funding. He said that both Afghanistan and Iraq were proving to be "demanding" theatres and admitted that all the assumptions made about withdrawing troops from Iraq "had not been substantiated".

He went on: "[The Army] has huge demands placed upon us. We are finding ourselves quite finely balanced and taut, added to which is the problem that defence is not financially over-resourced at the moment."

Those who know the general are not surprised by his decision to court controversy. "He has taken a big risk," said one senior officer. "He's not a foolish man, so the question is, was he being calculating or naive? Only he knows the answer to that. The Army has been crying out for a public voice for the past two years and now we have it."

Another officer who worked for the general for two years added: "He cares passionately about his men. He would see it as an abrogation of his duty if he did not stand up and fight on their behalf. He has only told the truth: the difference is that the whole of Britain is now aware that everything isn't rosy in the garden. Iraq is not Surrey and he was making that point."

Gen Dannatt, 55, cuts an interesting figure in the Army. He is a devout Christian and, somewhat unusually for a man who has spent 33 years surrounded by soldiers, he never swears. Those who know him describe him as a plain-speaking soldiers' soldier. He is courageous, he won the Military Cross in Northern Ireland at the age of 23, a year after he finished his officer training at Sandhurst and, perhaps most unnerving for those who work for him, he is described as "frighteningly intelligent".

"General Dannatt will tell it how it is," said one senior officer. "You won't get any spin, you won't get any bluff. His reputation is based on the simple fact that he is an honest and intelligent man. He is a popular commander and always has been."

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Little wonder that his appointment was said to have been greeted with some trepidation by senior figures in Whitehall, who have become used to dealing with defence chiefs who were happy to toe the Government's line. Even among robust officers, however, stepping into the political debate was seen as off-limits. Gen Sir Mike Jackson, the previous CGS and another "straight talker", would only ever comment on political matters on a strictly off-the-record basis.

Another senior officer added that the general had been "shocked" by the media's reaction to his comments. "We are all surprised that this has taken off in the way it has, mainly because everything he said is not news to anybody in the Army. There are a lot of panicked civil servants in the MoD complaining about the pressure the general's comments have caused. But if they want to feel real pressure, they should spend a night or two on the front line in Afghanistan."

If there was alarm in Whitehall, it was echoed in Washington. The White House first became aware of the brewing storm on Thursday night. Calls were put through to the British embassy seeking clarification on exactly what Gen Dannatt had said, followed by overnight messages from the White House to 10 Downing Street.

As far as the Bush administration was concerned, the timing of the general's comments could not have been worse. "It's three weeks from an election in which Iraq is a major issue, recent US casualties have been piling up, the Bob Woodward book [see next page] is a serious blow to the White House, and now a British general says this," said a senior US political appointee who served in the Coalition Provisional Authority that ran Iraq after the fall of Saddam.

Meanwhile, over in the Pentagon, the reaction was one of shrugged shoulders and "so what?". "The impact will be nil as he said nothing new," said Dan Goure, a Pentagon adviser who is vice-president of the Lexington Institute, a conservative defence think-tank. "The interesting thing is what this says about Tony Blair's political standing. This is a British general talking about British troops who obviously feels able to have a pop at Blair's policy."

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Less than 12 hours after his controversial statements emerged in print, Gen Dannatt reaffirmed his belief on the steps of the MoD for television news that Britain's presence in Iraq exacerbates violence and that there is a direct link between the Iraq invasion and the "Islamic threat" in Britain. On various radio broadcasts he also added the caveat that he was not advocating an early withdrawal from Iraq – a view he reiterated in a wide-ranging interview with The Sunday Telegraph.

During the hour-long interview last week, the general spelt out in detail his concerns for the welfare of the 100,000 men and women under his command. Still dressed in his camouflage combat uniform, fresh from having returned from a trip to Bovington Camp in Dorset, the general was in relaxed mode. He was, however, outspoken on the subject of wounded British soldiers being treated on mixed NHS wards, a scandal that was first highlighted by The Sunday Telegraph as part of its "Fair Deal for Our Troops" campaign.

"There have been some outrageous instances, I'm not denying that," he said from his office on the fifth floor of the MoD in Whitehall. "But the hospital at Selly Oak is second to none for treatment and care: the deficiency has been in creating the right environment." He ruled out the prospect of the recreation of military hospitals, but insisted it was vital that troops injured on operations needed to be treated on a military-managed ward by service medics. "We need to have a military-managed ward. I want to move to having a military ward that we own and run."

He went on: "At Selly Oak, we have until recently only had at any time half a dozen people, give or take two or three. Today, it is 12 to 15."

The general also revealed that while the announcement by the Government last week that soldiers on operations would be given bonuses to make up for the tax they paid, he felt it was just a "first step in the right direction".

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The general went on: "The extra money is welcome. It is a significant first step in the right direction." But rather than bonuses, which only apply to those who are on operations, Gen Dannatt is hoping that the Armed Forces Pay Review Body will deliver a decent pay deal for soldiers. "We trust them and have every confidence [in the outcome of their deliberations]. And I want more, proportionately, for our lower-paid soldiers.

"About 1,000 of my soldiers are on working tax credit [so they would not get any benefit from the suggested removal of tax from earnings while on combat duty]. Only the better-paid would benefit. I would like to see none of my soldiers on tax credits. But this bonus is a significant first step in the right direction."

The general also said that following Tony Blair's promise to give commanders in Afghanistan any equipment they needed to beat the Taliban, he had urged his officers to be bold in their requests for new kit. "I heard the promise and will take it at face value," he said. "Every urgent operational requirement we put to the Treasury has been paid."

As our graph (below) shows, the increase in defence spending has been considerably eclipsed by money spent in other areas. Gen Dannatt intends to change that. "We will be asking for more. As our operations change character and length [in Afghanistan and Iraq], our requirements will grow. I'm telling people to ask for what they need, not for what they think we can afford. In the past, there has been a tendency to only ask for what you think you can get. I believe we should ask for what we need. Otherwise we will be selling ourselves short, and I'm not going to be party to that. I'm not going to try to second-guess the Treasury.

"The weapons we are encountering are becoming more sophisticated, and we're responding. The trick is to get ahead of the game; we want to be pre-emptive. The new vehicles coming online are the beginning of a re-equipment programme."

During the interview, the general also suggested that if Tony Blair's policy of liberal interventionism is to continue, Britain may need a bigger Army. "In the last year we recruited 1,000 more soldiers than in the year before, but we still missed our target by a few per cent. The ideal Army is 101,800. That is the target by 2008. The current strength is just below that. But if the pressure of operations stays the size it is, there could be a case for saying it should be larger. I would not add new units, but the size of some of the existing ones could be increased."

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On the subject of Iraq and the abject post-war planning, the general was caustic and uncompromising. "We were invaders, now we're occupiers. Those are the forces that are now making conditions so difficult for those trying to stabilise Iraq. It is not the grateful population that Mr Bush and Mr Blair had hoped to achieve.

"We all want to get out, but until there is a sufficiently stable environment… we can't. History will judge us harshly on account of planning that was so poor… it was so poorly thought through. A vacuum was created and into a vacuum other forces will emerge," he said. "Now it is a very different situation and it is quite difficult to leave in short order. We cannot leave by Christmas. It would be irresponsible to leave Iraq before we had completed the mission." Quite what the extent of that mission may now be is what the politicians must agree.

But while the general hit the headlines with his comment that withdrawal should be in "short order", it is clear that what he meant was not intended to imply an admission of defeat. He is not the sort to cut and run. But he would want to be on a mission with achievable targets. Aiming to leave Iraq as a Western-loving democracy is simply not feasible.

He is, however, more positive about the future of Afghanistan and believes the mission there will be successful. "The Afghanistan situation is misunderstood. We can make a success of it, but it will take time. We are not making that case sufficiently. We do believe that this is a mission that is very difficult, very dangerous, but do-able. It may take some time.

"We're currently signed up to three years. My feeling is that the military will be there for longer than three years. We are working hard to build up the Afghan army and police. The most difficult aspect is dealing with the narcotics. In similar situations, it has taken 20 to 30 years to turn around the narcotics issue and put a sustainable economy in place.

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"Our task is to create a stable environment in which the rule of law can be established. We are there in a Muslim country at their invitation to create a secure environment."

Referring to The Sunday Telegraph poll in which more than 50 per cent of people questioned said troops should withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, the general said: "I fully respect every citizen's right to form a view on whether or not we should be in Iraq or Afghanistan. But are those individuals, irrespective of their views, prepared to support our soldiers? It would be a complete tragedy if the population at large stopped supporting our soldiers.

"The Army won't let the nation down and I don't want to see the nation let down any soldier. I have a strong feeling that the people are supporting the soldiers."


 
 
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