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A time for GB to explain the whole picture

Posted on 13 July 2009 | 12:07pm

Today all the focus is on Afghanistan. But it is worth looking for a moment at other situations in which the Government has called on our military to risk their lives.

First, in Northern Ireland, and as that part of the UK continues to take steps through normality towards a lasting peaceful settlement, the troops who served there under Tory and Labour governments know that they played a part in bringing that about.

Sierra Leone is rarely mentioned when the subject of Labour and war is visited, but that that country is now a properly functioning democracy, rescued from civil war and the overthrow of President Kabbah, owes at least something to UK special forces sent into action early in Tony Blair’s Premiership. I remember the then Chief of Defence Staff SIr Charles Guthrie asking the Prime Minister for the go-ahead, and setting out some of the dangers they faced. I remember too his descriptions afterwards of their astonishing skill and bravery in accomplishing what they set out to do.

I was reminded yesterday of the importance of Britain’s contribution to reversing Milosevic’s policy of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, by an Addison and Lee driver who picked me up at home. It is not every day a taxi driver wants to shake me by the hand and say thanks to a government I no longer work for, but this Kosovan said the people of Kosovo know what they owe to Tony Blair and to the British troops who helped save them.

All wars are controversial, often unpopular, and decisions taken subject to microscopic analysis, particularly in the media age. But the sight of streams of refugees, night after night, fleeing murder, rape, fear and brutality, at least gave people in the countries sending troops an understanding of why they were there.

Iraq was clearly the most controversial and in many ways the most unpopular of the military campaigns launched by the government, even before the post-fall of Saddam failure to find Weapons of Mass Destruction. But the troops who fought there, and the families of those who died, know they helped to end the rule of one of the most barbarous dictators in history, and helped Iraq take the first steps to democracy in a region vital to the stability of the world.

The current war in Afghanistan has its immediate roots back in the attacks of September 11, 2001, almost eight years ago. As with Kosovo, the sheer force of images of death and destruction on the streets of New York, and the grief of so many who lost loved ones, gave a clear understanding of the conflict which followed.

It is impossible to look at the head and shoulders photos of the young British soldiers, some of them very young indeed, killed in recent days, and not to feel a huge sense of loss, and also to want good, clear answers to the questions about why they were there.

In his statement on the G8 Summit today, Gordon Brown will of course pay tribute to those who have lost their lives, and update MPs on the war. He should use the occasion to set out the whole story, remind people how it started, why it had to be waged, why it needs to continue to be waged to take on the terrorist threat at source, explain the direct link – always harder when it is theoreical rather than an event that has already taken place – between the fight being fought against the Taleban and Al Qaida, the risk of growing insecurity in Pakistan, and terror on the streets of Britain and every other country in the world.

The media is reporting with some surprise a poll suggesting UK public opinion is holding pretty firm in support of what our troops are trying to achieve.

You will always have critics. You will always have Opposition MPs, some of your own, and armchair generals who will criticise and condemn, call for more spending on this, more spending on that, or say the troops have to come home without ever having to deal with the ‘what then?’ question. You will also have helpful criticism that is worth taking seriously.

But this is one of those moments where the country will listen to detailed explanation of where we are, how we got here and why, where we are going, and how we intend to get there.

I remember TB visiting some of our special forces in Afghanistan. It was the day Gordon Brown and his wife Sarah lost their baby daughter, so memorable for very sad reasons too. These men were living in very testing conditions, and as they explained to the Prime Minister the kind of operations they were engaged in, the risk to their lives – though evident in everything they said – barely got a look in. 

Ministers must never tire of setting out the reasons why those young men are there, facing harm’s way. And we should all of us have nothing but respect for the work they are doing.

  • Harold Baines

    Interesting take on all this. I suppose what you’re saying is that so long as people understand why troops are engaged in something, they will support. Interesting point too about the difference between explaining something visible – acting to deal with twin tower attack, acting to stop Milosevic sending refugees our way – and something theoretical … we think Saddam has WMD, we fear Al Qaida will attack our cities. ANd I must admit I had forgotten Sierra Leone

  • Charles Allenby

    One of the big differences between now and not that long ago is that the Opposition and the media do not hold back, even when our troops are engaged. When PAddy Ashdown speaks on this, I tend to listen but his successor Mr Clegg strikes me as being totally opportunistic in all this. Also I listened to a phone in where Mr Fox from the Tories was saying the issue is helicopters and the military commander out there was saying it is not. People expect their politicians to be opportunistic from time to time, but this is not one of those times

  • Nejim

    It is not just Blair but all who helped him who are welcome and respected in Kosovo. We all know the story of how you and Jamie Rubin from America and lots of others worked with Jamie Shea in NAto to help make sure the world heard the message about what was happening. When Jamie Shea came here he was like a hero to us because we was our voice a lot of the time. Thank you to all of you

  • Alex

    If you accept that Lord Guthrie, Stuart Tootal, Brigadier Butler and General Dannatt (to name but a few) are not armchair generals (as I am sure you must), then you will accept as fact that Blair and Brown have blood on their hands for years and years of underfunding our armed forces. 99.99% of the armed forces guys I know have a very low opinion of TB and Brown because of this and the lies over WMD in Iraq, and many would happily fill them (and you) in if given the chance.

  • Scot Richards

    Our brave lads in Afghanistan are dying because a government is too stuck up to admit that they faked the reasons to go to war in the first place. Your ego must pick up some of the responsibility for these young mens’ deaths. Why no mentions of your dodgy dossier on this dodgy website, Alistair?

  • Andy Bell

    Great blog Alastair.

    The Armed Forces are in Afghanistan today to defend our freedom and our way of life and at the same time build an infrastructure that promotes democracy, educates the young and serves the rights of all Afghan’s.

    If we fail, or give up, then the Taliban will come back. If the Taliban come back then so will the terrorist training camps. That would mean more terrorists, more bombs and more deaths on our streets.

    Progress has been made in Afghanistan, but not enough. If we are sending our forces into war against a particularly fierce enemy, though no opposite in war is a walk over, then we must give the troops the best equipment and the best facilities possible.

    The issue for me isnt why are we there, but why are we giving the guys and girls the tools that can make winning this battle possible.

    We need to support the troops away from the battle field as well. Increased pay for military personnel, improve the standard of MoD housing and completely strip down and rebuild the MoD insurance system so that troops know should anything happen to them they and/or their families will be secure.

    Finally, we need to start focussing on political progress to compliment military/territorial progress.

  • Boudicca

    Gordon Brown is completely incapable of explaining the whole picture. He is responsible for underfunding the armed forces, which has resulted in them being sent into theatres of war with insufficient and inappropriate equipment. Our servicemen/women are dying because Blair and Brown wanted to support America, but do it on the cheap. That young soldiers are being killed because we have insufficient helicopters and armoured vehicles to protect them should be a matter of eternal shame to Labour.

    We are also very well aware that senior members of both this and the last administration were extremely economical with the truth about the Iraq war. The intelligence was distorted to justify a policy Blair wanted to pursue – despite the whitewash official reports on the matter. Why do you think we would believe a single word we were told about the reasons for our intervention in Afghanistan; and why we must stay there sacrificing our young people on the alter of Gordon Brown’s ‘legacy.’

    The simple fact is, we’re there because the US are – and Tony Blair could never say NO to George Bush. Never has a PM been more aptly charicatured than Blair as Bush’s poodle.

  • Ian Eastwood

    I fully support all of the mentioned campaigns, and it’s a shame we can’t do more around the world. What was allowed to happen in the Congo is something the world should hang its head in shame about.

    But it seems to me that Britain along with America bear the brunt of causalities in these situations.

    I am a strong supporter of the EU, but do find them lacking at times like this, and more must be done to put pressure on other members to show a united front against extreme fundamentalist groups, and back that up with extra forces and equipment.

    I myself have an 18 year old son and can’t imagine the pain and distress the families must be going through at times like this.

    The country will always support the troops, and if a strong justified case can be made they will support the campaign which ever government is in power.
    However if the troops are not given the very best support and equipment available that will quickly evaporate.

  • Helen Rogerson

    SOme pretty big leaps in the comments of Alex and Scot. We are used to seeing the so called dodgy dossier (PHD thesis, off he internet etc) with the dossier Mr Blair published in Parliament. But now it would seem people are prepared, in their expressions of hate, to confuse deliberately Iraq and Afghanistan. As for all the talk of ‘filling in’, it is so easy to do on the internet when you don’t even have to give a name. It is to the credit of this website that such comments are allowed to appear, but I am not sure they add anything to the debate.

  • Isobel Blacklaw

    Yoyr Kosovan is right. We barely ever hear of what the government achieved in Kosovo, or Northern Ireland, or Sierra Leone, because it is good news. We hear only of Afghanistan when things go wrong and only one side of the story in Iraq.

  • Rob

    Off topic I know, but sorry to read about Tommy Cummings. Another legend gone. Back on topic and I have to say that, as a veteran of the 1990s military, I’m extremely proud of my involvement in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Bosnia, Northern Ireland, and East Timor. It is too easy to score political points by bashing the military and jumping on bandwagons without looking at the deeper impact our intervention has had around the world. I for one am proud of the job I did and think the tories should be producing coherent alternatives rather than busily pointscoring in the media.

  • Alex

    Helen Rogerson – my name is Alex, in case you hadn’t seen it. First off – I support what we are doing in Afghanistan. Secondly, if GB is to explain to us the ‘whole picture’ as Alistair puts it, then he should acknowledge the views of experts such of those that I have mentioned and Paddy Ashdown (all experienced men of action, not spin doctors) with regard to equipment failures rather than try to defend/cover up the inexcusable negligence of the government towards its armed forces. As to the filling in comment, I am just reflecting the views of most ordinary blokes I have met in the forces who feel badly let down by these two (jolly nice of old TB to be off making millions while others suffer for his mistakes); if they were ordinary guys in a unit and had behaved in such a dishonest and scheming way they would have been taken round the back and filled in by the decent lads – lesson learnt, suitable physical correction given, end of. If that offends you then you need to wise up.

    Yes – credit where it is due – at least AC publishes e-mails from his critics.

  • Alan Quinn

    People do forget about Sierra Leone, the concentration camps in Kosovo and Saddam.
    Saddam went to war with Iran and used mustard gas on the Iranians, he bombed the Kurds at Halabja with gas, he invaded Kuwait and then went into Saudi. He launched Scuds at Israel.
    He also drained the marshes around Basra to ruin the Shia’s. He was armed by the Russians and the French (who also built him a nuclear reactor until the Israelis bombed it).
    There were never any protest marches about Saddam then just as there are no protest marches now about Mugabe.

    On our troops lack of equipment, the MoD must share some of the blame. They ordered 10 Chinnoks from Boeing in 1997 but made a pigs ear of the deal regarding the software codes needed to operate them. These heicopters were delivered yeras agobut will not fly until next year because of the delay getting them right.
    I do belive that GB should cancel Trident and use the money to give the Navy, RAF and army exactly what they need.

  • Gary Dean

    Why is that the british public are surprised when the people on the other side of any conflict actually fight back. They were the same back during the Falklands when, following the gung hoe of sinking the Belgrano they had the audacity to fire on and destroy the Sir Gallahad, and they didnt roll over on Goose Green. IT IS WAR, it takes 2 or more opposing faction to create it and there is generally bloodshed on both sides.
    it is truly tragic that our young still march gallantly into conflict, and sometimes pay the ultimate price, but this is in the job description. I hate the thought of any of my children or family being in such terrible circumstances but if they decide the path to take is one in the armed forces then i will respect that.
    The true tradgedy is that our young soldiers are STILL poorly equiped for these situations, and thier commanding officers, who have far more knowledge of war than ANY politician, are still ignored, we have been learning this lesson since the Somme, time for change i think.
    This may sound like the ramblings of someone who speaks from an armchair but that is not so, i speak from the position of an ex SAS soldier who knows this is no computer game, and blood is the currency of democracy and sadly, sometimes, that of non participating moralists.
    We must stamp out terrorism it is both cowardly and a smokescreen for many more hanous criminal acts, but it must be tackled with all the tools we require.

  • Jane A

    There is so much here to read and consider, but my thoughts are that I agree with much that Andy B and Gary Dean have said, plus I find Nick Clegg wading in and aiming to point-score for his own advantage wholly abhorrent.

    We live next door to an RAF helicopter base, and so we see a lot of the serving military out and about. I think people who put their lives on the line to fight terrorism and all its causes deserve unmitigated respect and support.

  • gary Enefer

    Ah the media age.

    I meditate a lot and live life slower now. I feel it is terrible that everyone wants to ‘ link’ each story up.It needs to be ”newsworthy” I was told by the Times last year – what about people worthy?

    For example the issues of soldier’s deaths,equipment and the govt’s form re all separate issues. The media and the opportunist,sorry opposition politicians have made it into one story and called it a ”deriliction of duty”. This spins and moves the story on so fast we have not been given time to grieve for the deaths of the soldiers ?Surely a story in it’s own right but not ”newsworthy” enough.

  • Katharine T.

    I cannot comment on the current focus on Afghanistan and the previous focus on Iraq from a British perspective, but I certainly can from a North American perspective.

    I think it’s shocking (and I don’t mean that I am surprised or shocked because I really am not) that there is any pretense that this foray into Afghanistan by the U.S., Canada and Britain is for “the people, and the freedom of the Afghanis.” That is utter bunk. If that were the case all of our governments would have been charging into there in 1996, instead of breathing a sigh of relief that someone other than the Russians were running the joint. The Americans gave guns and money to the Taliban for heavens’ sake! Are we expected to be so naive that we don’t know that the sole reason for occupation is the precious gas line that is to be built running through the country? Where were our forces when women were expelled from schools, when they were forced to beg in the streets becuase it was illegal for them to hold jobs? Where were they for the 5 years prior to 9/11?

    As far as Iraq goes, it would be laughable if it weren’t so sad. Does no one remember that the Americans armed and funded Saddam during the Iran-Iraq war? He didn’t seem like such a bad guy to the Americans then! No one seemed to care about the atrocities Saddam committed the years previous to the Americans deciding he was hogging too much oil.

    I have nothing but respect for the men and women who choose to fight honourably for the follies of governments who love to send cannon fodder in return for budgetary funds. However, don’t fool us by pretending it’s for some poor misbegotten people. If that were truly the case then all our governments would be in Darfur right now, kicking ass and taking names. Why aren’t they? It’s simple. There’s no monetary gain. No oil, no gas, no glory.

    Your government did some good Mr. Campbell, that is for sure. I don’t know about you though, but it’s not my successes that keep me awake at night, but my failures and follies. It doesn’t look like much keeps either you or Mr. Blair awake, but then again, not everyone admits they’re wrong. They call it “I did the best I could”, and that makes them sleep at night. I wish I could be so blasé about my missteps, and mine haven’t involved a single loss of life or liberty.

    I am sorry if I sound bitter and jaded, but, the whole subject of war to me is ridiculous. When a government decides they want something, it doesn’t matter a damn what the voters think…war is money and money is good and the spin doctors will figure out a way to sell it, because war is just another commodity to sell.

    You know that I think pretty highly of you sir, but this time I had to throw it down.

  • Wyrdtimes

    I have nothing but respect for the troops and nothing but contempt for the the politicians and spinners that put them in the line of fire.

    Afghanistan is a fools errand. If knocking out Al quaeda training camps was the objective then there are better ways than troops on the ground. i.e. intelligence and surgical strikes. If it’s the rebuilding of Afghanistan it’s giving the Afghan farmers a legitimate market for their best crop – opium – and as there is a world shortage of opium anyway that would have been a win win. Win win win if you consider that the Muslim fanatic Taliban are supplied via the illegal opium trade as well.

    Brown is taking us all for fools when he says Afghanistan will make us safer. How does the war in Afghanistan protect us from the main proven threat to the “British” public? The home grown Islamic fundamentalist?

    It doesn’t.

    At the same time the government is turning a blind eye to the establishment of Sharia courts in the “UK” (we all know it’s England really). Establishment of Sharia law is exactly what the Taliban are fighting for – maybe the Taliban should give up the fight in Afghanistan and move to 21st century England.

  • Ann

    Alastair,

    Great blog, wish I could write like you!

    We must never forget our servicemen and must care for those left behind when there is death. War is not good, I come from the era ‘make love not war’ but realise that is not always possible but we should not forget all the fallen heros.

    Ann