Fight this war in Afghanistan, not Whitehall

Public rows between the military and their political bosses are seldom edifying and usually only stir up resentment. As a rule, generals do not take kindly to having their advice rejected by politicians, and ministers dislike being told what to do by a man in a well-pressed uniform and polished shoes.

Thus the spat between General Sir Richard Dannatt, who recently retired as Chief of the General Staff, and No 10 over troop numbers in Afghanistan is dangerous. We are in extraordinary times. This country has been engaged in two wars in six years, with one likely to continue for another three to five years with rising casualties. We cannot afford — the troops cannot afford — to have public disagreements raging between the top brass (retired or not) and the Government. If ever there was a time for unity, it is now, with soldiers dying in Afghanistan.

Not since the Falklands conflict in 1982 have the public become so concerned at the fate of the Armed Forces, and if they believe that the Government is rejecting military advice to save money, as General Dannatt claims, troops in Afghanistan will feel rightly aggrieved.

The battle between military and politicians is also raging on the other side of the Atlantic. General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander in Afghanistan, received a dressing down for rejecting, in a public lecture in London, the notion suggested by the US Vice-President that the campaign can be scaled down to a counter-terrorist mission and repeating his call for more troops. His timing was seen in Washington as unwelcome, as President Obama is currently grappling with a range of ideas for Afghanistan from different quarters, military and political. But it highlighted General McChrystal’s frustration.

Generals do not have a monopoly on wisdom. They are not always right, and sometimes they may fail to appreciate what politicians like to call the broader picture. But they do know what their fighting troops need to defeat the enemy, and the Taleban will not be beaten in Helmand province, where they are still flourishing, if British troop numbers are so stretched that they cannot go too far from base without the risk of being cut off by the insurgents.

If the public are to continue backing the war, they must be reassured that the Government will listen and act on the advice of the military. The comment by Bill Rammell, the Armed Forces Minister, that the Government was not obliged to follow military advice was pretty reprehensible.

General Dannatt has not helped his cause by flirting with the Conservatives. David Cameron wants him as a military adviser, possibly in the House of Lords. He should have declined and remained independent.

His predecessors who have been ennobled have stayed as crossbenchers, although they have not been backward in attacking the Government on the Armed Forces. General Dannatt’s alliance with the Tories will only help Labour to rubbish him, and the battle he has been fighting since March for more troops will be blurred by the threat of political assassination by his enemies in the Government.

The troops issue remains key to how Downing Street has handled Afghanistan. In March, the Ministry of Defence sent Gordon Brown four options for Afghanistan. One was highlighted as the “preferred option” — to send up to 2,000 (actually it was 1,800) more troops.

General Dannatt, the head of the Army at the time, wanted the Prime Minister to ignore the other options. But they provided Mr Brown, worried about rising war costs, with an excuse to say: “I won’t send 2,000, but I agree to one of the other options, and will send 700 instead.”

From then on, relations between the military and Downing Street have been fragile. Mr Brown is angry because he says that he has increased troop levels in Helmand, although not up to the 10,000 that General Dannatt wanted and the post-Dannatt Army has to be ultra-cautious over reinforcement requests even though it believes there is a clear requirement to boost numbers. The latest figure it has in mind is between 500 and 1,000.

General Sir David Richards, the new head of the Army, is no less voluble than General Dannatt but his intention is to keep his firepower contained within the walls of the MoD. This is wise, especially in the present climate, because if Downing Street becomes permanently disaffected from its chief military advisers, it will not best serve the men and women who are putting their lives at risk in Afghanistan.

Part of the problem is personalities. As Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup is Mr Brown’s principal military adviser. He is not a banger of drums but having headed chiefs of staff meetings when General Dannatt was around, he is associated in Downing Street’s mind with the present delicate state of affairs between the Prime Minister and the military hierarchy.

One of the more extraordinary sights in Downing Street this year was the doorstep bravado shown by Air Chief Marshal Stirrup in July when he announced that he was taking into No 10 a shopping list of equipment for the troops in Afghanistan. The list had been drawn up by General Dannatt.

Had Mr Brown been looking out of the window at the time, he would have wondered what on earth was going on. Air Chief Marshal Stirrup, normally fairly reticent and cautious, was playing to the gallery.

Despite recent rumours to the contrary, there is little likelihood of Air Chief Marshal Stirrup being moved and a new-broom CDS appointed. He was asked by the Prime Minister to stay on as CDS until 2011 — principally to avoid having to consider General Dannatt for the job. Unless Mr Cameron (if he wins the election next year) decides to retire Sir Jock and appoint a new man as his chief military adviser, the former head of the RAF is here to stay — but he’ll now have his erstwhile colleague-in-arms breathing down his neck.

Meanwhile, the serious question of troop numbers has become muddled. The argument that the deployment of more troops will help the Task Force in Helmand to dominate the ground they have taken from the Taleban is logical. The numbers game, however, has become so political that Downing Street gives the impression that it wants to keep reinforcements to the bare minimum: “The military wants 2,000, let’s send 700. Now the military wants 1,000, let’s cut it to 500.” This is no way to run a war, deciding on troop levels by reverse auction.

Michael Evans, Defense editor.