Thursday, March 08, 2007

We are owed an explanation

There can be few readers of this blog who have not, in their own ways, come to the conclusion that governments are intrinsically untrustworthy – which means that the material they produce is also, necessarily, suspect.

It is in this context that one can make clinical judgements of a piece posted yesterday on the MoD website, headed, "Keeping Kandahar Air Base Safe". As an example of the way the propaganda machine works, it is an absolute classic and perhaps should be studied for years to come, typical of the way governments keep the "good news" flowing and suppress the bad.

By way of background, readers will be fully aware of our concern – and to be fair to them, the concern of a number of MPs – about the vulnerability of our bases in Iraq to mortar and rocket fire (see here and here). However, when questioned about the protection afforded to our troops, the secretary of state for defence, Des Browne, refuses to discuss the issue in public, simply offering MPs private briefings.

Now, by contrast, when we get a situation in Kandahar Air Base in Afghanistan where the protection is adequate, the MoD website rushes out information on the systems used at a level of detail that has been entirely denied to us in respect of the badly protected raqi bases.

And, although not all the protection strategies have been adopted, we note that – in addition to the perimeter guardposts, manned by Romanian infantry, which have the latest surveillance and CCTV equipment - there is a battery of Danish weapon-locating radars (similar to our Mamba sets) and elements of an American airborne forces unit.

But with the base being regularly targeted by Taliban rocket attacks, launched from over five miles away, the Force Protection unit also put into effect a strategy that sees them not just guarding the perimeter wire, but going outside the base to win over the support of local villagers, amongst which the Taliban were launching their attacks.

The effort is run by Wing Commander Andy Knowles, Commanding Officer of 3 Force Protection (FP) Wing, a 20 man unit from RAF Marham. But that is supplemented by an extra 700 troops at Kandahar made up of personnel from various countries, including members of the UK's RAF Regiment.

But now we get to the essential difference. The Air Base is run by the US and the force protection effort benefits from American money. The result is that, while in the past it was usual for the base to come under sustained rocket attack two or three times every night, with the additional force protection, the airbase has suffered no casualties and no significant damage since June 2006.

Thus, as Squadron Leader Steve Carter - Second-in-Command of 3 Force Protection Wing at Kandahar – says, "Instead of reacting to constant rocket attacks … troops can now sleep at night."

What an appalling contrast this makes with the situation in Iraq where, as we saw from the photographs, the physical protection is a layer of canvas and a mattress, while troops are mortared or rocketed daily.

And what an indictment of the way the government publicity machine works - silent on the problems yet full of glowing self-congratulation when the system works. But I think the secretary of state owes us an explanation as to why troops in Afghanistan can be protected, while those unfortunate enough to be posted to Iraq are offered no equivalent protection.

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