Friday, July 31, 2009

Snout in the trough

Through the MPs' expenses scandal, one occasionally heard noises off from our European "partners" who seemed to be amazed that there should be so much public outrage about what is, in other climes, perfectly normal behaviour.

Now, it seems, the Germans are having their own version. Social Democrat Health Minister Ulla Schmidt has raised a storm of protest after it emerged that she had flown out to Spain on holiday while instructing her official chauffeur to drive her ministerial limousine down from Germany to meet her at her holiday destination.

After the 3,000-mile trip in the official Mercedes, the chauffeur was kept on duty for two weeks, at the beck and call of his minister, being paid handsomely as overtime, while he shuttled her to and from the beach.

Embarrassingly, the chauffeur never got to do the 3,000-mile return trip as enterprising Spanish thieves nicked the motor, thus leading to the revelations in the press about the minister's little arrangement.

Interestingly, the minister was perfectly within the rules to use her official car for this purpose – so we have another "I was only obeying the rules" scenario, which went down so well in the UK.

The revelations have come at a particularly unhappy time for Frau Schmidt, now dubbed "S-Class Ulla" after the Mercedes model that disappeared. With a general election in the offing, the Social Democrats are positioning themselves as the party best equipped to lead the country out of the economic and financial crisis.

In her defence, I suppose, Frau Schmidt could claim that she was creating employment – not least for Spanish car thieves – and no one could complain that these were ruinously expensive "green jobs" so beloved of our ruling classes.


Burning our money

We will probably never know quite the degree of wheeler dealing went on, but the much unloved and hideously expensive Eurofighter has met its match – called financial reality.

According to The Times, a final deal has been done on the Tranche 3 purchase, with the RAF set to lose more than 70 of the planned fleet, the total order cut back from the original 232 to a mere 160.

This was bedded in today at a contract ceremony in Munich, when Britain signed up for the third and final tranche, agreeing to buy 40 more, instead of the planned 88. Of these, 24 will be sold to the Saudi Arabians, leaving just 16 for the RAF, says The Times, which like many others seems to have been confused by the original statements.

However, the MoD is saying that the RAF is actually to get 40 new aircraft, the 24 referred to being replacements for the Saudi batch already taken out of stocks intended for the RAF.

Nevertheless, it is clear that production is to be slowed down so that the delivery period will be stretched. The last of the tranche-three aircraft will come into service between 2015 and 2020, just as the first batch of Typhoons - in service today - would be coming to the end of their life.

On that basis, it is anticipated that the RAF at any one time will operate a fleet of no more than 120 aircraft at any one time – with a smaller number actually operation.

This is perhaps just as well. In answer to a recent written question from Nick Harvey, procurement minister Quentin Davies revealed that the operating cost per hour of a Eurofighter is £90,000, compared with the air defence version of the Tornado, the F3, at a "modest" £45,000.

Davies hopes that, as the Eurofighter fleet expands, unit costs will drop. But, with this latest announcement, it looks as if this will not be very substantial. Thus, as Heseltine's folly roars through the skies at airshows, delighting the crowds, we can reflect that it is actually costing us £25 per second. It would be difficult to burn money that fast. As for using the aircraft against the Taleban, it would be cheaper to buy them off.

And once again, we have the ultimate irony. Having delayed Tranche 3 for as long as humanly possible, the former Labour government - deposed by the Tories, as is confidently expected in 2010 - will have the quiet satisfaction of seeing a Conservative government having to pay for it.


More news from Iceland

At first I imagined that I was treading in the footsteps of William Morris who had written about Iceland; then I checked my facts (always a useful thing to do) and found that though Morris had visited Iceland at least twice and translated several of the sagas he had not written any books that could be called news from Iceland. He did write a poem about the country and published his travel journals, though. That's just as well because I am not exactly a follower of William Morris: a great deal to be said for his designs but his literary output is heavy going and his political ideas are mushy to put it mildly.

W. H. Auden, on the other hand, is a man I admire greatly; just in time I recalled that he and Louis MacNeice (less admired but good nevertheless) wrote a book together, called Letters from Iceland. That's all right, then. I do not mind treading in their footsteps though it is unlikely that I shall ever produce poetry one tenth as good as Auden's.

Right, on with the motley. (Hey, you have to keep up on this blog.) The government of Iceland has, as we know, applied for EU membership, which was not the cause of unalloyed joy either in that country or in the existing Member States.

Now we have a couple of updates on the situation from Hjörtur J. Guðmundsson of the excellent EU News from Iceland. This posting analyzes poll results about EU membership in Iceland.
Polls asking if people wanted to start membership talks (aðildarviðræður) with the EU have almost always resulted in a majority in favour.

Polls asking if people wanted to apply for membership (umsókn um aðild) of the EU have almost always resulted in a majority against.

Polls asking if people wanted to join the EU have usually resulted in a 50/50 situation.The first two examples obviously contradict each other. But this has an explanation. For years people in favour of EU membership have claimed it was possible to enter some kind of a non-obligational "scouting talks" with the EU just to find out what kind of a deal Iceland would be able to get.
Of course, as the talks progress the Icelanders will realize that those non-obligational, exploratory talks are more mythological than the Viking heroes of old. And as Mr Guðmundsson points out, there will have to be a referendum before Iceland actually joins. Not to mention the possibility of the government falling.

In another article on EU Observer Mr Guðmundsson deals with that familiar canard that countries in the EEA might as well join the EU because they have to adopt most of the legislation, anyway, while having no hand in shaping it. Anyone would think that Britain a fully paid up member of the European Union had any say in that legislation but let that pass.

In any case, Mr Guðmundsson says, this is not true.
In the spring of 2005 research carried out by the EFTA [European Free Trade Association] secretariat in Brussels at the request of the Icelandic foreign ministry, however, revealed that only 6.5 percent of all EU legislation was subjected to the EEA agreement between 1994 (when it came into force) and 2004.

In March 2007 a report published by a special committee on Europe commissioned by the Icelandic prime minister, showed that some 2,500 pieces of EU legislation had been adopted in Iceland during the first decade of the EEA agreement. The study also found that about 22 percent of Icelandic laws passed by the parliament originated from the EU during the same period of time.

The totality of EU legislation is according to various sources around 25,000 to 30,000 legal acts. Total Icelandic laws and regulations, however, are around 5,000. Of those there are less than 1,000 laws, the rest is regulations. Even if the entire legislation of Iceland came from the EU it would only be around 20 percent of the total acquis communautaire.
Clearly Iceland does not adopt two thirds of all the legislation of the EU; neither is it true, to turn the numbers round, that two thirds of Icelandic legislation comes from the EU.


Frontline Club

... the movie. I need a haircut.


News values

In projecting the progress of the counter-insurgency in Afghanistan, metrics most commonly by the media are the deaths of British soldiers and, more generally, the deaths of other coalition troops. Further "downstream" are reports of the deaths of Afghani citizens, both civilians, members of the security forces and such categories as security guards.

In the hierarchy of death, however, we have long been aware that there has been a ranking applied by the popular media – the emphasis (quite understandably) given to British troops. Much less attention is given to other nationalities and, down the scale, are incidents involving Afghanis, which are often completely unreported.

Much the same applied to the campaign in Iraq, to the extent where the death of even quite prominent Iraqis went unreported, sometimes dropped in favour of more prominent events, especially those with a domestic political content.

This, I remarked upon in Ministry of Defeat, in one instance noting that the murder of a prominent Sunni and his son in Basra – and the kidnap of five others - had gone unreported. The British media had focused on Tony Blair giving evidence to the House of Commons Liaison Committee, where he had been asked whether life was then better for the citizens of Basra than it had been pre-war.

This came up during the Frontline Club meeting yesterday, as an example of my unreasonable criticism of the media, the argument being that the news value of the Blair evidence far outweighed the murder and kidnap of a few Iraqis, even if these crimes had been committed by men in civilian clothes and police uniforms, in a fleet of 10 "official" cars with no number plates.

This, incidentally, had coincided with a six-hour curfew being imposed in Basra in an attempt to stem the growing tide of violence and a report that oil smuggling in southern Iraq had reached epidemic proportions, costing the country an estimated $4 billion a year, followed by yet another report of a rocket attack on a British base – none of which were reported in the British media.

What I had not realised, however, was that the ranking was quite formally structured. In the early days, of the occupation, one news organisation imposed a "tariff", reporting events only if they involved one dead British or American soldier, or five Iraqis. But, as the violence increased, the bar was raised where, to qualify for inclusion in a news report, three US soldiers or 25 Iraqis had to be killed. A British military death, of course, was always reported.

This, in my view, undoubtedly distorted British public perception of events – and indeed misled journalists. Relying on the metric of British military deaths as a comparator, in May 2005 Guardian journalist Jonathan Steele actually wrote that the insurgency barely existed in the south, it having been "quiet for months". British troops could pull out immediately, he declared.

Undeterred, the media is playing the same games in Afghanistan. We know, of course, that the reporting of British troops has been extremely high profile, with the toll reaching 22 for the month.

Yet, in the last two days, four Afghani soldiers have been killed in Helmand, their lives ended by an IED which hit their vehicle, and – in two separate incidents, eight and then four Afghani private security guards were killed, also by roadside bombs in Helmand, the first incident injuring four others. None of these incidents have been reported by the British media. You will have to turn to the official Chinese news agency Xinhuanet for details.

This news, however, is highly significant, for several reasons. First, it points up the perilous insecurity of the roads, where the death toll is actually far greater than the British media would indicate. Secondly, it reminds us of an important, but again ill-reported dynamic – that the Taleban is by no means confining its attacks to foreign security forces. The Afghan forces are at greater risk than our own.

Nor indeed are just the security forces are risk. There is also a steady and largely unreported toll taken of construction workers, another incident recently reported in Khost. And just over a week ago, 13 Afghan road construction workers were kidnapped in Paktia.

All these issues have a much wider significance. On the one hand, the strategic plan for Afghanistan is progressively to hand over responsibility for security to Afghan forces and, on the other, much depends on the coalition and aid agencies being able to deliver reconstruction. Where both the security forces and construction workers are so much at risk, neither is going to happen, even discounting the unreliability of the local police.

The other significant issue here – one we have noted before – is the media-supported demand to increase helicopter lift for British troops, to enable them to be transported without using the road network, to keep them out of harm's way. Yet, that very process – effectively abandoning the network to the Taleban – could delay progress, by exposing local security forces and others to greater risk.

Meanwhile, in Lashkar Gah, in the city's main bazaar, turban seller Haji Lala says Taleban black is still the most popular colour. "Everyone wants black, like the Taleban. I sell 40 or 50 a month." It may be an indicator of where ordinary people think the province is heading, notes Australian writer Jerome Starkey.

Whichever way the province is heading, it seems not unreasonable to aver that we will not find out from the British media. Whether it is even reasonable to suggest that they should tell us is another matter. The very firm view I heard expressed on Wedenesday was, effectively, that it was not. What matters, it seems, are news values – not the actual news.


Thursday, July 30, 2009

The boss tells me ....

... I should link to this. I obey.

Frontline – first impressions

One of the penalties of being exiled to Bradford, 200 miles from the metropolis is that for what is a Londoner, an evening with an early return home becomes a major expedition – requiring forward planning, considerable expense and much exhaustion, not least because one tends to cram in as much as possible into the day to make the trip worth it.

Thus, the Frontline Club talk yesterday, which started at 7 pm began for me at 6.30 in the morning and ended up, after a grueling 400-mile round trip, with me falling into my pit at 5 am this morning, having driven through atrocious weather, a barrage of road works and a thicket of speed cameras, the verdict from which has yet to be delivered.

Inevitably, therefore, such a concentrated diet of impressions takes a considerable amount of digestion before a coherent view can be formed. It says something though, that earlier in the day, I had given a talk about the book to a small gathering at a private lunch and my attempt to give the "short" version, with some insight into the political ramifications, took an hour and a half. Yet there I was at the Frontline club expected to give an overview in 20 minutes and then take part in a panel discussion for an hour or so, covering the same territory.

Originally billed with General Sir Mike Jackson on the panel, he pulled out at the last minute, for reasons unexplained (apparently he has a reputation for that). The meeting was thus chaired by Bill Neely, foreign editor for ITN News, with the panel comprising myself, Kim Sengupta from The Independent and with Deborah Haynes, defence correspondent from The Times standing in for Gen Jackson.

To a packed audience, with standing room only (close to a hundred people), I chose to focus the talk very tightly on just one aspect of the British occupation of Iraqi – the lack of appropriate equipment – which, I averred, contributed significantly to the military defeat. Much to the concern of the management, who discourage the use of Powerpoint presentations, I chose to illustrate the presentation with pictures of key equipment and despite the reservations, it seemed to work well enough.

Memory then is a faulty instrument; players always find it hard to describe the action. But, of the contributions from the audience – including two passionate Iraqi expats – there is and will continue to be that difficulty in unravelling those two separate (albeit linked) episodes of the invasion and the subsequent occupation. Many of the questions were thus focused on the invasion and issues related to that.

That further reinforced by the response today to the launch of the Chilcot Inquiry, where it is clear that Tony Blair is to be the star of the show in what looks as if it will become a media three-ring circus.

As to my general thesis – that the occupation of Iraq was a military failure – there was in fact a strong measure of agreement from the panel and the chairman, and indeed a view that many of the same mistakes are being repeated in the campaign in Afghanistan, about which there was very little confidence expressed. It there was a consensus view, it is most definitely that the Military is paving the way for another glorious defeat.

The impressive Kim Sengupta disagreed that the lack of equipment was the primary factor in the failure of the British, arguing that the root cause was the arrogance in the Military, a belief that they knew it all, and a rooted obstinacy in refusing to learn any lessons from the experience.

A former soldier in the audience added his voice, referring to the retreat from al Amarah - which I had identified as the pivotal moment in the failure of the campaign – saying that the campaign had been lost long before. By then there was no political will to continue with an aggressive prosecution of the counter-insurgency action.

Not disputing any of these views, I made the point that the lack of equipment was symptomatic of that greater malaise. I offered my own thesis - not unfamiliar to readers of this blog – that military equipment is the window into the soul of the Army.

Look at the equipment an army fields (and does not field) and that will tell you how they intend to fight. You do not need to interview the generals as to their intentions – they are revealed in the order of battle, in which context the continued use of the Snatch Land Rover told a story more eloquent than a brace of self-serving memoirs.

The Army, in effect, was telling you its own story, there to see if you understood the language. It illustrated the points made and was symbolic evidence of them.

Chairman Bill Neely neatly put Deborah Haynes on the spot, asking her why the media did not pay more attention to equipment. Her view, if I have recorded it accurately, was that equipment alone was not "very sexy" and it was not until there were "body bags" to go with it, as had been the case with the Snatch Land Rover, that it became a story.

This precisely accords with the impression that I have formed of the way the media thinks. If I did hear correctly, then it is a stunning confirmation of part of my thesis on media behaviour.

Neely himself invited me to explore by broader thesis on the failure of the media, noting that, while I had criticised the British media, I had relied extensively on British sources for my book. My point was that, while much of the information supplied was valuable, I had found that I had not been able to assemble from the British media any sense of a narrative of the conduct of the occupation. I had had to trawl many different sources, the most valuable – in helping me construct a framework – being the Arab press and insurgent sources.

Thus, as far as it goes, the British media offered many reports, but failed entirely in presenting a factual narrative which would put the material in the broader context. In that sense, I told Neely, Sengupta and Haynes afterwards, a rounded account is like a string of pearls. They had provided many pearls (and some dross) but not the "string" with which to bind them into a coherent whole.

Anyhow, those were my first – or at least, abiding – impressions of the meeting. There was much, much more and I hope that, should the video of the meeting become available, I will be able to do a much more comprehensive review of what was a fascinating event.


Why no linkage?

There is much coverage of – and derision about – the Met Office's ridiculous forecast for this year's summer.

But, unless I am missing something, not one of the articles makes the link between the lack of precision on these short-term forecasts and the apparent certainly with which the Met Office issues forecasts for 20, 40 and 80 years hence.

Instead, skirting round the subject, The Guardian actually informs us that climate change is another reason such forward-looking forecasts are desirable. As the atmosphere warms, it says, we can expect more extreme weather events, including heatwaves and flash floods, which may be picked up in advance by seasonal forecasts.

Equally, without so much as a blush, we get The Independent telling us:

The Met Office believes that the situation today with seasonal forecasts is about where we were 40 years ago with short-range forecasts. It is possible to give some indication of what is likely to happen over the next few months, but a more precise prediction is not yet possible.
Bearing in mind that none of the climate models predicted this current run of cooling, that statement comes as no surprise. Yet, we have a multi-billion pound climate change industry, all based on forecasts with have no basis in reality, and which – over the period of their generation – have been shown to be consistently wrong.

Surely, it requires no great leap of logic at least to speculate that, if the Met Office cannot get its short-term forecasts anywhere near right, then its longer term predictions must be equally suspect?

Once again, it seems, we have the media thinking in pre-ordained little compartments, unable or unwilling to see (or report on) the bigger picture.


Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Quote of the week

I want a Conservative government as much as any of you; I just happen to doubt that one is on offer.

Simon Heffer

I said nussink ...


Not even a whimper

As of Friday, the British military presence in Iraq comes to an end. There will be no flags, no parades, no speeches and not even a formal withdrawal – just an administrative mess.

The warning signs were there in June when plans for Britain's final military mission in Iraq were in disarray, with no formal agreement finalised to maintain in place a Royal Navy detachment and upwards of 400 troops after the 31 July deadline, when the bulk of British forces were required to quit Iraq.

On the back of the ejection of the main force, this was the one diplomatic fig-leaf which enabled the British government to keep a toe-hold in the country and thus continue the pretence that we were still welcome.

However, even that has fallen apart. A "draft accord" which had been approved by Iraqi ministers in June allowed only 100 personnel to remain and that had to be ratified by the Iraqi Parliament. But, according to The Guardian, using an agency report, the Parliament has gone into recess without ratifying the instrument, forcing the remaining British personnel to leave the country by Friday.

Officially, of course, they have not left. They are being stationed over the border in Kuwait, pending the resumption of parliamentary business, whence it is hoped that the British detachment will be allowed to return in late September.

Defence secretary Bob Ainsworth is saying that the government has been "deliberately keeping a low public profile" on the issue - so as not to increase the risk to UK forces, he says. It is nothing to do, he might say if asked, with trying to conceal the humiliating prospect of British personnel having to scuttle over the border to avoid physically being ejected.

An MoD spokesman said US troops would stand in for British troops while they were out of the country, and explains that the "pause" is due to a "procedural delay," leaving the MoD website to laud the heroic work of the removal men, as the last ship sails for England with a batch of Mastiffs (pictured), there to be refurbished and sent to Afghanistan.

The Daily Telegraph tells us that the ratification was opposed by followers of Muqtada al-Sadr who stalled the process. That opposition should have come from that source is hardly surprising. But prime minister Maliki cannot have invested a great deal of political capital in trying to push the agreement through, if Muqtada's men were able to stop it going ahead.

The New York Times notes that the other two small remnants of the coalition, the Romanians and Australians, will also be gone on Friday, if not before, leaving the Americans as the sole members of a multi-national force which has seen contributions from 38 separate states.

My guess is that is how the situation will remain. Come September, the ratification will be quietly parked and the well-rested British personnel in Kuwait will be quietly found a flight home, where there will sneak in anonymously, with nothing more said. And that truly will be the end of what has been one of the more inglorious episodes in British military history in recent times.

And we leave not even with a whimper but ejected by a "procedural delay" which even the British government wanted to keep "low profile". Our presence lasted from 20 March 2003, when British troops crossed into Iraq, to 31 July 2009. And, in two days time, it's over.

Note: very light blogging today. Frontline Club beckons, plus other business in London.


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A question of balance

Predictably, in the "touchy-feely" media of today, dominated by "human interest" stories, almost all the newspapers play the current soldiers' compensation drama "big", with the broadcast media also running the story as their lead items.

Inevitably, therefore, we see – as in The Times - the devastating experience of young Ben Parkinson brought up again, the Lance Bombardier who suffered 39 injuries including brain damage in Helmand in 2006, after his Wimik was blown apart.

More on Defence of the Realm.

We don't know the half of it

Two more deaths have been added to the growing list of fatalities arising out of operations in Afghanistan. According to the MoD, one was a soldier from The Light Dragoons, killed "as a result of an explosion that happened whilst on a vehicle patrol in Lashkar Gah." In the other incident, a soldier from 5th Regiment Royal Artillery was killed by an explosion whilst he was on a foot patrol in Sangin district.

More on Defence of the Realm.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Climate change hysteria

Richard S. Lindzen writes on climate change hysteria:

The notion of a static, unchanging climate is foreign to the history of the earth or any other planet with a fluid envelope. The fact that the developed world went into hysterics over changes in global mean temperature anomaly of a few tenths of a degree will astound future generations. Such hysteria simply represents the scientific illiteracy of much of the public, the susceptibility of the public to the substitution of repetition for truth, and the exploitation of these weaknesses by politicians, environmental promoters, and, after 20 years of media drum beating, many others as well.
Booker, as always, beats his own drum, but then we have this garbage with which to contend.

And the problem is that it is garbage, but despite that, it is repeated relentlessly, time and time and time again. That is the nature of the beast.


Another stitch up in the making ...

And its not so much that no one cares – simply that it's all too complicated and remote, both in space and time - and the media doesn't do agriculture any more.

The Franco-German axis will rig the system to their benefit, as they always have done, and bribe the rest. The UK will pay the bill. That is how it has always been and that it how it will continue to be. That is why we are in the EU.


Well, they would say that ...

The first phase of a bitterly fought British military operation in southern Afghanistan is over and has succeeded in driving the Taleban out of a former stronghold, senior officials said today. This we get via The Times and others.

Three thousand UK-led soldiers inflicted "significant" losses on insurgents in Helmand province during the five-week Operation Panchai Palang, or Panther's Claw. Thus, Brigadier Tim Radford, commander of Task Force Helmand, says: "What we have achieved here is significant and I am absolutely certain that the operation has been a success."

One does not have to be a cynic to wonder whether we have heard this all before – just a long memory and Google:

When regular troops try to escape from the defensive posture into which fighting guerillas force them, the usual result is the so-called sweep operation. The purpose of a sweep is to catch guerrilla and infrastructure members by a sudden descent on a village (or district) in which they are thought to be located. Sweeps were usually unsuccessful in Viet Nam, as they had been in Malaya ...
Meanwhile, Miliband wants to talk to the Taleban. The full monte is here. Do we have another Musa Qala in the making (or Basra, for that matter), where we hand it all back and proclaim a victory?

To think that, of course, really would be cynical. Repeat after me: our masters, who art in Heaven, know what they are doing ... our masters ...


The ground truth

A fascinating interview with the Lord Salisbury is recorded in The Daily Telegraph today, with Benedict Brogan talking to a man who is familiar with the "dark art" of government.

Amongst the nuggets that emerge are his views that Parliament is in deep trouble because this Government holds the institution in contempt. Burkean judgment has been replaced by Platonic judges, he says. This, opines Brogan, is an elegant way of saying that MPs have abdicated responsibility in favour of unaccountable judges and bureaucrats.

Salisbury puts it more plainly: "The parliamentary muscle is atrophying and we now have a vast, complicated, self-referential bureaucracy."

We are referred to his recent pamphlet published by Politeia detailing the mess that Whitehall's security and defence committees have become. Salisbury illustrates how officials, faced with ministers who are unwilling to show judgment or take a lead on vital issues of national security, have allowed a vast tangle of a structure to develop, with no clear accountability or control.

A return to Cabinet government is urgently needed, he argues. Whitehall is "mired in treacle". A clear line of authority from officials to ministers has been lost and must be restored.

What then leaps from the page is Salisbury's views on the difficulties facing Cameron when he tries to implement his own agenda. "He will go into Whitehall and pull the levers and find that nothing works. I don’t think he realises how Whitehall has become so broken," says the noble Lord.

This has been going on a long, long time and his comments remind me of that interview I had with Roger Freeman which I recorded briefly on this blog. At the fag end of the Major government, in late 1996, he was then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and I still recall him vividly standing at the window of his spacious office, overlooking Horse Guards.

"You know, Richard," he said to me. "You struggle to get to this elevated position as a high ranking Cabinet Minister where you are finally able to do things." Imagining a huge, old-fashioned signal box with all the gleaming brass levers, he then complained that, while he had "all the levers of power", they were "not connected to anything."

I recorded my experience of tramping the street of Whitehall, meeting ministers, high-ranking officials (one of whom treated me to a very fine and expensive lunch) and then MPs, ending up at midnight in the Central Lobby staring at the deserted grandeur and feeling the presence of ghosts of statesmen past.

The day had been punctuated by my putting the case of very serious problems emerging in the farming community (some sections of which I was then representing) which needed addressing very urgently. And all day I had been getting the same refrain – sympathy combined with profound regrets: "My hands are tied", I was told, leaving me to conclude that the only meaningful activity in Whitehall had become group bondage.

It is this progressive and serious breakdown in the mechanisms of government to which I was trying to draw attention, in my own lame and halting way, with the helicopter issue.

Projected through the prism of the media is the childish image of an all-powerful government, the prime minister at the helm – no doubt sitting, cat on lap, in his penthouse suite – with the levers of power arrayed before him, rattling off orders and instructions, his polished acolytes leaping into action.

Real life is not like that. The idea of a prime minister issuing "action this day" memoranda, thus galvanising a well-oiled machine into frenetic activity, is no more – if ever it was. All we have left is a dysfunctional machine which, as Salisbury puts it, is "mired in treacle".

Yet the myth has overtaken the reality, where all the ills of society are put down to that single hate figure, Gordon Brown, the all-powerful, all seeing head of that vast bureaucratic empire. This is exactly the dynamic we see over at Coffee House Blog from the ineffably lightweight Peter Hoskin, a dedicated subscriber to the myth.

Salisbury knows it isn't real. Anyone with anything beyond a "Janet and John" appreciation of the realities of modern government knows it isn't real – but the myth prevails. Nevertheless, the "ground truth", as they like to call it these days, is that the levers of power are not connected to anything.


Santa Klaus

Offering us a very early Christmas present (although I swear it was warmer on Christmas day that it was yesterday) Vaclav Klaus, the Czech president, has intimated that he intends to refer the constitutional Lisbon treaty to his country's constitutional court at the start of August.

With the support of 17 senators, he will seek a ruling on whether the treaty complies with the Czech constitution, thereby delaying once more the ratification of the treaty, which he can now do until the court has given its verdict.

This completely stall the process, blocking Sweden, the current rotating EU presidency holder, from sorting out the final details of the treaty implementation by the end of the year, assuming the Irish vote "yes" on 2 October.

Whether even that will happen is anyone's guess. According to The Telegraph the "no" campaign is seeking to exploit the financial crisis, so says Mr Cox, a former Irish MEP (and EP president) "to encourage the Irish people to vote against our own interests and reject the Treaty." He adds: "We do not plan to let them succeed." But then he always was an arrogant .... person.

The longer Klaus delays it, of course – even if the Irish do roll over – the closer to Armageddon comes David Cameron, who will now not be off the hook by the time of the Conservative Party conference. Just a measly six months into the next year – if he can stall it that long - and we will see what Boy Dave is made of, when he has to promise us a referendum.

It is not only the EU presidency that will then be rotating. Mr Monnet, tucked up in his grave, will be doing likewise.


Sunday, July 26, 2009

All you could ever want

It is revealing how, for all the resources and "skills" of the serried ranks of hacks, it takes a reader's letter to make the obvious suggestion to resolve the helicopter shortage in Afghanistan.

More on Defence of the Realm.

A half-baked scheme?

In The Sunday Telegraph today we see a report by defence correspondent Sean Rayment, telling us that, last summer, senior Army officers serving with 16 Air Assault Brigade wanted to build a "necklace" of fortified watch towers through Helmand to spy on insurgents planting IEDs.

We are then told that the plan was based on "the success of a series of watch towers erected in South Armagh in Ulster in the late 1980s to counter the activity of the IRA." Despite this, it was dismissed "because there were not enough troops available to occupy the towers or a sufficient number of helicopters to keep them resupplied with food, water and ammunition."

More on Defence of the Realm.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

North meets Gen Jackson

On Wednesday 29 July at the Frontline Club in London. Could be interesting.


Compassion is much overrated

An alternative title would be "I hate compassionate conservatism". Over on Your Freedom and Ours. Grrrr.

A mighty kick?

The triumphalism and euphoria of the (not the) Conservative Party over the Norwich North by-election is only to be expected of a tribal system where winning is all. However, since the winner took only 18 percent of the popular vote, this is not so much a victory as a sign of a political system in crisis.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, we see an uneasy Charles Moore, who seems to be more than usually on form of late. He writes:

And I am sure that the Conservatives' focus groups tell them that, beyond thinking well of Mr Cameron, voters do not recognise the Tory "signature" on anything much. In 1978/9, they would have known that the Tories promised something different on taxes, inflation, trade unions, and the Cold War. What do they know now? Nothing terrible, but also, nothing much.

The vagueness of these impressions might not matter politically if in fact the Tories did know what they wanted to do. But where are they on terror, "human rights", our constitutional decay, health service reform, local government, energy, our relations with America, the undeclared war in Afghanistan?
This blog has rather gone overboard on the Afghan issue, but it is one which has considerable political traction and has a totemic significance far beyond the narrow geographical confines of the conflict – from which many broader lessons can be drawn.

Yet, apart from – some might say – a cynical exercise to exploit the very narrow issue of helicopter shortages, we have seen little input from the Conservative Party in general, reflected in a remarkable paucity of debate on the Tory-supporting blogs.

From the flagship Tory blog, for instance, we have had but one clumsy intervention and little more. By contrast, debate on the Labourlist site has been far more active, albeit on the forum rather than on the main blog.

Something of this must surely stem from the tendency of contemporary politicians to steer the debate in directions they want it to go, rather than address the issues that concern real people in the real world. But the lack of political discourse on a subject that has dominated the headlines for the best part of three weeks can do nothing but reinforce the sense of disconnect between the political classes and their claques and ordinary people.

The evasion of reality, of course, stretches far beyond Afghanistan, not least into the pressing issue of the economy where it is growing evident that there are extremely tough times ahead. And, with tough times come tough choices, which will require bold political leaders with a strong mandate from the country.

Whatever the victory at Norwich North was, it was not an expression of support of and confidence in the Conservative Party. Eighteen percent does not a mandate make. And, if that is in any way replicated at the general election, we face the prospect of a government lacking the moral authority to make the tough choices that will be needed – assuming even that there is the basic competence which will enable the right choices to be identified.

The immediate repercussions are difficult to predict, but while our protests lack the élan of the Gallic street riots, the things we do well in this country are sullen resentment and mulish stubbornness. Against that, even the brutish violence of our increasingly militaristic and insolent police force will find it hard to prevail.

Mr Cameron may, therefore, be cherishing his victory this weekend, but one can't help but feel that the mule is eyeing him up for a mighty kick.


The Lazarus project

"I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die".

Well, the defence ministers of the seven countries mad enough to want to buy the thing certainly believe in it. Way beyond the fourth day, the Airbus A-400M has risen from the dead, and is on its way to becoming a real aeroplane. Certainly, we're getting to the point where we wish the damn thing would fly, as we're getting sick of endlessly posting computer graphics to illustrate posts on it. The one above is the real thing, by the way – firmly earthbound.

For the non-blog readers to get to know what is going on, though, they will have to go to Reuters or even the New York Times, or the BBC website. I don't know what it is about these European projects, but the British media never seems to report on them. It was the same with Galileo – they just drop off the edge.

Anyhow, at a meeting between the seven yesterday, all parties – including the UK - decided not to cancel their orders and instead renegotiate the whole contract, starting afresh as it were, with plans to "relaunch" the programme in December, when it is hoped that the prototype will make its first flight.

This is the projects that is already €5 billion over budget and nearly four years behind schedule. Its customers have already spent €5.7 billion on it, the parent company EADS has written off an additional €2.3 billion and it is costing €100 million a month without ever having left the tarmac.

Yet our own defence procurement minister Quentin Davies is right up there, despite the huge problems the delay has created for the RAF. He has agreed to enter the renegotiation "on an equal footing" with it six partners and is saying "I hope we can save the programme."

It can still be cancelled in December, if the negotiations break down, but that is looking increasingly unlikely and, if this goes they way all European projects seem to go, the only outcome of the further talks will be that it is going to cost us a whole bundle more. And when it is actually going to be delivered to the RAF is anyone's guess.

The huge irony is that, whatever it costs, a Tory government will most likely have to pay for it, while it will be a Tory defence minister who will be have to explain why, in a few years time, the RAF is critically short of airlift. And Tory turncoat Mr Quentin Davies, by then on the back-benches, will be able to reflect that it was a Conservative government which bought into the project into the first place. What comes round, goes round.


Friday, July 24, 2009

Another review - Ministry of Defeat

Colonel Blimp, you're still fighting the wrong war.

by Philip Jacobson

The Daily Mail, 24 July 2009

Although Richard North sets out to make the "case for the prosecution" of the British military and the political establishment for comprehensively bungling their conduct during the Iraq War, it is events in Afghanistan that make the book so timely and thought provoking.

The parallels between the two conflicts are inescapable, from the failure to learn from tactical mistakes to the desperate need for more helicopters.

More on Defence of the Realm.

And that election ...

It says something either of this writer, politics in general, or both, that the by-election in Norwich North is very low down the batting order. But then, the only outcome is to vote in another "useless mouth" to the provincial parliament, while the real government gets on with its business in Brussels.

For the record, the "victor" was Conservative, Chloe Smith, 27 – a former "management consultant" and therefore able to bring her extensive experience of business into play, as to how to comply with EU legislation.

The Times tells us the fair Chloe won a bigger than expected 7,348 majority, overturning Labour's lead of 5,459 in the 2005 general election. With 6,243 votes, Labour was down 26.7 percent on the general election, with 14,854 voters deserting the party since 2005.

Interestingly, the turnout was 45.8 percent – pathetic but only to be expected – which means that the Tories now hold the seat with votes from just over 18 percent of the electorate. A sweeping mandate it ain't, especially as the majority is attributable more to a collapse of the Labour vote than a positive endorsement of the Cameron agenda.

Ukip's Glen Tingle apparently did quite well, bringing in 4,068 votes, taking 11 percent of the vote. Lib Dims only made 4,803 votes, two percent less than in the 2005 general election – a very poor showing for a party that is supposed to specialise in by-elections. Nick Clegg's message is not wowing the voters.

The UKIP vote is interesting. Together with the Greens (3,350 votes), BNP (941) and Craig Murray (953) running as an anti-sleeze candidate, the "tiddlers" polled 14,115 votes, more than the Conservative's 13,591, taking over 40 percent of the vote cast, better than the 39.5 percent which the Conservatives took.

This did not prevent the Tories winning the seat, but this is a significant tranche of votes. If the minority vote holds up across the board in the general election (a very big "if"), we could see variations of the UKIP effect, with unpredictable results.

Predicting results is a mug's game at the best of time, so all that can be said is that this result injects an element of unpredictability into a situation already fraught with unpredictability. We could be in for an interesting time – or not.


You know it makes sense

James Delingpole is in The Spectator, writing about Iraq and Afghanistan. If you want the full story, he tells us:

... read Richard North's Ministry of Defeat, which will make you so angry you'll instantly want to rush out and strangle an awful lot of people. Top candidate would be Tony Blair, whose championing of the ludicrous European Rapid Reaction Force (mainly, suggests North, as his consolation prize to the EU for having failed to drag Britain into the euro) siphoned off truly eye- watering sums from our defence budget on mostly stillborn or pointless projects. Over ten years, joint European projects cost the MoD £8.8 billion. With that kind of money the MoD could have bought a hell of a lot of useful helicopters and improvised explosive device (IED) resistant vehicles.
He continues:

The indefatigable Richard North calculates that 50 British lives in Afghanistan alone have been lost as a result of insufficiently protected vehicles. Lt Col Rupert Thorneloe, for example, was killed by around 30 kilos of homemade explosive (almost certainly made using fertiliser provided to local farmers by the British). Had he been travelling in an MRAP, rather than a Viking, the vehicle would scarcely have been dented.

So while the Americans have just spent $1.2 billion procuring a fleet of highly mobile, mine-protected vehicles for their men in Afghanistan, we continue to let our men die needlessly. Yes, I appreciate that our casualty rate is negligible compared with, say, the world wars; that these days we seem to make more fuss about the loss of one man than in the old days we would have done about an entire company. Those, though, were wars of national survival where it was much easier for everyone to comprehend the purpose of the sacrifice. They were also of limited duration, with clear aims. The one in Afghanistan could run and run, and how are we supposed to know when we've won?
Good stuff.


Is this is what it's about?

Thomas Harding in The Daily Telegraph is reporting that the major British offensive in Afghanistan (Panther's Claw) that has led to a large loss of life and many wounded "has strengthened Britain's battered relationship with America".

This is according to a "senior defence source" who is telling us that: "It has shown that other people are making the sacrifice and sharing the burden. American has been through their Golgotha moment and they admire a country that steps up to the plate and does the heavy lifting."

Once again, it seems, the shadow of Iraq looms, with the British Army highly sensitive about its performance there, even if it is holding the line with its public pretence that the campaign was successful. A big "push" in Afghanistan, therefore, is seen as a way of restoring the Army's reputation.

More on Defence of the Realm.

The tyranny of the narrative

One the one hand, you get Air Vice Marshall Martin Routledge, still in post, speaking out against what in media terms could be described as a "critical shortage" of UAVs in Afghanistan. Outside the specialist journals, all it gets is a brief mention in The Times and a cut and paste job in The Guardian.

Then, on the other hand, you get Brigadier Aldwin Wight, ex-SAS commander, retired from the Army in 1997, who has been "speaking with friends" and decides to "wade into the row over support for UK troops in Afghanistan", accusing the government of "spin" (shock!) and telling the world: "I do think, actually, the debate should be exposed - the additional troops, the numbers of helicopters." For good measure, he also accuses Labour of spending "the minimum they could get away with" on defence ... like, er ... £1.7 billion on Future Lynx.

The retired brigadier immediately gets a slot on ITN and, via the Press Association, his views can be found in most newspapers today.

It actually does not matter to the media whether we need more helicopters or troops in Afghanistan – whether the tactics are right, whether there are other equipment deficiencies, whether things could be done differently, to greater effect – or cheaper. What matters is the narrative. Talking heads who fit in with it get heard. Those who do not, languish in the wilderness.

This is how the debate is "framed" – how every debate is framed, distorting public policy and priorities. We have a weak minister, in a weak, unpopular government, rushing around "busting a gut" to dance to the media tune, while other issues, of equal or greater importance are ignored or given less attention.

In truth, this situation has probably never been any different, although the effects are possibly now more powerful. With 24-hour news and the multiplicity of media sources, it appears that many voices are clamouring – the multitude with but a single mind. In fact, they are all singing from the same hymn sheet – one statement, one press release and then one agency report, replicated mindlessly, a thousand times or more.

That, is why "spin" is such a central part of modern public administration. Governments not only have to govern, they have to respond to the narrative – they have to be seen to be addressing "popular" concerns.

Where the two are in conflict, "spin" fills the gap. The words are not real, but then neither is the narrative. It keeps the media wolves at bay, until the discrepancies between words and action are found out, generating another narrative of a lying, deceitful government. The truth though is that "government by narrative" would be chaos – which is possibly why we are in such a mess now, as our masters vainly attempt to restore their fading popularity.

Such is its power, that no government dare speak against it. No minister can stand up and say, "this is a load of tosh ... you are all wrong ... what we need to is this ... and I am going to ignore the clamour. " In that path lies political suicide and obscurity.

So, the politicians feed the monster. But it is never sated. They become its slaves and we too become enslaved – and to what? An agenda that has no more substance than the contents of the recycling bin. But we feed it all the same.


A change of pace

Leaving the travails of Afghanistan for a moment, we have the opportunity to read Antonia Senior in The Times, warning about greens under the bed. "Once the lure of communism seduced the idealistic. Today's environmental ideologues risk becoming just as dangerous," she writes.

Over on Watts up with that, we have a record of an "historic snow event" in South America. We also have unusual snow in the Alps and, here in Yorkshire, we've had to have the central heating on – like it's er ... cold.

The real world, however, is making not the slightest impact on the climate change industry, which seems more and more like the Taleban each day ... both want to crawl back into the stone age, the difference being that the warmists want to do it on a global scale.

Meanwhile, a recent report reveals that the US government has provided over $79 billion since 1989 on policies related to climate change, including science and technology research, foreign aid, and tax breaks.

A similar study in the UK would doubtless show that a proportionate amount had been spent by our own government and, as the US study reports, there are trillions to come. With that sort of money at stake, it is no wonder that the skeptics are having a hard time. It really is the same with the EU and, indeed, the defence industry. Money talks while the truth is dressed in rags.

With that happy thought, we can always revel in the fact that the drug companies are about to make a killing out the 'flu vaccine and major industries throughout the EU stand to make up to £4.6bn from selling carbon permits to power companies, for them to add their costs to our bills. Wind farms are going to add to our grief and, as always, the media has lost the plot.

Ever get the feeling you're in the wrong business?


We interrupt this broadcast ...

... to bring you news of the other blog, Your Freedom And Ours, on which there are a few postings that might interest readers.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Round and round in circles

In a leading article, The Independent is actually saying: "It is not only helicopters we should be concerned about." Sheesh! It took them long enough!

Our forces are still buying their equipment to fight in the Cold War era, it says – otherwise known as the Fulda Gap syndrome. A comprehensive rethink on is called for, the paper says. Our troops have been in Afghanistan for eight years. The problems ought to have been addressed long ago.

It goes on to say that there is little point in playing a political blame game. That will not help our forces on the ground. Yet we do need honesty from the Government; a recognition that there is a problem with the orientation of our military.

Then it picks up on the Gates initiative, noting that the US political system is beginning to address similar problems, with the US Senate voting to cut funding for the F-22. The world's most advanced military machine is adapting to the demands of the 21st century battlefield. Britain urgently needs to do the same.

The New York Times offers a bland but informative piece about the USAF and its future plans to develop UAVs and The Guardian picks up on the British problems with UAVs. The contrast is enough to make you weep.

With suggestions that one of Osama Bin Laden's sons might have been killed by an UAV strike, The Daily Telegraph offers us an analysis, telling us how useful UAVs actually are, but does not make the link with our own lacklustre performance.

Bob Ainsworth, who had been claiming forever that we have enough helicopters in theatre, is now doing a Jock Stirrup and telling us that he is "busting a gut" to get more out there. We learn from him also that helicopters are not Ford Mondeos. I think we knew that though.

Nothing has really changed though. The Daily Telegraph is obsessed with catching out Lord Malloch Brown on his comments about (not) needing helicopters – the ones Ainsworth is "busting a gut" to send to Afghanistan, even though we do not need them.

This paper publishes the transcript of Mary Riddell interviewing Malloch Brown, who tells the star reporter that there is a very large, well-armed, American contingent fighting alongside the British. To show us how much on the balls she is, the fair Riddell responds: "But we're the ones who are being killed. And we're the ones who are less well-equipped. And we have the fewest number of helicopters."

What Malloch Brown should have said is, nooooo ... There have been 19 British killed this month, and 33 Americans. In total, while 188 British service personnel have lost their lives in Afghanistan, 750 Americans have lost theirs. Instead, the idiot says: "Yes."

The Americans have more troops in theatre than us, of course, but we do have Allan Mallinson, also writing in The Daily Telegraph, declaring that: "The more you use, the less you lose." That theory doesn't seem to be working terribly well, but then Mallinson is telling us that this dictum applies to conventional war.

That leaves The Guardian to ponder about what would happen if there were enough helicopters.

It asks: "What does it say about the control Britain claims to have over Afghan territory eight years on, if the only safe way troops can move around is by air?" And what if the cash-rich Taliban got their hands on surface-to-air missiles, as the mujahideen did before them? It would make communications with all forward operating bases vulnerable. Pull on one thread and the carpet unravels.

There are no good options after eight years of warfare, the paper concludes, only least worst ones. We should stop pouring more oil on to this fire and start thinking of realistic outcomes. And we should be doing this now.

Is it any wonder that people are confused – baffled, even? We go round and round in circles and never seem to be getting anywhere.


There is a world out there!

Just over a year ago, we reported that President Lech Kaczynski of Poland, after making no end of bellicose noises about the constitutional Lisbon treaty, had effectively folded and agreed to ratify it. Not weeks previously he had been telling the world that it was "pointless"

At the time, we suggested that we did not have to look very far for the reason. On the stocks was an EU commission decision on whether six years of "illegal" state aid paid to the historic shipyards of Gdansk, Gdynia and Szczecin would have to be repaid. Amounting to €2.1 billion, this could bankrupt the yards whose workers helped toppled the communist regime in 1989.

Completely coincidentally, the news later emerged that the commission was to delay execution for three months. By then, we ventured, a refinancing deal would doubtless have been stitched up, the details of which would be released once the treaty ratification was safely in the bag.

It actually took a little longer than three months – in fact, until today. But the commission has nevertheless announced a restructuring plan for Poland's ailing Gdansk shipyard and approved retrospectively the state aid granted to the shipyard since Poland joined the EU in 2004. Some of the aid is yet to come.

Mind you, while Kaczynski was as good as his word and did ratify the treaty, he still has not lodged the papers in Rome, so the last formal step has yet to be completed and, officially, Poland remains one of the refuseniks. We wonder what the price tag will be for that last step.


Make it up?

Impossible! They really aren't safe to let out on their own.


More deadly than the Taleban

Many graphic accounts have been written recently about the Panther's Claw operation in Helmand. From these emerge a picture of how the Taleban are employing the large-scale emplacement of IEDs to delay the assault (the classic role of minefields) and to inflict casualties.

In that Panther's Claw is a "deliberate operation" – i.e., one that was planned and executed in an area of choice - the fact that the Taleban had laced the area with IEDs could perhaps have been pre-empted. Not least, troops could have been provided with far more knowledge of their locations and extent than they seem to have been.

The asset of choice to provide this vital intelligence is the UAV and some hint that they have not been used to effect comes in today's Times. This retails the complaints of a "leading British officer" that the military had been too slow to capitalise on the use of UAVs to detect IEDs.

More on Defence of the Realm.

Not a funding issue

It is easy to get seriously tired of the prevailing narrative, which is spreading like swine flu, completely out of control. A typical example comes in The Northern Echo, with an exclusive interview with Robin Fox, managing director of Northern Defence Industries – also a colonel in the Territorial Army, recently returned from active service in Afghanistan.

Mr Fox should know something about this issue from his unique perspective as a defence contractor and soldier. And he has absolutely no doubts as to the cause of the helicopter problem, declaring that the procurement system has cocked up in getting enough rotary wing assets for use in (Afghanistan). "We know well the story of the Chinooks that have sat in a hangar for years because nobody got it right," he says," but why the hell didn't we buy a shedload of Black Hawks from the Americans, which are cheaper and better than the alternatives?"

That we did not, according to Fox, is "a load of political nonsense." He then argues that the helicopter shortage is a symptom of "a greater disease across the support that is given to our troops on operations. It's a lack of funding across the whole… not just for helicopters."

As always though, this is just extruded verbal material – all you have to do is the basic arithmetic. Future Lynx is currently costed at £1.7 billion for 62 helicopters, with deliveries starting in 2014. A batch of 60 Blackhawks would cost £600 million and, with an order placed in late 2006 or early 2007, it could be in service now.

For a down payment, the £185 million spent on the six Danish Merlins could have bought the first batch of 18 machines, without raiding the Future Lynx fund.

The £100 million wasted on the Pinzgauer Vector would have bought another ten, the £166 million wasted on the useless Panther could have bought another 16 – with some change left over. The £314 million wasted on the "Trigat" anti-tank missile could have bought another 31 and, with the change left over from the Panther added, another machine could have been squeezed out of the system. Hey! That comes to 58 - we're nearly there, and we still have not touched the Future Lynx fund.

Over and over again, we have to repeat that this is not a funding issue. As long as the MoD procurement system is so wasteful and inefficient, there will always be cash problems, but throwing more money at the system just generates more waste. The Merlins are not only expensive to buy – they are extremely expensive to operate, at £34,000 an hour – a point made by Ann Winterton in today's letter column in the Telegraph.

For decades to come, therefore, these helicopters will be a hidden drain on the defence budget, soaking up money that could be spent elsewhere. The same will apply to the Future Lynx. While a Bell 212 costs £2,000 an hour to operate, the current (Army) Lynx models cost a staggering £23,000 an hour. The Future Lynx will perpetuate this waste. Even to contemplate £1.7 billion on a mere 62 helicopters is a higher kind of madness.

Perpetuating the "underfunding" narrative, therefore, is a cop-out. As with every other public sector organisation – from the NHS to the police and everywhere else – throwing money at a problem solves nothing. It has not worked with the NHS and it will not work with defence. The driver must be value for money, from which it is painfully evident that there is actually no shortage of cash – simply grossly inadequate management of the funds available.

Then, that is the malaise right through the public sector and one could argue that, if we get defence spending right, the lessons learned could be applied across the board. Purely on NHS procurement, billions could be saved without in any way touching service provision. But, as long as the insistent bleat of "underfunding" drowns out the sound of money pouring down the drain, we will get nowhere. It really is time the debate moved on, before we too follow the path our money is taking.


A dangerous self-indulgence?

Twice we've called "time" on the controversy over equipment for our troops in Afghanistan, yet it continues almost unabated. It was with more than some interest, therefore, that we watched author and analyst Michael Griffin on BBC News 24 yesterday, expressing similar puzzlement over the intensity of the "debate".

Viewed wholly objectively, with the focus narrowed down to whether troops have enough helicopters, there is nothing to sustain it. As it stands, there is no shortage of helicopters in theatre to support current operations. The prime minister is right on this.

That most of the helicopters are American is neither here nor there. But there are Dutch, Canadian and British as well, all "pooled" in a vast coalition fleet which is being used not for British or American operations, but for coalition operations, of which the national contingents are an integral part.

In that sense, complaining about the shortfall of British helicopters is about as rational as anyone arguing against the use of B-17s of the US 8th Army Air Force to extend the strategic bombing campaign against Germany in 1943. Allies work together, and harness their collective assets to the common cause. That is what we did then and that is what we are doing now.

In seeking to explain the furore, however, Griffin linked the campaign in Afghanistan with Iraq, suggesting that in the latter, the British Army had not performed well, to the disappointment of the Americans. And in Helmand too, its grasp of counter-insurgency had been maladroit, again leading to a less than admiring response from the Americans.

To an extent, ventured Griffin, the military were seeking to transfer the blame for their own poor performance onto the politicians. Similarly, he felt, the military had some considerable control over the types of helicopters purchased and their deployment. Problems could not be laid entirely at the doors of the politicians.

If that is one element which is driving the controversy, the other is clearly the Conservative Party, anxious to find yet another stick with which to beat the government. The attitude is summed up in the recent comment from Liam Fox, who declares: "It is abundantly clear that we are asking our troops to fight a war for which Labour has not properly equipped them."

Notice there, the use not of the word "government" but of "Labour", revealing an overt partisanship which puts the alleged default wholly in a political context. There is no room in Fox's kitbag for any equivocation or shared responsibility.

Gordon Brown, nevertheless, is playing his own political games, relating helicopter requirements to current operations, but the distinction between these and the "general campaign" is becoming clear, with an acknowledgement that, while troops are able to fulfil their tasks at the moment, there is an overall shortfall of helicopters. This, we are told, is to be redressed by the Merlins which will at last be despatched by the end of the year, by the re-engined Lynxes and, next year, by additions to the Chinook fleet.

That things could have been done quicker, better and considerably more cheaply is indisputable, but the fact is that issues are being addressed, further confirming the "totemic status" of helicopters. In other words, this controversy isn't really about helicopters at all – or even about equipment.

Returning to Griffin, at the end of the interview – to the evident discomfort of his BBC interrogator – he broke away from the script to express his concern over the exaggerated level of publicity about an issue which lacked that substance. He warned that the Taleban would be monitoring programmes such as these, and the furore would improve their morale considerably.

Therein does lie a huge trap, created by the concern over casualties and the focus on helicopters. We have alluded to this before, in that if the Taleban were successfully to bring down a Chinook laden with troops, it is very hard to see how continuing the campaign could be politically sustainable.

The problem is that the Taleban know that, and they will do everything possible to make it so, while seeking generally to maximise the British casualty rate. This much is being recognised, with Dannatt at last taking the IED threat seriously.

As to the remarkable controversy that we have been witnessing for the best part of three weeks, this – if Griffin is right – is a dangerous self-indulgence which we simply cannot afford, motivating the Taleban to greater efforts on the basis that the home front can be so weakened that British troops will have to be withdrawn. We are, unwittingly, sending them a message that there is everything to gain from killing British troops.

This is not a happy message, and one that is difficult to change, as these media storms tend to have a life of their own. But the military, the politicians and the media – and indeed this blog – need to think very hard about the message they are sending, and to whom.