Two knights at war over ‘disgraceful’ Afghan story

Jan 14, 2011
Jack Bremer

‘Army took us to war to keep the troops busy’ claims former diplomat Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles

Two knights of the realm are at loggerheads as a very nasty stink over the war in Afghanistan wafts through Whitehall. It involves a senior former diplomat accusing the Army of taking men to fight and die in Helmand province simply in order to keep them busy and stop the government cutting numbers.


The diplomat is Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles (above left), a former ambassador to Israel, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, who sounded off in a written memo to the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, according to today's Times.


Sir Sherard accused Army chiefs of having been "misleadingly optimistic" when advising government ministers about the conflict in Afghanistan. He said the war against the Taliban had given the Army a "raison d'être" it had been lacking, and the perfect chance to demand new resources.


Crucially, he stated that the head of the British Army at the time, Sir Richard Dannatt (above right), had told him in 2007 that the government would insist on cuts after Iraq if troops were not used in Helmand. "It's 'use them, or lose them'," Sir Sherard quoted Dannatt as saying.


The response to Sir Sherard's remarks from Sir Richard is, unsurprisingly, full-bloodied fury. "It is a disgraceful set of comments," he said. "It is not his business to opine about the Army. He is well out of his lane and well out of order."


Sir Sherard, however, is sticking to his guns. He told the Times: "He [Dannatt] is lying, I am afraid. I can recall him saying it, sitting in his office in the Ministry of Defence."


To which Sir Richard responded that he did not recognise the 'use them or lose them' quote. "He's got the wrong person there," he said.


Sir Richard is now retired, but the Times quotes a source at the Ministry of Defence saying: "Sherard has always been a maverick. He is entitled to his opinions but this is a scenario that we would not recognise."


It is true that Sir Sherard has long been tarred with the "maverick" brush and is known for speaking his mind.


Recent coverage of the WikiLeaks exposure of US embassy cables included Sir Sherard saying he hoped cables containing comments by him were not being leaked. "I sent plenty of cables in my time that were quite frank," he said, in what may be the understatement of the year.

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