Brown v Dannatt: it’s war
The Mole: Brown waffles over helicopters as departing Army chief fights for troops’ rights, reports our Westminster insider
Gordon Brown has been put on notice that his ongoing row with the head of the British army over troop numbers and equipment in Afghanistan is going to batter him right through the long summer break.
The Commons rises next Tuesday and will not return until early October. But if Brown thought that might lift the pressure, then Sir Richard Dannatt is out to disappoint him. In an interview with the BBC, he has warned the Prime Minister he is preparing a "shopping list" of equipment needed by troops in Afghanistan.
Sir Richard, who stands down as head of the army next month, has already embarrassed Brown by suggesting there is a shortage of kit in Afghanistan and that more troops are needed for the operation against the Taliban. He dramatically highlighted the point about a lack of helicopters by insisting earlier this week that the only way he could tour the region was by asking the US to ferry him around in one of their numerous Black Hawks.
Brown's discomfort was clear when he made his twice-yearly appearance before the powerful liaison committee of MPs yesterday and was bluntly accused of refusing to tell them the truth over the army's demands for troop numbers.
Tory committee member James Arbuthnot demanded to know if the military had requested 2,000 extra troops, as widely reported, but had the plea rejected by Brown.
Brown waffled about commanders on the ground having the numbers they needed, which infuriated Arbuthnot who accused him of deliberately refusing to answer the committee's questions.
At the same time, the Commons defence committee reported that a lack of helicopters was undermining the operation in Afghanistan, leading to further questions about lack of proper kit. The Prime Minister again refused to give full detail, resorting again to the assertion that the commanders on the ground were not complaining they did not have the resources they needed.
This is all highly dangerous territory for Brown. It is pretty clear there is a major split between him and the outgoing army chief who is determined to use his last days in post to do whatever he can to win the support for his troops he believes they deserve. That may win him huge admiration and respect with the military and troops on the ground, but it is doing nothing for his relationship with the Labour government.
The Tories have seized on his remarks, and the fact that he has chosen to make them at this time, to suggest Brown is putting cost before the lives of British troops.
With the current operation against the Taliban set to run through to the elections in Afghanistan late next month, and with the death toll bound to rise further, this is not a row that is about to die down just because the Commons is no longer sitting.
Even if Brown can hold his line through the summer, he is then likely to face another crunch point when those elections are over and he will be expected to reduce troop numbers to pre-operation levels as promised. If that proves impossible, he will not only face criticism for failing to back the troops properly, but demands for a re-think of the entire policy towards Afghanistan. ·
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