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Military fatigue

BRITAIN’S HIGHEST-ranking soldier has attacked his government in the middle of a war. Clearly, there are deep divisions at the top of the British establishment. In an interview with the Daily Mail (13 October), General Sir Richard Dannatt stated that the mission in Iraq has failed: "We were invaders, now we’re occupiers", we should "get ourselves out sometime soon". He linked the occupation to the rise of terrorism internationally, including in Britain, something the New Labour government emphatically denies.

Going public in this way has polarised commentators. The British ruling class prefers to keep its disputes behind closed doors. Such a bald move points to a desire to rein in the arrogant New Labour upstarts. It shows that Tony Blair is increasingly out of step with his paymasters.

Dannatt has received a lot of support from high up the military and political establishment. Lord Brammall, Chief of the General Staff during the Falklands (Malvinas) war, said: "The balance of power in the region has swung to Iran’s advantage. [Iraq] has lost us a lot of goodwill and trust in the Arab world. It has not actually enhanced the war against terrorism but made it worse… It is also exacerbating our problems in Afghanistan… " (The Daily Telegraph, 14 October) Former Labour armed forces minister, Lord Lewis Moonie, said: "Iraq is a busted flush and there is nothing we can do except patch it up and get out. Sir Richard did no more than say in public what many in the ministry of defence and foreign office say in private". (Mail on Sunday, 15 October)

A number of senior Tories (who backed the war on Iraq) cynically welcomed Dannatt’s call for troops to be withdrawn, further isolating Blair. A cross-party group of MPs is demanding an emergency debate in parliament.

Blair tried to maintain that there is no difference between his position and Dannatt. Yet they are diametrically opposed. Blair is clear, at least publicly: British troops will stay in Iraq "until the job is done". His slavish devotion to Bush continues. But the alarm bells were ringing in Washington, with frantic phone calls in the middle of the night from the White House to Downing Street.

Dannatt opened a floodgate, an army website inundated by blogs from troops: "Dannatt gets my vote! We were lied to when it all started and we are still lied to today! The Dear Leader should resign now". "Right, when B’liar is put up against the wall, can I shoot him?" "Bloody well said. B’liar, your legacy is secured, it’s called Iraq". (The Independent, 14 October)

This reflects the deep unpopularity of the war, a prevalent view in the army that it is being overstretched for the sake of political expediency, and the impact this is having on troop morale and recruitment.

A year ago, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said there would be 3,000 British troops in Iraq now. Yet around 8,000 remain, with hundreds more in the Gulf, 5,600 in Afghanistan (as well as 8,500 still in Northern Ireland). A quarter of the armed forces is actively deployed. The MoD is breaking its own rule of a two-year gap between six-month deployments. Some forces are being sent back after a break of eleven months.

There is outrage at the gulf between reality and the delusional world inhabited by government ministers. Des Browne, minister for war and occupation, said that Afghanistan was "harder than expected". Foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, admitted that troops faced a "tough fight" and that the Taliban had used "unexpected tactics". (She wasn’t expecting them to fight back, presumably.) "What our commanders are telling us is that they are stretched, but not overstretched", she said. (The Guardian, 22 September)

Brigadier Ed Butler, commander of British forces in Helmand province, was blunter: "The intensity and ferocity… [are] far greater than in Iraq on a daily basis". (The Independent on Sunday, 10 September) A memo from a MoD thinktank says: "British armed forces are effectively held hostage in Iraq… and we are now fighting (and arguably losing or potentially losing) on two fronts", Iraq and Afghanistan. (The Guardian, 29 September) Captain Leo Docherty, former aide to a senior commander in southern Afghanistan, resigned in protest at the "grotesquely clumsy" campaign against the Taliban.

An editorial in the Financial Times (5 September) voiced the consternation of sections of the ruling class. It noted the increased use in Afghanistan of Iraqi insurgent techniques, including roadside bombs and suicide attacks, and that the commander in the south described the fighting as the worst involving British forces "since the Korean war or the second world war": "Yet, at the start of the year, John Reid, then defence secretary, expressed the hope British troops would be able to rebuild Afghanistan and leave ‘without firing a shot’."

British forces have been setting up ‘advanced platoon houses’, hoping to create ever-expanding spheres of control. But these have drawn relentless attacks and the tactic is being abandoned as troops retreat to more easily defended bases.

The Taliban has been strengthened by the opium poppy eradication programme which has alienated destitute farmers, their crops destroyed without compensation. Reportedly, British troops have tried to distance themselves from the US forces carrying this out. But all foreign fighters are seen as occupiers. A village elder in Helmand pointed out: "The Westerners cannot tell the difference between our tribes, how should we be able to tell the difference between theirs?" (The Independent on Sunday, 24 September)

Over a century ago, the British empire was thrown out of Afghanistan. The Russians were driven out 17 years ago, and they had tens of thousands of troops. It is happening again. The highest price, however, is being paid in the deaths and shattered lives of countless Afghani people, and by British troops and their families. There should be no British soldiers there or in Iraq. They must be withdrawn.

In monetary terms, the government says the annual cost of operations in Iraq is £1 billion, with southern Afghanistan costing another billion. These figures are rising.

The troops – the vast majority, working-class youth – are learning a harsh lesson in the nature of the British state. Sent off with hypocritical patriotic speeches from the likes of Blair, they are dumped in a hellhole. Besieged troops have run out of food, water and other basic supplies, their families even sending food parcels. Soldiers were sent to Iraq with the wrong camouflage and boots which fell apart. Half of all troops, many on less than the minimum wage of £3.30 an hour, have to buy their own extra equipment, including scarves, jackets and trousers. In April 2003, Sergeant Steve Roberts was killed by ‘friendly fire’ in Iraq. A few days earlier he had been ordered to hand in his body armour because it is in such short supply. It would probably have saved his life.

More than 1,500 soldiers who served in Iraq are suffering from psychiatric illnesses. James Potrowski was sent to Iraq in 2003. On his return, his mother and sister sought help from the army. They were ignored even when they reported that he was sleeping in the garden and was suffering horrifying flashbacks of an Iraqi girl clinging to her father’s dead body. Potrowski stole firearms from his barracks to ‘guard the house’. After a police raid he was sentenced to seven years in prison. In a bitter irony, the family was held under the Terrorism Act after he threatened to blow up a police station. (The Independent on Sunday, 6 August)

Daniel Twiddy was injured during the invasion of Iraq by ‘friendly fire’: "Once you are discharged the MoD doesn’t want anything to do with you and the attitude is: let’s just get another number in to replace this one. They should care, they blew me up but they don’t want anything to do with me". Twiddy had to pay £60 a week out of his own pocket for medical treatment. An estimated 5,000 military personnel are currently on NHS waiting lists. (The Independent on Sunday, 8 October)

Young British soldiers are being ordered to kill and be killed for Blair’s policy and prestige, for the sake of the US economy and imperial power on the world stage. They are utterly exploited by this belligerent, anti-working class government. Chewed up in war they are spat out on the streets of Britain when they return. Their anger, reflected in their emails and by their families, needs to be channelled into the anti-war movement, and into building a socialist future to put an end to this brutal inhumanity.

Manny Thain


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