The Guardian - Political support for Afghan campaign has 'departed stage left'


Political support for Afghan campaign has 'departed stage left'

Nick Hopkins, The Guardian, Sunday 13 January 2013 20.29 GMT

Leaked email from Andy Aspden to former Royal Navy officers also criticised military for being too Afghan-focused

The Ministry of Defence was forced into a restatement of its commitment to the military effort in Afghanistan after a leaked document from a senior officer said political support for the campaign had "clearly departed stage left". In the personal email from Captain Andy Aspden to some former Royal Navy officers, he also said the military was so Afghan-focused it "makes you want to weep". He chides the MoD, which, he says, needs to "grow up" if it wants to shape the future of defence. Aspden, the head of Royal Navy public relations at the MoD's headquarters in Whitehall, hinted that Philip Hammond, the defence secretary, was irritated the military could not control the campaign to overturn the conviction of the SAS sergeant Danny Nightingale. Hammond was also "energised" by the Guardian's disclosures of problems in the Astute nuclear submarine programme, he said.

Though the MoD normally refuses to discuss leaks, officials reacted swiftly to the revelations in the Sunday Times, insisting that Afghanistan "remains defence's main effort and has the full commitment of the government". "These are the personal opinions of an individual Royal Navy officer sent to a number of retired Navy personnel," a statement said. "His views are not shared by the Royal Navy, the First Sea Lord or the MoD. The Navy are looking into the use of official email to disseminate personal views. "The MoD and all three services are united in delivering a successful conclusion to the campaign in Afghanistan which remains defence's main effort and has the full commitment of the government. Ministers and the armed forces chiefs are determined to continue the transition to a full Afghan security lead ahead of UK operations ceasing by the end of 2014."

The MoD also denied it had wanted to influence Sergeant Nightingale's wife, Sally, who spearheaded the successful campaign to have her husband's 18-month sentence of firearms offences overturned. "We don't recognise these assertions. For example, the MoD has never attempted to exercise any control over Mrs Nightingale and would have had no way of doing so," the MoD said. "The defence secretary called for a speedy appeal hearing and welcomed the judicial decision to free Sergeant Nightingale; he also sought reassurance from the attorney general that the public interest test had been applied appropriately in the case."

In his memo sent before Christmas, Aspden said: "Afghanistan now has two years to run and the political will for the campaign has clearly departed stage left. The issue for the military of course is legacy, residual footprint, getting out with good grace and not being seen to have cut and run, to have sacrificed such blood and treasure to no avail." The focus on Afghanistan has been at the expense of other operations, he says, and he describes the army as "hunting around" for a role after its withdrawal from Helmand. "The army have the further agenda of their role post 2014, and the justification of their size. A cynic might link this to their push to stay the course." Though embarrassing for the Royal Navy and dismissed by the MoD, Aspden's views are shared privately by many officials within the department's Main Building.

The fear of many commanders is that the Treasury's distaste for the Afghan campaign, and the money that has been spent on it over the past decade, has coloured the debate about how many troops should be withdrawn and when. David Cameron announced a month ago that 4,000 British personnel would return from Afghanistan this year. The navy has also been frustrated by cuts since 2010 that have left it barely able to continue all its commitments around the world. During the Libya operation in 2011, the first sea lord, Admiral Mark Stanhope, was slapped down by Downing Street after he claimed the fleet could not continue the campaign indefinitely without affecting other naval operations. Though it was a statement of the obvious, sensitivity about the affect of defence cuts on British military operations is acute among ministers.

The Ministry of Defence insisted it had no new plans for the defence of the Falkland Islands. A report in the Sunday Telegraph said the military had drawn up contingency plans that could include an extra warship, troops and aircraft being sent to the South Atlantic ahead of the March referendum on the future of the islands. "Nothing has changed," an official said. "There is no change in policy. We have all kinds of contingency plans for all kinds of situations."

Misc: Miscellaneous HERRICK information page containing information back to 2001

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