Sunday 10 December 2006

A failure of opposition

This is the front page of the Sunday Telegraph website today. The story is about the suicide bomb attack on a Royal Marine Land Rover, which we reported on 4 December.

The crews of vehicles rushing away from the scene with their injured colleagues fired on civilian vehicles, causing at least one death and several injuries. And now, we are told by the Telegraph, it has "emerged" that the deaths are being investigated by Nato.

As did confusion reign at the scene, however, so does confusion reign now. Even at the time, papers like the Gulf News were reporting that a Nato inquiry was to be carried out. Said spokesman Major Luke Knittig, cited by multiple media sources, "We will establish the facts. It is still unclear in what way the troops reacted."

And then… we have the BBC. One of the lead items on the radio news and pride of place on the website last night was the news that the Royal Military Police have already investigated whether the troops acted outside the rules of engagement.

The British spokesman in southern Afghanistan, Lt Col Andy Price, said the investigation had been thoroughly completed and that proportional and reasonable force had been used throughout. The men perceived a serious risk, and had fired only after warning shots and flares had been fired, he said.

However, according to the same BBC source, the MoD says reports of civilian injuries are being investigated, adding that, "It would be inappropriate to comment further whilst this investigation is ongoing."

Next, we have the Guardian. Its piece is headlined, "Troops under investigation for Kandahar shooting spree" and it cites Squadron Leader Jason Chalk, a spokesman for Nato regional command in Kandahar. He describes the reports as "disconcerting" and, according to the Guardian, promised a thorough investigation by Royal Military police. "If people are found to have acted outside the rules of engagement, they will be held to account for their actions," he was cited as saying.

However, whatever happened on 3 December, of one thing we can be sure. There is no way British troops should have been driving up "Ambush Alley" in unarmoured Land Rovers.

Looking at the amount of damage done to the targeted vehicle, it can be said almost as a matter of certainty that, had they been properly equipped – as have been the Canadians - (and the Dutch, the Americans, the Australians, the Germans and the French) the troops would not have been injured.

Had the troops been uninjured, there would have been no wild dash to get the casualties to the hospital, no shootings and no civilian deaths or injuries. Thus, any enquiry should surely encompass questions as to why the troops were so dangerously and irresponsibly exposed.

Now to the main issue of the title. As we have observed earlier, there has been a curious lack of concern from the media about the welfare of these troops (in comparison with the crocodile tears elsewhere). This, in turn, has created a major opportunity for the opposition. Any switched-on spokesman could quite properly have exploited this issue to the advantage of his own political party and our soldiers exposed to danger.

Imagine, if you will, that this issue had been raised on Monday 4 December by none other that the Boy King, "Dave" Cameron. Suppose it had been followed by a blitz of questions from the defence team, raised at prime minister's questions on the Wednesday and then plastered all over the Conservative's web site.

With Iraq high profile in the news and then General Mike Jackson’s intervention, complaining inter alia about inadequate equipment, one can now easily imagine that the Conservatives would be at the centre of a political storm, their attacks on the government on every front page.

This was what I was trying to get at in Part II of my "retreat from politics" series. We have already shown that defence procurement can be a front page issue and with only a little skill, this current issue could have been turned into another procurement issue, forcing the government to take emergency action to obtain suitable equipment.

As it is, the story is on the front page, but it is focused on the troops involved rather than the government – adding, no doubt, to the soldiers' feeling of being under-valued. But the Conservatives have been silent on this issue and therefore, there is no mention of any Conservative politician.*

The best we have had in recent times is the procurement spokesman, Gerald Howarth, giving a commercial puff to the dangerously fragile Pinzgauer.

Any which way you cut it – as I am rather fond of saying at the moment – this is a failure of opposition. And it is not unreasonable to postulate that one result of that failure is that troops will continue to be unprotected, and some will die unnecessarily. A further result may be that some civilians may also die.

It is not only government that has duties and responsiblities, Mr Cameron. Yours is to oppose – for which activity the taxpayer gives you several million pounds as "short" money - and you are not doing it. When we hear of more troops being butchered in their unprotected Land Rovers, therefore, I think it would be entirely fair to lay some of the blame at your door.

* The reference is to the website. Although the lead story on the web is almost invariably the front page in the print edition, strangely the story did not appear in the print edition at all and any reference to it disappeared from the website (although the link is still live).