Monday, 8 October 2007

I don't think we have communicated it very well

In a candid and important admission to The Times, published this morning, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, the Chief of Defence Staff, said that the "government as a whole" had failed to set out the strategic prospects for southern Iraq, further adding that, "we have not done as well as we should have done at thinking strategically".

"The key question", he said, was, "are we gaining strategic advantage in return for the price they (our troops) are paying?” To that, his answer is "yes". "If I thought we weren't, my recommendation would be to end it," he said. "But it's a difficult message to get across to the public, and I don’t think we have communicated it very well."

The piece offered by the newspaper goes under the heading, "Government 'gave public false hopes' on achieving Iraq goals", focusing on another admission from Stirrup, that the government gave the public "false and inflated expectations" of what could be achieved by British troops in Iraq.

We are told that Sir Jock decided to speak out because of his "growing concern" that the public are failing to appreciate what the British troops have been doing. "All they get are snapshots, which are sometimes really good and sometimes really bad," he says. "In my view, and contrary to what many people may think, the British military in the south of Iraq, against some quite daunting odds, has been successful, and the nonsense about the British having failed in Basra is completely misjudged."

However, he added: "Of course, it does depend upon recognising what the mission was in the first place, and I'm afraid we did allow some false and inflated expectations to arise. But the mission for the military was to get the place and the people to the state where the Iraqis could run that bit of their country if they chose to."

For this blog, which has been struggling to make sense of the events in the British occupied sector, we would be the first to say that the task has been tremendously difficult.

Even now, we get highly conflicting reports, for example one recently talking of growing stablity while another, in the same newspaper, claims that, so desperate is the situation that Iraqi army officers in Basra are preparing to make a desperate plea for the return of British troops to patrolling the city to stem rising sectarian killings and political violence.

That Sir Jock is prepared to admit to a poor communication strategy, therefore, is a good start, but it would be interesting to learn what he intends to do about it. One place, of course, where he could exert his influence, is on the MoD website, where he could insist on the publication of daily communiqués from both Iraq and Afghanistan, appraising us of what is going on.

No doubt many will quote the fabled "operational security" as a reason for not being more forthcoming. Out experience, however, is that the enemy is very often much better informed that is realised, while the main reason for OPSEC – in our jaundiced eyes – seems to be to keep information from the "home front".

That apart, one warms to Sir Jock who is reported to be "sceptical" about Dannatt's call for homecoming parades for troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. "I think a lot of units wouldn't want parades," says Sir Jock.

He is dead right and, despite the Telegraph's attempt to whip up a storm, aided and abetted by the Conservative's defence team, according to the Daily Mail, recent events have not been completely successful.

Dannatt's interventions, as a whole, have given the media plenty of copy but we rather feel they have been less than helpful in helping us understand what is going on. Perhaps, as part of Sir Jock's new "communications strategy", he could persuade Dannatt to shut up.