Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Stop Playing Politics With Our Armed Forces

You can never take anything Gordon Brown says at face value.

After a trip to Afghanistan to visit the troops (something to be welcomed) he received a lot of positive publicity. It's quite right that the Prime Minister should visit our troops regularly. What we don't want to see any more of, is the kind of tacky New Labour spin that we saw in the past, such as when Brown chose to announce (misleading) troop withdrawal numbers while visiting Iraq during the Conservative Party conference in order to over shadow his political opponents. But this is exactly what we got, yet again...

Following the visit we were treated to the "revelation" that Brown stayed in "basic quarters" at the Kandahar air base overnight, the headquarters of NATO troops in the South of the country. He just had to spoil a dignified visit with yet more tawdry spin. The BBC TV news report I saw went on to suggest he was in danger as there were at least "one or two attacks a week". It turns out this is the number of attacks that occur in the whole area not just the base. In reality, he was quite safe in the headquarters.

It's depressing to see that as soon as Alastair Campbell returns to Brown's propaganda bunker, the BBC (and other news outlets) slavishly report what they're told to.

Then after the visit we hear a report that Gordon Brown wants to boost spending on protecting troops from roadside bombs. Now, who'd disagree with that? No one, of course. Many would question why it has taken this long and cost so many lives before he cottons on to the threat, but at least he's doing something now.

But hold on. As with every announcement by this government, you need to look at the small print. This is not new money. This is merely a "re-prioritisation" of money from within the Defence budget. So, there's no intention of boosting the budget to provide enhanced protection. Merely a commitment to spend the money that was already available in a way that may, hopefully, finally, provide adequate protection. But how embarrassing for the woefully inadequate Defence Secretary, Bob Ainsworth. His boss visits the theatre of conflict and suddenly announces the Defence department has had its priorities all wrong, for years. No hint of an apology or embarrassment. Apparently, we are all to be impressed by this change in prioritisation. I don't think anybody in the armed forces will be for one second.

There is to be a detailed announcement in the Commons on Wednesday. I hope they can do more than play politics with such an important issue by merely having the PM micro manage the Defence budget in order to grab some favourable headlines.

Indeed, far from funding our over-stretched forces adequately to meet the various commitments they have around the world, it seems the government is actually planning a £1.5 Billion cut in their budget. These cuts will mainly hit so-called "low-priority" projects, and the Air Force seems to be lined up as the main loser. As part of the spin being put out on this, there is talk of redirecting funds to front line forces in Afghanistan. That's all well and good and I hope it makes a difference, but I wonder what issues will be caused by such drastic reductions in other capabilities and what damage will be done to our ability to act effectively to future military challenges.

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