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  • Published in Opinion

Despite their huge number of Chinook helicopters the United States too is suffering an increased casualty rate - about three a day in July. This is approaching some of the highest levels of the Iraq war.

The Taliban have the capacity to shoot down helicopters - six Ukrainian civilians and a 6-year-old Afghan were killed when an Mi-6 transport helicopter was shot down on Tuesday.

The call for more helicopters also ignores the fact the the two greatest single losses of UK forces lives in Iraq and Afghanistan were in aircraft - the Hercules crash in Iraq in 2005 and the Nimrod crash in Afghanistan in 2006.

Fundamentally occupation requires "boots on the ground". As Gen. Richard Dannatt said recently:

"I have said before, we can have effect where we have boots on the ground. I don't mind whether the feet in those boots are British, American or Afghan. But we need more, to have the persistent effect to give the people confidence in us...That is the top line and the bottom line."

Unavoidably more "boots on the ground" means more casualties amongst occupying troops.

The alternative - greater use of air power - means more civilian casualties, more civilian casualties translates into more support for the Afghan resistance which in turn leads to more casualties for occupying troops.

There is however a great deal of genuine discontent in the armed forces over equipment.

A National Audit Office report into Recruitment and Retention in the Armed forces published in November 2006 showed that almost 50% of key personnel leaving the services cited the "Quality of equipment" as a reason for leaving.

Over the last five years there have been a number of high profile cases where poor equipment and training have led to the deaths of British armed forces personnel. An article in the Independent on Sunday in November 2007 revealed that of 254 deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan 88 were due to equipment failure or neglect. But spending an extra £4 billion on helicopters and other equipment will not solve the underlying problem for the British Military.

The major problem faced by the British armed forces in Afghanistan is political in origin.

Political opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has led to a critical and growing shortage of highly skilled specialist personnel.

The war machine needs highly skilled workers to keep it going. They provide the underlying technical basis to the military advantage over the Taliban. A shortage of skilled staff undermines this advantage and levels the field. This erosion of military superiority leads to increased casualty levels.

According to the House of Commons Defence Committee Fourteenth Report:

"Each Service has a number of trades which are substantially undermanned. These trades are classed as pinchpoints and represent serious manning shortfalls in the Armed Forces. The MoD defines pinchpoints as trades or areas of expertise where there is not enough trained strength to perform operational tasks without encroaching on the time provided between deployments for recuperation, training and leave...

We are disappointed to note that between 2004 and 2008, the number of pinchpoint trades have increased across all Services. In the Army pinchpoint trades have increased by 15.4%, in the RAF by 63%, and in the Naval Service by 150% so that there are now 30 pinchpoint trades in the Army, 31 in the RAF and 25 in the Naval Service."

These pinchpoints are caused by a greater outflow of existing members compared to recruits. And because of the nature of the grades involved it is not simply enough to boost the numbers of young recruits. Skilled personnel need to be trained for much longer than combat forces and cannot be deployed until trained.

The result of insufficient personnel in key grades leads to these personnel being deployed more often and for longer - referred to in military jargon as "Exceeding their individual Harmony Guidelines"

"Harmony Guidelines are designed to ensure harmony between competing aspects of Service personnel's lives: operations, time recuperating after operations, personal and professional development, unit formation and time with families."

The National Audit Office report into Recruitment and Retention in the Armed forces indicates that over 40% of Vehicle Mechanics, over 35% Armourers and over 30% of Recovery Mechanics and Accident & Emergeny Nurses exceeded their individual harmony guidelines.

The same report studied the reasons personnel in key pinchpoint grades gave for leaving the service:

  • 70% said it was due to "Inability to plan life outside work"
  • 60% mentioned "Impact of Service life on family life"
  • Over 40% stated "Pressure from family"
  • 37% said "Too many deployments".

This is a vicious circle. As the numbers leaving due to exceeding their "Harmony Guidelines" grow this increases the pressure on those that remain to exceed their "Harmony Guidelines" and thus increases the likelihood that they too will leave.

Exceeding the Harmony Guidelines has another impact, highlighted by the House of Commons Defence Committee Fourteenth Report:

"the Harmony Guidelines have been well constructed because the evidence suggests that if you stay within them they [Service personnel] do not suffer; if you go beyond them there is a 20-50 per cent likelihood that they will suffer in terms of PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder]."

It is the determination of the British Government and its military to fight unpopular and unwinnable wars that is responsible for the growing losses in Afghanistan.

It means that the burden of stress suffered by soldiers and their families will increase. It will mean more deaths, more serious injuries, more serious mental health problems, suicides, violence against women and family breakdowns.

The campaign for more equipment currently being waged in the media by the British military is an attempt to divert political opposition to the human cost of war into greater expenditure on war.

It is an attempt to use the widespread sympathy for the plight of the troops fighting and dying in Afghanistan to build support for a policy that requires they continue to fight and die in Afghanistan for many years to come.

The same purpose lies behind the growing number of military parades. There is widespread public anger at the poor treatment of troops and their families and the lack of recognition of the sacrifices that they are making. But the Government and the Military see the parades as a way of building support for the war. They are using recognition of sacrifice as a means to ensure those sacrifices continue to be made.

This will mean greater polarisation within society as those who make war from the safety of Whitehall try to shift the blame for the mounting losses onto those that oppose the war.

It means more direct political intervention by the military into the political and social life of Britain because there can be no continuation of the Afghan war without a massive effort by its supporters to change the current political context to one that favours increased retention and recruitment.

The task of the anti-war movement is to make sure that they fail.

Tagged under: Middle East
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