Douglas Hurd

Overstretched and over there

Douglas Hurd on James Fergusson’s new book

Douglas Hurd on James Fergusson’s new book

Des Browne, our Defence Secretary, has recently returned from another visit to the British Army in Afghanistan. Once again he issued an optimistic statement on military progress. He should read the devastating account in James Fergusson’s book of his previous visits. The purpose of this excellently written book is to illustrate the gap between the public perception of the war in Afghanistan and the reality of what our servicemen have been enduring on the ground.

We were surprised when the Chief of the General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt, warned us ‘we can’t be here for ever at this level . . . I have got an army to look after which is going to be successful in current operations but I want an army in five years time and ten years time. Don’t let’s break it on this one.’ Sir Richard’s remarks form the text on which James Fergusson builds his story.

The core is a vivid account of the battles fought by British servicemen defending from sangars or platoon houses the small towns of North Helmand province against massive Taliban attack in the years 2006 and 2007. These platoon houses were defended in turn by Gurkhas, Paras, Fusiliers, Royal Marines and Royal Irish Rangers, supplied and protected by Chinook and Apache helicopters. To their credit the Ministry of Defence gave Fergusson permission to interview many dozens of the servicemen who fought this campaign. Their matter-of-fact stories of death and disablement, of heroism against great odds tell us more about Britain in Afghanistan than any expert analyses or political speeches. Rorke’s Drift has been repeated over and again in Afghanistan — we have hardly noticed.

Fergusson argues that this heroism has been largely wasted. Not in military terms, for the British troops held their own and were never overrun.

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