Page last updated at 11:05 GMT, Wednesday, 22 July 2009 12:05 UK

Afghan resources 'are sufficient'

Lord Malloch Brown
Lord Malloch Brown is to step down at the end of the month

Foreign Office minister Lord Malloch Brown has rowed back on comments made in a Daily Telegraph interview that the UK did not have enough helicopters.

Amid an on-going political row over resources, he had said "We definitely don't have enough helicopters".

But in a "clarification" issued by the Foreign Office, said there were "without doubt sufficient resources" for current operations.

The Lib Dems said he was "right the first time" and looked "dotty".

In a statement issued by the Foreign Office on Wednesday morning, Lord Malloch Brown, who is stepping down as a minister this month, said: "It is important that I clarify the comments that are reported in today's Daily Telegraph.

"On the issue of helicopters in Afghanistan, I was making the point - as the prime minister and commanders on the ground have also done - that while there are without doubt sufficient resources in place for current operations, we should always do what we can to make more available on the frontline."

Parting comments

Eighteen UK servicemen have died this month in Afghanistan. Most of the British Army's casualties during the Helmand offensive - aimed at shoring up security ahead of elections scheduled for next month - have been caused by roadside bombs.

Martin Patience
BBC correspondent Martin Patience in Kabul

What helicopters give you is flexibility and mobility.

It means that you can take a large number of soldiers and deploy them - or extract them - from any given area.

The element of surprise can be crucial to the success of an operation.

Also, during large-scale military operations, supplies - such as water and bullets - can be brought in by helicopters rather than vehicle convoys, which are exposed to roadside bombs.

A lack of helicopters in Helmand, according to some officers, means you have to scale back what you can do.

If, say, there's more than one incident involving multiple casualties, as many helicopters as required will be scrambled to evacuate the soldiers.

But that means ongoing operations will be put on the back burner.

Some argue that the UK should simply buy more helicopters to end the shortage.

But the UK would still need to train pilots, aircrews and mechanics to work on these new aircraft - and that is not a quick process.

Critics believe troops are more vulnerable to these makeshift explosives because they are being forced to travel over ground and not by air.

In his Telegraph interview, Lord Malloch Brown had said: "When you have these modern operations and insurgent strikes what you need, above all else, is mobility."

He added: "We didn't do a good job of warning the British public that we and the Americans were going on the offensive in Helmand."

He also said the main terrorist threat "comes from Pakistan and Somalia - not Afghanistan" - Gordon Brown has said the strategy is aimed at preventing terrorism in the UK.

BBC political correspondent Carole Walker said it appeared the minister had come under some pressure to tone down his comments, ahead of the prime minister's press conference at 1200 BST.

For the Lib Dems, Nick Harvey said: "I think he was right the first time and the clarification unfortunately makes him look completely dotty.

"It's perfectly clear to everybody there are not enough helicopters there .. I don't think anybody's going to be fooled by this blatant attempt to brush it all under the carpet."

'Genuine progress'

But Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell told the BBC: "This is not a government that has starved our military of resources, £10bn extra on equipment over the past three years, I think demonstrates very clearly that, rightly we want to give our troops the best protection.

"But we are in a challenging situation, through Operation Panther's Claw, we are regaining ground from the Taliban, we are denying them a safe haven, they are fighting like mad and they are absolutely ruthless but we are making genuine progress."

The public comments of Sir Richard Dannatt and Sir Jock Stirrup ... threaten to undermine our effort in Afghanistan give succour to the enemy
Lord Foulkes
Labour former minister

Political pressure has been mounting over the suggested helicopter shortage.

Chancellor Alistair Darling has said the Treasury had never refused requests for more equipment or troops.

The chief of the defence staff, Sir Jock Stirrup, said last week that deploying more of the craft would prevent casualties.

Conservative leader David Cameron has criticised the "scandal" of helicopter shortages. The Lib Dems have accused ministers of vetoing a request for 2,000 extra troops earlier this year. Mr Darling denied this.

"The Army has said this is what we want in terms of troops and equipment and we have provided that and financed it," Mr Darling told the Tribune newspaper on Tuesday.

He spoke out after the Head of the Army, Gen Sir Richard Dannatt, revealed he had drawn up a "shopping list" for ministers of resources he says are required for the Afghan mission.

His earlier call for more "boots on the ground" in Afghanistan had been interpreted as a veiled criticism of ministers.

On Tuesday former Labour minister Lord Foulkes said military commanders' comments about resources "threaten to undermine our effort in Afghanistan and give succour to the enemy".

He suggested to peers that General Dannatt and Sir Jock should be reminded of the "importance of loyalty particularly when we are engaged in a very difficult war where victory is essential for the future safety of this country".

Gen Dannatt has said some of his comments about extra resources needed in Afghanistan had been misrepresented and he was involved in "an ongoing dialogue" with No 10 over the issue.

Gordon Brown has said troop levels in Afghanistan will be reviewed after the elections while stressing there are enough troops there to do the job.

He has said the armed forces are better equipped than ever.

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