I am no expert in military logistics, but I was struck by the extraordinary recent deterioration in the performance of the surface route to the Afghan theatre.
Right now, British troops are acutely dependent on our ability to send supplies by sea to Karachi, where they are unloaded and then taken by road through Pakistan. Ahead of this week’s Public Accounts Committee, the National Audit Office provided me with a briefing based on its detailed report into the Ministry of Defence’s logistics supply chain. This noted that only 15 per cent of consignments shipped by land through Pakistan between 10 December 2009 and 8 December 2010 arrived within the targeted time of 77-87 days, a fair way off the 75 per cent target.
There is a clear, unremitting pattern to David Cameron’s announcements on Afghanistan: they all point to the exit. Today he repeated that troops could begin returning in 2011 — contradicting a warning from the new head of the armed forces last month. As one senior military figure told me recently, Cameron “is not making our job easier”.
General Sir David Richards, the chief of defence staff, is travelling with the prime minister in Helmand and certainly gave a much warmer response to the idea of an “accelerated withdrawal” when asked this time round. But there will still be a lively discussion over the pace of the draw down and what, if anything, would slow it down.
The Whitehall battlelines over Afghanistan are coming into focus. General Sir David Richards this morning made absolutely clear he is a commander who is unwilling to be hurried out of Helmand, whatever the prime minister might think.
In his first major interview as chief of defence staff, he rules reducing troop numbers next year and says Britain will stay “as long as it takes”. His words to The Sun leave some room for manoeuvre. (Downing Street are insisting he is “of the same mind” as the prime minister.) But they certainly do not chime with David Cameron’s recent pronouncements. The differences in nuance are obvious.
They give a flavour of a behind-the-scenes debate that will grow in importance. Indeed differences camps almost mirror those in Washington, with Obama and Cameron pitted against the Two Davids (Petraeus and Richards) over the pace and timing of withdrawal.
There is one line in the Richards interview that underlines these emerging alliances. “As long as we continue to put faith in Dave Petraeus and hold our nerve, then I think we can do it,” he says. “It’s definitely winnable.”
This military faith in the mission contrasts markedly with the advice David Cameron is receiving from his spies. John Sawers, the head of MI6, is warning that Britain is overly focussed on a small part of Afghanistan while the threats to Britain are growing elsewhere.
It is worth comparing Richards’ words with those of Cameron.
Sir John Sawers, the head of the Secret Intelligence Service, has never been one for the shadows.
While he served as political director at the Foreign Office, his influence was unmistakable on almost all areas of policy — indeed he even earned the nickname “Jonny Blue Eyes” for his dashing diplomacy.
These figures are from a YouGov poll for the Sun this week. The findings – which reinforce the view that Afghanistan is the new Vietnam – didn’t appear in that newspaper as far as I can work out.
According to the survey of the British public, only 7 per cent believe that British troops are winning the war with the Taleban in Afghanistan. Another 24 per cent think they are not winning but it is possible.
The competition is fierce. But this must be a contender for the worst question ever asked — or should I say not asked — at a select committee hearing.
Just take a look at James Arbuthnot’s forensic examination of Liam Fox’s position on the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan:
Matthew Green, our man in Kabul, has just filed this update on the fears that the Taliban were plotting to attack David Cameron’s plane. Downing Street are playing down the incident as part of the “dynamic” operational environment in Afghanistan.
By Matthew Green in Camp Bastion
Formally, the shots have yet to be fired in the battle for Whitehall spending cuts, but the Treasury has already set the terms of its looming battle with the Ministry of Defence. A little-noticed but ominous sentence in the new coalition programme has put the armed forces on notice that the axe is about to cut even more deeply than they imagined into the defence budget.
Whitehall insiders are predicting a programme of retrenchment as significant as that marked by the withdrawal “East of Suez” announced by Harold Wilson’s government in 1968. Then, as now, the trigger was a crisis of international confidence in the nation’s finances.