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UK forces over-stretched and under pressure in Iraq and Afghanistan

The report sets out the challenges faced by British troops.

File photo dated 29/05/03 of former Prime Minister Tony Blair meeting troops in the port of Umm Qasr, Iraq.
File photo dated 29/05/03 of former Prime Minister Tony Blair meeting troops in the port of Umm Qasr, Iraq.
Image: PA Wire/Press Association Images

SOLDIERS IN THE British Army are told that “much is expected” of them, but the Chilcot Report outlines some of the serious pressures put on personnel during the Iraq war.

Family members of personnel killed in the Iraq war described the report as a “damning indictment” of the then-Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Today, a spokesman for families of killed British service personnel said they were saddened to learn that their loved ones died unnecessarily and without just cause, the BBC reports.

This afternoon, outgoing British Prime Minister David Cameron said:

Taking the country to war should only be a last resort… If we are to take the difficult decisions to intervene in other countries, proper planning is vital.

The report into the welfare of service personnel who fought in Iraq looked at the ‘harmony guidelines’ which set out the conditions for getting work/life balance right.

On 17 January 2003, Tony Blair agreed the deployment of a large-scale UK ground force to Iraq. The Chilcot Report found that:

There is no indication that the potential pressure on service personnel, including with respect to the Harmony Guidelines, was a consideration in that decision.

In 2003, the service personnel board discussed the effect of the operations on personnel welfare, and found that the “shift to expeditionary operations was having a significant impact on people”.

Chilcot Iraq inquiry File photo dated 29/05/03 of former Prime Minister Tony Blair with school children in Basra, Iraq Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

The inquiry was told by Adam Ingram, Minister of State for the Armed Forces, that the government knew the Iraq invasion would put additional strain on the guidelines.

The UK military had been involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, engaged in Northern Ireland, had people in Cyprus, Sierra Leone and sub-Saharan Africa, as well as the Falkands, he pointed out.

However, what was the solution? That [Iraq] was then something we then had to attend to.

The inquiry found that the issue of the potential pressure on service personnel was not a consideration in the decision to invade Iraq.

It found that when it came to the contacts between the Ministry of Defence and bereaved families, most were conducted with sensitivity, but: “In a few cases, they were not.”

The MOD progressively improved how it engaged with and supported bereaved families, in part driven by consistent public and Ministerial pressure.

It said that the government should have acted sooner to address the backlog of inquests into the deaths of personnel.

Chilcot Iraq inquiry File photo dated 26/09/03 of British troops from the 2nd Battalion Light Infantry during an evening patrol targeting oil smugglers at a gas and oil separation plant in Rauallah, Southern Iraq. Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

In addition, the government’s decision in 2006 to send forces to the Helmand province in Afghanistan further increased the pressure “on service personnel, on elements of the MOD’s welfare, [and] medical and investigative systems”.

The Chilcot Report found that much of the MOD’s and the government’s effort from 2006 was focused on addressing those pressures.

But it said:

The MOD should have planned and prepared to address those pressures, rather than react to them.

“Irritants”

Service personnel were given an operational welfare package, which included TV, books, films, the internet and a weekly phone allowance.

There were some changes made to allowances given to certain staff members in April 2003. A free packet service was introduced to “recognise the difficult conditions service personnel were operating in and that it was not possible to provide the full spectrum of welfare support normally available…”.

In 2003, a visit by Ingram found that he was impressed by the morale of the troops, but that there were some small-scale and easily rectified “irritants”.

These included insufficient portaloos, insufficient fresh rations, inadequate TVs, the withdrawal of the second free welfare families warrant, inadequate access to the internet, and the desire for a second medal for phase IV operations.

Service personnel were described as living in “basic tented accommodation, existing Iraqi buildings, or fighting vehicles”.

Mideast Iraq British Troops In this May 20, 2006 file photo, a youth runs away with a piece of metal armour from a burning British military vehicle after a roadside bomb attack in Basra, Iraq Source: AP/Press Association Images

The rest and relaxation (R&R) allowance in Iraq was two weeks, including travel time.

But by 2005, the air support was “so fragile that sustaining and efficient R&R schedule is nigh on impossible”, which was affecting morale.

Initiatives such as a shortened tour length without R&R were examined.

The Defence Committee visited Iraq, and concluded that it was unacceptable that servicemen and women “many of whom are serving greatly in excess of Harmony Guidelines” should have their leave disrupted by the MOD’s inability to provide a reliable air bridge.

The inquiry was also told that the air bridge issues were “disastrous for the reputation of the Royal Air Force”.

Reservists

Iraq coalition of one In this 22 October 2006 file photograph, British troops man a checkpoint in Basra, Iraq, 550 kilometers (340 miles) southeast of Baghdad, Iraq Source: AP/Press Association Images

A call-out was made for reservists for the operation in Iraq in January 2003 – by 19 March, over 5,000 had been mobilised.

In early June, the DOC produced a note on lessons identified on personnel issues during the operation, including that many reservists had found themselves “financially disadvantaged” because of mobilisation and deployment, or had not been paid properly.

There were “big changes” put in place between the first phase of the Iraq operation and the second. During the first phase of the operation, reservists only received four days’ notice – this was changed to 14 to 21 days.

Some families of reservists said they had found it difficult to find the information and answers they wanted, the report says.

The NAO published a report on the MOD’s use of the Reserve Forces in March 2006. It found 41% of reservists intending to leave within one year agreed that inadequate support, relating to welfare and administration, played a part in their decision to leave.

Additional troops

32 Regiment Royal Artillery return to UK Lance Bombardier Jason Lowe, 31 from Swansea, of 32 Regiment Royal Artillery, gets a hug from his fiance Michelle Kirk, 25, from Surrey upon his return to base at Roberts Barracks, Larkhill, Wiltshire, following their six-month deployments in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

In mid-April 2004, the US made an informal request to the UK to send additional troops to Iraq.

The Chiefs of Staff considered the US request on 19 May.

Although they recognised there were risks and benefits to all the possible options, they agreed that the “best military option” was the deployment of HQ Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (HQ ARRC) and a brigade to replace US forces in the provinces of Najaf and Qadisiyah (option six).

Major General Fobert Fry, deputy chief of joint operations, cautioned against the long-term effects on the armed forces of an additional deployment.

Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon’s private secretary wrote to Blair’s private secretary for foreign affairs, setting out the Chiefs of Staffs’ advice on this. The letter concluded: “For some, this may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and leads to experienced personnel leaving the Service.”

On 15 June, Blair, Hoon, Jack Straw (the Foreign Secretary), Hilary Benn (the International Development Secretary),  Paul Boateng (Chief Secretary to the Treasury), Gen Walker and others met to discuss Iraq.

The meeting concluded that the UK: “… should not close the door to the possibility of sending further UK troops. We should keep the option open until around the time of the NATO Summit [28-29 June]. But there was no pressing military reason to send them, nor were we coming under much pressure from the US to do so.”

In February 2005, the UK intended to switch its existing military effort in Afghanistan to the Helmand province.

The MOD paper which informed the decision advised that this option, which comprised “around 2,500 personnel in total”, would: “Place greatest pressure on internal MOD resourcing”.

The MOD paper cautioned that: “… any substantial prolongation of the UK military commitment in Iraq at current force levels would have significant impact on individual personnel, the logistic feasibility of any commitment in Afghanistan, and overall resourcing.”

The deployment of additional forces to Afghanistan in 2006 would demand a surge in air transport requirement.

The DOC said that the operation in Afghanistan “brings with it more pain rather than respite”.

In autumn 2006, there were concerns that the army was “running hot”, and that deployments were well above planned levels.

General Sir Richard Dannatt, Commander-in-Chief Land Command, wrote to Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, on 31 August to say “the demands of the organisation are currently greater than our ability to provide satisfactorily for the needs of the individuals”.

In a report in June 2007, the PAC found: “The increasing frequency of deployments on overseas operations and time away from home are factors causing people to leave the Armed Forces.”

And:

There are indicators of overstretch in specific areas, such as the severe shortfalls in personnel in some specialist trades, such as nurses, linguists and leading hands, and the routine breaking of harmony guidelines.

Northern Ireland

British prepare to leave Basra British troops leave Basra Palace in Iraq at the end of the last day of combat operations after the hand over of military control in Basra to the United State Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

The report also found that a Snatch Land Rover, which was designed for operations in Northern Ireland, was suggested for use in Iraq. It was eventually used even though “protection levels afforded by Snatch may not meet the requirement to counter the local threat”.

This was due to the pressure on resources. General Sir Mike Jackson, Chief of the General Staff (CGS) from February 2003 to August 2006, told the Inquiry:

Snatch Land Rovers were deployed to Iraq because they were available or could be made available as we drew down from Northern Ireland, and without them it would have been completely soft‑skinned Land Rovers. That’s where the state of the equipment inventory was at that point.

Fair treatment

British troops fly home British troops arrive at Basra Airport in Iraq to fly home, to the UK, the day after the hand over of combat operations. Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

What happened in Iraq and Afghanistan led to a reflection on how British troops were treated. The British government published a written Armed Forces Covenant in May 2011.

The covenant stated that members of the Armed Forces should expect respect, support and fair treatment in return for the sacrifices they made on behalf of the nation.

These two core principles were set out and enshrined in law in the Armed Forces Act 2011:

  • No current or former member of the Armed Forces, or their families, should be at a disadvantage compared with other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services.
  • Special consideration was appropriate in some cases, particularly for those who had been injured or bereaved.

Read: Tony Blair led the UK into Iraq war before all peaceful options were exhausted>

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