How soon is soon?
It was a long long night for many at the Ministry of Defence, in Downing Street and with Team Blair in Scotland. A series of conference calls were held until the early hours of this morning to work out how to react to what General Sir Richard Dannatt has said. A junior staffer in Washington DC had to be repeatedly re-assured that the White House's involvement was not needed. Yes, the Brits did know just how serious this was!
The Head of the British Army has done his best to repair the damage this morning - insisting that there's no divide between him and his political masters. What he has not done, though, is withdraw or deny making any of the comments he made in his interview in the Daily Mail. He told the Mail that we have to "get ourselves out [of Iraq] sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems". This morning on Radio 4 he went further saying "the fact that we are there leads people to attack us" (hear it here) . There was one qualification - namely that in some areas British soldiers were making things better.
In the Mail he said: "I don't say that the difficulties we are experiencing round the world are caused by our presence in Iraq but undoubtedly our presence in Iraq exacerbates them." This directly contradicts what ministers have been saying. This morning he did not withdraw, amend or qualify this statement.
The question is what was he up to? "It was never my intention to have this hoo-ha," he told Radio 4's Jim Naughtie and I'm told that he was genuinely perplexed that what he regarded as a feature for the inside pages of the Mail has become headline news around the world. He's clearly a better soldier than a newsman because there were about four front page splashes in what he said!
"I'm not a maverick. I'm a soldier speaking up for his army," he insisted. My guess, and it can only be a guess, is that he is anxious that the Army is under political pressure to stay in Iraq for longer than is necessary - in part to avoid embarrassing the Americans who are operating to a different timetable. Why else did he say this morning "We need to keep thinking about time, because time is against us, because time is money [and because] time is, particularly, soldiers' lives"?
Furthermore, we know that he is worried about overstretch since in a previously outspoken interview he warned: "We are running hot, certainly running hot."
This morning he went further still with an apparent warning that the Army might not exist in five or 10 years time.
When Tony Blair speaks this morning he will, no doubt, focus on the comment about withdrawing from Iraq "sometime soon" and will insist that that's what he hopes for to. What, I suspect, he will not address is the warnings about the state of the Army or that our presence in Iraq is making life worse both there and around the world. Let's see - not long to wait.