Wikileaks cables criticise UK military in Afghanistan

Col Stuart Tootal: "These are internal, individual views"

The latest US diplomatic documents released by Wikileaks contain harsh criticism of the UK military effort in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2009.

The cables say US officials and Afghan President Hamid Karzai believed UK forces were not up to the task of securing Helmand province on their own.

The president reportedly said he was relieved when US Marines were sent to the province.

The details have been published in the Guardian newspaper.

The number of British military deaths in operations in Afghanistan since 2001 currently stands at 345.

In one cable, a US general, Dan McNeill, was said to be "particularly dismayed by the British effort" in fighting the drugs trade in Afghanistan.

He is quoted as saying that British forces had "made a mess" of counter-narcotics operations in Helmand by employing the "wrong" tactics.

Criticism of the British military effort goes back to 2007 when Gen McNeill was in charge of Nato forces.

He criticised a deal with the Taliban which allowed British troops to be withdrawn from Musa Qala in 2006, saying it "opened the door to narco-traffickers in that area, and now it was impossible to tell the difference between the traffickers and the insurgents".

'Not ready to fight'

Start Quote

One colonel told me he thought the province would never be pacified - it was just too lawless, with too much smuggling, drugs money and general crime, in addition to the insurgency”

End Quote Paul Wood BBC News, Afghanistan

A cable dated late 2008, from the US embassy, says "we and President Karzai agree that British forces are not up to the task of securing Helmand" without US support.

In another cable, the then Afghan Foreign Minister, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, expressed disappointment at the ordering of an extra 2,000 British soldiers to Helmand, saying: "They were not ready to fight as actively as American soldiers."

At a meeting with Senator John McCain in December 2008, President Karzai said he was relieved that US Marines were being sent to reinforce the British-led mission in Helmand and "related an anecdote in which a woman from Helmand asked him to 'take the British away and give us back the Americans'."

According to the Guardian, criticism of the British operation in Helmand centres on its failure to establish security in Sangin.

Helmand governor Gulab Mangal told a US team led by vice-president Joe Biden in January 2009 that American forces were urgently needed as British security in Sangin was inadequate.

He is reported to have said British troops "must leave their bases and engage with the people".


This time the private, unvarnished reports from US diplomats have the potential to offend America's strongest ally in Afghanistan.

They reinforce a criticism made before of British forces that they have not been aggressive enough or present in sufficient numbers.

This should not come as a huge surprise. President Karzai has been critical of British military efforts in the past. British commanders have long acknowledged that, until the recent US reinforcements, they did not have sufficient forces to stabilise the major population centres within Helmand.

The blunt private comments are also contradicted by more recent public praise from US military commanders.

US Marine Maj Gen Richard Mills said the UK's efforts in Sangin had been "simply nothing short of remarkable".

And they need to be tempered by the realities on the ground. The US Marines who have now taken over Sangin have found it to be just as dangerous and deadly as the British.

Yet these words could still cause hurt and offence - not least for the families of those 345 British service personnel who have lost their lives in Afghanistan.

Former Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth told the BBC he could not understand why the leaked comments had been given such prominence.

He said: "Some of these cables... are understandably contradictory. There's an allegation that British troops didn't go out of their bases. Our losses in Sangin were almost entirely on patrols in about the most dangerous part of the world.

"This is gossip that was spilling out of an ongoing situation. It would be very surprising if people were not commenting on these different conversations that were going on, but it shouldn't be taken too seriously."

Col Stuart Tootal, former commander of 3 Para, the first battle group sent to Helmand province, said the documents were not particularly relevant.

He said: "They reflected individual views, within an alliance, which were also about a period where there were challenges due to a lack of resources.

"We've now moved on significantly, we've now got 10,000 British troops, 30,000 Nato troops, and Nato has turned the corner.

"But I think you'll also find these are views of people who aren't actually fighting in Helmand themselves, and don't necessarily realise the challenges they face."

Responding to the latest leaks, a Ministry of Defence spokesman said: "UK forces did an excellent job in Sangin, an area which has always been and continues to be uniquely challenging, delivering progress by increasing security and taking the fight to the insurgency.

"That work is now being continued by the US Marines as part of a hugely increased Isaf (Nato-led International Security Assistance Force) presence across the whole of Helmand province.

branding for Open Secrets programme

Stephen Sackur will be hosting a special programme debating the effect of the leaks - Wikileaks: Open Secret at 1630GMT on BBC World News & 1930GMT on the BBC World Service

"Both Afghan leaders, including the governor of Sangin, and the US Marines have publicly recognised and paid tribute to the sacrifice and achievements of the UK forces in that area."

A Pentagon spokesman said the contribution and sacrifice of UK troops during the war in Afghanistan were "certainly recognised and appreciated" in the US.

"Marine commanders on the ground in Afghanistan have publicly recognised that British forces did an excellent job in Sangin, an area which has been and continues to be uniquely challenging," he said.

Meanwhile, former Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon revealed he had written a paper at the time of the Helmand deployment - which took place under his successor John Reid - raising concerns about the manpower available for the operation.

Mr Hoon told the Times that his paper "basically said that we could do this, but only once we had drawn down significant numbers in Iraq".

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