Nick Clegg right on Afghanistan, says defence group

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, was last night praised for breaking the cross-party consensus on the conflict in Afghanistan despite the commander of British troops in the region claiming the war is being won

In an article in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph, Mr Clegg said he was now questioning the role British troops are playing in the region. Seven British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan in the last week.

He warned that poor equipment was to blame for some of the deaths. And he said that young lives were being “thrown away” by politicians.

Yesterday, Winston S Churchill, the president of the United Kingdom National Defence Association – grandson of the British prime minister during the Second World War – and welcomed the Liberal Democrat’s intervention.

He said: “Nick Clegg is the first party leader to draw a direct connection between the scale of losses in Afghanistan and the lack of resources given to our Armed Forces. To be successful the campaign in Helmand requires a much greater commitment by Britain and, as the Liberal Democrat leader says, a new and more robust approach.

“I very much hope that other party leaders, on both sides of the House of Commons, will join Nick Clegg in acknowledging the indisputable fact that our Armed Forces are chronically under-funded and over-stretched due to the longstanding squeeze on the defence budget.

“They must give a firm pledge not only to exempt the Armed Forces, while at war, from any general budgetary cuts, but also, at the earliest opportunity, increase the resources available to all three Services.”

The British death toll has forced some to again question the reasons why the war is being fought in Afghanistan.

A total of 176 British servicemen and women have died in Afghanistan since the start of operations in 2001. There are about 8,300 British troops based in the country.

Yesterday, the Ministry of Defence named the latest British soldier to be killed in southern Afghanistan as Trooper Christopher Whiteside, 20, of the Light Dragoons. He died in a blast caused by an improvised explosive device near Gereshk in Helmand Province on Tuesday.

Trooper Whiteside was a talented swordsman who had hoped to begin training for a possible place in the GB fencing team for the 2012 Olympics in London on his return from Afghanistan.

His friends in the Light Dragoons fondly remembered him demonstrating his fencing skills with a broomstick at a squadron barbecue.

Trooper Whiteside was taking part in Operation Panchai Palang, or Panther’s Claw, a major assault against the Taliban in the central Helmand river valley ahead of next month’s Afghan presidential election.

In his article, Mr Clegg stopped short of calling for British troops to be pulled out of the operation in Helmand Province, but he warned that military planners and Gordon Brown had to think again “before it’s too late.”

Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth has acknowledged there is “gloom and worry” about the fatalities and also admitted “more lives will be lost”. But he said the Government remained committed to the operation and would ensure troops did have the best equipment.

Yesterday, Brigadier Tim Radford, the Commander of Task Force Helmand, said the troops on the ground were winning the battle with the Taliban.

He said: “Yesterday I was on the ground in the Green Zone with my own soldiers and their brothers from the Afghan National Army. As ever I was humbled by the experience: they are fighting hard out there, with quite extraordinary skill and courage.

“Their morale and dedication are high, and that is because, hour by hour and day by day, they can feel they are winning.”