British troops overstretched

WELCOME to elements of 16 Air Assault Brigade,just returned from Afghanistan. They have experienced some tough fighting rolling back the Taliban in Helmand Province, an area the size of England.

WELCOME to elements of 16 Air Assault Brigade,just returned from Afghanistan. They have experienced some tough fighting rolling back the Taliban in Helmand Province, an area the size of England. But they knew that this was a battle that had to be won for good reasons.

Firstly, Afghanistan was where the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were conceived. We cannot allow safe havens for terrorists to develop again. Secondly, the Afghanistan operation is under NATO command. NATO is the only security organisation that binds the United States and Canada together with European allies for the protection of the democracies. We cannot allow NATO to fail. Thirdly, our security at home is now inextricably linked with our actions abroad. In today's world the old distinctions between foreign, defence and domestic policy are no longer valid. What we do in Afghanistan impacts on our domestic security and vice versa.

Afghanistan is NATO's first and largest ground operation outside Europe and now involves 18,500 troops, from 37 nations, including 8,000 from the UK. Our armed forces have been doing a fantastic job but they face problems not of their making.

We have the largest proportion of our armed forces engaged on sustained operations since the Falklands. At the same time, we are spending the smallest proportion of our GDP on defence (2.3%) than at any time since the 1930s.

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The National Audit Office now confirms what many of us have known for a long time - that the armed forces are short of 5,000 personnel; that service personnel are working harder and spending more time away from their families than ever before in 'peacetime'; when they are not on operations they are returning from operations or preparing for the next. And their preparations are marred by the fact that vital equipment is being taken from units in training to ensure that the units on operations have what they need. The seedcorn is being eaten. 10,000 are quitting each year. This is overstretch.

And our efforts are not helped by our allies, especially the fact that most European countries are spending half what we do on defence. Only 3 EU members meet the unofficial NATO "floor" of 2% of GDP on defence. NATO recently called for reinforcement of its military effort in Afghanistan and only Poland responded positively. Part of the problem is that the EU now offers an alternative to NATO which distracts from full commitment to the Alliance. That is one of many important reasons why I have consistently led the opposition to EU meddling in defence.

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The EU now has its badge on military operations in Bosnia and the Congo. It muscled in on Darfur when NATO was already committed. It tried to put its mark on the Lebanon operation. There is only one set of military forces in each nation for the full range of military tasks. If troops are made available for an EU operation then clearly they are not available for NATO or other missions.

At this time we need greater solidarity among the democracies - not competing institutions - and greater public awareness of the way in which our armed forces are being short-changed. We should be enormously proud and grateful for their robust professionalism in very difficult circumstances. We are going to need them even more in the years ahead so let's look after them.

Geoffrey Van Orden is Conservative Defence Spokesman, a former soldier and the Conservative MEP focusing on Essex and Suffolk. He can be contacted at: 88 Rectory Lane, Chelmsford, CM1 1RF or email:

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