Sun, Sep 24, 2006 - Page 5 News List

British major blasts RAF in Afghanistan

UTTERLY USELESS A leaked e-mail painted a grim picture of British preparedness in southern Afghanistan, with a 'useless' RAF and widespread exhaustion of soldiers

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

British troops in Afghanistan are exhausted and desperately short of helicopters, and there is no sign that the casualty rate will fall, according to accounts received on Friday from officers on the frontline.

The reports, including a leaked e-mail describing the Royal Air Force (RAF) as "utterly, utterly useless," put the government under fresh pressure over whether it had adequately prepared British troops for operations in the hostile south of the country.

The insights threw into dramatic relief recent comments by military commanders, echoed by the defense secretary, Des Browne, about the dangers facing British soldiers engaged in almost daily contact with Taliban forces.

It was revealed yesterday that a major from the 3rd Parachute regiment, James Loden, had described British forces as desperately short of reinforcements and helicopters and berated the RAF for being "utterly, utterly useless."

Loden referred to an attack where the pilot of a Harrier fighter bomber fired phosphorus bombs closer to British troops on the ground than the enemy.

"A female Harrier pilot [who] couldn't identify the target fired two phosphorus rockets that just missed our own compound so that we thought they were incoming RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades], and then strafed our perimeter, missing the enemy by 200m," Major Loden said.

The major also referred to the death last month of Corporal Bryan Budd in Sangin, to the north of Helmand Province, and his colleagues' efforts to save the dying man during an intense ground battle.

He described two junior colleagues, who appeared "very frightened and slow to react." He added that his men were exhausted and at times -- such as over Corporal Budd's death -- were reduced to tears.

The leaked e-mail came less than 24 hours after another army officer had described the scale of casualties suffered by British troops in southern Afghanistan as "very significant and showing no signs of reducing."

The officer, Major Jon Swift, a company commander in the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, added that "the current strategy was following political rather than military imperatives."

He was referring to pressure from local Afghan leaders on British commanders to send troops to forward bases -- "platoon houses" -- in Sangin, Musa Qala and Naw Zad, north of Helmand Province, where the Taliban were taking control.

Most of the 17 British soldiers who have been killed by enemy fire since the deployment of 5,000 soldiers in southern Afghanistan in June were shot in that region.

A shortage of helicopters and problems with supply lines have also led to troops running short of food and fresh water.

Major Swift's report, phoned in from Helmand early last month, was subsequently published on the Fusiliers' website but removed on Thursday.

The Ministry of Defence said yesterday it was never intended for publication.

The Ministry said that between January and the end of July, 37 British troops had been wounded in action, nine of them seriously.

However, this was before British troops were involved in heavy fighting against Taliban forces and their supporters.

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