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No.10 urged to review Cameron Afghan security

By Kris Jepson

Updated on 27 August 2010

As senior military chiefs call on Downing Street to review security for trips to Afghanistan after the Taliban attempted to bring down David Cameron's helicopter, former Commander of the British Forces in Afghanistan Colonel Richard Kemp tells Channel 4 News the key is to be "unpredictable".

David Cameron in Afghanistan June 2010 (Getty)

It is believed an RAF Chinook which was transporting the prime minister during a visit to Afghanistan earlier this year was forced into a last minute diversion amid fears that insurgents were planning to attack it.

According to The Times newspaper, sources say the attempted attack on 10 June was "much closer than anyone said at the time".

This prompted calls for a shake-up in the way Number 10 handles security during such visits.

A Downing Street spokesman said: "We never comment on security matters."

Former Commander of the British forces in Afghanistan Colonel Richard Kemp told Channel 4 News that this incident indicates security does need tightening in some areas.

He said: "Security is already tight and this incident indicates there are areas of security that can be brushed up on, like the sequencing of meetings so that he's not appearing on TV before he visits troops. We can't be complacent, but at the same time David Cameron can't be seen to be hiding behind security, so you have to strike a balance.

"There's no steel wall between him and the rest of the world. He as an individual is no more precious than anybody else, but it is vital he is kept safe in Afghanistan, because if they got him or even had a near miss, it would be a potentially big propaganda coup for the Taliban."

'Such trips are under constant review before, and during, the visit'
Serving under former Foreign Secretaries Jack Straw and Margaret Beckett, Professorial Fellow in British Security Policy at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI), Malcolm Chalmers attended trips to both Afghanistan and Iraq.

He told Channel 4 News: "we should be very cautious about second-guessing security assessments without having the full facts."

"Visits by senior politicians do require the commitment of scarce resources to transport and security assets, as well as much staff time. But they play a key role in demonstrating political commitment to the operation.

"Imagine the reaction if the prime minister had still not visited Afghanistan, yet he was now taking decisions that directly affected those risking their lives there on a daily basis. Being out there, however briefly, helps the PM to get a more vivid mental picture of what the challenges are, and of his own responsibilities in addressing them.
"Trips to Afghanistan, and to Iraq in the past, have always involved difficult judgements on the level of risk that is acceptable. The enormous propaganda coup which a successful attack against a political leader would bring to the insurgents does, and should, make security personnel more risk-averse than with other visitors.

"I don't see a fundamental difference between now and the situation in the previous government. My own experience (having visited both countries with Foreign Secretaries) is that the schedules for such trips are under constant review before, and during, the visit in order to keep security risks at an acceptable level."

Colonel Kemp told Channel 4 News that the Taliban's intelligence is very effective so the key is to be unpredictable when moving the prime minister around Afghanistan.

He said: "The Taliban are very assiduous at monitoring and scanning the world media. They look at the papers, TV, internet, everything. They also have a network of informants working in different parts of the country, even within the Afghan security forces, the government and other parts of society that work with our military.

"Even in military bases there are local people working there and no doubt they pass information onto the Taliban. Even interpreters, which ISAF forces have to rely on day-in day-out, even they will pass information onto the Taliban - not because they want to, but because their families come under huge pressure to on that information.

"But, no security is 100 per cent and there's always a way to get round it. So for the security forces looking after the prime minister on such visits, the key is to keep one step ahead of the Taliban and be unpredictable in your movements. Security should be as invisible as possible to provide the best sort of cover, but at the same time Mr Cameron needs to be visible himself to send the message that he is there supporting the country.

"The British troops are under a high level of threat all the time. The Taliban attacks whenever they can. So clearly there would be extra effort when protecting the prime minister. There is the argument that when the prime minister is around the threat level increases, but security is also increased and frankly if there are additional risks, they are worth taking.

"He must make those visits to the troops on the front line, to speak to them face-to-face, hear their stories in person on the ground up close rather than second-hand."

'Whitehall a far bigger risk than Helmand'
Something's definitely afoot here, writes Channel 4 News Chief Correspondent Alex Thomson, but is it really the insurgents nearly killing David Cameron or Whitehall departments at loggerheads (situation normal).
First - the case for the assassination. At the time the Cameron Chinook took off and diverted from the FOB (Forward Operating Base) to which the PM had been told he was heading, and landed instead at the much safer location of Lashkar Gah, the regional capital. The PM was told there had been "some chatter" and they could not land at the FOB. The chatter, apparently, was insurgents identifying correctly that Mr Cameron was in the second of the two Chinooks flying that route that day.
Independently of all that, insurgent sources at the time told Channel 4 News they knew in advance of Mr Cameron's movements and had put a team in place to fire on his helicopter. Well, possibly.
Unusually in this case, David Cameron had called a press conference in Kabul with Hamid Karzai prior to going south. To any Afghan it would at once be obvious that he would then go to Helmand. In fact to any human, let alone the Afghans.
However, there are a lot of politics around here. David Cameron looks to eschew security. He went jogging around a base and his aides made damn sure the cameras were there. He called that press conference which announced his onward route to anybody vaguely awake. Then Downing Street aides and MoD officials pretty much fell out over the spinning of the sudden route alteration.
And now this news of the MoD being clearly displeased with Downing Street has come to light. The MoD are furious with Number 10 and have leaked a little of that anger to The Times. In fact the latest twist adds little enough to what we already knew in Afghanistan - but rather more in terms of Whitehall's tribal spats between major departments.
So it is that the MoD will want all further trips conducted under the blackout terms that accompanied Defence Secretary Liam Fox on a recent trip. But Defence Secretaries are not PMs - the latter want big publicity and want it large. Few more so than DC, already in trouble with officials for wanting to walk around the Whitehall he so recently cycled around.
And that, in truth, is a far bigger security risk than in Helmand where the insurgents would need serious equipment, remarkable intelligence and a lot of luck to get a shot anywhere near the right helicopter at the right time. A pistol could do the job in London - a point security aides have no doubt made repeatedly to Mr Cameron and those close to him.

News black-outs in future
David Cameron appeared in a television news conference with the Afghan president Hamid Karzai before his proposed trip to Shahzad.

This has prompted calls for Number 10 to issue a news black-out during future visits, which are then lifted only when the prime minister has left the war zone. This form of security was the way former prime minister Gordon Brown used to conduct his visits to Afghanistan and Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox recently worked under these guidelines too on his trip to the country.

It is believed the attempted attack took place during Mr Cameron's first visit to Afghanistan as prime minister.

He had been due to fly in to the patrol base at Shahzad in Helmand province, the frontline of military operations in the country, to meet troops from 1st Battalion Duke of Lancaster's Regiment.

However, his Chinook helicopter was forced to change direction at the last minute to the main operating base in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah.

This decision was taken following intelligence reports suggesting that insurgents might be planning to target the helicopter and bring it down.

Further information then indicated a possible attack on a VIP.

This prompted the commander of Task Force Helmand, Brigadier Richard Felton, who was due to meet Mr Cameron at the base, to decide that it was too dangerous to have the prime minister visit and he therefore called off the meeting.

At the time the prime minister appeared unruffled by the incident, with aides saying he was "disappointed" that he was unable to meet soldiers at Shahzad.

Channel 4 News Chief Correspondent Alex Thomson reported on the incident on 11 June during Mr Cameron's visit.

He said: "Taliban sources told this programme they'd sent, what they call a 'commando unit', specifically to try and shoot down his helicopter. The reason why a visit to a forward base was suddenly canned yesterday."

A source in Afghanistan told Channel 4 News on the day of the planned attack: "Afghan Taliban claimed they have made all arrangements in Helmand province of Afghanistan to kill British Prime Minister David Cameron and even deployed a separate 'commando squad' of Taliban for this 'important task'.

"A senior Afghan Taliban commander based in Helmand and their spokesman called us to make this claim. They said they knew when the British PM arrived Kabul and had planned to come and meet his troops in Helmand.

"The Taliban commander, wishing not to be named, claimed, 'The task to hit a chopper that was supposed to carry the British prime minister was given to our commando squad, specially trained for such kind of missions. Even missiles were installed in various places from where we could hit his chopper."

"But, he said, they couldn't succeed in their 'mission' as the British PM postponed his Helmand trip and secretly left Afghanistan.

"Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid also made similar remarks and said they have made all possible arrangements to shot down plane of the British prime minister, but he was 'lucky' as he didn't come there.

"He said the British PM realised the ground situation and therefore decided not to send additional troops to Afghanistan."
Read More & watch Alex Thomson's report

But senior military figures believe the planned attack was more advanced than previously admitted, according to The Times.

The newspaper reports that the military chiefs believe the Taliban knew which helicopter was carrying Mr Cameron.

A Downing Street spokesman said: We never comment on security matters."

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