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FactCheck: a shot in Afghanistan?

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 14 July 2009

Former Defence Secretary John Reid claims never to have said that British troops would leave Afghanistan without firing a single shot. We check the records.

Dr John Reid

The claim

"I never at any stage expressed the hope, expectation, promise or pledge that we would leave Afghanistan without firing a shot."
John Reid MP, former defence secretary, House of Commons, 13 July 2009.

The background

The British death toll in Afghanistan is mounting, with the bodies of eight soldiers killed in the army's bloodiest 24 hours in the country arriving home today.

It's in stark contrast with the picture painted by then-defence secretary John Reid three years ago, when he suggested he hoped British troops would be able to leave the country without firing a shot. Or did he?

Yesterday in parliament, Conservative MP Michael Ancram asked of Afghanistan: "On what basis was it said on behalf of the Government before we deployed that it was hoped that not a shot would be fired?"

New defence secretary Bob Ainsworth denied this had ever been said.

Reid then stood up to clarify his comments when defence secretary, saying he had never "expressed the hope, expectation, promise or pledge" Britain would leave Afghanistan without firing a shot.

"I did, however, insist that we would not be aggressors," he continued. "We did not seek war. We did not go there as part of an invasion. For our part, we would be happy to go and work with the Afghan Government and leave without firing a shot."

Reid attacked the Conservatives for misrepresenting his words - so what exactly did he say, and when?

The analysis

In April 2006, Reid visited Afghanistan, where Britain had more than 3,000 troops and was set to take charge of a Nato-led peacekeeping force.

A press conference in Kabul on 23 April was reported with headlines including: "British defence secretary says offensive must continue against Taliban, al-Qaida" (Associated Press), "Afghan security makes the world safer: Britain" (Reuters) "British troops to remain in Afghanistan for 3 more years" (Japan Economic Newswire), "Britain's defence secretary warns of danger of Taliban return to power" (The Canadian Press).

As the headlines suggest, Reid talked of how Britain would continue to remain in the Nato offensive, and emphasised the importance of preventing the Taliban returning to power.

Reuters news agency reported that "Reid also stressed the distinction between the Nato-led peacekeeping force and the US-led force hunting militants."

It then quoted Reid as saying: "We're in the south to help and protect the Afghan people to reconstruct their economy and democracy. We would be perfectly happy to leave in three years time without firing one shot."

So as Reid said yesterday, he had said the troops were there to work with the Afghan government, and would be happy not to draw their weapons. It seems to be a desire rather than an intention, or an aspiration.

A fairly extensive archive search of Reid's comments on Afghanistan threw up several pieces since 2006 that attributed some variation of "hoping to leave without firing a shot" to Reid. But theses appeared to be parahrases of Reid's comments in Kabul rather than fresh quotes.

The verdict

There is no public record of John Reid saying as defence secretary that he "hoped" British troops would be able to leave Afghanistan without firing a single shot.

What Reid actually said - as he described in parliament yesterday - was that troops were there to help the Afghan reconstruction effort, and "would be perfectly happy" to leave without firing a shot.

But regardless of this nuance, more than three years on and in the face of increasing troop fatalities, this is the kind of phrase that seems bound to come back to haunt the government.

FactCheck rating: 1.5

How ratings work

Every time a FactCheck article is published we'll give it a rating from zero to five.

The lower end of the scale indicates that the claim in question largerly checks out, while the upper end of the scale suggests misrepresentation, exaggeration, a massaging of statistics and/or language.

In the unlikely event that we award a 5 out of 5, our factcheckers have concluded that the claim under examination has absolutely no basis in fact.

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