20 Jan 2011

Diplomat row with Army chief ‘no slip of the tongue’

A former top diplomat’s comments that the military had a “use them or lose them” attitude to troops in Afghanistan was no “slip of the tongue”, a former Defence Secretary tells Channel 4 News.


Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, former special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said earlier this month that British commanders committed troops to Afghanistan because they feared the Army would be cut if the troops were not deployed.

In his written evidence to the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, he said: “Chief of the General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt, told me in the summer of 2007 that, if he didn’t use in Afghanistan the battle groups then starting to come free from Iraq, he would lose them in a future defence review.

“‘It’s use them, or lose them’, he said.”

“I know he has clear memories of it and his command of the English language is such that he is not often confused.” Former Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth on Sir Sherard’s comments about Afghanistan

Sir Richard Dannatt has reacted angrily to the comments, saying Sir Sherard has since apologised for the comments, which Sir Richard branded as “somewhere between outrageous and downright horrible”.

No slip of the tongue

He told the Today programme that he and Sir Sherard had different recollections of parts of the conversation that took place in 2007.

But former Secretary of State for Defence Bob Ainsworth, told Channel 4 News that Sir Sherard had a very “clear memory” of the conversation.

He said that the diplomat told him about the conversation when he was Secretary of State, in 2009.

“I wasn’t party to the conversation that Sir Sherard has put in the public domain,” he said. “But it’s not a slip of the tongue. Sherard told me about this conversation, and I’m sure told others, a long time ago, when I was Secretary of State.

“Certainly I have been aware of what he has been saying for a long time, and I am pleased that he has said publicly what he has been saying privately.”

“I think there will be, and must be, in the fullness of time an inquiry into Afghanistan.” Bob Ainsworth MP

He added: “I don’t believe a misunderstanding is responsible. Sherard’s command of the English language is superb, as anyone who reads his notes or talks to him would say…I know he has clear memories of it and his command of the English language is such that he is not often confused.”

However, he said it was not his place to say whether he knew that Sir Sherard was telling the truth, because he was not part of this conversation.

He added that his recollection was that the Army wanted additional troops to give them a “chance to succeed”.

“Richard Dannatt has said, and I have an email from him to this effect, that the Army was given a hospital pass, that they were forced to fight two wars with the resources for only one. I do not recall the Army being anything other than enthusiastic about additional troops in Afghanistan – they always wanted them and indeed I supported the call for additional troops.

“Combined with a reduced area for operations, the 500 extra troops I brought in gave a markedly different troop density which gave the lads on the frontline the chance to succeed.”


He said he would not comment on Sir Richard Dannatt’s motives for wanting more troops in Afghanistan.

“I am not a mindreader and I never had the same conversation with General Dannatt that Sherard says he did…Sherard has very strong views about what happened in Afghanistan and he has a duty to share those opinions with the British public,” he said.

“I think there will be, and must be, in the fullness of time an inquiry into Afghanistan. I think that will be every bit as controversial as the one in Iraq so in all of this we must be prepared, all of us, to learn lessons and pass on to others the insights that we’ve got.”