A handicapped army

Blair, the over-ambitious peacemaker

Tuesday January 4, 2000

Leaks rarely occur by accident. The one which emerged on BBC radio yesterday, revealing the dissatisfaction and, in some senses, near-despair of two senior officers with the difficulties they had to contend with in Kosovo, looks less accidental than most. But the overall message is clear and directed at politicians: you give us these dirty and difficult jobs to do, but you stint the resources needed to do them properly.

The list of complaints is formidable. Such a shortage of guns that they had to borrow from others. Radios which could not be used either because they were broken or because the Serbs listened in. A shortage of night vision equipment. Troops forced to buy camp beds and other apparent necessities because they were not supplied. Lines of command confused, fractured or over-stretched. Legal constraints and confusions making it near impossible to do the policing job the world supposed they were sent there to do. And most chilling of all, the conclusion that had the circumstances when they went in been less 'benign' - had President Milosevic not wound down, leaving no real resistance to their advance - the enterprise might have ended in failure. All that underlines the unwisdom, of which we complained at the time, of launching the bombing without any firm plans for ground action.

These complaints are addressed to Labour, since it was a Labour government which sent the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment into Kosovo with lavish assurances that they had the total full-hearted support of everyone back at home. But they also apply to Conservative ministers under whom the steady reduction of defence spending began - in the belief, which has proved to be sadly misplaced, that the end of the cold war presaged a period of general peace.

There are only two ways out of this box. You either tailor commitments to what you spend, or you tailor spending to meet your commitments. Even those in total sympathy with his aspirations were troubled by Tony Blair's declaration that the allied intervention in Kosovo was the opening move in a whole new era when the international community would ride to the aid of the stricken and oppressed. Was there any sign of preparedness for that? How long would it take to achieve the necessary integration of command? And who, above all, would pay for it? The leak brings these questions urgently, back to the boil.,3604,118663,00.html

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