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War will be won in Whitehall

THE face of Sally Thorneloe at her husband’s funeral on Thursday will be, for me, one of the most haunting images of the Afghan war.

Lt Col Rupert Thorneloe, killed by a Taliban road bomb three weeks ago, had told me about her on a trip to Iraq last year.

It was weird, he said — although (then) based in London, he felt he saw less of her than he did when deployed abroad. She’d seen him off that day. He’d arrived home at 2.30am and left again by 7am, fighting the battle of Whitehall.

Over a revolting alcohol-free beer in Kuwait, he told me why he believed the bureaucratic job he was doing was so important.

He was military attaché to the defence secretary, Des Browne. He’d read papers, highlight the important parts.

Didn’t a soldier like him resent the paperwork, I asked him. He looked at me blankly. To him, it was an honour.

Such job rotation is crucial, he told me. Wars are lost when the guys in London don’t understand life on the frontline.

When a soldier is in London processing requests, he knows — in a way a bureaucrat never can — the value of flak jackets and kit.

And when that soldier is back on the frontline, he knows what — and how — the people in the MoD are thinking. So when Thorneloe was ploughing through papers, highlighting what Browne should read, he was fighting. In a different way.

But he’d have known the dangers of what he was returning to. Every controversial kit shortage would have crossed his desk. He’d have known how chronic helicopter shortages in Afghanistan were forcing soldiers on to landmine-strewn roads.

But still, he told me, he regarded the chance to lead his men in Helmand as the “light at the end of the tunnel.”

To a coward like me, this sounded pretty weird. I’d take the safe desk job, any day. But Thorneloe didn’t have a sense of fear, only duty. And it’s one matched by too few in Westminster. It’s as if the military operates on a different frequency they won’t tune in to.

The Treasury, I’m told, rejected the request for 2,000 more troops because the MoD didn’t make a proper cost-benefit analysis.

When I put this to a senior general I met last week, he threw two fingers in the air. “We only ask if we badly need,” he said.It’s a clash of cultures. The military and political classes don’t understand each other, and the results can be calamitous.

 

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