Interview: Richard Dannatt

Lord Dannatt has a rather nice house. It’s called the Queen’s House, and it’s in the middle of the Tower of London. Dannatt is the Constable of the Tower, which means he looks after it for the Queen. Who in return gives him her house to live in.

I wait outside the door in trepidation. The Queen might not be in her house at the moment, but she still has a red-jacketed bearskin-hatted rather nifty guardsman walking up and down outside the entrance. Occasionally he walks past me, scaring me. Dannatt, anyway, opens the door himself, and after getting off the phone with a chap called Tim from the Telegraph he ushers me into his monumentally lovely sitting room. Here on comfy sofas we discuss the deaths of thousands.

Dannatt is decidedly keen on the Afghan war. The focus of the army, he says, must be directed at winning that campaign. ‘The focus of the army as a whole is Afghanistan. Yes routine training continues but the whole field army is on a cycle, whereby at some point over two years people will spend time in Afghanistan. So the whole focus of the army is on succeeding in Afghanistan. It is that big a commitment that there really isn’t much scope for major operations elsewhere.’

‘Now, the government of the day will have a problem when the operation in Afghanistan is over, because the army will have equipment by and large that’s optimised for that theatre of operations. If we need to fight in a different environment we may find we’re in the same position we had before of not having adequate equipment.’ Something that might not occur to you or I, but is a major problem for army high commanders. It’s rather like the Roman army buying lots of sandals to conquer Parthia, and then trying to use the same equipment to conquer the Scots.

The General is, in fact, rather uneasy about the prospects of us fighting a major conventional war. ‘We would struggle to do so, because we have under-invested in our conventional warfare. We ought to be upgrading our Challenger II main battle tanks, we ought to be upgrading our Warrior infantry fighting vehicles. We ought to have replaced our armoured reconnaissance vehicles. Now none of those things have we done yet, and they are the bedrock of our conventional armoured manoeuvrable fighting capability. So the government has chosen to make sure the army is properly equipped in Afghanistan, at the expense of our more rounded capability which would enable us to fight a conventional war.’

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Well, yes. But as he hastily adds, that isn’t very likely to happen: ‘I can’t envisage circumstances where we find ourselves having to fight a conventional war’. Although, as he even more hastily adds, making predictions about the future is very hard indeed. ‘One thing I’ve learnt in 40 years in the army is that however hard you try to predict the future you can’t always get it right. In the seventies I would have said I couldn’t see an end to Northern Ireland. Same point absolutely applies as far as the Cold War is concerned. We couldn’t see how the Berlin Wall would fall. The Falklands, 9/11, and now the Arab Spring- no-one predicts that sort of thing. If we’d had this conversation six months ago we would not be talking about what happened in North Africa and the Middle East. The Arab Spring was not on anyone’s agenda. It’s happened. So we can’t predict the future accurately. This is why defence chiefs always try to have a broad range of capabilities. It’s the golf bag analogy- you have clubs for every eventuality. What we’ve done at the present however is to say: Afghanistan is the main effort. Our equipment was not right. A lot of money has been thrown at Afghanistan, so the equipment is now right, but at the expense of being more balanced elsewhere.’ That is basically the big picture for the British army now.

Opponents to war might balk at this. Why bother devoting so many resources to an unwinnable unnecessary war? Dannatt is adamant the war can be won. Although, he says wisely, ‘to say “victory” is the wrong terminology. We’re not trying to win, we’re not trying to beat anybody. We’re trying to provide an environment where the Afghan people can live in a safe and secure environment, make money, go to school, live their lives well. That constitutes success, which is different to victory. Victory implies winning or losing in a battle. Victory is far too military. All the military can do is provide an environment in which the political social and economic solution can be worked out by the people.’

On this, however, his crinkly brow grows a fraction more furrowed. Dannatt faced constant battles with politicians over resources. The job can now be done, he says. But this was not always the case. Manpower was tight. ‘The operational concept that we have in Afghanistan is one of clear, hold and build- clearing areas of Taliban, occupying those areas in sufficient strength so the people have confidence in our ability to protect them, and then in that secure environment to build a better life for them, which is not a military task. This is the formula to win hearts and minds. You need a sufficient density of troops to hold the areas. Previously we didn’t. ’

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He points the blame for this mostly at Gordon Brown, for whom he seems to have something coming close to- I was going to say vendetta, more like political disinclination. ‘I made the case to Gordon Brown that the manpower strength of the army should be expanded. Gordon Brown did not commit to fund the defence review of 1997/98; that began to bite when we went into Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s why it took us really until a couple of years ago to get the equipment we need. Gordon Brown didn’t really get it until 2009. When he was Chancellor he really did not want to know defence. That means you’re short changing your military.’ He is rather nice about Labour Defence Secretaries, although ‘they didn’t always see eye-to-eye with our views on troop numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the amount of money that should go on equipment. When the relationships get bad, there are problems, and that’s what happened in the last government’.

And the current government? Better, it seems, though hampered by poverty. ‘The current government understands where the previous government got it wrong. The difficulty the current government has is the financial straitjacket it has, and they are not able to do what their instincts would otherwise want them to do. This is exacerbated by a £38bn black hole legacy left by the previous government, where the Ministry of Defence is committed to projects it can’t afford.’ Though he warns solemnly against cutting with the cuts: ‘asking soldiers to put their lives on the line because of bad equipment is probably verging on the immoral’.

Let’s hope they do. Because if Dannatt is anything to go by, the wars will be on for a good time yet. ‘Well we were 38 years in Northern Ireland. We were 15 years in Bosnia. We were 10 years in Kosovo. We were six years in Iraq. And our main operations in Afghanistan really only started in 2006.’ A pause. ‘These things are not done quickly.’