THE head of the armed forces yesterday warned ministers that troops should not simply be transferred to Afghanistan from Iraq when Britain's military commitment in the latter is scaled down next year.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, the Chief of the Defence Staff, said it was "crucial" for the armed forces to experience a reduction in the tempo of operations, in order to recover from several years of overstretch.
His comments come as Barack Obama, the US president-elect, prepares to order a significant increase in troop numbers in Afghanistan in the hope of finally quelling the Taleban insurgency in the country. David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, yesterday indicated that the UK, whose 8,100 troops in Afghanistan make it the second-largest contributor to the international force, would expect other Nato countries to take up a bigger share of the burden in any US-led "surge".
And he appeared to rule out the commitment of British troops to a peacekeeping force in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, insisting: "That is not on the agenda."
Sir Jock said he was "optimistic" that 2009 would see a "significant reduction" in the UK's 4,000-strong contingent in Iraq, as a fundamental change of mission promised by Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, comes into effect.
But he cautioned that this would not mean thousands more servicemen and women becoming available for deployment to Afghanistan and other hotspots around the world. "I have said for a very long time that the British armed forces are stretched. We are doing more than we are structured and resourced to do in the long term. We can do it for a short period, but we can't continue doing it ad infinitum," he said.
"We have to put ourselves back into balance. It is crucial that we reduce the operational tempo for our armed forces. So it can't be – even if the situation demanded it – just a one-for-one transfer from Iraq to Afghanistan. We have to reduce that tempo."
Sir Jock warned that the struggle in Afghanistan was "a marathon, not a sprint", adding: "We need to be there at the finishing line."
Success in Afghanistan would not be achieved militarily but by successfully implanting good governance and political stability in the country, as well as training the national armed forces to defend their own country.
"I am a little nervous when people use the word 'surge' as if this were some sort of panacea. What we are quite clear about is that we need more military force in Afghanistan – the Nato combined statement of requirement has yet to be fully met."
Mr Miliband was asked if Mr Obama's plans to step up the pace of operations in Afghanistan would require an increase in the size of Britain's commitment there. He replied: "Not necessarily, no."
He added: "We will look at what new American deployments are going to be. President-elect Obama has said he wants two new brigades to go in, there are an extra 1,500 French troops and the Germans are increasing the number of their troops.
"As the second-largest contributor of troops in Afghanistan, the first thing we say is that we don't want to bear an unfair share of the burden.
"The second thing we say is that more foreign troops on their own are not going to provide the answer in Afghanistan. It needs to be an approach that combines a serious security presence with the development of the country.
"It's got to be a civilian surge as well as a military surge. That is the lesson from Iraq as well as Afghanistan."