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Marham crews in Iraq: Time for hope

PUBLISHED: 09:54 20 October 2008 | UPDATED: 15:57 02 June 2010

Flt Lt Ben Shepherd in the cockpit of a Tornado in Iraq.

Flt Lt Ben Shepherd in the cockpit of a Tornado in Iraq.

Whether it's preparing to hand Iraq back to the Iraqis or rebranding the Taliban, the coalition's approach is adapting to meet the wars on two fronts. Defence correspondent BEN KENDALL reports on his return from the Middle East.

Whether it's preparing to hand Iraq back to the Iraqis or rebranding the Taliban, the coalition's approach is adapting to meet the wars on two fronts. Defence correspondent BEN KENDALL reports on his return from the Middle East.

On the Middle East airbase where I have spent the last week there was an over-riding sense of optimism amongst the troops that hostilities in Iraq are past their peak and the coalition is nearing an historic moment.

The problems are far from fixed - fighting may have died down but when Tornado crews must scan the roads of Basra ahead of a political convoy for signs of roadside bombs as a matter of routine, it is clear this is not a country in which normality reigns.

However, the country is no longer the combustible hotbed that many back home still perceive it to be. It has reached a point at which those in the military can talk realistically about giving control back to the Iraqi people, without being accused of the desert heat going to their heads.

RAF Marham's 31 Squadron - nicknamed the Goldstars - are half way through a two-month tour. So far their role has centred upon surveillance and maintaining the peace.

Although on my last day I witnessed a Goldstars' Tornado support a ground battle in which eight American soldiers were injured, this kind of occurrence has been the exception rather than the rule during their most recent detachment. It is a far cry from last year when the same aircrews provided cover for the withdrawal from Basra.

Back home there is a tendency to group operations Telic and Herrick, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan respectively, as one. They are both controversial and drawn out conflicts during which images of chaos and destruction have become fixed in our collective mind's eye.

The fact is they are very different wars at very different stages. While the armed forces are not yet at the point of setting a time frame for withdrawal from Iraq, it is clearly at the forefront of their minds.

Iraq's ruling coalition wants to change a draft of its long-term security pact with the US. The current deal would allow US forces to stay in Iraq until 2011 but this has not yet been rubberstamped. Meanwhile radicals are calling for the coalition's complete withdrawal.

This might be premature but there is a growing feeling that the coalition's role will increasingly become one of training and supporting local troops, rather than taking the lead in fighting.

However, something else that is very much at the forefront of minds at Marham are the events further east in Afghanistan. The aircrews know that this will be their next challenge as the Tornado force will be deployed there as earlier as next year, and certainly by 2010.

There is no similarly positive picture in Afghanistan, something which was highlighted yesterday when Taliban insurgents announced they had killed at least 27 people travelling in the southern province of Kandahar.

This is much more than a case of the Afghan conflict being at an earlier stage than its Iraqi counterpart (indeed the former invasion precedes the latter). In contrast to Iraq, Afghanistan is a feudal society and as such it is far harder to put the structures of peace in place.

Despite this the fact is beginning to dawn that this is not a war we can fight our way out of, and instead, coalition diplomats must be prepared to work with the society that exists - no matter how imperfect.

As a result those within the armed forces have now been advised to stop referring to the enemy as the Taliban, with those on the base I visited favouring terms like 'insurgents' or any number of sometimes pejorative acronyms.

The policy has been dubbed by some as 'tea with the Taliban'. The idea is similar to the mentality adopted towards the IRA and Sinn Fein during the Northern Ireland peace process - you cannot openly negotiate with a group while at the same time fighting a war against it.

The Taliban is not the easily-definable movement it is more commonly understood to be. It is a factious body within many limbs, not all of which are co-ordinated. The hope is that some form of peace can be brokered by including the less radical elements while consigning the truly dangerous components to the fringes.

Only time will tell how successful this can be - is it really possible to transpose the Northern Ireland model upon a conflict and political movement which is entirely different in nature? - but it does indicate a marked change.

It is increasingly clear that resources, by which of course we tend to mean troops' lives, cannot continue being pumped into a hopeless situation. The war in Afghanistan will not end any time soon, but it will go on much longer if there is no attempt at diplomacy.

As for the attitude of the troops, the views of one anonymous airman I met sum it up: “You can debate all day about whether we should be in these countries in the first place - most of us just simply don't know.

“But it's not our job to make those decisions, we're here now and we have to sort out the mess these countries are in.”

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