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15 July 2024

Doubt over how much longer Prince Harry can stay in Afghanistan

By Agencies

There was doubt on Friday over how much longer Prince Harry would stay in Afghanistan, after the defence ministry in London confirmed he has been there for more than two months fighting the Taliban.


The 23-year-old prince's deployment to the restive southern Afghan province of Helmand, where most of Britain's 7,700 troops are stationed, makes him the first British royal to be sent on active duty in more than a quarter-century.


It was unclear how much longer his tour there could last, however, with details of his posting having been released – one newspaper declared that, now that his presence there was in the public domain, "security comes first."


His posting to the war-torn country was kept a tightly-guarded secret after the Ministry of Defence reached agreement on a news blackout with British media, to ensure details did not reach insurgents in the area.


That arrangement broke down, though, after news was leaked out on the US website, the Drudge Report, on Thursday.


As part of the deal, a group of journalists visited the royal in Helmand on condition that details would only be publicised once he was safely back in Britain.


The agreement was reached after Harry's planned tour to Iraq last year had to be shelved because of the security risk sparked by media publicity.


Those pre-prepared interviews were released in the aftermath of the revelation that he was in Afghanistan, in which the prince said he joked about his nickname – "bullet magnet" – with colleagues and thought his late mother, Princess Diana, would have been proud of his deployment.


He also talked of life on the front line, including spending Christmas Day in a former Taliban madrassa peppered with bullet holes eating scrawny chickens slaughtered with the Gurkhas' fearsome kukri knives instead of festive turkey.


Of British public reaction, Harry said he hoped it would be positive and rounded on some commentators who branded him a coward for not going to Iraq, saying, "hopefully, they'll eat their words."


Harry acknowledged that his tour could make him a "top target" for extremists, adding that "every single person that supports them will be trying to slot me."


He even admitted that he often wished he was not a privileged, well-known royal, noting: "I think dressed in the same uniform as numerous other people, thousands of other people in Afghanistan will give me one of the best chances to be just a normal person."


Reaction, meanwhile, to his deployment was unanimous in praise, with Prime Minister Gordon Brown describing him as an "exemplary soldier (who) is serving with dedication in the finest tradition of our armed forces."


"The whole of Britain will be proud of the outstanding service he is giving," he added, in comments echoed by all the main political parties and Defence Secretary Des Browne.


The British press on Friday morning were similarly effusive in their praise, with The Sun tabloid, the country's best-read daily, describing the royal as "a man of outstanding courage who has risked having his head blown off by the Taliban so he can serve his country with his mates."


"The only disappointment is that Harry may have to come back because foreign media blew his cover," the paper said in its editorial.


The British Army's most senior officer, Chief of the General Staff Sir Richard Dannatt, described Harry as a "credit to the nation" but slammed the premature publication of news about the deployment.


"I am very disappointed that foreign websites have decided to run this story without consulting us," he said.


Dannatt said the last two months had shown it was "perfectly possible" for Prince Harry to serve in the same fashion as other army officers of his rank and experience.


He said he had decided to deploy Harry in Afghanistan because the news blackout agreement with the media had made the risk "manageable" but said no decision had yet been taken as to whether he would remain there.


The prince, who is third in line to the throne and had considered quitting the armed forces after the Iraq decision, retrained as a battlefield air controller, known as a JTAC (Joint Terminal Attack Controller), to go to Afghanistan.


He flew out on December 14 and spent several weeks working in Garmsir, in the far south of Helmand province, operating just 500 metres (yards) from front-line Taliban positions.


He has since left Garmsir to work in another part of Helmand, although the details cannot be reported for security reasons. (AFP)