The Ministry of Defence was facing severe criticism last night for refusing to award a special honour to soldiers fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.
British troops serving in Helmand province are being denied a dedicated medal to recognise the intensity of the conflict, campaigners said.
War veterans, MPs and families of those who have lost loved ones in the fighting – the heaviest British forces have experienced since the Second World War – have urged the MoD to make a special award for the thousands of soldiers and marines who have put their lives at risk on a daily basis fighting insurgents.
Their calls came as Britain faced up to another grim milestone in the fight against the Taliban – the death of its 70th soldier since the operation began in November 2001, and the seventh fatality since July 7.
Despite the ferocity of the campaign, those who have fought in Helmand still receive exactly the same medal as those who undertook relatively safe peace-keeping duties in the Afghan capital, Kabul, immediately after the Taliban were deposed.
Critics say the situation is now “completely different” and believe the MoD is missing out on an easy way to boost morale at a critical time.
Yesterday, a spokesman for the ministry insisted that the medal which has been awarded to troops who have served in the country for the last six years – and those given for specific acts of bravery – are sufficient to recognise their efforts.
Figures revealed yesterday show how Britain’s front-line troops in Afghanistan now have a one in 36 chance of dying in a six-month tour of the country, compared to a one in 100 chance during a tour of Iraq. In addition, hundreds have been severely injured. MoD figures also show that, up until July 15, 699 troops have needed hospital treatment due to battle wounds or disease since 2001.
Tony Philippson, whose son, Capt James Philippson, was the first British serviceman to die in Helmand province after the deployment last year, said the MoD was reluctant to issue a new medal because it would mean effectively admitting that troops were now engaged in a new war.
Mr Philippson said: “The more they award medals, the more they have to recognise it’s a nasty, dirty war.
“They have been sent into a cauldron and they are under-resourced. Issuing medals recognises the fact we’re in a real war.”
Derek Eida, whose son, Capt Alex Eida, was killed in Afghanistan last August, said: “It sounds ridiculous that they won’t award a different medal, this is a completely different deployment and 2002 was a hell of a long time ago.
“It seems totally petty to me, I just can’t understand their logic. It could be bad for morale when people are putting their lives on the line but not being recognised.”
But the MoD said it had no plans to create a new campaign medal for Afghanistan.
“We have one medal for the Afghanistan theatre and that’s it. We don’t want to get into the problem area of loads of medals for different times of operations,” an official said. “Campaign medals are there for people on operations and there are bravery medals for those who do something brave.”
Nicholas Soames, the former Conservative defence minister, said: “This is typical Ministry of Defence bureaucracy and thoughtlessness.
“Clearly those who were on an earlier policing operation should get medals which reflect that, but those in the combat operation should get a medal of their own. They are separate deployments and this is not a general service operation.”
Patrick Mercer, the Conservative MP for Newark, who is a former infantry commander, said: “I think the ferocity of the current operation in Helmand needs special recognition, and it could be in the form of a medal or a bar or a clasp, something that shows how serious the fighting has been.
“There’s nothing more important to troops than a medal – they are incredibly emotive and they mean the world to soldiers. To have a chest full of medals and to be in a prestigious fighting unit is the business.”
He said during Victorian times a special award known as the Kabul to Kandahar Star was issued just to British troops who had taken part in one particular part of the Second Afghan War.
A horizontal metal bar or clasp, usually attached to the ribbon of a medal, is often awarded to indicate that the wearer has been involved in a particular operation.
The Government has endured criticism for the apparent lack of planning that went into the operation to take on the Taliban in Helmand, which was launched in spring last year.
John Reid, the then defence secretary, famously declared: “We would be perfectly happy to leave in three years’ time without firing one shot.”
However, millions of rounds have since been fired and, while more than a thousand Taliban fighters have been killed, the cost to British troops has been severe.
Maj Gen Patrick Cordingley, the commander of the Desert Rats in the first Gulf War, said: “The situation has changed dramatically and perhaps a bar on the Afghan medal would be more reasonable.”
Air Vice-Marshal Tony Mason, another veteran of the first Gulf War, added that there was “a horrendous difference between 2002 and 2007”.