Prince Harry secretly serving in Afghanistan
Prince Harry on patrol in a town in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan. Photograph: John Stillwell/PA
Prince Harry has been secretly serving on the front line in Afghanistan with British troops since December, it emerged today.
The 23-year-old, who is third in line to the throne, has spent the past 10 weeks as a forward air controller (FAC) in the dangerous southern province of Helmand, guiding fighter jets towards suspected Taliban targets.
The army – which decided last year it was too dangerous for Harry to serve in Iraq – deployed him to Afghanistan on condition that his whereabouts remained a secret, in case he became a Taliban target.
The news of the operational posting leaked out following the breakdown of a blackout agreement with the media, when the story was posted this afternoon on the US-based Drudge Report website.
The Drudge Report initially said it had taken the information from a story last month in an Australian women's magazine, New Idea, although it later claimed a "world exclusive".
The chief of the general staff, Sir Richard Dannatt, who is head of the British army, expressed great disappointment over the leak.
However, no decision has yet been taken as to whether Harry will remain in Afghanistan.
"I am very disappointed that foreign websites have decided to run this story without consulting us," Dannatt said.
"This is in stark contrast to the highly responsible attitude that the whole of the UK print and broadcast media, along with a small number overseas, who have entered into an understanding with us over the coverage of Prince Harry on operations."
Dannatt, who had opposed Harry's deployment to Iraq, went on to praise the prince's performance on deployment.
"His conduct on operations in Afghanistan has been exemplary," the general said. "He has been fully involved in operations and has run the same risks as everyone else in his battle group."
"In deciding to deploy him to Afghanistan, it was my judgment that, with an understanding with the media not to broadcast his whereabouts, the risk in doing so was manageable," Dannatt went on.
"Now that the story is in the public domain, the chief of defence staff and I will take advice from the operational commanders about whether his deployment can continue."
Gordon Brown praised Harry as "an exemplary soldier", adding: "The whole of Britain will be proud of the outstanding service he is giving."
A Ministry of Defence spokesman confirmed that it remained to be decided whether it is safe for Harry to remain in Afghanistan now that news has broken.
The MoD said: "The operational chain of command is now looking at a variety of options."
In a pooled media interview last week, Harry acknowledged he could also be a target for Taliban-supporting militants in the UK on his return.
"Once this film comes out there'll probably be every single person, every single person that supports them will be trying to slot me," he said.
"Now that you come to think about it it's quite worrying."
Harry flew out to Afghanistan on December 14 and had been due to complete a four-month tour without the standard two-week rest and recreation break other soldiers enjoy.
Operating out of a forward operating base in Helmand province, Cornet Wales, as he is known in the army, has been working as a forward air controller (FAC) and is responsible for coordinating air support and aviation across the area, calling in fast jets to drop 500lb (227kg) bombs on enemy positions.
He has been fighting what he calls "Terry Taliban" and taking the opportunity to be "normal" like other soldiers. In interviews, the prince, whose job was to monitor enemy soldiers' movements transmitted on to screens nicknamed Kill TV, said: "Terry Taliban and his mates, as soon as they hear air they go to ground, which makes life a little bit tricky. So having something that gives you a visual feedback from way up means … we can follow them."
Like his brother, Prince William, Harry had trained with the Blues and Royals to be a troop leader of a group of four to six Scimitar armoured reconnaissance vehicles that usually operate on the frontline. However, he retrained to become what is in effect an air traffic controller after being refused permission to fight in Iraq.
Dannatt, however, decided it was too risky, both for Harry and his fellow soldiers, to allow the prince to go to Iraq.
"A contributing factor to the threat to Prince Harry has been the widespread knowledge and discussion of his deployment," he said at the time. "This close scrutiny has exacerbated the situation and this is something I wish to avoid in the future."
Details of Harry's deployment were blacked out, with all forms of British media signing up to a reporting embargo. Close friends and many senior generals were also not aware of the prince's plans, in a bid to prevent the Taliban being inadvertently alerted.
In an interview with the press just before his Afghan deployment, the prince said: "I would never want to put someone else's life in danger when they have to sit next to the bullet magnet.
"Other people got information that suggested that, not only was my life in danger, but the people I served with - me being there may up the ante, rather than two contacts a day it would be six or seven. That was a risk that they weren't willing to take, which I completely accepted."
The prince said he considered leaving the army after the Iraq decision. When told by his grandmother, the Queen, that he would be going to Afghanistan, he said he felt "a bit of excitement, a bit of "phew, finally get the chance to actually do the soldiering I wanted to do from ever since I joined".
The MoD denied the role had been created for the prince, claiming he had been selected because the officer previously in the role needed a break after serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
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