BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 30.09.01

Film: DAVID GROSSMAN Reports on the dangers to the international coalition against terrorism by the onset of military action.

DAVID GROSSMAN: There is now an uneasy atmosphere at Westminster - ever since the events of September the eleventh normal political activity is suspended. The usual froth and bluster of the party conference season is this year flat and pensive. Everyone looking towards Washington to see what America will do next. The pressures on the American administration are immense. The US public expects and demands strong action against those responsible, but just what can be done? A military strike would to some extent help satisfy the media and the viewing public, but what do you hit? And how would such action help create and maintain the broad global coalition needed to roll back international terrorism? LORD POWELL: Action has to be proportionate to the scale of what was inflicted on the United States. You see people have to remember, seven-thousand people dead in the space of an hour. You know that's well over ten per cent of total American casualties in the whole of the Vietnam war. PAUL ROGERS: Taking the very strong military route as seems to be happening with the very big US military built up is in a sense playing into the hands of the perpetrators. They actually want to see this as an ongoing war, they see the attacks, the atrocities, in New York and Washington, as part of that war. GROSSMAN: Against the terrorists is massing the most formidable military force. Two aircraft carrier battle groups are already on standby in the Middle East. The USS Enterprise and its escort of ships and submarines is on station in the Indian Ocean, and the USS Carl Vinson battle group has just arrived in the Gulf. Two more carrier groups have just left the US East Coast and Japan. Each has about a hundred aircraft providing vital air support for any mission - their conspicuous deployment also sends out a powerful signal. COLONEL ANDREW DUNCAN: They will be shown on television time and again and it will be seen by the American public, who will then see that the President is doing something but hopefully they'll also be seen by the Taliban, and maybe by Osama bin Laden himself, who will get the message that there is a major build up against him and that they can't escape, and that the best way forward for them is to negotiate or even to hand over bin Laden himself. GROSSMAN: The US Air force has stealth bombers that can reach any point on the globe. During the Kosovo conflict they flew non-stop missions from Missouri refueling on the way. America also has well-sited airbases on Diego Garcia and in Turkey. However some potentially useful bases in Saudi Arabia could be unavailable as the Saudi government is uneasy about airstrikes. But surprising co-operation from Russia has presented other options. LORD POWELL: I think the new factor as I read it, has been the despatch of some forces anyway to central Asia, to republics, which were formally part of the Soviet Union. That is a very extraordinary departure, again something one couldn't imagine, even six months ago. Countries like Tajikistan and Kasakstan and Usbeckistan, preparations are being made for US forces to be based there. Again, increasing the range of options available to an American president. GROSSMAN: And then there are special forces - the US has about forty-thousand elite troops in outfits such as the Navy SEAL Team Six and the Army's Delta Force. For counter-terrorist expertise the Americans would probably find Britain's SAS very useful. ANDY MCNAB: The way that the war certainly will be conducted in the beginning is by surgical strikes, using special forces, whether it be Brits, the, you know, the French, Germans, or Americans, and the fact is the biggest weapon the military has is information, so no doubt now there's lots of information being collated, so they know the targets they're going to hit. Once they've got that information, the military then can plan and prepare surgical hits. GROSSMAN: So what sort of force will any military meet in Afghanistan? The Afghans have a well deserved reputation as formidable fighters - their strength comes not from numbers nor equipment, but from tactics and terrain. ROGERS: The forces are basically pretty small, but they could actually conduct very effective guerrilla campaigns as indeed could some of the fighters who were involved in the group that perpetrated the atrocities. Even so, I think it is true to say that if the United States used massive military force, and special forces, ultimately, it could win within that context. GROSSMAN: But victory wouldn't come without a cost - flushing guerilla's out of country like this would mean significant casualties. MCNAB: Ultimately there will be casualties. The sort of war - if you're going to fight guerrillas, what you've got to do is employ guerrilla tactics. What you've got is, is well hardened and seasoned troops in the mountains. These people have grown up with a weapon in their hand. All they've ever known is war and this is not a big shock horror to them, every invader that they've had, they've pushed out of their country. GROSSMAN: We now know that special forces are already inside Afghanistan gathering intelligence, but the US is not yet ready to begin a wider offensive. Colin Powell the US Secretary of State, was a very meticulous Commander during the Gulf war. He never made a move until all his forces were in the places and the strengths that he wanted. Although the American administration has prepared its public for casualties, the idea of beginning the war against terrorism with a humiliating mistake is unthinkable. Memories of President Carter's shambolic attempts to free the Iran hostages in the late seventies are still very vivid. POWELL: The worst thing would be to have an operation which goes off at half-cock, which results in American casualties, which fails to get hold of any terrorists, and kills and wounds many civilians. They'll want to do everything possible to avoid that and that means careful planning, careful preparation. In that sense it is rather like the Gulf War because there, you'll remember, there was a steady build up over many months and the Americans and the coalition then in place, only went to war when it was sure that it had everything it needed in place. LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: The figure in the administration who's perhaps on the ascendant because of the very nature of the crisis is Colin Powell the Secretary of State and of course he's the figures which Conservatives in the administration in the Republican Party are most suspicious of on the grounds that he's ultra cautious in military means, is more likely to be trying to cut deals with regimes they would rather not cut deals with and so on. So I think there is a potential tension that could become quite serious. GROSSMAN: The white flags in this Taliban parade certainly don't carry the same meaning they do in the West. If the regime refuses to surrender bin Laden, the US has promised to make them a target too. But hitting Afghanistan would upset many Moslem and Arab nations. Many secular Arab countries are barely managing to keep a lid on Taliban sympathisers in their own populations. ALI MUHSEN HAMID: If it is proved that bin Laden is the culprit, so all the international effort should be concentrated on bringing bin Laden to justice. I mean not to, to commit such atrocity against the Afghani people, I mean if I just mention the example of Timothy McVie, there was no retribution against his family or his village or his city or his house even. They just put him on trial, and this is what we want to be done if justice is the aim. GROSSMAN: During the Gulf War President Bush senior built a huge coalition, now his son is doing something similar, but according to Washington insiders important lessons have been learned from that conflict about not making the military coalition too wide, nor relying on the UN for authority to act. LORD POWELL: There is always of course a danger to involve many countries that you're going to have different voices. I think one mistake which will be avoided this time is going to the United Nations for a specific resolution authorising specific action. That is what we did in the Gulf War and for quite good reason. There, Iraq had invaded the territory of a neighbouring country, Kuwait, the United Nations authorised the United States and others to sling Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, but of course that also limited what they could do. It meant they could not when that part of the task was done, go on and do more in Iraq itself. This time I would be pretty certain the United States will depend on Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, the Article that gives every country the right of self-defence. HAMID: No I don't agree with that in fact because I mean if we allow every state to interpret Article 51 as it's, to its liking, I mean that we will have anarchy in the international system. I mean there should be an effort under the United Nations' auspices. LORD HANNAY: The width of this coalition is determined not by a sort of goodie goodie view that you must get a lot of countries together to all stand shoulder to shoulder. It's by severe common sense. The fact is that if you are to deny terrorists means of finance, means of weapon, getting weapons, refuges and so on, you need everybody possible on board. Anybody who's not on board is a weak link. GROSSMAN: Keeping the coalition together once any military action starts will be very difficult. There are already worries from Europe about the scale of America's response. And if military action is widened to include targeting countries like Iraq, then the warnings from the Arab world are very grave indeed. HAMID: Aggression against Arab countries is considered as aggression against all Arab countries, as it is in the NATO is applying Article Five we will apply our treaties and agreements in supporting and helping any other any Arab country which I mean becomes a victim to any American military act. GROSSMAN: It would be seen as an act of war against the Arab world? HAMID: That's true yes, on the government and people........ nobody will accept that. GROSSMAN: US Special Forces like these filmed in training are now on the ground in Afghanistan. Senior White House sources have taken the very unusual step of confirming their presence perhaps to head off any public impatience. But some experienced diplomats believe the defeat of terrorism will come from co-operation, not conflict. LORD HANNAY: The old adage that once the guns start firing, the diplomats take a set - back seat, doesn't apply here. You have to in fact pursue both or more than one side of this campaign, in parallel. You probably do have to have some military action, although I think that will be less significant and less widespread than a lot of the speculation is currently pointing to. GROSSMAN: As this most terrible month in New York's history comes to a close, to many Americans strong military action is still the only appropriate response to such an outrage. Although the public seems willing to allow time to prepare an attack, some analysts believe the pressure for a decisive strike soon will grow. FREEDMAN: They've made quite strong rhetorical statements now about what is going to be done, and to do nothing, and not to be able to do anything would cause difficulties, so I don't think they've got a lot of time to sort this out. GROSSMAN: How long, weeks? FREEDMAN: Weeks. GROSSMAN: The decisions facing the American administration are frightening. President Bush has to pick his way though many contradictory pressures, not least the military strike his public is demanding could shatter the international co-operation he'll need to stop the terrorists striking again.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.