BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 14.10.01

Interview: ROBIN COOK, Leader of the House of Commons.

Describes the British Government's strategy for preserving the coalition against terrorism and for establishing a new government in Afghanistan.

JOHN HUMPHRIES: Robin Cook, Sir Michael Boyce, the Chief of the Defence Staff, said a few days ago, that this campaign, the war against Afghanistan could go on through the winter and into the next summer at the very least. It's going to be terribly difficult isn't it if that happens, to keep the coalition together? ROBIN COOK: First of all, let's be clear, nobody wants the military campaign to have to go on a day longer than is necessary. But it is important, vital, that we see this through to the finish and that we do not finish without having brought Osama bin Laden to justice and disrupted his terrorist network. And it is quite interesting, actually a message we are getting from many of the countries of the region is that, having started this, you've got to see it through. Nothing would be worse than to stop leaving Osama bin Laden at large, leaving his network intact, because if that were to be the case, he would strike again, make no doubt about it, that's why we have to carry out this campaign and why we have to conclude it successfully. HUMPHRYS: So it cannot end until there is, putting it very crudely, a body, Osama bin Laden either, physically held by us, or his body? I mean that's, it got to, we've got to have one of those two. COOK: I am not sure I would want to endorse the way in which you express it John, but yes, the objective of this is to make sure that Osama bin Laden is brought to justice and that his terrorist network is disrupted, that we can actually be safe again. And anybody who saw that video the other day released by his organisation, must be clear, not only that they were guilty of what happened at the Trade Center, they make no attempt to conceal it, but that they would strike again if they had the chance and if they are left at loose, if they are left at large, if they are allowed to continue, they will strike again and they will kill more people if they wish, if they can do so, that's what they want to do. HUMPHRYS: But the obvious problem that arise from that is if he manages to get out of the country and go somewhere else and hole up somewhere else and we don't know about that and it's obviously possible, given the sort of country that Afghanistan is, how would we know when to end the war? Do you see the problem? Of course you see the problem, you've been talking about nothing else I dare say for a very long time. COOK: Nobody at the moment actually is pretending or suggesting that he is not in Afghanistan, indeed, the Taliban at the present time possibly revel in the fact that he is in Afghanistan and are making it clear that they will protect him and that they are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with him and are entirely complicit in what he does. But of course, we've always said, right from the start, this is not just a military campaign, this is also going to be a long campaign to make sure that we prevent terrorists from striking again, and that means taking action on the financial front, to freeze their funds, it means taking action in international movements to make sure that terrorists cannot take advantage of international ability to move around and plot their evil deeds. It means making sure that we protect our own people and work in collaboration with the European Union, with United Nations, to make sure that collectively we bear down international terrorism. That's not going to stop whether or not we actually capture Osama bin Laden. HUMPHRYS: Indeed, but it's the military action that's upsetting our allies and that's the problem, isn't it? COOK: Well, I don't know, I would not necessarily accept what you say about upsetting our allies. First of all, in terms of our allies within Nato, within the European Union... HUMPHRYS: ...well I was thinking of the Muslim countries, about friends, perhaps I should have said... COOK: ...yes. But in those organisations there's a solid unanimity, and indeed, among countries that have not normally seen eye-to-eye with us, countries like China, Russia, totally supportive. Within the Muslim world, don't forget that only last Thursday there was a meeting of all the Islamic States in the organisation of the Islamic Conference, and together, at the end of that, they issued a statement in which they described the attack on the World Trade Center as brutal, contrary to the teachings of Islam, they recognise, and these are their words, the necessity of bringing to justice those who carried it out, and expressed their own willingness to contribute to that, and many of them are doing that. HUMPHRYS: Yes, but what they did not do, and that's the important bit, isn't it, they did not endorse the bombing and the problem is, that as we see civilian casualties inevitably, we've already seen some, we don't know how many, but the difficulty is, the problem is that this alliance will not be able to sustain those casualties, the Muslim world will not accept civilian casualties. COOK: Well, first of all, in terms of what this Organisation of Islamic Conference did say, it did say that it recognised the necessity of action to bring them to justice and it said... HUMPHRYS: ....they were carefully chosen words... COOK: ...well indeed. But it said it after three or four days of bombing, I mean they knew what they were talking about. Secondly, in terms of the casualties, we do not believe that what Taliban is claiming is right, and of course, one might well say well they would make these claims wouldn't they? HUMPHRYS: ...and we would deny them, wouldn't we? COOK: We don't have, we don't, nobody has independent corroboration of these claims. What we have... HUMPHRYS: ...some have been admitted, by the United States, some civilian casualties have been admitted. COOK: ...we can guarantee that we'll take every possible step to minimise civilian risk and to minimise the possibility of civilians being hurt in the process of this campaign, but I can't give you a guarantee that in a military campaign, nobody would be hurt, I mean that would be unrealistic, and it's not the nature of any military campaign that's ever been waged. But if Taliban wants to stop the civilian casualties, it can do so tomorrow. All it has to do is hand over Osama bin Laden and dismantle his terrorist network. HUMPHRYS: But it knows doesn't it, that if it doesn't do that, and the bombing continues, and more civilians are killed, and they will welcome us in to see dead civilians of course, and that's in their interest, it will have a serious effect on our Muslim friends. COOK: Well we will continue to do all we can to make sure there are no civilian casualties... HUMPHRYS: you say, we can't. COOK: We can't make an absolute guarantee, we'll do all we can to make sure it's minimised, and it has been a targeted specific military campaign. We're a week into it now, and I don't say that the evidence of popular unrest across the Muslim countries is mixed.... HUMPHRYS: ...a man was killed this morning in Pakistan... COOK: ...there have been demonstrations. Demonstrations happen in many countries, they are not necessarily a guide to the state of overall public opinion. There was demonstration in Trafalgar Square yesterday, but we know five to one of the British public back what the government's are doing. It shouldn't be seen as a proxy for public opinion, and do remember that many of those demonstrations you are seeing are organised by extremist groups who themselves are not representative of the broad mass of public opinion of those countries. HUMPHRYS: Another reason for Islamic concern, obviously Muslim countries concern, is that we had not closed off the option of attacking other countries if that deemed to be necessary, Iraq in particular. That's running a considerable risk isn't it, if we hold that option open, and I presume that option is still held open? COOK: Well, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, many of us have said repeatedly, and Colin Powell for the United States, has said that there is no evidence of complicity in the attack of the Trade Center on anybody other than Osama bin Laden and his accomplices within Taliban. That's why the military campaign is aimed at Taliban and Osama bin Laden and nobody else. HUMPHRYS: Why don't we therefore say we will not categorically be attacking anybody else in connection with this. COOK: I think Tony Blair and others have come pretty close to saying precisely those terms John ... HUMPHRYS: ...close, but they've left the option open, that's my point. COOK: If evidence were to rise of somebody else being involved in it, then plainly we'd share that evidence with the world, and help, and let the world come to its conclusion, but we have no such evidence, we have no such plans. HUMPHRYS: Well should we perhaps rephrase or use slightly different language, should we perhaps say, there is absolutely no intention of attacking any other country, unless clear evidence emerges etcetera, etcetera, which is a slightly different way of putting it. COOK: I would happily endorse that statement John, and we have no such evidence, and we are not, and I don't want people out there to interpret such a statement saying ah yes, we are secretly plotting to attack anybody else, we are not. And I would say myself at the present time, I think it would be quite wrong for us to open another front. We have a military campaign which is against those we know were behind the bombing of the Trade Center. We will have a longer term campaign which will stretch over years to make sure that through action on the financial front, action on movements, action on security, we break up terrorism, wherever it is planned, wherever it is plotted. But the military campaign is a military campaign against Osama bin Laden. HUMPHRYS: The problem is isn't it that even if that evidence did emerge and we were forced to consider attacking...we felt forced to consider attacking another country, we would then open a serious can of worms. You'll know Mr Hamid, the Arab League Ambassador, he said, let me just quote what he said "Arab countries won't stand idly by against such aggression, we will fight and resist and then we will have West against East, Islam against Christianity", that's the danger isn't it. COOK: Yes, but you are taking me well down a purely hypothetical road, as I've said. Let me say it again, this is a military campaign against Osama Bin Laden and nobody else except those who've helped. HUMPHRYS: As far as, as you say, the vast majority of people this is...certainly in this part of the world this is what we have done so far, it is a reasonable action. But these Arab governments are already coming under considerable pressure aren't they from people on their own streets, who don't sort of enter into the normal democratic process in perhaps in quite the same way that we might in this country. They are coming under pressure, they are going to worry aren't they, that the longer these governments, these Arab governments are going to worry that the longer this campaign goes on, the more insecure their position is and there is the possibility that one or two governments might even fall. That has to be a concern long-term doesn't it? COOK: Well, we don't want this campaign to go on any longer than is necessary and we want to obviously, achieve our objective as quickly as we can, but at the present time none of these governments are disputing what we're doing and indeed there are forty nations around the world who are assisting one way or the other, allowing for instance air transit, allowing landing rights, providing intelligence. There is quite a lot of active support from these governments and nobody among them is actively condemning us at the present time. On the question of street demonstrations - I think actually what is interesting, what is perhaps the most significant feature of the last week is how little all those demonstrations have been and how comparatively small they have actually been. Indonesia for instance, has seen demonstrations of less than a thousand and that is a country where you have seen quarter of a million of people in the streets in the past. There is not at present that evidence of a mass uprising in the streets that you are suggesting. HUMPHRYS: Well no, but perhaps more worrying is the sort say we've had support from a lot of countries, though not explicit support for the bombing itself. But we see countries like Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia in particular, I mention that because clearly, it's a vital strategic importance to us, to the whole world for that matter, wouldn't even...wasn't even prepared to have Tony Blair go there and talk to them. That's a bit worrying isn't it? COOK: No and let's get this straight... HUMPHRYS: ...and sending a signal. COOK: Let's get this clear John, we do talk to Saudi Arabia, Tony Blair talked to Saudi Arabia... HUMPHRYS: But not in this high profile way that Mr Blair has been going around talking to people with the cameras. COOK: But he had two days, he got round a remarkable number of countries in those two days. There is a limit to how far you can go and the reality is at that neither side was it possible to find a convenient basis to visit. But he will go again and Saudi Arabia has made it plain they want Tony Blair. HUMPHRYS: So they are happy to see him in the role that he has been playing as a sort of - he's been described as an Ambassador for Washington, whether we like that or not. That's the.... COOK: He's the Prime Minister of Britain.... HUMPHRYS: And also a very close, obviously the closest possible ally to Washington. You know, do you, that Saudi Arabia will accept a visit from Tony Blair and are prepared to talk to him? COOK: Yes. Saudi Arabia has said it would welcome a visit from Tony Blair and indeed he does regularly speak by phone to the leaders of Saudi Arabia. Do remember that the government of Saudi Arabia did break off its ties with the Taliban. It was one of only three governments that ever had recognised the Taliban government and has ended that and it did condemn the attack on the Trade Center in very strong terms. HUMPHRYS: Do you accept that this whole mess is not going to be sorted out unless and until we sort out the 'Palestine problem' as it is described by those who are concerned about it. You made a speech yourself, it turned out to be quite precedent back in 1998 at a Labour Party Conference I was reading it this morning and you talked then about finding a solution to this clash of civilisations as you put it and a lot of people are talking about a clash of civilisations now. How important is it that we find that solution, we put pressure on the Israelis to find a solution to the Palestinian problem - not eventually, at some point in the future but in order to sort this mess out. COOK: Just to be clear John, I think I rejected the idea there was... HUMPHRYS: ...indeed but you raised the issue that's the point. COOK: Yes, indeed but what I pressed for is that we must have vigorous dialogue between the west and the Islamic world and recognise the enormous common cultural area that we have between us and we have very strong roots together in history. Now, in the case of the Middle East, it is very important that we do resolve the tension and the conflict within the Middle East, very important for the sake of the peoples most intimately involved, important that we do find a permanent settlement that brings justice to the Palestinians because... HUMPHRYS: Which would have to be a Palestinian state wouldn't it, a Palestinian state. COOK: Indeed and we have recognised in the European Union for a very long time, that a Palestinian state is one of the logical outcomes of the peace process and I think everybody now accepts that it is a certain element of a satisfactory solution. HUMPHRYS: Be quite clear - as part of the overall solution to this problem. COOK: The Oslo peace process is based on the principle of land for peace. We've got to get back to that principle and make sure that the land that is provided is..does provide for a viable Palestinian state, because only a permanent settlement that does provide justice to the the Palestinian people is going to provide the guarantee of security which the Israeli people also need. HUMPHRYS: And as far as Afghanistan is concerned, you will have heard Mr Francesc Vendrell talking about it earlier, the United Nations special representative, how are we going to establish this sort of broad based democratic administration that is needed, unless we put a powerful force there to make it happen. As he said, the idea of a United Nations protectorate simply isn't on, we cannot impose a force upon the country unless we are invited in. COOK: No, I think Mr Vendrell made a lot of very sensible observations and spoke with the authority of experience and I would agree with him, a UN protectorate is an option but it has to be an option... HUMPHRYS: He disagrees with that... COOK: No, I don't think he disagreed with the way I'm saying has to be an option but only with active support of elements of the Afghan people. It is not something solution can be imposed from outside. Now, John, we are not contemplating a mass invasion or an occupation of Afghanistan, that is not on the game plan, that is not going to happen. HUMPHRYS: That is ruled out, an invasion of Afghanistan is ruled out. COOK: Anybody who has been looking at the preparations and the troops in the area can see there is not going to be armed columns advancing into Afghanistan, if there is any option within the country it will be targeted, it will be specific, it will be temporary. There is not going to be that plan for a military occupation of Afghanistan. We do want to help the Afghan people come to achieve a future with a government that is broadly representative of the different ethnic groups in Afghanistan and with a government that also accepts these international obligations not to allow Afghanistan to be used as a base for terrorism or the production of drugs. HUMPHRYS: The trouble is when Tony Blair says, as he did to the Afghan people, we make this commitment, we will not walk away, that is absolutely solid and an open ended commitment isn't it. COOK: It is a strong commitment and is a commitment to help the Afghan people re-build their own country, not just on the humanitarian front of which we are doing an immense amount now and putting is as much effort as we are on the military front, but also on the reconstruction and redevelopment of their country. Now we are willing to help that, we are willing collectively in the west and the Arab nations to put a lot of funds into that and I think that will give us a leverage with the Afghan people who will not want to put that at risk and who will want to work with those who want to help them. HUMPHRYS: Robin Cook, many thanks. COOK: Thank you.
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.