BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 28.10.01


About the latest military developments.

PETER SNOW: And I'm joined, as before, by Air Marshal Sir Tim Garden to analyse the situation. It's not been a good week for the alliance against terrorism. There's no sign at all, visible anyway, that the Taliban have been damaged by it so far, indeed they've scored one or two notable successes and Britain's Defence Chief who warned two weeks ago that the war could last till next summer is now talking of it lasting three or four years. Well Britain has made a very cautious start to the commitment of ground troops. Of the twenty-thousand troops now ending an exercise in Oman, only two hundred, as John said, Royal Marines will stay on in the area backed by four thousand in the Navy and Air Force. They'll be based afloat centred on an aircraft carrier and three war ships and three submarines here in the Arabian Sea. The other four hundred Marines of 40 Commando will be at home on standby. Now the Marines' task - as well as the SAS who are sure to be there as well - will be, we're told, to stage "precise surgical strikes" in Afghanistan, although we're also told operations may extend to several weeks at a time. But even that will be a significant step up in the level of British involvement. So far that's amounted to just two cruise missiles fired into Afghanistan from those submarines, in-flight refuelling of American Naval strike aircraft and reconnaissance flights over Afghanistan by RAF Canberras. Now Air Marshal, when do you think we can expect to see British troops on the ground in Afghanistan? AIR MARSHAL SIR TIM GARDEN: I don't think we can predict. I mean the reasons why the numbers are only two hundred is so that they can be there for an indefinite period and we can have troops going out to relieve them. What is needed is intelligence and the intelligence is the most important thing so that they can do a quick in and out search and destroy mission in order to take advantage of intelligence and that's what they are good at. They are also well trained in mountain operations in the winter. SNOW: Two hundred troops is an extraordinarily small amount if you're thinking of going into this huge country - with what forty thousand Taliban or something. GARDEN: Well they are not doing it alone, the Americans also have special forces and their Marine... SNOW: But what kind of contribution is two hundred troops? GARDEN: It's a very significant one because of their expertise and their ability to go and do these search and destroy missions and the fact that they can be sustained now indefinitely. SNOW: What are we to make of Admiral Boyce and his only a few months of the war..only two weeks ago he said and now he's talking about three or four years, isn't there some kind of jitters inside the Ministry of Defence? GARDEN: I think it's a reflection of the uncertainties of war and how long a campaign will go on. As we saw in Kosovo we had no idea when it would finally end. It might happen quite quickly, it may take through the winter and it may be a long haul. So he's merely reflecting the fact that we have got to prepare ourselves and we've got to have contingency plans that allow us for the long haul but we hope we don't need the long haul. SNOW: How soon do you think we are going to find..I mean how important do you think it is that we find soon, real land action inside Afghanistan. Because the impression at the moment after three weeks is one that the British and the Americans, indeed the whole coalition is rather on the back foot isn't it? GARDEN: I think we need patience. There is no point putting troops in if you haven't got the intelligence for what they have to do. So having got a situation now where you can listen to everything that is going on in Afghanistan, you can take the photographs, you can see what's going on, then you take the intelligence opportunity when it arises and that maybe tomorrow, it maybe next week, it may be next month. SNOW: Okay, what's happened this week on the ground in Afghanistan? Well the bombing has if anything intensified over Afghanistan, the American strikes on Afghanistan. Friday night's raid on Kabul was one of the fiercest so far. The Americans have published more pictures of what they say are successful raids. Let's just look at the picture of a barracks in Kabul which is clearly intact before the raid and after it, as you can see here, after it clearly flattened. How much does the loss though of buildings like that actually effect fighters like the Taliban? Well now the continuing air strikes don't show any sign of any collapse by the Taliban, as the Americans admitted this week. "They're tough warriors" said the Pentagon. What's more civilian casualties are mounting. This morning there are reports of civilians being hit in Kabul by US air strikes, Yesterday the Pentagon had to admit that another relief depot, Red Cross depot in Kabul was hit, twice in the same night, the second time by B52s and also a hospital in Herat. Well also last night, a stray bomb hit a Northern Alliance village near Mazar e Sharif killing nine people there. Now one type of American bombing has provoked growing criticism - in the Commons and elsewhere - the use of cluster bombs which throw out up to two hundred bomblets over a wide area. And there've been complaints that because they don't always explode - those little bomblets - immediately there's a greater risk to civilians. One American Democrat, Senator Jo Biden, warned that America was running the risk of looking like a "high tech bully". But the British Government says it believes "cluster bombs are sometimes necessary". As for the war on the ground - it is still essentially a fight between the Taliban. Here they are, we've coloured them green in the west and south of the country. And in the north and north-east of the country, inside this dotted line here roughly, the Northern Alliance, we've coloured them yellow here, fighting away with the support of the Russians and others. Now in these areas, the Americans have now been giving some direct air support to the Northern Alliance in their attacks on Kabul and on Mazar e Sharif and the Russians appear to be rearming the Northern Alliance and improving an airfield up here some fifty miles north of Kabul. But in spite of all this, the Taliban have not fallen back around Kabul and actually won back a town this week near Mazar. Moreover the Taliban succeeded in catching Abdul Haq, a respected Mujahadeen leader who had come across the border from Pakistan into Afghanistan to explore prospects for encouraging resistance to the Taliban and they, the Taliban, for their part promptly executed him. Some reports indicate the Taliban's military arm could even extend into Pakistan. Two American helicopters refuelling at a Pakistani airstrip this last week were shot at. They were retrieving the helicopter that crashed earlier killing its two American crewmen and here they were under fire at a presumably protected airfield inside Pakistan. And there are now reports of volunteers from Pakistan trying to cross the border into Afghanistan to reinforce the Taliban. Now Air Marshal, this is a pretty disturbing picture for the alliance against terrorism isn't it? GARDEN: Well, we've had three weeks of operations so far, already one of the main aims has been achieved, that is the destruction of the training camps of the terrorist organisation. There are two left to do which are the more difficult ones, so you get the easy one done first. And what we've got is now patient waiting for the right intelligence to get Bin Laden and his leadership, while at the same time weakening the Taliban's hold by surrounding the towns that they have, stopping their logistics and attacking their main supply routes all the time. SNOW: You mention these guerrilla camps, these terrorist camps, we also looked at the destruction of these barracks. Does it really matter destroying these buildings, do these Mujahadeen fighters, these Taliban fighters, these guerrilla fighters, terrorist fighters of Bin Laden, do they actually need buildings and camps now? GARDEN: Well ten thousand have been trained through those camps in the past and they are no longer in Afghanistan, they are around the world and they are a threat. So what we want to do is make sure that there isn't an infrastructure for them to train another ten thousand. It's one tiny part of the overall campaign, but it is important. SNOW: What about the use of cluster bombs, do you think they are militarily useful? GARDEN: Well it's a difficult decision because there are various targets set, dispersed vehicles for example, for which the cluster bomb is the ideal military weapon to do this. It has, as you explained, some unfortunate effects, that not all its little munitions go off. Not only is that a hazard to the locals, it's also a hazard when we have to go in afterwards and clear them up, we lost some..or some people suffered some casualties when they were in Kosovo trying to do the clear up operation. SNOW: So you would be against them? GARDEN: Well my personal view is that I think the political disadvantages outweigh the military advantages. SNOW: Okay, Air Marshal, thank you very much. John.
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.