BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 04.11.01

Interview: IAIN DUNCAN-SMITH MP, Conservative Party Leader.

Whether he was happy with the conduct of the war on terrorism and the lack of apparent progress so far.

HUMPHRYS: Thanks Peter. Iain Duncan Smith caught it in the neck this week from the government because of what he said about the war. Mr Duncan-Smith, the Leader of the Opposition was called "a completely stupid choice as Party leader" not that he had been critical of the action that's been taken. What he said was that the government had failed to get its message across very well. But that was enough to trigger the attack. In every other respect, Mr Duncan-Smith could hardly have been more supportive. TOO supportive, well there are rumblings in his party that he aligned himself so closely with Tony Blair right from the beginning that the only role he can play now is a more or less silently supportive one. Mr Duncan-Smith is on the line. Good afternoon Mr Duncan-Smith. IAIN DUNCAN-SMITH: Good afternoon John. HUMPHRYS: Is there a danger do you think that your policy is counter-productive - that's to say nobody takes any notice of you when you support the government and when you offer mild criticism they drop on you like a ton of bricks? DUNCAN-SMITH: No, I think that our attitude here as the opposition is an important and valuable one. Our role is to make sure that we support the government as long as we believe that they're right and carrying out the right action.. I believe they are and I believe the Prime Minister has been, in supporting the Americans and making sure that we do everything to bring al-Qaeda, Bin Laden and others to justice. And I also recognise that there is a need to deal with Taliban, because it's Taliban who are shielding al- Qaeda and the third and most important factor which is the delivery of humanitarian aid into Afghanistan, I also recognise that you can't really deliver that in the quantity you require until you've dealt with Taliban. So the government is right. As regards to whether or not I should back them, well, I think it's right not to play silly political games. We have a very, very important crisis on our hands and I don't think the British people would forgive us quite rightly if we sought to make short-term political capital out of something which is a much longer term problem. I will of course make observations that I think are relevant privately and if necessary publicly, but I don't think that I will heed those who say I should take short-term attacks on the government. I don't intend to do that. HUMPHRYS: So, you're saying that at the moment as far as you're concerned, even though many people are saying they need to push harder, you're saying that everything they're doing is right? DUNCAN-SMITH: No. I said that their purpose and their principles and objectives are correct. As I observed in the week, my observation was simply that the government needed to do more on the home front to make sure that the British people understood that the war aims, particularly the aim of dealing with Taliban is critical to actually bringing bin Laden and al Qaeda to justice, and that there is a logical military process to that which I support. That was simply what I was saying at the time, but what I do say to those who get frustrated, we have plenty of other issues on which quite rightly to deal with the government and we are, issues from the Health Service and public services generally - their problem over Railtrack and various other crises they've got themselves into, and difficulties with the economy. We'll attack and be a normal opposition on all of those, but what we will do on this particular crisis and the objectives over Afghanistan is to be as supportive as we possibly can to make sure that the British people get a loyal opposition when they need that. HUMPHRYS: So you're not even prepared to say that you think that maybe they should push a little harder, and I mention that because we've heard a number of people as I'm saying, including Henry Kissinger who has been in London this week, saying it would be wrong to believe there is an unlimited period of time, so clearly he feels that there's rather more urgency about this than the United States and we seem to be displaying. Do you share any sense of unease about that? DUNCAN-SMITH: No, I don't. I mean I listened to - I read rather Henry Kissinger's speech and I talked to him afterwards, and I'm in agreement that the Allies must make as best progress as they can as quickly as they can because there are limits to how they can conduct themselves through the winter. I accept all of that. I don't believe however for one moment is that the military chiefs or the politicians on either side of the Atlantic in government are actually dragging their feet for any particular purpose. The truth is what we have to do, and I think we're seeing it now with the B-52's, is a gradual tightening of the noose around Taliban and of course bin Laden, and that takes time. The pressure of those bombing raids will grow and eventually that, plus ground troops, will put the final pressure on I believe to break the Taliban, and I pointed out during the week that attacking Kosovo was much the same process. It's only when the enemy recognise that ground troops are about to be deployed or are being deployed that they finally begin to suffer the breakdown that is essentially there as a result of the bombing - they can't communicate, they can't reinforce, their equipment that they're hiding has to come into the open, and that means it's open to air attack, and that can be taken out. Those sort of things happen once ground troops are on the ground and of course I urge the governments obviously to get on with that as quickly as possible, but clearly I don't believe that anyone is dragging their feet for the sake of it. HUMPHRYS: Well, exactly. You say you urge them to get on with that as quickly as possible. You may have heard on of your own MPs, Nicholas Soames this morning saying that they really must press on with this now, because if something isn't done before the winter and the Taliban are able to survive more or less, I say more or less - we don't know precisely how damaged they've been - but more or less undamaged throughout the winter period, then that's going to give them a) a colossal propaganda advantage and b) an opportunity to regroup and all the other things that go with that. DUNCAN-SMITH: Yes, but I do think that everybody should recognise this is a potentially long process. We are dealing with a country a long, long way away from either Britain or America, and therefore building up the right number of ground troops in the area to mount that assault is going to take time. I think Sir Timothy made the point quite graphically that even doing that in the Gulf, the Gulf War was difficult enough and took time, and I think therefore you have to understand that this is going to take time. But, and I do genuinely believe this, that the purpose and resolve of the governments concerned is very, very clear, and I want to make absolutely certain that obviously the British people understand that the objective is to get rid of Taliban, because Taliban will stop us getting to al-Qaeda and bin-Laden. That means ultimately the deployment of ground troops and whatever that takes, so we need to be certain that that is going to happen HUMPHRYS: But when we talk about the Gulf War, as you say Tim Garden talked about that himself. What we saw there was a build up, a massive build up of ground troops over quite a long period of time and then when the time was right, they went in. Obviously a very different position in Afghanistan. But we are not seeing a build up of ground troops as we speak and it would, if we were going to do that, take very long time indeed and we'd have to have the support of neighbouring countries that we don't have. So, where is this invasion going to come from, have you given that a lot of thought? DUNCAN-SMITH: Well I have, but John I have to tell you as somebody who has served myself, I would be very reluctant to let the press know exactly what scale of build up is going on because that will send signals to Taliban that may turn out in the end to be disruptive. There may well and I believe probably, some fairly substantial build up going on in the countries surrounding Afghanistan and my concern therefore is that we shouldn't immediately assume that that is not taking place. I believe that there are sufficient forces being built up and I think already the governments, particularly President Bush has made it absolutely clear that they are committed where necessary to the deployment of ground troops. So we may see some early smaller deployments but I believe that ultimately, if necessary, there will be very sufficient ground troop deployments. HUMPHRYS: But we would know, wouldn't we, if there were this great build up going on. They'd have to come from somewhere, they'd be seen leaving their bases, we'd know because we have correspondents all over the place. We'd know whether they were in neighbouring countries, which is the only place they could be, as an effective invasion force. We'd know if all that was going on, wouldn't we? DUNCAN-SMITH: Well may be, I'm not sure that that is the case. I mean I don't think the media should always assume that that know everything. HUMPHRYS: I grant you that. DUNCAN-SMITH: The reality is that there are good reasons why it would suit the allies purpose to keep some of these deployments fairly quiet, so that if and when any assault takes place, the element of surprise, which is absolutely critical. Those who've studied warfare know that surprise is hugely important, that element is maintained and therefore Taliban are left guessing as to when, where or exactly what time or what scale will the deployment of ground troops will be. So the reality is that I think the allies would want to keep that fairly quiet. HUMPHRYS: And you're quite clear in your own mind that that is what is needed. Some sort of - you're not going to say where, you're not going to say when, you don't know obviously, none of us knows, but that some sort of serious ground invasion is going to be needed at some stage? DUNCAN-SMITH: I hope that it wouldn't be needed but we need to prepare for that eventuality and if necessary to deploy ground troops. The reality is that the present bombing of the Taliban by the way is not carpet bombing, it's quite specific bombing of their front line, carpet bombing is just taking out a large area and flattening it. That will have a dramatic effect I believe on their soldiers, as Sir Timothy said, day after day, if you are being bombed by that weight of bombs, then your morale does tend to suffer, particularly if you are not in very well prepared positions. So that will have an effect and at the right moment and this is critical, you don't deploy ground troops until it's clear that the morale of the enemy is lowered, that their ability to respond is lowered, their communications are broken and they can't reinforce. That sort of effect is when you deploy ground troops because they have the most effect for the minimum number of casualties and I am very much in favour of keeping that point clear. It is important that if we deploy them and when we deploy them, that they have maximum effect and I believe that is very much the plan at the moment. HUMPHRYS: Just have a quick word about the diplomacy here. It does seem to be going a bit pear shaped doesn't it. I mean we saw Tony Blair going to the Middle East, standing alongside a known supporter of terrorism being made to look a bit silly and having to listen to the sort of things he didn't want to hear. Was that damaging in your view? DUNCAN-SMITH: Well I don't suppose the Prime Minister would have liked the headlines very much when he came back and clearly it was, as always, these things often are a gamble that we could have gained more than we'd have lost in the sense that it might have brought Syria closer to the sense that they now have to end their involvement with these extremist terrorist groups and that there may have been some way of bringing them in. Clearly that hasn't necessarily worked, but I think nonetheless we need not to lose sight of one important point, that building of the coalition is about support for the effort in Afghanistan and that therefore the mission dictates the coalition, not the other way round. And I think as long as that remains clear then all of these meetings should be set in context, which is if they succeed, then that's excellent, if they don't, they don't however damage our military mission. That is absolutely vital to get rid of Taliban, to bring al-Qaeda to justice and ultimately to get the right amount of humanitarian aid into Afghanistan. That mission, or those aims dictate the coalition, not the other way round. HUMPHRYS: Your Foreign Secretary..former Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind said...our former Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind said it had been very unwise, do you not share that or are you being very cautious and very support again here? DUNCAN-SMITH: Well I don't want to get involved in you know hindsight here, I think that whilst of course, you know we would have wanted there to have been a successful visit, if a visit took place and that clearly that wasn't necessarily successful, it doesn't mean to say that fundamentally it was wrong to try and bring Syria in. The reality is that it was always going to be difficult, Syria is far too heavily involved with some of these extremist terrorist groups and so we recognise that. But the important thing is as I said earlier on not to lose sight of what this is all about, which is essentially bringing al-Qaeda and Bin Laden to justice and to do that, we need to deal with them in Afghanistan and deal with Taliban. That's the mission and that mission dictates the coalition and whatever else takes place, is peripheral to that. HUMPHRYS: Iain Duncan-Smith, thanks very much indeed.
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.