BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 18.11.01


Explains the latest situation in the war in Afghanistan.

AIR MARSHAL SIR TIM GARDEN: It's been an astonishing week for the Northern Alliance, ending in what Tony Blair has called the total collapse of the Taliban. After the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif, they pressed south to Kabul. American air power attacked Taliban lines and the Northern Alliance were able then to puncture the front line. Against international advice, the Northern Alliance continued on to Kabul, which they took with little difficulty. The Taliban fled towards Kandahar in the south. Jalalabad was surrounded by anti-Taliban forces and lasted just a few days. In the west, Herat also fell to Alliance forces, and the Taliban fled or defected, leaving behind outside volunteers, mainly from Pakistan, to be overwhelmed. And in the mountainous centre of the country, in the face of Hazara troops, the Taliban, who we've coloured green here, retreated. Allegedly as they retreated they were killing civilians. But there have also been reports of atrocities by the Northern Alliance as they've been moving forward, these atrocities against Taliban forces and especially against foreign volunteers. The frontline is now something like this. With anti-Taliban forces occupying three-quarters of the country, all of the north, and quite a bit of the south-west down here and in the south, and in the east, the Taliban cling on. The Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, ordered his troops not to act "like slaughtered chickens" but to regroup and fight. Only in Konduz has there been any real resistance. But of course, they've got nowhere to flee to. And it looks like the Northern Alliance could launch a major offensive any time at all. The holy month of Ramadan began on Friday but the US have continued their bombing with strikes on Konduz and in the South. And they've admitted that they had one bomb go in error and hit a mosque near the border of Pakistan. Kandahar, the Taliban stronghold, Taliban in green, and the home of their spiritual leader is in trouble. The airport to the south is reported to be under the control of anti-Taliban forces, and some of the Taliban are trying to flee across the border to Pakistan. Pakistan has sent troops to try and seal that border. Earlier this week US air attacks took place on Kabul and in the south and they are thought to have killed leaders from the Taliban and al-Qaeda including Osama bin Laden's senior military planner. But there have been counter claims that he is still alive. Both British and American Special Forces are now on the ground and the Americans are doing what they call "interdicting the roads," that is setting up road blocks and attacking Taliban troops. American helicopters have been involved and they helped to rescue the eight western aid workers who'd been held captive for three months. And finally, one-hundred British troops, the Special Boat Squadron , have secured the airport at Bagram, but there are reports now that some of the Northern Alliance are less than happy with their arrival. JOHN HUMPHRYS: Air Marshal, was it then, was it a rout, or was it a retreat? And is there going to be serious civil war now? GARDEN: Well it may have been a tactical retreat to start with, but because of the destruction of their communication system, they are unable to talk except on small portable radios which can be instantly heard by the American and British reconnaissance aircraft, so in the end it was a rout, and it certainly looks as though they've left in disorder and they'll have a great deal of difficulty in regrouping. HUMPHRYS: We were told, weren't we, to expect all sorts of murder and mayhem if the Northern Alliance moved into Kabul. Have we seen do you think war crimes being committed? GARDEN: I don't think we'll know. As always in any conflict, we won't know for some time. There's also in any conflict a degree of propaganda on both sides talking about atrocities. There may have been some, and I think they will have to be investigated just as happened in the Balkans, and we may ultimately see people brought to justice for war crimes, but that's a long way away, it's taken us years to do that in the Balkans. HUMPHRYS: So, where do we go from here? GARDEN: What happens next is far from certain. Taliban fighters have taken to the hills before and lived to fight another day. But the popular uprising in Southern Afghanistan has left Osama bin Laden with less and less space in which to hide. The US General in charge, Tommy Franks says he's tightening the noose. The American priority now is the search for bin Laden. As secure airbases become available, in the north at Mazar, at Kabul and down eventually at Kandahar, they'll be able to pinpoint remaining pockets of Taliban troops and seek out al-Qaeda. The hope is that money will talk and there are now plenty of defecting Taliban to quiz about bin Laden's whereabouts. But the worry, of course, is that the man himself will flee across the border. The political future for Afghanistan is just as difficult. Here we can see the mix, the patchwork of ethnic groups. Nearly half the country in the south, and to the East is Pashtun, and in the centre and the north there's Uzbek, Tajik and Hazara. And there are other smaller ethnic groups dotted around. Keeping all of these different groups pointing in the same direction will be difficult. Already the regions seem to be coming under different warlords. The Northern Alliance have said there's no way they're going to form a government with the Hazara in it, but Hazara troops have started moving towards Kabul just to make their point. The United Nations, are now in place in Kabul and they want the Afghans to get on with setting up their own administration. But the UN is not keen to provide the military force to police a settlement between potentially rival warlords over the country. America doesn't want to become bogged down in a peacekeeping operation, and so the favoured option is to provide a stabilising force from Turkey, from Bangladesh and from Jordan which will be largely Muslim. This does not fill everyone with confidence. So it's likely that an early deployment for stabilising force will include British troops, there are some four-thousand on standby at the moment, perhaps with France who have said they are prepared to go up in the north, and then Canada who would look after the south-west. And with that sort of distribution, they'll be able to ensure that the humanitarian aid can be distributed quickly through the country. But the politicians have still to catch up with the pace of the military advances. HUMPHRYS: So how quickly will the international coalition, do you think, send in troops to stabilise the situation? GARDEN: I think they've got to do it very fast, otherwise they'll find that they're in a civil war, with the different warlords keeping their own territory and that really means in the next week or two. HUMPHRYS: But there must be that danger, mustn't there, that the whole thing will break up and that we will get caught up in some kind of civil war? GARDEN: There is certainly a danger, the longer we leave it, and if we don't put enough forces in, and of course, the south, they've always been after a separate country anyway. HUMPHRYS: Exactly. But we've got to remember, haven't we, that the whole purpose, the whole point of this exercise, was to get bin Laden and his bunch of terrorists. How close do you think, I know it's difficult from this distance, how close to that do you think we are? GARDEN: Well certainly it's got to be much easier once the country is under control and you've got all the intelligence coming from Taliban, ex-Taliban supporters, and you've got the reconnaissance assets that can show where caves are warm in the winter, and you've looked for it. But there's always a chance that he'll escape across what are very porous borders. HUMPHRYS: But if you were commanding this military operation yourself, if you were back in uniform, would you this morning be pretty pleased with the way things are going? GARDEN: Oh, I think we must be very pleased that it's gone remarkably well, and so far the operation seems to have gone exactly on rails. The difficulty as always with these sorts of operations, and we saw it in the Balkans, comes when you have to do the post-conflict bit of rebuilding a nation. HUMPHRYS: Air Marshal, many thanks.
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.