BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 18.11.01

Interview: GEOFF HOON, Defence Secretary

Explains the progress of the coalition in the war against terrorism in Afghanistan and indicates how British troops are being used.

JOHN HUMPHRYS: Paul Wilenius reporting there on the shape of this to come - maybe - in the world of international terrorism. Well some real worries and a lot we don't know and there are many questions still to be answered about the future of Afghanistan once the Taliban have finally been turfed out of power. Not least, how big a part will our own forces play in keeping the peace or even making the peace. The Defence Secretary is Geoff Hoon and he's in our Nottingham studio now. Good afternoon Mr Hoon, many thanks for joining us. GEOFF HOON: Good afternoon. HUMPHRYS: The object of this whole exercise clearly is to destroy bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terrorist network and clearly we are closer today than we were a week ago. But how close in your estimation? HOON: We've always devised a strategy based on denying al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden space to operate inside of Afghanistan. Obviously with the advances made by the Northern Alliance, with the local revolts that have taken place in the south of that country, we are that much nearer to bringing him and his organisation to account. But there's still a great deal of work that has to be done, we've still got to track him down. HUMPHRYS: Do you reckon - as you say you've still got to track him down, so clearly you don't know exactly where he is - but do you reckon that we have him boxed in pretty much now? HOON: Well my judgement is that this is a man who probably hasn't slept in the same bed very often over a number of years and therefore he's been dependent on moving around in Afghanistan. He's not able to move around very freely any longer and the more space we deny him, the greater the chance either that we will get some specific information that leads us to his whereabouts, or frankly that someone will give him away. Someone on the ground will say, the amount of money on offer to give this man up is so great, I'm going to let the coalition know where he is and that will lead us to him. HUMPHRYS: The Northern Alliance are apparently saying this morning, or late last night that he is in a place called Maruf, east of Kandahar, any reason to believe that? HOON: We've had a number of different reports over some weeks now and obviously they are followed up, they are assessed and appropriate action will be taken if this one particular report is true but I can't give any confirmation to that particular report because as I say there have been a number of similar reports as to his whereabouts. HUMPHRYS: And what about the Taliban when they say he is no longer in the territory that they control? HOON: I'm afraid we view their reports with some considerable scepticism, they've told us things over a period of time which frankly have been proved to be completely unreliable and I can't really say that this one is any more likely to be true than any of those previous reports. HUMPHRSY: But what is obviously true about the Taliban is that they do not control the country in the way that they did until quite recently, so presumably therefore, are not in a position to harbour terrorists as they did and yet they are still a target. How do we explain that? HOON: That's because they are still in control of significant parts of the country and they are still an al-Qaeda organisation and we need to continue with our military aims that we set out right at the outset which is to bring Osama bin Laden to account, to destroy the terrorist network and to prevent the Taliban from giving them support. Until those aims are completed the military action must continue. HUMPHRYS: So are we still treating the Taliban and al-Qaeda as one and the same, no difference between them. HOON: I think certainly as this operation has gone on we've seen more and more how closely intertwined these two organisations are and indeed Mullah Omar's reported comments the other day about attacking again the United States, do demonstrate that the Taliban regime has been inextricably linked with al-Qaeda. I don't think there's any doubt about that now and that is why it is important that we continue with our efforts to overthrow the Taliban regime but at the same time make sure that that leads us to the destruction of al-Qaeda and bringing Osama bin Laden to account. HUMPHRYS: You say overthrow the regime, do you mean wipe them out altogether, wipe out the Taliban altogether? HOON: Prevent them certainly from being an influence in Afghanistan, prevent them from supporting terrorism which is what they have done consistently now over a long period. Certainly we want to see a government in Afghanistan that no longer harbours or sustains terrorism in the way that the Taliban regime have. HUMPHRYS: But if that's the criterion, then one wonders why we are bombing Konduz in the way that we are. Yes, there are Taliban there obviously, but equally obviously they are not harbouring any terrorists there, we know that bin Laden isn't in the north, in Konduz, so it's slightly odd that we're doing that, isn't it? HOON: No, it's not because the purpose of the military action has always been to ensure that there is a government in Afghanistan that does not support terrorism. If we were to stop now the military campaign and allow the Taliban to regroup, to reorganise, they could then pose a further continuing threat in the future, that cannot be allowed. HUMPHRYS: So it looks therefore, I mean you didn't leap on the phrase I used earlier about wiping them out, it does rather look then, and sounds from what you've just said as though that is indeed our objective, to wipe out the Taliban. HOON: We certainly want to stop them as being a functioning organisation - wipe out I think has unfortunate connotations. If they surrender, if they go home frankly, for many of them that will be perfectly satisfactorily. Obviously, we want to bring the leadership to account, certainly where there is evidence of their close involvement and support for al-Qaeda. HUMPHRYS: You say go home, so in other words, if the people who are now running the Taliban and the people who are working with them, were to, as it were, leave the battlefront, assuming of course that they can do that and just dissipate amongst the populous, you'd be perfectly happy with that? HOON: Well certainly we want to bring the leadership elements to account, we want to see the clear evidence of their connections between - sorry the connections between the Taliban and al-Qaeda demonstrated incontrovertibly to the world, but I accept that for some of their minor supporters, for some of the people perhaps caught up in this, they should have the opportunity of surrendering, and as you say fading into the background. HUMPHRYS: And would that include the Arabs who've joined in the fight on behalf of the Taliban, some Pakistanis and Pashtuns who've come across to join in with them, people who have actually been fighting against our forces as it were? HOON: Again, I think it's important to recognise that some of those people may have gone for entirely misplaced motivations and if they were to abandon their weapons and return home, assuming that they can do so, I suspect as far as the international coalition is concerned that may well be the best outcome. But there are clearly issues on the ground that we are not entirely in control of. HUMPHRYS: So in other words, if, as seems to be the case, the Northern Alliance decided that they wanted to wipe them out, to use that phrase that you don't like using, then you would condemn them for doing that. If they were setting out, as appears to be the case, there's certainly some evidence of this that they are trying to wipe out the Taliban altogether, you would urge them to stop doing that. HOON: Well there have been a small number of very regrettable incidents, but by and large I think it's fair to say and certainly the reports I saw yesterday from Kabul, demonstrate that actually the Northern Alliance have established a very impressive degree of control that we have not seen the kind of attacks, behaviour that I know some commentators were concerned about. By and large they seem to be behaving very responsibly. HUMPHRYS: But as far as the non-Afghans, the Arabs, the Pakistanis and so on, you would like to see them being allowed to go home in effect? HOON: Well, I know that there have been some efforts made in Konduz to try and secure a peaceful surrender by the Taliban regime in that town. Those efforts I know continue but if the people themselves are not prepared to lay down their arms there's obviously a limit to what the international coalition can do. HUMPHRYS: Well, of course it may be that they're simply afraid to surrender because of what might happen to them. HOON: Well, that's why it is important that we can if possible make representations to the Taliban leadership in Konduz that really they have no future, that they would be best off surrendering their weapons and abandoning the city, but that's obviously a matter for them. HUMPHRYS: But you are making, we are making representations to the Northern Alliance leaders to say, look, give them a chance. In other words, don't wreak terrible vengeance on them? HOON: Well, there have been discussions along those line and certainly so far they appear not to have been accepted by the remaining elements of the Taliban in Konduz and beyond that it's difficult to go. HUMPHRYS: Let's talk about Britain's role in all this and the role of our soldiers, some of whom are there of course as we know. The SBS are at the airport near Kabul. There is confusion in some quarters about precisely what their role is and I'd like to address that with you, but first of all let's establish who actually asked them to go there? HOON: They're there as part of the international coalition's response to the very rapidly changing military situation on the ground. What is important is we assist the process of the rebuilding and reconstruction of Afghanistan, is for example that we have secure lines of communication and that means looking at the airstrip at Bagram to make sure that it is possible safely to put aircraft on the ground, take in perhaps members of the diplomatic community, aid workers, perhaps further military elements as necessary. But it is important that we establish the situation on the ground that's safe, secure, that we give particularly to the local members of the Northern Alliance the kind of advice that I know they require about what steps have to be taken to secure that strip. HUMPHRYS: So you took the decision yourselves to send them in, you weren't asked to do so by anybody, by anybody within Afghanistan of course? HOON: Well, there was close consultation obviously with the United States. You know this is a coalition operation and equally there have been discussions with the Northern Alliance. HUMPHRYS: Did they ask for the troops to go in. That's what I'm asking you? HOON: Well, there was no formal request, but then that's not particularly surprising given the circumstances in and around Kabul and in Afghanistan in general. This has been a rapidly changing situation. We judged, the international coalition judged, that it was important to maintain lines of communication. That we would need for example as is happening, to ensure that UN diplomats would be able to arrive safely in Afghanistan. We have a diplomatic missions from the United Kingdom on its way. Aid workers will need to get into the city as will perhaps further military elements as appropriate. So... HUMPHRYS: I beg your pardon, I was going to say if it's a reconnaissance job in that sense and they have to report back, have they done so yet? Have they come back and said it's either safe or not safe? HOON: Well, certainly I've had already some preliminary reports from them. It's quite a difficult job because we weren't at all sure about the number of mines that have been laid. As you will recall there have been a number of reports of the Taliban before leaving parts of Afghanistan laying mines. We also need to ensure that aircraft arriving at that airstrip can do so safely. So it's not simply securing the perimeters, it's making sure that for some distance around the airstrip it is safe. In addition there are various technical assessments that have to be made. There's not much equipment on the ground, certainly not any of any technological sophistication, so if there are to be regular flights into that airstrip we need to look at air traffic control, we need to look at radar and other kinds of kit that will be necessary. HUMPHRYS: And obviously there's a big difference between a reconnaissance job and a reporting back job and securing the perimeter as you put it. You'd need more troops for that wouldn't you. I mean if they come back and say, as you say they've already given you some information, they say we need help here, we're prepared are we to send in more troops to do that particular job? HOON: Yes we are, and a number of options are already in place, subject obviously to their reports of what it's actually like on the ground, subject as well to discussions with the Northern Alliance. This is an international coalition operation. We need to make absolutely sure that everyone is agreed on the next stage forward. HUMPHRYS: And if the Northern Alliance say, well actually no, we don't want foreign troops in, as they have said already, as some of their leaders have said already, will we say, okay we won't send them? HOON: Well, your question I think gives away the issue which is some of their leaders. There have been discussions both with their established leadership and indeed with some of the local leadership on the ground, and actually they've been very encouraging and very positive, I think there is a recognition that we can help, that we can provide technical expertise that will be of enormous assistance to the Northern Alliance as they begin the process we're involved in of rebuilding Afghanistan. HUMPHRYS: You say technical assistance. What I've been suggesting to you obviously is the danger, and I think you've acknowledged that already in some of the interviews you've given in the last twenty-four hours, because the situation on the ground is pretty grim, there is the danger that they could get caught up in rather more serious things than that, that they may actually get involved in fighting. Once you're securing a perimeter then clearly you're at risk aren't you? HOON: That is a risk that I have regard to, and certainly I will not allow British soldiers to be placed in unnecessary danger, that's why we are considering a range of options. But, as I've said earlier, the Northern Alliance are behaving very responsibly at the present time. The situation in Kabul appears calm, there appear to be law enforcement figures on the streets. There aren't yet the kinds of concerns that your question implies and therefore for the moment at any rate I'm confident that British forces have an important role to play and could do that job safely and securely. But clearly, I do monitor the situation very closely. HUMPHRYS: And there are, as I understand now, six thousand troops on standby here prepared to go, ready to go, correct me if I am wrong, would they go if there were a danger that the Northern Alliance or forces ranged against them, would stop behaving responsibly as you put it, the fear that there might be some sort of clashes, some sort of blood bath even. HOON: Well can I first of all say that're right, there are around six thousand on standby but there isn't any necessary intention that all should go simultaneously, they cover a range of capabilities. I've indicated already that the kinds of tasks that we might have to be involved in - we have engineers on standby in case the runway needs repairing, we have mine clearance people in case there are significant mines unexploded in and around the airstrip. So we've got a range of capabilities, I don't anticipate all those people would necessarily go at once but it does depend, as you say, on close consultation with the Northern Alliance with their leadership to make sure that whatever does happen next does not put those troops at risk and does not further cause difficulties on the ground. HUMPHRYS: But what a lot of people are worried about is the apparent contradiction, or potential contradiction between the different jobs being carried out by British forces in the same country. We have some who are there to fight and to kill people, kill Taliban in particular. Now we've got others going in who will be doing a very different kind of job, that's a dangerous situation to be in, isn't it? HOON: But I think it's inherent in what has happened in Afghanistan, in the sense that clearly my priority in recent times has been the military campaign, to make sure that we deliver the military aims leading ultimately to bringing Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda to account. But we've accepted in that process that we have a continuing responsibility for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. We can't simply walk away from the situation as it has evolved. What we have to make sure is that the humanitarian effort continues, the determined diplomatic efforts are made to ensure that for the future, Afghanistan has a degree of stability that it hasn't enjoyed in quite some time. HUMPHRYS: Yes, but you say we can't walk away, and that's been the theme that we have pursued, the policy that we have pursued all the way along. But if there is the sort of blood-bath that many people fear may happen, and one only has to look at the history books, indeed there are already as we heard from Air Marshal Garden earlier, threats from various other factions within the Northern Alliance. If that goes badly wrong, the situation's pretty grim as you say, if that goes badly wrong, then if we're not going to walk away, we must be involved in that, therefore we will have to be a peace- making force. Is not that the inevitable logic of this? HOON: We have a range of plans for a series of possible scenarios in Afghanistan. It isn't really sensible just to concentrate on one of them, but obviously we do have to have regard to the situation on the ground. As I say, we have a continuing responsibility for Afghanistan that we are seeking to fulfil. The United Kingdom is playing its part within the United Nations, the United Nations is launching a diplomatic initiative with all the various ethnic groups in Afghanistan, looking to prepare a future for what has been a terribly devastated country over far too long. HUMPHRYS: But I just want to be quite clear about this. We are concerned about the long-term future of Afghanistan. That may well involve restoring peace to the country if peace breaks down. We are prepared to do that, are we? HOON: That is not the situation on the ground today. HUMPHRYS: No but it may be tomorrow, or next week, or the week after. HOON: Clearly we've got to have regard to all of the eventualities, but equally a complete implosion in Afghanistan does not look likely at the present time, but we have to have regard to that. HUMPHRYS: Do we, does that long-term commitment stand, even if the Northern Alliance ends up effectively taking over the government of the country? HOON: I've not actually seen any indication that the Northern Alliance wants to do that, indeed ... HUMPHRYS: ....really? HOON: ...I saw, well I saw a reference from their spokesman the other day recognising clearly that they have a responsibility to bring in other ethnic communities, that's certainly central to the United Nations resolution agreed last week on the future of Afghanistan. I don't actually see any evidence that the Northern Alliance wants to exclude other people, partly because I think they recognise from their own experience that they can't actually govern Afghanistan without the participation for example, of Pashtuns and others, who represent a significant proportion of the population of that country. HUMPHRYS: But there already is a de facto Northern Alliance government there, isn't there? HOON: Well there has been over a long period of course even for many of them in exile, because they have held there the seat of Afghanistan at the United Nations, so in a sense, that government in exile is now obviously seeking to exercise some authority in Afghanistan. But I think it's, I think they do recognise that that's only an interim arrangement that they will have to sit down around the table with all of the ethnic groups in Afghanistan in order to see their way to a more stable future. HUMPHRYS: We are in this for the long haul, are we, just in a final sentence or two, this could be a very, very long job indeed involving British forces? HOON: I don't necessarily believe that it has to be a long haul for British forces. What it does have to be, as far as the international community, is a long haul to make sure that there is a stable certain future for Afghanistan. HUMPHRYS: Geoff Hoon, thank you very much indeed. HOON: 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.