BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 18.11.01

==================================================================================== 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 ==================================================================================== ON THE RECORD THE WAR REPORT RECORDED FROM TRANSMISSION: BBC ONE DATE: 18.11.01 ==================================================================================== JOHN HUMPHRYS: Good afternoon ... and welcome to The War Report again this week. We had intended to be back as On the Record, but we could hardly do THAT after the sort of week it's been in Afghanistan. The Taliban on the run and the noose closing on Bin Laden and his terrorists....or so it is said. I'll be talking to the Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon about that and about the role of British forces in Afghanistan. We'll also be reporting on what the world is doing (or NOT doing) about the threat of terrorists with biological weapons. That's after the news read by MATTHEW AMROLIWALA. NEWS HUMPHRYS: Well... what a week it's been on the war front. It started with the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif and pretty well everyone said... Ah, but the REAL battle will be for Kabul. That's going to be a different story altogether. It wasn't. A couple of days later, Kabul fell as well and the Taliban were on the run. The military events are moving so fast the politicians can scarcely keep up with them. I'll be talking to the Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon about all of that in a few minutes. But let's get an analysis first of the military picture. Peter Snow's not with us this week (he's sailing across the Atlantic) but Air Marshal Sir Tim Garden, who's been with Peter all along is here so over to him, Air Marshal. 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. HUMPHRYS: Well whatever happens in Afghanistan over the next weeks it will not end the "war on terrorism". The tentacles of bin Laden's organisation spread wide. The American government says there may be as many as forty or fifty countries in which so-called "sleeper" cells are just waiting for the call to go into action. The worry is that their next weapon may be biological. In Geneva tomorrow governments from around the world meet to discuss the biological weapons convention. It was signed some years ago, but it has no teeth. A protocol was drawn up to give it real power but - as Paul Wilenius reports - the United States is refusing to approve that protocol and that could finish it off. PAUL WILENIUS: It's enough to give most people nightmares. This is what the world's intelligence services fear the most. Some of the nastiest material ever produced by man, handed over to ruthless terrorists. It could be chemical, biological, even nuclear. But the eventual aim is mass destruction. Stopping this deadly trade happening now or in the future, is what the war on terror is all about. KENNETH ADLEMAN: I worry most about the black market in the worst countries of the world - they have most incentive to get the worst weapons. ENRIQUE ROMAN-MOREY: If weapons of mass destruction would have been used in this September the eleventh tragic events, the results would have been completely disastrous for the humanity. WILENIUS: A key United Nations Biological Weapons Convention will get under way here, in this room in Geneva tomorrow. The aim is to strengthen controls over biological weapons and to stop them falling into the hands of terrorists. But despite September the eleventh there are still fears the Bush Administration has ideological objections to full co-operation with this sort of international treaty. UN staff are expecting the arrival of up to five hundred delegates from more than a hundred countries. The world's media will also be watching, to see if the bio-convention can be strengthened. But there's still bitterness after the Americans vetoed plans for a tough new inspection and enforcement regime earlier this year. NICH0LAS SIMS: The danger at Geneva is that the United States will be painted into a corner, that there will be an endless flow of recriminations against the United States for what it did in July and August, which is no, which will do no good to anyone and will make them even more resistant to coming back on board. WILENIUS: But it'll take a lot of work here in Geneva to get some nations to forgive the Americans. And the Bush Administration will need to move a long way from the tough stand taken by its officials in the summer. UNNAMED MAN: In our assessment the draft protocol would put national security and confidential business information at risk. WILENIUS: America was against a legally binding protocol allowing inspectors into its bio-defence weapons establishments and private laboratories. It followed a pattern of rejecting many international treaties not in its own interests. MALCOLM SAVIDGE MP: Since Bush came in they have talked of blocking the international criminal court, the small arms convention, land mines, the anti-ballistic missile treaty, the comprehensive test-ban treaty. Obviously they are blocking Kyoto, there is a concern that all the other things that they are doing are actually undermining the agreements which were made on the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. ADLEMAN: I think the protocol of biological weapons may be great on paper but it's very different going to execution and by that I mean we've had agreement on paper to do wonderful inspections, very thorough inspections in Iraq for the last ten years. There's no problem with getting the agreement, and it was gotten after the Gulf War, the problem is doing them and Saddam Hussein has kept us out of doing any inspections, I think it's for the last three years, and that makes a mockery out of those kind of conventions. WILENIUS: There were hopes that in the sombre aftermath of the September's terrorist attacks, President Bush would change policy and look for more international solutions to global problems. Indeed he came up with new proposals on November the first to tackle the threat, including mandatory investigations into disease outbreaks, and making the sale of bio-weapons a criminal offence. But there are concerns this may not be enough. SIMS: The proposals which President Bush announced on the first of November for strengthening the convention are not likely to be well received. I would expect them to be received coolly because the United States is seen as having disqualified itself from contributing to the strengthening of the convention by it's rejectionist attitude to the protocol. SAVIDGE: I deeply hoped that the United States would recognise from the eleventh of September that there is an urgent need for us to work together, co-operatively and multi-laterally in international agreements. I have to say I am at present deeply concerned that the, the section of the United States administration that is strongly opposed to international treaties seems to be winning the argument in the United States despite the eleventh of September. That's deeply worrying. WILENIUS: Britain was once a world leader in biological weapons research, mainly carried out at this once top-secret laboratory at Porton Down in Wiltshire. It moved in more recent years from offensive weapons to defensive biological research. But some of those who worked here know only too well the dangers they pose for an unprotected world. DR GRAHAM PEARSON: I believe that the use of disease deliberately to harm humans, animals or plants, poses the greatest danger of all weapons of mass destruction because it had the weakest prohibition regime in contrast to the nuclear and chemical weapon regimes. It's also relatively easy to get the materials, the quantities we need are smaller, and they could cause comparable effects to nuclear weapons. WILENIUS: Even Pandora would have found it hard to believe the sort of dangers now posed by biological weapons. The worry is that rogue States may be involved in research into bio-weapons although it's been banned by the convention for twenty-five years. That's what happened in the Soviet Union according to the man who ran a key element of Russia's biological weapons programme for the best part of two decades. And he should know. DR SERGUEI POPOV: The programme I worked on has been called Programme Factor, it's been initiated in early, in mid-seventies and has been stopped in early nineties. The programme aimed to develop a new generation of biological weapons, the final purpose of the programme was to create more dangerous biological agents, more dangerous than the existing ones so that if, if the programme introduced anthrax or plague for example, those agents were engineered to be antibiotic resistant and even to overcome the resistance to existing vaccine. SIMS: The real dangers from anthrax, from smallpox, from plague, from botuline toxin, all these dangers have been recognised for many generations. What I think is new is the revolution in genetics which, it has been suggested, could enable vaccines to be bypassed, could enable the offence to get a permanent advantage over the defence if it were to fall into the wrong hands. WILENIUS: But giving more power over bio-weapons to bodies like the UN here in Geneva is not the solution the Bush Administration readily favours. Many see them as mere talking-shops. There also worries it would not work anyway, and may expose US biological weapons defence work to interference. And America fears it could harm the interests of its drug companies. SAVIDGE: There has undoubtedly been pressure on the United States government from the pharmaceutical industry. I would have to say that one would have hoped they would have learnt the lesson of the eleventh of September, there were lots of warnings that there was insufficient security on domestic flights in the United States. And those were ignored primarily because the domestic airlines said, oh look it will cost us too much money, surely it's time that the Bush administration realised that public safety has got to come above corporate profits. WILENIUS: The final preparations are made for the conference, which looks certain to be well attended. But it's the sheer scale of such events which feed the suspicions about organisations like the UN, which lie deep inside the Bush Administration. Some Republican hawks are unhappy about some of the countries America might have to sit down with, and so want the US to ignore these bodies and solve its own problems. ADLEMAN: I think here what we have a president for and pay a president for is frankly to decide what the United Nations is good for, discussions of some kinds, diplomatic moves and what it's not very good for, which is eliminating terrorist networks and getting rid of weapons of mass destruction in the worst hands in the world. And to rely on the United Nations to do something it's not good at doing is just unfair to the United Nations plus it's a great disservice to civilised society. SAVIDGE: I think there is a feeling that the national sovereignty of the United States should not be interfered with in any way. It is slightly like the feeling of the more extreme Europhobes in this country, opponents to Europe in this country, who can take very strong views on national sovereignty but I actually think listening to some Americans it comes over much more strongly. And I fear at times it sounds more as if it is actually a thought that one has to preserve absolute national supremacy which mustn't be interfered with by treaties, it mustn't be interfered with by the United Nations or anybody else. WILENIUS: But biological weapons are not the only means of mass destruction terrorists might use. There's already convincing evidence that Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network have been trying to get their hands on nuclear weapons. Although experts feel it's very difficult for terrorists to produce a credible nuclear warhead, they could buy enough highly radioactive material, to explode a so-called radioactive dirty bomb. SAVIDGE: There is a fear that, that even a fairly primitive terrorist group could get, use conventional explosives to spread radioactive material, particularly if it was something as deadly as plutonium, that could cause considerable fatalities. WILENIUS: But the use of big multi-lateral treaties to try to tackle the threat of nuclear proliferation, is not the sort of solution some of the hawks advising the Bush Administration have any time for. They believe it will do little to stop the nuclear arms race in the Third World and among terrorists groups. They would rather go for the sort of direct action which goes right to the heart of the threat. ADLEMAN: Let's remember in June of nineteen-eighty-one, when the Israelis sent in aircraft to go after the Osiraq nuclear plant of Iraq. At that time they were widely condemned around the world including by the Reagan administration I'm ashamed to say, for this unilateral move, but it stopped Saddam Hussein from developing nuclear weapons, which he would've developed in the mid-nineteen-eighties had it not been for the Israeli attack. Now you can imagine or you have trouble imagining how horrendous the world would be with Saddam Hussein having nuclear weapons, probably giving those nuclear weapons to his colleagues in the al-Qaeda network or Osama bin Laden himself, and other states like his, terrorist headquarters, having a hold of nuclear weapons, that would be horrendous threat to civilised society and thank God the Israelis took it out. WILENIUS: The coming weeks will be a crucial test for the Bush Administration. It's already coming under pressure to let the UN and other international bodies underpin the next stage of the war on terrorism. But following American successes in Afghanistan, it may decide that its go-it-alone policy has been vindicated. ADLEMAN: I think that countries with a bad record want to go through the UN to fight the war against biological weapons and chemical weapons and nuclear weapons. I think they want to do that because they know that the United Nations is not an effective instrument to fight that war, and so they want to squash any attempt that we might make to prevent them from getting weapons of mass destruction that could really ruin part of our civilisation. WILENIUS: There are still hopes that the long hard talks over the next three weeks here in Geneva will produce a deal to give the Biological Weapons Convention some teeth. But it's by no means certain that the Bush Administration will fully re-engage with the international treaties and bodies which many feel are vital for the future. ROMAN-MOREY: I think that the world needs this kind of international bodies and international legal instruments in order to live in a safer world. We need them. Any kind of them. You either talk of small or light weapons, if you talk about nuclear weapons, biologicals, chemicals, we need on any kind of weapons, any kind of new weapon that can be created. WILENIUS: The possibility of a secretive trade in deadly weapons worries people, despite the successes in Afghanistan in cutting down the global threat from the Taliban and al-Qaeda. But the big question is still whether America feels it can best act alone, in fighting the long war on terrorism. Or will it need the rest of the world? For as we now all know, just when you least expect it, that's the time of greatest danger. 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. HUMPHRYS: That's it for this week.. We'll be back at the same time next week... whether as the War Report or as On the Record who knows that depends on the war. Either way, I hope you'll join us and in the meantime you can keep in touch of course through our website. Until next week ... good afternoon. 19 FoLdEd
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.