BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 25.11.01

Interview: AIR MARSHAL SIR TIM GARDEN, Assistant Chief of Defence Staff 1992-94.

Looks at the latest developments in Afghanistan.

SIR TIM GARDEN: After the drama of the great breakout by the Northern Alliance, the last seven days have been more a time of consolidation, negotiation and localised fighting. The Taliban's northern stronghold of Konduz has been under siege all week. Northern Alliance forces which are shown here in yellow have surrounded it on all sides, and the Americans have been continuing air strikes to cover the defences. An ultimatum to those in the city started negotiations in the middle of the week. The sticking point for a surrender was whether the foreign fighters in the town could have safe passage out of the country and into Pakistan. Disputes between Northern Alliance forces General Dostum's Uzbek forces pressing from the West, and the Tajik forces of the Northern Alliance pressing from the East have increased the confusion. There's no doubt that Konduz will fall, in fact very soon, it may even have fallen this morning. The hope is now whether a massacre will be prevented. The front line today leaves the Taliban with about three or four provinces in the south and with their forces concentrated, we've shown those in green, in Kandahar. US bombing has continued, but the weather has been a bit of a problem on occasions for laser guided attacks, which in one case were directed by US troops on horseback. A case of the cavalry coming to the rescue. Nor is the rest of the country entirely safe from Taliban forces. Fierce fighting continued in some areas north of the front line, including Maidan Shahr, where we had Northern Alliance forces, elements of Taliban forces, and local warlords getting mixed up together. Another danger area is the road from Kabul to Jalalabad, where four journalists were murdered this week, allegedly by Taliban fighters, when their convoy was stopped around here. There are also worries that the Hazara forces (from the central part of the country) and now on the outskirts of Kabul are looking for a bit of the capital to call their own. There are now secure airfields at Mazar up in the north, where the French are expected to establish a presence perhaps followed by the Jordanians and they'll set up a hospital, and there's the airfield north of Kabul at Bagram, where the one hundred British special forces are securing the airfield. After a week of rather mixed signals, it now looks as though the six thousand or so British troops on standby back in the UK are unlikely to be deployed in the next few days. JOHN HUMPHRYS: Air Marshal, given that there aren't any coalition forces on the ground. What's to stop Konduz ending in a massacre? GARDEN: Well I think there are various factors now. One is that they want Kandahar to fall, and of course if they kill all the foreign fighters then that will encourage the foreign fighters in Kandahar to try and stay till a last ditch effort. The other thing is that there's this conference just outside Bonn in Germany on Tuesday and the Northern Alliance are going to want to look respectable at that, so I think that's another encouragement for them to treat the foreign fighters as prisoners of war. HUMPHRYS: Why does there seem to be (perhaps we are wrong about this) but so little progress in sorting out the Taliban down in Kandahar? GARDEN: I think it's a very different situation down there, broadly a Pashtun area, they don't seem to have a Southern Alliance like the Northern Alliance, and what's happening is that little local areas are getting so irritated by all the bombing they're overthrowing their local Taliban, but they're now concentrated in an area where there isn't the force on the ground to take them, and that's going to be the important part. HUMPHRYS: So what are the priorities now for Britain and the United States? GARDEN: Humanitarian aid I think is the first one, which has been flowing in really rather well, and in the past month the target of fifty-thousand metric tons was achieved for the first time, despite reports of problems caused by theft and banditry. The first aircraft with some aid aboard landed at Bagram airfield on Thursday. But the Americans have a different priority. The hunt for Osama bin Laden and the leadership of Al-Qaeda has become even more intense. The search is concentrated in two areas, around Kandahar and Jalalabad. Global Hawk, the US high tech surveillance drone, is in action over the likely areas. Two-hundred thousand leaflets were dropped offering a twenty-five million dollar reward for Bin Laden's capture. US Defence Secretary Rumsfeld said `It was like snowflakes in a Chicago winter'. But there seems to be little expectation that Bin Laden can be taken alive. A Pentagon general when asked about the difficulties of searching likely places said: "Our specialized approach to caves and tunnels is to drop five-hundred pound bombs on the entrance"; and a Saudi newspaper has reported that Bin Laden has ordered his aides to kill him if he risks falling into US hands. But to guard against the risk of escape, the US Navy is now authorised to stop and search ships off the Pakistan coast. Surveillance to prevent Bin Laden escaping by helicopter is continuous. Yet there are still worries that Bin Laden might manage to make it across the border into Pakistan, and hide among supporters there. HUMPHRYS: What do you think the chances are that they'll get him, kill him or capture him or whatever? GARDEN: Well I think now the chances are reasonably high that they'll kill him, but the trouble is will they know that they've killed him, because if he is sealed in a tunnel we won't find him, if he's hit by air attacks he may not be found. But the real question is does he want everybody to know that he's been killed and in that case we may well know. HUMPHRYS: But of course I suppose we hope that somebody will give him up, somebody will go for that twenty-five million dollar ransom. GARDEN: Well, that's certainly the hope, although there are indications from the United States that they would be probably more pleased if he was killed. HUMPHRYS: Rumsfeld said that in effect didn't he. He wanted to see him dead. GARDEN: Probably an unwise thing to say, but nevertheless many of the people in the Alliance would quite like to see him, just like Milosevic brought to trial at some form of international court. 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.