BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 25.11.01

Interview: ROBIN COOK MP, Leader of the Commons.

Should the US and Britain now put troops into Afghanistan to help restore stability?

JOHN HUMPHRYS: The search to find a new government for Afghanistan moves from the battlefields of that country to a meeting room in Germany this week. Representatives of many of the different factions have accepted an invitation from the United Nations to get together to try to form the sort of broad-based government that the coalition is hoping will take over. It's going to be quite a task. And there's a long way to go yet anyway before Afghanistan is ready for a new government. As we've just seen, the Taliban are still holding on in some parts of the country. There are worries about how victorious Northern Alliance troops in places like Konduz will treat the non-Afghan Taliban, as we've been hearing, many of them from Pakistan of course. Pakistan has said, since the coalition has made it possible for the Northern Alliance to seize power, we have responsibility for their actions. Earlier this morning I spoke to Robin Cook, the Leader of the House and a member of the War Cabinet. I asked him if he agreed with that? ROBIN COOK MP: Well we certainly do have a responsibility to share with the Northern Alliance what our views are and how they should conduct themselves and I think John, if we look back over the past two weeks, the conduct of the Northern Alliance in the towns that have fallen has been actually much better than many people would have predicted or would have expected and I hope we can keep that up. And one point to bear in mind in relation to the current siege at Konduz is that of course next week we do start the diplomatic talks in Bonn and I very much hope that the knowledge that those talks are going to take place and the fact that every different ethnic group involved in the Northern Alliance wants to get an outcome that is of advantage, of help to them to make sure they're represented, they would not want at this stage to do anything that would jeopardise their place at that talks or the respect at the table. HUMPHRYS: But if they did want to do something, particularly about the non-Afghan Taliban in Konduz. There are real worries being expressed as you know about how they might deal with them, there really isn't very much we could do about it is there? COOK: Well we certainly have to be realistic John about the extent to which we have a practical capacity to influence the military position. We do not have any significant number of military forces in the area, for instance. But having said that John, so far the closing stages of the siege have gone well, we've heard the reports of the Taliban fighters leaving Konduz, indeed even actually being welcomed by the fighters surrounding Konduz. In relation to the al-Qaeda troops who may well be in Konduz, we would expect them to be arrested, we would want them to be arrested in order that we ourselves can put questions to them, after all these are people who will have important information for us that we want to hear and we will expect them to be treated in the way that a prisoner of war would be normally. HUMPHRYS: Moving south from Konduz down to Kandahar, there are reports in one or two of the papers this morning, seemingly authoritative who knows, who says we and the United States are going to put troops into Kandahar to help with the battle of Kandahar when it, if, when it begins to be a real battle. Anything in that, do you think? COOK: Well John you said authoritative, in fact in one Sunday newspaper, and I'm not sure quite how authoritative I would take that, if you look back over the past month, there's been no situation in which we have put British troops into the ground civil war and I don't myself imagine that's going to change. HUMPHRYS: There is one thing that's absolutely certain isn't there and that is that we are not putting troops on the ground as part of a stabilisation force to help with the humanitarian effort. Do we still and there seems to be a certain uncertainty about this, do we still have troops on standby for that, or do we not? COOK: Oh we do still have troops on standby. We put them on standby some days ago and the reason for that of course John was in the wake of the collapse of the Taliban and the dramatic developments on the ground, we did prepare to make sure that we could be ready if there was worst case scenario. Fortunately as I said earlier, the situation has been better than anybody could have hoped for, there has not been the need for those troops on the ground. We'll continue obviously to keep the situation under review, but frankly I think we should welcome the fact that their presence has not been needed in Afghanistan. This is not a reverse, this is actually an advance. HUMPHRYS: Well it does depend who you listen to, doesn't it? I mean if you listen to Oxfam, what they were saying yesterday, let me quote to you, you probably heard it anyway "large areas of the country, riven by factionalism, war, looting, banditry and fear, more and more violence, is preventing food getting through". COOK: Well there are problems and indeed nobody is pretending that Afghanistan has now achieved a position of stability of law and order, indeed, that is why we are urgently trying to get all the leaders and their representatives together next week in order that we can establish an interim government to provide central law and order. But on the humanitarian side to which the British government, Tony Blair in particular, attached great importance right since the start, the humanitarian aid is getting through, I mean twice in the recent days we have got more than two thousand tons through and indeed at the end of last week, the World Food Programme had exceeded the target that was necessary over a monthly period. One of the perhaps curious features of Afghanistan is that since September the eleventh more humanitarian food has got in that in the two months preceding September the eleventh. Now we want to make sure we continue that. We attach great priority to the humanitarian process and that of course will be made much easier if we can make progress on the diplomatic political front next week in Bonn. HUMPHRYS: The food may have got in, it hasn't necessarily been distributed to the people who need it most and the sorts of problems that Oxfam talked about and that you acknowledge suggest that that is precisely why some sort of stabilisation force is needed? COOK: Well John as I said, we do recognise that there are indeed very real problems on the ground and indeed and Afghanistan it has always been difficult to travel through the length and breadth of the country. But the food is now getting in in sufficient quantity. What we now need is to work to create a central authority which will help us to make sure that it gets through to the people in need. There is now enough food in the region and there is a substantial stockpile of food within Afghanistan. We need the co-operation of people in Afghanistan to make sure we can get it into the outer areas where some of the problems may remain. HUMPHRYS: Your Cabinet colleague, Clare Short, made it perfectly clear last week, what she thought. She said the United States is not taking the humanitarian role seriously enough. COOK: I think we should all remind ourselves that eighty per cent of the food that we are delivering in Afghanistan is provided by the United States and that's quite a substantial contribution in the case of Afghanistan. At the time Clare was speaking we were then not able to get the food convoys through and that was very frustrating for Clare and for all of us, since then there has been some improvement indeed convoys are getting through from Peshawar to Kabul, into Jalalabad and we need to make sure that we continue with that progress. But the situation is improving and indeed the food going in now is actually greater than it's been even before the war began. HUMPHRYS: But the point she was making and this only a few days ago, was that we need troops on the ground to get that food distributed to the people who need it most and the Americans are stopping those troops being deployed. COOK: I don't think that's quite accurate John and indeed I don't think that's what Clare said. Indeed there are American troops in Afghanistan, indeed there are American troops alongside our troops at Bagram airport and they're there precisely to make sure that we can secure the airport for movement for humanitarian purposes, or indeed for the political and diplomatic purposes that we see going on next week in Germany. HUMPHRYS: Yes but they are focused purely on the military effort aren't they and they are not there as part of a stabilisation force and the whole point of us putting all of those six thousand troops on standby, that Geoff Hoon told us about on this programme last week, was precisely that they'd become some sort of stabilisation force to help with the humanitarian effort and so on. COOK: Yes but I think we should all be relieved, pleased, that in fact the situation in Afghanistan has not been the chaos, the anarchy, the bloodshed that was predicted by many and that the Northern Alliance, partly because of the way in which we have maintained close advice and close pressure on them, have actually behaved much better than was expected there. Now John, in the fullness of time, out of what may happen in Bonn, out of the discussions in New York, there may well be a UN force deployed in Afghanistan. Maybe the British and US and other forces may play a part in the support for that UN force, but at the present time, nobody is proposing that there should be a mass British presence on the ground and indeed at the present time there is nobody saying that it is necessary even on the humanitarian front where the food is now getting through in large quantities. HUMPHRYS: So why are they still, all of those British troops, six thousand of them, still on standby? COOK: John I think it's very important that we should make sure we have our contingencies there in case the situation should deteriorate and we will review the situation on a day by day cases decide whether or not that notice to move should be reduced, should be increased, what the position should be in keeping them on standby. Our troops are very flexible, they can increase and they can reduce the notice to move quite well, it's part of their normal drill. I think it's important that we should be ready if they are needed, but equally I think the British people would be puzzled if they were sent in if they were not needed. HUMPHRYS: So at the moment it's looking pretty unlikely that they will go in, at least for the foreseeable future. I mean you seem to be suggesting that nothing will happen until after the meeting in Germany and then after the discussions that follow that and so on. COOK: I don't think we should expect the meeting in Germany is going to be the last word in the future of Afghanistan. It's a first step in order to try and make sure that we do have an interim government, we do have some form of central authority with whom we can deal with in Afghanistan. And you know, if ten days ago we'd been having this interview, you know none of us would have dared predict that we would actually be successful in getting all the different factions, all the different ethnic groups to come together to discuss how they work together to create that interim government. I think, yes, it would be unlikely except in the development of some real drama that any of us would want to move in the interim while these talks continue. I mean we will have to see what comes out of them. HUMPHRYS: The old thing about taking the horse to water, not necessarily being able to make it drink. It's one thing to have the Northern Alliance there, it's another thing, because they seem to regard themselves as a de facto government anyway, it's another thing to get them agree to the sort of broad based government that we insist is absolutely necessary. And it's more difficult to put the sort of pressure on them that might be needed if we don't have any forces on the ground isn't it. COOK: Well, John, it's certainly the case that there's a big hill still to be climbed and nobody should under-estimate the difficulty that there will be in getting a break through in the course of the talks in Bonn and I think the likely outcome is that there will be, or we hope to achieve an interim government and the agreement on the steps towards how we then go ahead to provide for a more permanent government within Afghanistan. I think the objectives in Bonn necessarily will be interim objectives. Yes, it's not going to be easy and some of these diplomatic and political tasks never are easy but let's not lose sight of how far we've come. You know, I'm told when you're climbing the Himalayas you should look back and look at how far you've come, run forward at how far you've got to go. And it is quite remarkable that we've been able to put together this broad conference of the different factions within Afghanistan. That's not happened for a decade. HUMPHRYS: No, but the difficulty now is that if the Northern Alliance see themselves, as they do, as the effective government of the country, we are almost, or the other parties let's put it like this, are almost in a position of supplicants and the Northern Alliance in the position of being able to say, well we may have you in, we may have you in, we may have you in, we may not have you in and you in and you in. That isn't how it was meant to be is it? COOK: Well, I can well understand that there are going to be people in Bonn, who are going to say, well thank you very much we are not having back the Taliban hardliners who run down Afghanistan over the past five years and caused so much oppression and hardship in Afghanistan. But we would expect them and I think there's a very real reason to expect that they would wish to do this, to have involved in any interim government representatives of the Pashtuns within Afghanistan. They afterall are forty per cent of the population of Afghanistan and nobody, including the Northern Alliance, can hope to have a stable government in Kabul that does not include representatives of that forty per cent, some of whom of course over the past two months have been very supportive of the international coalition and of our efforts to bring about the fall of Taliban and to bring to justice al-Qaeda and Bin Laden. HUMPHRYS: But when push comes to shove, if they are obdurate, if the Northern Alliance prove to be obdurate and certainly their record, if you are talking about looking back in the Himalayas, look back at their history and that tells you they are likely to be very difficult indeed, if they are obdurate, there's not a lot we can do to pressure them in truth is there. COOK: John, as I say, I'm not saying it's going to be easy. I'm certainly not complacent about the very great difficulties that face us in front. I think that it would be wrong though John, to suggest that in any way we can use military pressure on the ground in order to force them to enter into the kind of agreements that are needed. What we are offering and this I think may be much more effective in getting a solution, what we are offering, is we are offering a partnership with the international community to rebuild Afghanistan, to provide a future for it, for its young people, for its women who have been so oppressed for so long and indeed for the political leadership who will benefit from that kind of partnership and reconstruction. But if they want that partnership, if they want that reconstruction, then they've got to deliver a government in Kabul that can speak for all the people of Afghanistan, not just some of its ethnic communities. HUMPHRYS: The problem is from our perspective is that it is we who have helped put them in that position isn't it. That's our responsibility? COOK: Well, in a sense it is Taliban more than anybody else's responsible for the present situation because they refused to hand over Bin Laden, they refused themselves to do any kind of deal with the Northern Alliance, they oppressed and carried out extraordinary atrocities against all the other ethnic communities in Afghanistan, they more than anybody else have to accept responsibility for where we are and frankly if you mean by your question, we were responsible for getting Taliban out of office and reduced their position which they hold only a few pockets in Afghanistan, then yes you are right and frankly I think that's been good for the people of Afghanistan and good for the rest of the world if it now enables us to capture Bin Laden and those who plotted the mass murder in New York. HUMPHRYS: Robin Cook, 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.