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Last Updated: Sunday, 9 July 2006, 10:59 GMT 11:59 UK
Taleban 'energised'?
On Sunday 09 July 2006, Andrew Marr discussed the Afghanistan conflict with Colonel Tim Collins and Janine di Giovanni

Please note "BBC Sunday AM" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

Colonel Tim Collins
Colonel Tim Collins

ANDREW MARR: The government has long said that the army's mission in Afghanistan is to focus on reconstruction and not counter insurgent warfare.

But in the past four weeks six soldiers have died in combat with Taliban guerrillas and the Defence Secretary has just announced that his commanders have asked for serious backup on the ground.

We're expecting some kind of announcement on reinforcements next week.

To discuss the present situation in Afghanistan I am joined now by Janine Di Giovanni whose book, The Place At The End Of The World recounts her experiences in war-torn Tora Bora when the Taliban retreated last time.

And I'm also joined by Colonel Tim Collins who fought in the war in Iraq.

And we all remember that inspiring speech that you made just at the beginning of the war and things have gone pretty badly awry since then of course.

Just start off, Tim, you can tell us your assessment of the kind of threat British troops are now facing in southern Afghanistan, and whether they're properly equipped to face it.

TIM COLLINS: Well, the threat is a complex one, like in Iraq, in Afghanistan you have a country which is made up of a large number of ethnic groups. But by and large because it's a failed state, a lot of the country is like a loose collection of violent people, and they owe their allegiance to their tribal heads and their tribes themselves. And then there's the drug barons who make a large amount of money, and the people who protect their crops who are armed. And then there's the Taliban superimposed on that.

So, if you imagine it as a serious of Venn diagrams we have a very complex situation, the common denominator being a great deal of violent people. Into that we have then a British government that has no idea of what it wants to do. It's invited the Army to go to Iraq, to Afghanistan, and do stuff. It would be a bit like giving your keys to builders and say go and do some stuff in my house. And like the builders would be saying well would you like it painted...I've no idea, just go and do stuff.

And they've arrived there and discovered that the force package is too small. We, you hear about the numbers of troops there, but what that doesn't illustrate is that we've deployed the apache attack helicopter, mainly to give it something to do because it was bought at the end of the Cold War, and the difficulty is it needs so many people to maintain it, a large number of the people who are actually deployed are there to look after the helicopter.

ANDREW MARR: But the main thing, from you point of view is lack of clarity about what they're there for. Janine, you've been there, you've watched the Taliban in action before. How dangerous a threat is this resurgence, do you think?

JANINE DI GIOVANNI: Well I think you always have to look back at history, and look at the lessons of history. And during the Soviet war with the Mujahideen the Soviets were completely tied down. The terrain of Afghanistan is, you know, extraordinary.

I remember arriving shortly after 9/11 and just being stunned by the vastness of the country. How difficult it is to get around. Also the whole tribal system, which we were talking about, makes it very, very complicated. So, I just think initially what was a good idea has turned very sour. And you have to know when to retreat.

ANDREW MARR: The thing that sort of haunted me was, on the show last week, William Hague pointed out that simultaneously we're trying to remove the poppy crop which is the main source of income for these people - and get them to like us and trust us. And the two things can't do it. I'm taking your money away.

TIM COLLINS: Again it's complete nonsense that - the poppy crop is a fact of life. And asking Afghans to stop harvesting the poppy crop is like asking the Arabs to stop harvesting oil. It's unrealistic. At this current time there is a shortage of opiates on the world pharmaceutical market. So one option would be, in the short term, to buy the crop and use it for pharmaceuticals. And then, with a staged plan, and this is what's missing every time, a plan to replace the poppy crop with something which is sustainable for the farmers.


TIM COLLINS: But just taking away their livelihood overnight is just not an option.

ANDREW MARR: Janine, there's been quite a few comments over the last few hours to the effect that Afghan police and troops and people who are supposed to be on the other side, are covertly helping the Taliban. Presumably there's the sense that everybody there wants to know who's ultimately going to win, and get in with the Taliban if they're going to win.

JANINE DI GIOVANNI: Well, Andrew, this is one of the things that stunned me during the battle of Tora Bora was how quickly the commanders would shift sides for, you know, $150. And it was very new to me having worked in Bosnia or places where people's ideals were so strong that they, you know, they fought for what they believed in. And I think that the Afghans, it's very different, you know, it's all about who's going to win? How to be on the victorious side.

ANDREW MARR: And yet, I mean, Tim Collins, a lot of people will say actually whatever you thought about Iraq, this makes more sense to people, this particular war if it is a war now. Because that's after all where Al Qaeda has been based, that's where a lot of the people who are genuinely out to get us, are hiding.

TIM COLLINS: Well I mean, it is a war first of all, and it's a war we cannot shy away from. We must fight this, we must win this one. And like Iraq, that's an optional one, there is no choice in this. And of course the other thing about Afghanistan is the fact of the matter is that the people who live there desperately want security there. That's why they're armed. But like feral people that they are, if they sense fear or weakness they will turn away from you...

ANDREW MARR: So you think a major increase in the number of troops..

TIM COLLINS: We have no option in my view than to do that, except the one problem is that the Generals have allowed the Army to be reduced to a size that there simply isn't any troops. We'd have to borrow them from somebody else, because the deployments to Iraq, the deployments to Afghanistan have pretty much eaten up everything that there is. The Territorial Army already is being heavily used, some would say overused. And even its use in these conflicts is a breach of contract with why we have a Territorial Army.

ANDREW MARR: So if I asked you how many extra troops we need in Afghanistan it's a meaningless question because we can't send many more?

TIM COLLINS: Absolutely, we don't have the troops to send. We'd send them all once.

JANINE DI GIOVANNI: I think I tend to disagree. I mean, I see it as a quagmire, that old catchphrase. But I don't see why we have to be there losing British lives. Because I think it's essentially a war that can't be won.

ANDREW MARR: You mean we'll never get to Al Qaeda, we'll never get to the people that we're trying to find?

JANINE DI GIOVANNI: I mean it's just going back to Tora Bora again, the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. The American, you know, B52s coming in, did we find him? No - he escaped the first week of December. So I just, I mean I read the news with a sinking heart, thinking how many more young British soldiers are going to be sent into this seemingly endless war without end.

TIM COLLINS: Well I think there could be a point where we stabilise it and then we have a proxy Army that takes over. But the stabilising issue must happen.

JANINE DI GIOVANNI: But that would take years.

ANDREW MARR: It would take years of conversation, it could go on. We're going to hear an awful more about this next week, but thank you both very much indeed for coming in.


NB: this transcript was typed from a 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

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