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Last Updated: Sunday, 19 February 2006, 09:35 GMT
Be slow to condemn
On Sunday 19 February 2006 Huw Edwards interviewed John Reid MP

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

John Reid MP
John Reid MP

HUW EDWARDS: Now, Britain's big new deployment of troops to Afghanistan began last week and by the summer more than 3,000 soldiers will be based in Helma (?) province in the south of the country, an area described by journalists who've been there, as one of the most lawless and dangerous places on earth.

The army has the unenviable job of helping to stabilise a country which has been shattered by years of civil war and misrule. And all this at a time when thousands of British troops are of course still committed in Iraq.

To discuss this and much more I'm joined by the Defence Secretary, Dr. John Reid. John, good morning.

JOHN REID: Good morning to you.

HUW EDWARDS: Thanks for coming in.

JOHN REID: Pleasure.

HUW EDWARDS: Basic question. Why did you decide to send these men into Afghanistan, which is by all accounts an absolutely horrendous region to be operating in?

JOHN REID: Well let's remember why we're there. We're there because Afghanistan under the Taleban and Al Qaeda, was the place where not only were the plans to murder thousands of people in New York prepared, but they were actually trained for, and launched.

And if Afghanistan is ever to slip back into the hands of the terrorists again then we would be just as much in that front line of threat as the people of, the thousands who tragically died in New York.

So, there are dangers in Afghanistan but we went in there, not like Iraq, after the event, not pre-empt. We went in there unlike Iraq with the united world community through the United Nations and we're in there for the long haul and that that's why we're taking it in stages.

And the latest stage is more difficult and dangerous than the previous ones. But there is a greater danger and that is not doing this, not completing the task and letting the Taleban and the terrorists back in.

HUW EDWARDS: There are several elements I'd like to pick out on this if that's all right. The Tories this morning were saying that this is in their view the most ill-advised military operation since Dunkirk. I think the point they were making within that statement was that the men were not prepared very well for this mission, that they were not very well supported. And indeed, and this is the most serious point maybe, it wasn't clear what they're meant to be achieving there. So could you clear that up first of all.

JOHN REID: Yes. Well first of all let me say how I deprecate somebody like Patrick Mercer, the Conservative Party candidate...

HUW EDWARDS: ..who made that statement...

JOHN REID: ...casting dispersions on the training of the British troops, the decisions of the commanders, the configuration which they have chosen because it's the British commanders who have advised me on exactly what's necessary. And I dare say they know a little bit more about it than Tory front benchers, quite frankly. The mission is quite clear. We'd go there not to hunt terrorist, though if we're attacked by terrorists or insurgents we will obviously defend ourselves.

We go there to defend President Karzai's government, the democratically-elected government of Afghanistan, and civilian authorities who are helping him from the whole international community, to build their economy, build their democracy, and build their own security forces. In the course of the building of the economy we would try to help them to undermine the drugs trade as well.

But the mission is quite clear, it's the same mission we've had for three years in Afghanistan under the internationalisation, international stabilisation force which was sent there by the United Nations. So there's no lack of clarity at all about this. And the military configuration we're sending in is that which was requested and has been trained by our military commanders. And I have a great deal of respect for that.

HUW EDWARDS: What about the point made by some which is that given the kind of problems they'll face, just over 3,000 men, the extra deployment that you're putting in, is not frankly going to make a huge difference? Do you accept that?

JOHN REID: No, that's not the view of President Karzai and the democratically elected government of Afghanistan. It's certainly not our view. What is true, and I have said this. In three years' time you're not going to have Hampshire there, or the Home Counties, of course not. We're dealing with the third poorest country outside sub-Saharan Africa, which is why we need economic development. We're dealing with a country that's been ravaged by the Taleban and the terrorists for years, which is why we need central government, democratically elected central government, help to expand its control.

And we're dealing with a country that's had very few of its own security forces built up because there's been a war against the Russians and after that an internal war and then the terrorists launching their attack. So the question is, does it remove a threat to us by what we're doing? And that's the primary reason we're in there because this was used as a threat to the West and thousands died.

There's no gain saying this, you don't have to look in the crystal ball, you can read the book - thousands died and we never want that to happen again. But we're also doing a good thing for the people of Afghanistan, because they have a democratically elected government not and we are going to see this through with them.

HUW EDWARDS: Given what you're doing there and given what's happening in Iraq, are you concerned at all that people of the stature of Lord Guthrie, for example, are saying that what's happening to the British Army given some of the decisions that you're making as well, means that it's very badly over-stretched. It's dangerously over-stretched. Now will you respect that view?

JOHN REID: I always listen with respect to Charles Guthrie, he's a former CDS, Chief of Defence Staff, and every other Chief of Defence Staff who's up in the House of Lords. I think at the last count there was seven of them - they don't always agree, but they always have something to say.

But more importantly I listen to the present Chief of Defence Staff, and the Chief of the General Staff and the other Chiefs because they're the people who know what we can...

HUW EDWARDS: Who disagree with Lord Guthrie do they?

JOHN REID: Well of course we wouldn't be sending troops into Afghanistan if the Chiefs of Staff were saying to me that this was the wrong time or the wrong size or we didn't have enough, of course not. And I, one of the first questions I asked was, is this dependent on drawing down troops in Iraq? And the answer to that is no.

However, what I can say on Iraq is that the conditions that we have set for handing over to the Iraqi security forces are just about to start being accomplished in some parts of the country. I've said all along that as we helped the Iraqis who have their own democratic government now elected, you know, I mean, ten and a half million people, 70% of their electorate, turned out to vote. Higher than here despite the threat from the terrorists.

They now have their own government information and they have building their own security forces so we're not far off the day when we can start handing over in some parts of Iraq. But that is completely independent from the need and the configuration of forces we're sending into Iraq.

HUW EDWARDS: I mean some viewers may think well yes, OK, he's got a point, there's been political progress in Iraq. But if you follow the news every week the security situation there is frankly a bit of a disaster. So how can you be talking about progress there too?

JOHN REID: Well this is one of the things I'm going to be saying in my speech tomorrow. Actually in 14 out of the 18 provinces of Iraq the security situation is not a disaster. In our own area there are problems of security but they are not as represented on the headlines.

Because the truth of the matter is that the headlines always by definition almost, concentrate on the tragedy, so we don't see the thousands of schools that have been opened. We don't see the thousands of children, millions of children who have now been educated, or inoculated. We don't see the hospitals that have been opened. We don't see the 230,000 Iraqi security forces who've now been trained. We don't see the brave Iraqi men going out supported by brave Iraqi politicians. We always hear the terrorists' point of view.

And one of the points I'm making, and I'm glad it was raised by Bob Marshall Andrews earlier, because he, he illustrated exactly the point I'm trying to make. There he was condemning a speech he hasn't even read, making comments on the basis of prejudice, rushing to judgement to condemn something because it suits his prejudice. He has no idea what's in the speech tomorrow.

Let me tell you what's in it Huw, it is saying we ought to recognise the difficult situation our troops now fight in, far more difficult than any time in history, because they face an enemy that is completely unconstrained. The international terrorist is not constrained by legality, by morality, by any conventions, Geneva or otherwise. Yet our troops are increasingly constrained, not just by international law and conventions, the standards we want to keep, but by media scrutiny, by video phones, by mobile phones, by satellite dishes..

HUW EDWARDS: that a bad thing?

JOHN REID: It is not necessarily a bad thing. But let's recognise that there's a third element as well, and that is the enemy who is unconstrained will use all of our freedoms including that very television to undermine the morale and the will of democracies to fight, to defend those very freedoms they misuse.

One example of that - the terrorist who would never allow any freedom on television will use our television to show hostages being demeaned, being degraded and in some cases being executed.

Why? Because they use our freedom as the tool to terrorise our people. And it's that sort of speech I'm saying, in the speech tomorrow, we ought to be very slow to condemn our troops fighting in those circumstances. And I think the public agree with that incidentally.

HUW EDWARDS: And are you also saying that you should be slow to condemn when you're confronted with the kind of images that were published last week, for example, in the News of the World?

JOHN REID: Quite the opposite. This is again where Bob Marshall Andrews illustrated the point by pandering his prejudices before he looks at the facts. What I'm saying is we should condemn that, absolutely. Those standards, we have standards in the British Forces, and because we maintain those standards we find it much more difficult in the short term anyway, to fight against an enemy who has no standards.

But I insist we put it in proportion. We've had 80,000 - 100,000 troops going through Iraq. Almost 100,000. We have had five sustainable cases of allegations, sustainable allegations, of mistreatment of civilians. Probably 20 or 30 people.

That is not 5% of our troops. It is not 0.5%, it is less than 0.05%. Why does that always make the headlines, and the 99.95% of the good work our troops do never in the headlines? And that's what the public in this country really actually support.

HUW EDWARDS: You've made the point John. I must move on, we've just got a couple of minutes left. Guantanamo Bay, which is usually a controversial thing. Peter Hain says it should be closed, he says the Prime Minister agrees with him. Is that your view?

JOHN REID: Peter said he'd prefer that there was no Guantanamo Bay. I would prefer there was no Guantanamo Bay, no international terrorism, no need to cope with that.

HUW EDWARDS: But no Guantanamo Bay...

JOHN REID: ...well let me finish. I would prefer we didn't have to change our laws, we didn't have to introduce 20 days', 60 days', 90 days' detention. We didn't have to bring in new terrorism law. But the reason that we have to do all of these things, including the response of Guantanamo Bay after several thousand Americans had been killed. The reason and the cause for it is essentially international terrorism.

HUW EDWARDS: Should it be closed?

JOHN REID: That means that that response to that means that we have to constrain our freedom.

HUW EDWARDS: Should it be closed?

JOHN REID: Now listen, the Americans lost several thousand people. I'm not going to tell the Americans how to deal with their response to international terrorism which lost them several thousand people. What I would say is that the further we go from that event the harder it is to justify those type of measures.

Because if several thousand people were killed here by international terrorists tomorrow, Huw, I tell you, you would be demanding that we did something like take every suspected terrorist off the street. We did it during the second world war. We interned people during the second world war.

Now, the further you go from the event I fully realise that that anomaly, that coping with a new phenomenon of international terrorism who respect no international conventions, the immediate knee-jerk reaction to that, the longer you go from it I can fully understand people saying...

HUW EDWARDS: You have Desmond Tutu, John Sentamu, you have Kofi Annan, all saying it should be closed, you're not going as far as that?

JOHN REID: None of them, with great respect to them, are responsible to the American people who lost several thousand people. I would prefer we didn't have Guantanamo Bay but I would also prefer we didn't have to tackle international terrorism.

HUW EDWARDS: Just a last point John, because we're almost out of time. Bird flu, if I may. Are you convinced the government has got measures in place? People are very concerned about it. Are you convinced that those measures are in place to deal with that?

JOHN REID: Yes. And not just because I was involved in preparing them. But what I can tell you is the difficulty if bird flu ever transfers to humans, and it hasn't yet, so don't let's panic. If it does, up until the point that it does and mixes with a human flu it isn't possible to have a vaccine in advance.

The most you can do is prepare and have a type of pill you take which diminishes the symptoms after it arrives. But it hasn't arrived. Don't let us panic, and I am sure that the government has got all necessary measures there.

HUW EDWARDS: Now I'm being given orders to go for a news summary, but before I do I've got to ask you, I read with interest this week that you'd buried the hatchet with Gordon Brown. Some people might have thought there was no hatchet to bury, but you're big friends now are you?

JOHN REID: We've always been friends, for 25 years, and what I've said this week actually, is that the leadership of this party is so united behind our reforms that whoever becomes leader after Tony Blair will be committed to New Labour.

But I tell you Huw, I'd much rather we were talking about other things, because I think people out there are sick and tired of politicians talking to politicians about what they can do with other politicians.

HUW EDWARDS: It's been 15 seconds of a long interview John so I think that, that's in context isn't it?

JOHN REID: Yes, absolutely. But it isn't urgent because the Prime Minister as far as I'm aware isn't about to go anywhere.


JOHN REID: Any time quickly.

HUW EDWARDS: It's very good of you to come in. John Reid thank you very much.

JOHN REID: Cheers.


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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