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Hutton: We could be there for decades

The war in Afghanistan could take "decades", the new Defence Secretary John Hutton admitted today.

Speaking to BBC One's Politics Show, Mr Hutton also paid tribute to 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, which returns today from Afghanistan.

He said they had done a "superb job".

He went on to say: "It was a rough time for them and they took a lot of casualties but we've all got sympathy obviously, first and foremost for their families."

He defended the government against charges that the troops in the region have been under equipped.

He continued: "Despite the credit crunch, the MoD would press ahead with its plans to build new aircraft carriers."

You can read the full transcript here...

JON SOPEL: John Hutton joins us now for his first television interview since getting the new job. John Hutton, thanks very much for being with us. I'm sure we'll come to your impressions of Iraq and Afghanistan in a moment but I know the last remaining troops of 2 Para are back today after a bruising six month tour of duty, in which they've encountered many losses and a number of casualties. How do you say to their families that the suffering that they've been through has been worth it and to the rest of the British people.

JOHN HUTTON: Well 2 Para, all of the forces in 16 Air-assault brigade who've just come back from Afghanistan, did a superb job while they were out there, but for the families particularly of 2 Para, it was a rough time for them and they took a lot of casualties but we've all got sympathy obviously, first and foremost for their families, but I think the really important thing here is to be clear about the mission and why we're there and I say to everyone that we're in Afghanistan for the UK's vital national security interests because we know what happens, we know what has happened in the past when Afghanistan falls in to the clutches of international terrorists like al Qaeda, they export the terrorism, they export it here right on our doorsteps here in the UK, so Afghanistan is the front line.

It's the front line in the fight against international terror and that's why we've got to succeed in the campaign there, to deal with the insurgency, to build a long term framework for peace and stability in Afghanistan and that is what our guys are doing and it is incredibly hard, it's incredibly hard to take the casualties, it is incredibly hard for the families, we all understand that, but it is a mission that is first and foremost about the UK's long term national security interests and that is why our forces are there and that's why we've got to do everything we can to give them the tools, the kit, the equipment they need to succeed in that campaign, and that's what we will do.

JON SOPEL: You say they've got to succeed. How many years might that take.

JOHN HUTTON: It's impossible to tell.

JON SOPEL: Decades.

JOHN HUTTON: It could be, yes it could be. But we've got to prevail against the insurgency and what ever it takes, we have to make available, along with our allies in NATO, to create the space that allows the political progress to blossom in Afghanistan, it is difficult, we all understand how difficult it is, but there is no easy option here because if we .. (interjection)... pull out from Afghanistan, then the Taliban take over and then we're back to square one and we can't allow that to happen.

JON SOPEL: Sure. You know though that a lot of your top military commanders are very sceptical that you can succeed. I mean, you know, Brigadier Carlton Smith, the outgoing head of British Troops said, We're not going to win this war, it's about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency. Is he right.

JOHN HUTTON: Well we've always said and Brigadier Carlton Smith is right to say that success in Afghanistan is not going to be defined purely in military terms. There are a number of aspects to our counter-insurgency campaign there. One of them is the security operation and we've got to have more security in Afghanistan than we currently do and it is down to ourselves and our Afghan allies, and our NATO partners, to create that secure space in Afghanistan, but then on top of that there's got to be political progress, there's got to be reconciliation progress, there's got to be economic developments in social progress. Now, our guys, our allies, the Afghans, security forces can do so much but the politicians, there and internationally, have to do the other part of the piece as well. So they're right to say that this isn't a purely military campaign, but without security, I don't think it's possible for the other aspects of the campaign to develop in the way that they should.

JON SOPEL: Isn't it extraordinary that, I think it was two Secretary of State for Defences ago, you were talking about perhaps victory in Afghanistan being achieved without a single bullet being fired and now you coming on the Politics Show today and conceding that it might be decades.

JOHN HUTTON: Well I think to be fair to John Reid when he made those comments, he was clear that we were sending a fully equipped military force to Afghanistan and there could be obviously - the fact, the reality was, they were going to be deployed in a military context. He was expressing the hope that there wouldn't have to be violence but we recognize the possibility that there would be. So I don't think we've been under any illusion at all about the nature of the operation there but the Taliban are a tough opponent but what we've got to do all of us in the ISA.. forces in Afghanistan, all of our allies, is to make sure that we don't wobble. There can't be a time, this isn't a time for faint hearts in relation to Afghanistan, we've got to support our guys on the ground there, who are doing an absolutely superb job and make sure that they can create the security space, which then allows the political process in Afghanistan to deliver the long term results.

JON SOPEL: Okay, you've come to this job at the time of a credit crunch, I wonder when you took the job, you sought assurances that defence budgets would be protected.

JOHN HUTTON: We've got a growing defence budget and that hasn't always been so in the last twenty years or so. We've got a defence budget that is rising, but we've got to make sure that we don't over spend. I think that is the challenge for us in the MOD at the moment, it's not, as it were, the case of dealing with a decline in defence budget, as I say, it's growing.

JON SOPEL: Can I have a couple of specifics then, just to see where we are. The two new aircraft carriers. Are they going ahead to the same time schedule.

JOHN HUTTON: Yeah, well we, we, we want the carriers and we've, we've been clear about that for the last few years. They give the Royal Navy and therefore Britain a global reach. It gives us an important... (interjection)...

JON SOPEL: So is that a yes.

JOHN HUTTON: Yes, no, we, we will have the carriers yes.

JON SOPEL: And in the same time schedule.

JOHN HUTTON: Yeah, well we're looking at every aspect of, of the carrier programme, looking at every aspect of the procurement programme, but we're committed to the two carriers and we're going to proceed with that, yes.

JON SOPEL: Joint strike... aircraft.

JOHN HUTTON: Well if you're going to have carriers, you need aircraft to fly from them, otherwise there's not a lot of point to it. So, we...

JON SOPEL: So that's a yes as well, in the same time frame.

JOHN HUTTON: Well we, we need the aircraft carriers with capable aircraft on them and everything we're going to do is designed to make sure that we get that twin capability, the carriers and the aircraft.

JON SOPEL: Are there any budgets that are going to have to be squeezed if... these major procurement projects.

JOHN HUTTON: Well I don't, I don't want to give you the impression that procurement isn't going to have to be looked at very carefully, procurement budgets will have to be looked at carefully in the years ahead but let me give you one example of where we are trying to reduce expenditure, we're actually taking a quarter of the civil servant posts out of the Ministry of Defence itself, to try and reduce the costs of the MOD so we can funnel as much of the resources as we can, to our guys on the front line and I think that is absolutely right and proper.

So we're looking at every aspect of MOD spending. I mean that is right and proper that a Secretary of State should come on a programme like this and say that we're not going to take anything for granted. If I can get better value for money in the spending, in my programmes, I'm definitely going to find those extra savings so I can secure what I want to do which is capable armed forces, able to do the job that we politicians asked them to do, minimizing the stress on service families at the same time.

JON SOPEL: What about kit because there's been a lot of criticism that they have been under kitted out and that there have been deaths directly caused, you know the inquest that has taken place this week in to Corporal Wright I think.

JOHN HUTTON: Yes, well we sent the forces to Afghanistan three years ago, I think very capably equipped but what has happened in the last few years, particularly in the last twelve months or so, we've seen significant changes in Taliban tactics and that has required us to invest in a whole range of new equipment, protected mobility, better vehicles, better body armour for the soldiers, better rifles, better machine guns, we've invested billions, literally, in re-equipping our forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan and that is again, right and proper because we can't ask guys to go over there and do a job unless they're properly equipped, unless the nature of the threat has changed. We've had to invest very significantly in new kit and equipment for them.

JON SOPEL: I think the Sun had a story at the end of the week about there are kind of one in six infantrymen, are unfit for service.

JOHN HUTTON: Well, it's a tough job but look, we have...

JON SOPEL: You don't deny the figures.

JOHN HUTTON: Not every soldier, sailor and airman is capable of being sent abroad on, on operations, that is obviously so and you don't need to be a military strategist to work that out, I mean people do get sick and ill. There are other roles that we ask our service personnel to do, other than serve on deployed operations.

So we have a variety of different roles we want our people to fulfil, but we've got, I think one of the highest proportions of NATO armed forces deployed on active operations. We have done a brilliant job in both Iraq and Afghanistan, so I don't take those figures as implying anything other than Britain retains highly capable armed forces that are able to do the job and the roles that we ask the to do.

JON SOPEL: And we've talked about this interview in the context of the credit crunch and the implications that may be. Did you see the scale of the recession coming when you were business secretary.

JOHN HUTTON: I don't think anyone did. I think the scale and depth of the economic problems we're facing now are pretty unprecedented. In the past when we've had economic downturns, the problem has either been an inflationary problem, maybe you know, our industries have not adapted... we haven't seen investment going in. This is a problem that has been festering in the financial sector, the financial markets for a while and it's now spilling out in to the real economy, so this is quite a different set of problem that we're dealing with here but I think the leadership that the Prime Minister has shown and the work that the Chancellor has done, has actually given us I think an opportunity to deal with these challenges and it's clear that other countries are looking to emulate and follow what we're doing here in the UK. But I think we've got a set of problems, we're attacking them and let's hope we come through this difficult time quickly and with the minimum damage... (overlaps)...

JON SOPEL: John Hutton, thank you very much for being with us.


Please note BBC Politics Show must be credited if any part of these transcripts are used.

NB:These transcripts were typed from a recording and not copied from original scripts.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for their accuracy.


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