On the Politics Show, Sunday 15 March 2009, Jon Sopel interviewed John Hutton, Defence Secretary.
Video: The John Hutton interview
JON SOPEL: We're joined now by the Defence Secretary, John Hutton. Thanks very much for being with us and I guess it's the news you dread hearing.
JOHN HUTTON: It is and I think it's the news that everyone in the country dreads hearing but we've always got to remind ourselves why are guys are in Afghanistan, what they're doing. They're there first and foremost to tackle fundamental extremism, which is a risk to the security of our citizens and our country and to execute the policy properly, we are trying to protect the local population from the influence of those extremists, to help build up credible and reliable Afghan security forces as well, and in the process, and the other thing that really has to happen, the local politicians to create more of a consensus, more of an opportunity for people to come together, to put down their weapons, so Afghans can enjoy peace and security for the long term, but it is a terribly, terribly sad thing when any British serviceman or woman gets killed or injured in Afghanistan and we mourn their loss very deeply.
JON SOPEL: Sorry to interrupt you. I guess an awful lot of people listening to that answer will kind of wonder whether you believe that militarily, the Taliban can be beaten.
JOHN HUTTON: The Taliban can't beat us in Afghanistan. They don't pose a tactical or a strategic threat to NATO and ISAF forces in Afghanistan.
JON SOPEL: Not quite what I asked.
JOHN HUTTON: Well, no, but they cannot. I think it is the answer to your question. So I think what we've got to concentrate on is protecting the local population from the extremists and terrorists and build up these credible Afghan forces because the one thing I think that will allow us to come out of Afghanistan at some point, is when we can leave behind credible and determined security forces who can manage the level of insurgency at an appropriate level. Now we're some … (interjection) …
JON SOPEL: My question was can we militarily beat the Taliban.
JOHN HUTTON: I think we can stop them taking control of the country of course and that's what we're there to do. And I think with our Afghan partners, yes, I do believe that we can succeed in Afghanistan. That we can succeed in securing the Afghan democracy and giving Afghan citizens the change to live their life in peace and security, without the threat of Al-Qaeda and fundamentalist extremists, coming back and running the country. So yes, I do believe we can do that. But to do that, we've got to be convinced about the nature of our mission there and be determined to prosecute it fully.
JON SOPEL: Which means that it's much more a counter-insurgency role. Do you think the British forces need to almost re-equip and retrain for that particular focus?
JOHN HUTTON: Well I do think that and I think that is probably the lesson that we should draw from not just what's happened in Afghanistan, but what also happened in Iraq. These are complicated operations that we're involved in now and I think the sort of conflict we've had in Iraq, the sort of conflict we're involved in now in Afghanistan, probably will define the characteristics of future conflict for some decades to come. So, we've got to learn the lessons from the last few years and that's relevant I think, not just for how we conduct these operations, but the training of our men and women, the equipment and the capability they have, too. That's what we are going to focus on very, very heavily in the Ministry of Defence in the next year or so.
JON SOPEL: In practical terms, what does that mean. In terms of the way we equip soldiers to go there or is it in terms of tactics?
JOHN HUTTON: I think it's everything. I think we've got to be prepared to learn the lessons from group practice and we've seen from the Americans in Iraq and we're also seeing it in Afghanistan, I think good practice, which we should be able to learn from. I think, by the same token, I don't want to under-estimate the enormous contribution that British Forces have made in Afghanistan and our ability to mount these very, very difficult and sensitive operations, in a complex society like Afghanistan, we ourselves have come a long way in the last few years and we're making a very significant difference.
JON SOPEL: You are describing a policy transformation here.
JOHN HUTTON: Yes. And I think this is going to affect the armed forces of all of the NATO countries. This is the challenge for our generation and it's a good thing in a sense. We don't run the risk of inter-state warfare threatening European home land security but we do face a very significant international threat to our way of life, our values - maybe not our borders but our values, from international terrorism. So we've all got to be part of this learning exercise in NATO, all the way through the alliance, we've all got to learn the lessons of the last few years.
JON SOPEL: You talked about the need to tackle fundamental extremism and I just kind of can't help thinking about those pictures that we saw this week in Luton, with the Royal Anglians coming back and those banners and slogans saying, Go to Hell Royal Anglians, the Butchers of Basra - I mean, what did you think when you saw it.
JOHN HUTTON: I think like everyone else in the country, I was very, very offended by what was being said there. I think we've just got to remind ourselves again, there were half a dozen people there, amongst a crowd of several thousand who wanted to pay their respects and tributes to the Royal Anglians, coming back from Iraq. And I think there was a handful of people who were clearly so far away from anything that resembles mainstream, democratic opinion in this country. We saw what they had to say and I think most people in the country were sickened by that type of ridiculous allegation made against our servicemen and women. (interjection)
JON SOPEL: Yeah. Not least the Conservative MP who is proposing that there ought to be a kind of law against the incitement of hatred to serving military personnel. Would you favour that?
JOHN HUTTON: Well, I think respect is the most important thing in this debate. I think the men and women who serve our country, who wear our uniform are entitled to respect. They do an amazing job. They've done an amazing job in Iran, they're doing an amazing job in Afghanistan. And I think when they come back home and see British citizens saying and shouting and behaving like that, I think, I think there are some very important lessons for us all in that. The right to free speech is a very important part of our way of life but I do believe very strongly that that has got to be tempered. We - that has always been the view in British law that you don't cause unnecessarily offence to others. I'm pretty sure that the laws that we currently have about public order are pretty comprehensive and are capable of dealing with these types of problems in the future.
JON SOPEL: Maybe it should have been handled rather differently by the police?
JOHN HUTTON: That's not my job to comment on that but I think it's left a very, very bad taste in the mouth of the mainstream majority in Britain and I hope those who were responsible for that demonstration, reflect very seriously on what they're doing.
JON SOPEL: And I know soldiers are big tough guys, but I mean were they offended.
JOHN HUTTON: I think you probably need to ask them that. I think they probably were actually, yes. I certainly was and I think the vast majority of the British public opinion was as well. People have strong views about the Iraq War, they have strong views about our role in Afghanistan, but I think there's got to be a way of expressing your views without accusing others of some quite ridiculous and absurd allegations.
JON SOPEL: Okay John Hutton. Thanks ever so much for being with us.
END OF INTERVIEW WITH JOHN HUTTON
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The Politics Show Sunday 15 March 2009 at 12:00 GMT on BBC One.
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