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Last Updated: Sunday, 13 November 2005, 12:38 GMT
Iraq timetable
On Sunday 13 November 2005 Andrew Marr interviewed General Sir Mike Jackson, Chief of the General Staff

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

General Sir Mike Jackson
General Sir Mike Jackson, Chief of the General Staff

ANDREW MARR: Now as well as many hundreds of thousands who died in two world wars, the lives of nearly a hundred British soldiers killed in Iraq will be remembered this morning.

As we heard in the news it seems that the armed ... forces involvement there may end sooner than many people expect.

Just before we came on air, I talked to the head of the Army, General Sir Mike Jackson, and I began by asking him just how tough life is at the moment for servicemen and servicewomen in Iraq.

GENERAL MIKE JACKSON: Well perhaps before I talk about Iraq, it may just be right to reflect early this Sunday morning that it is Remembrance Day and that we don't only remember, of course, soldiers, sailors and airmen, who have fallen in both the great wars of the last century but those who have given their lives since as well.

You ask me about Iraq, well I was there about a month ago - just before the referendum - and in some ways I was quite encouraged by what I found.

The political progress being made is, in some ways, quite remarkable: the success of the elections in January, now the referendum, and no doubt elections in December leading to a new and long-term Iraqi government.

The security sector, as we call it, the security sector reform - building up an Iraqi army - that goes pretty well, perhaps less so well with the police. The security situation is rather less than anybody would wish. So it's a mixed bag but on the whole -

ANDREW MARR: What about the stories of support coming across the border, in the south from Iran, is that a serious problem?

GENERAL MIKE JACKSON: There is, I fear, reason to conclude that there is some Iranian influence in what is going on in Iraq and perhaps particularly in southern Iraq. Whether this has the impramata of the government in Tehran, I do not know but clearly there is interference and there should not be.

ANDREW MARR: The Iraqi president, Mr Talabani, suggests now that within a year, by the end of 2006, the Iraqi army will be ready to take over and that therefore the British could leave. Does that accord with your general thinking, your overall timetable?

GENERAL MIKE JACKSON: Yes. We need to be careful about timetable and end dates, it's much talked about but it's, it's not the best way of looking at this where what we're trying to achieve is a set of conditions at which point we have the confidence, and much more importantly, the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people themselves have the confidence, that they can now fully stand on their own feet, there is no requirement to be supported by the coalition.

And when those conditions come together then the time will be right. The president has said, I think, that we could leave within a year or so and I would, I would agree, we most certainly could. But it's a question of achieving the right conditions.

ANDREW MARR: And that's despite the fact that things have got harder in the south? I mean the era when everyone was simply wearing berets to patrol has gone.

GENERAL MIKE JACKSON: Yes, it is true that we have seen a greater number of incidents in the south - but again we need to keep this in proportion, there are 18 provinces, or governance, in Iraq, the vast majority, 80 to 90 per cent of all the security incidents, take place in about four of those, leaving the other 14 relatively, relatively, benign.

ANDREW MARR: When it comes to morale, there have been cases of people reluctant to go back to Iraq, generally what is it like for the army to be fighting what has been a relatively unpopular war, perhaps without the public support for the war itself that the army would normally expect?

GENERAL MIKE JACKSON: Yes, two and a half years ago, when the military action was first undertaken, if my memory serves me correctly, about two-thirds of this nation, by opinion polls, were in favour of the action taken. Now, it's the other way round, two-thirds appear to be not so.

All soldiers, obviously, like to feel, that they have the support of their nation behind them and I think they do. I note with interest that people do distinguish between the action itself and those whose duty it is to carry out the direction of the government of the day.

ANDREW MARR: So you think that the public supports the army, if not the war, the action it's taking.

GENERAL MIKE JACKSON: Yes I think people do make that distinction. You, you asked me about morale and I've seen some, in my view, rather, rather spurious stories running on this subject.

I, as I say, I was in Iraq, I was in Afghanistan last week, I talked to a lot of soldiers and I don't see it that way at all. They are very committed, very professional, want to get that job done.

ANDREW MARR: I'm sure that's right but there have been cases of fears expressed about recruitment, there have been people as prominent as former chief of defence staff, Lord Bramall, talking about the need for an exit strategy, there have been lots of stories about individuals expressing concerns, not wanting to go back to Iraq.

GENERAL MIKE JACKSON: Yes, we need to be careful I think that one swallow does not make a summer, inevitably there will be some individuals perhaps being expected to go back to Iraq for the second or third time who will say mm, not sure about that, I would rather go and do something else.

We need to keep this in context. I note with interest that those who are, who have not served in Afghanistan, are looking forward to an opportunity to go there - I mean do not underestimate the enthusiasm, the hunger of the British soldier actually to go on operations. As to an exit strategy, I think we've covered that point. There's a very clear exit strategy. There isn't, and what there can't be, is a date -

ANDREW MARR: Is an absolute date. But the end of 2006 is not an absurd thing to talk about?

GENERAL MIKE JACKSON: Oh I would, I would say that was well within the range of what is realistically possible.

ANDREW MARR: So sometime next year would be what you'd hope for?

GENERAL MIKE JACKSON: Well you're putting words in my mouth. It's well within the range of what we might be able to achieve, yes.

ANDREW MARR: And just going back one last time to the morale question, there is a problem with recruitment, isn't there, at the moment?

GENERAL MIKE JACKSON: We are not recruiting quite as well as any of us would wish and it's true that in the last financial year we did not make our targets by about seven per cent. So far this year the number of applications, in the sense of expressing an interest, is actually rather higher than it was this time last year - we've got to try and translate that into actual recruits.

ANDREW MARR: Why do you think this is happening?

GENERAL MIKE JACKSON: Well I think there are a number of reasons here. There, it is suggested there is an Iraq factor and that may well be the case but it's very hard to quantify. I mean it's a supposition, it's very hard to quantify that. I fear the Deepcut factor still runs, sadly.

ANDREW MARR: Worries about bullying -

GENERAL MIKE JACKSON: Yes - although we're very clear about where we stand on all of this but I think, one's got to be honest, that it is there. Other than that, we're working very hard to make sure that the army is fully manned, retention is pretty good, we're holding up. So, yes, we need to work hard at it - and we are - but it's not some sort of crisis as some speculators would indicate.

ANDREW MARR: This is a time of stretch, if not overstretch for you. You've got the troops in Basra and the south of Iraq, you've also got, probably, an extra commitment coming in Afghanistan. Do you have enough people?

GENERAL MIKE JACKSON: How long's your piece of string. We measure how hard the army is working by looking at the interval between one operational tour and another, and our yardstick there is 24 months, which allows people to get back, get on leave - very important - retrain, sort themselves out, career courses, all those things that need to be done before their next deployment.

Now right across the board, the army's just about on that 24 month tour interval: that's an average figure, some bits of the army are working harder than that and their tour interval is somewhat less, some are a little above. So, we're more or less in balance at the moment across the board. But yes.

ANDREW MARR: ... we read about 3000 going to Afghanistan, another 3000 -

GENERAL MIKE JACKSON: Yes.

ANDREW MARR: - that seems to be what everyone agrees, that's what the Americans want - that's another big commitment.

GENERAL MIKE JACKSON: It's increasing what we already have in Afghanistan, you're absolutely right. We've looked at this very carefully, we can do it - there is no doubt about that. It may reduce those tour intervals somewhat for a number, but not necessarily right across the board, and it will stretch some of our logistics but we've looked at it very carefully.

ANDREW MARR: Looking at both Iraq and Afghanistan, it has been a very testing extraordinary time really for the army. What do you think it's done to Britain's reputation among other military states, among the allies?

GENERAL MIKE JACKSON: I don't want to be too self indulgent here -

ANDREW MARR: Well this is a morning for it probably.

GENERAL MIKE JACKSON: - but let me say this - the British Army and the Royal Navy and the Royal Airforce, but I'm here as head of the Army, is a most remarkable machine in my view, manned by the most remarkable people.

They thrive on challenge, they take up what they do with great enthusiasm, commitment and a very professional approach, they are determined, whatever they're given, to get that job done - it's a point of great pride - and I am very proud of them. It's not me - it's them who do it.

ANDREW MARR: And we saw the collapse on the other side of the court-martials recently -

GENERAL MIKE JACKSON: Yes.

ANDREW MARR: Do you think your people have always had the political support and the support from the political establishment that they might have expected?

GENERAL MIKE JACKSON: Well that's a rather contentious question. It is true that both major parties pay great tribute - and rightly in my view - to the British armed forces. I don't think I should go any further than that there.

As to the collapse of the court-martial, this is contentious, I know, but, again, the British Army has very high standards and if there are allegations that soldiers have not met them, then due process must follow. I am very pleased that these soldiers have been acquitted.

ANDREW MARR: I was going to say, is that what you would say to all of those people serving who may feel exposed, who may feel that they have been let down, somehow, in London?

GENERAL MIKE JACKSON: Yes, that, that conclusion can be made by some - I wouldn't agree with it in that rather obvious sense you make, but soldiers know where their duty lies, they want to get on with it.

They also know - and they wouldn't have it any other way - as I say, that an army such as ours, it must maintain discipline and its standards and we will uphold those.

ANDREW MARR: And how do you feel yourself about it all?

GENERAL MIKE JACKSON: About?

ANDREW MARR: About the process which led to the court-martial and then the collapse of it?

GENERAL MIKE JACKSON: Yes, well, these allegations were made - they were very serious allegations - and in one sense you're damned if you do and damned if you don't, because if you were to ignore them, then the next accusation is that the army's sweeping stuff under the carpet, it's not capable of running its own discipline here. On the contrary, we are and we must do so.

ANDREW MARR: Sir Mike, on your way to the Cenotaph, thank you very much.

INTERVIEW ENDS


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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