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Monday, 8 October, 2001, 18:27 GMT 19:27 UK
Col. Bob Stewart, former leader UK forces
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Col. Bob Stewart, who led the British forces in action in the Balkans, took part in a live forum to answer your question on the military tasks ahead as American air strikes against Afghanistan continue.

British submarines were involved in the initial cruise missile attacks, which are thought to have damaged installations in Kabul and Kandahar. The US defence secretary said that no US aircraft were hit.

What are the military considerations being assessed by the leaders in the first hours of this attack? How successful has the operation been and what can we expect in the days and months ahead?


Transcript

Newshost:
We'll start with one from Alex Stewart in the United Kingdom, who I think might be some relation, who says: "The targets that have been hit seemed to have been chosen for maximum infrastructure disruption and minimum danger of civilian casualties, is this likely to be an ongoing long distance air campaign?" And Mohsin Ali in Pakistan says: "Can air strikes alone get the results that the allies are seeking?"

Bob Stewart:
Well the targets that they've selected have been selected, as far as possible, to minimise the chances of civilian casualties and therefore they're going initially to take out anti-aircraft weapons and targets like that so that the aircraft can roam freely without being interdicted by any kind of missile. They're also going to try and take out the infrastructure that actually supports terrorism. Specifically as the Taleban has supported terrorism the Taleban infrastructure and of course Bin Laden's organisation. We've already heard from the British Defence Secretary this morning that they've attacked Bin Laden's training camps. This is not particularly productive because they'll be rebuilt if they can be but it's a sign.

So the sign is - look we are serious, we have warned you for nearly four weeks, Taleban, that we want you to yield up Bin Laden who's universally notified as being the person that may well be completely and utterly responsible as the director of the September 11th attacks. When will - the second question - was how effective will they be, well ...

Newshost:
We've seen a rather classic start to this, haven't we - cruise missiles, strike aircraft with precision munitions - but it's been said all along that actually Afghanistan is rather lacking in targets of that sort so what are they likely to do now?

Bob Stewart:
Well I must say I totally agree with that line - it is lacking targets that are worthwhile from that point of view. But in a way this first initial salvo that took place last night is a sign of resolve to, it's a political signal as much as a military because we are serious, we expect you to give in, Taleban, please do not keep this going, stop it as soon as possible because we are serious insofar especially because we do not want to take lives.

Newshost:
Let's move on to a question from Hans de Jongh in the Netherlands who says: "Do you believe that ground forces will be deployed in Afghanistan?" Do you think they'll have to be?

Bob Stewart:
I think we're actually in a situation right at this moment of, in military terms, operations are planned in phases. Phase one is taking place now and that is obviously an air bombardment. And within phrase one there might graduations of the way we do it, for example, they're starting to take out anti-aircraft weapons now, they might then move on to other weapons. But phase two will come after phase one, obviously. When phase one, the bombardment, is reaching the stage where people can judge what's happened they'll also be judging what has occurred as a result of that bombardment inside Afghanistan. Now from that sort of analysis will come the decision as to what they do in phase two. I'm sure it's not concrete at the moment, I'm sure there are lots of options and I'm certain that some of those options will involve the use of ground forces.

Newshost:
Nick, he just signs himself, in Australia says: "It's been reported that British SAS troops have been dropped into Afghanistan: What is their role likely to be?"

Bob Stewart:
Well if British SAS troops are in Afghanistan and frankly no one that knows is saying and I don't know, but if they were there they would be looking in a reconnaissance role for Bin Laden and his associates and checking out and identifying, by pinpointing, weapons systems, command and control systems and where the Taleban armed forces are. That is their role, in reconnaissance. They are not there to take out people and start attacking people, that is a fighting patrol, I don't think we're anywhere near that at the moment. But if they were to be there they would be there in a covert capacity with the task of seeing and reporting back and not getting involved.

Newshost:
So you can't see them snatching Bin Laden for instance?

Bob Stewart:
I'm sure if there was a chance of snatching Mr Bin Laden they might seize that opportunity but I suspect not.

Newshost:
Alex Tapaccos in the UK says: "History tells us that the most successful military campaigns are the ones which win the hearts and minds of the people. Is enough being done to that effect by the coalition in Afghanistan?" And they made the point overnight, didn't they, that they were dropping rations to people as well as bombs.

Bob Stewart:
Well there is never enough effort put into convincing people that what is happening is good for them, it's very, very difficult. But the fact of the matter is the operation last night shows the twin approach - on the one hand you've got the fist, i.e. the bombardment, on the other hand you've got the sort of - well let's say carrot, so you've got the stick and carrot, the carrot being - they are trying to drop supplies - food - to people who are hungry, it may be small, it may be a minute amount but that is the intention. What we actually want to achieve is for the people of Afghanistan not to starve or freeze to death this winter, that is an objective and that objective will be thwarted by the Taleban themselves if they remain in power. Personally I can't see how the present regime in Afghanistan can remain in power, after all they've done and after they're attitude which has been obviously clear for the last nearly four weeks.

Newshost:
History also tells us though, doesn't it, in the case of Afghanistan that it's not really a united country, it never has been, it has lots of different ethnic groupings - they tend to fight amongst themselves but whenever anybody threatens them from outside they do tend to pull together and fight the common enemy. I mean can you see that scenario playing itself out again?

Bob Stewart:
Of course which is exactly why it is so important to win the hearts and minds, to convince people - not just the everyday people who are suffering under what many of us consider to be a very vicious and cruel regime. I mean let's face it there's something really strange, isn't there, on the one hand we're being forced to actually go, shall we say, to war with the leaders of Afghanistan, on the other hand the people that are providing most of the aid for that country have been in the past - to keep them alive - is the West as well. There's something weird about that and some might argue it in a different way but personally I think it's strange but it's very important and it's very important that people in Afghanistan realise that actually no one here wants to hurt them, no one, least of all the armed forces of the United Kingdom or the United States. What they actually want is for the Taleban regime to stop, give up its - shall we hostage? - I wouldn't say - use that word very easily but Mr Bin Laden requires to be brought out, so this is organisation, we cannot allow anymore this regime that supports and suffers terrorism worldwide to continue, it's got to stop, this is the end of the line.

Newshost:
We're sitting here discussing it, I'm not sure that James Lange in the UK is terribly happy about that because he says: "Do you feel that journalists are acting as an intelligence source for the enemy when they pose possible military scenarios, second guess military and diplomatic decisions and give more prominence to the opposition? What's your view on that?

Bob Stewart:
Well I think the journalists have a role to play in a free society and frankly they're not military officers but I accept the point. I have personally suffered at the expense of journalists but I think overall journalism and the media free, with the ability to ask questions, are actually far more value than not having them.

Newshost:
Richard Costello, who's English but living in the United States, says: "Given that the objective of the Gulf War was not achieved in that Saddam Hussein is still in power how far will the objectives of this offensive be pursued?" I'm not sure he's quite right in that sense in that George Bush Snr was rather limited because he couldn't pursue ..

Bob Stewart:
Because of the coalition. Well I think this time it's all the way. This is - the reason why there has been nearly four weeks, there are three principle reasons: first reason, to gain the intelligence so that targeting could take place; the second reasons, is to put the forces, the military power, into position so that action can be taken; and the third reason, which is just as crucial as everything else, is to build an international coalition for action. Those three factors have been put in place now and obviously all are sufficiently good to go and I think that's the situation we find ourselves in at the moment.

Newshost:
The politicians have stressed all along that this is going to be a long haul, there are no quick fixes and that this sort of military action that we're seeing might itself go on for some weeks. I mean do you think their resolve is there to continue this for perhaps years or do you think once the initial horror has died down from what happened on September 11th that it'll go away?

Bob Stewart:
Well I hope it doesn't because one of the military principles is maintaining the momentum of operations. I think that people are slowly understanding that - there's a phrase that's gaining increasing currency in the sort of British military here and also in defence circles and the Foreign Office in the United Kingdom - it's called the long thin war. Long - long time, thin - we won't necessarily see the action all the time - we might not ever see parts of the action, it is a thin wall because it's not going to be like Kosovo where there was every night action for the Gulf War, it's going to be thin insofar as some parts have been moving forward, it'll be economic, social and I think we're going to be in for a very long period of time to try and conquer this evil that has actually emanated in large part from Afghanistan but also, rather like a cancer, goes right the way through the world - there are cells of Bin Laden - cells - right the way through the world and they have to be eliminated by all kinds of actions as fast as possible.

Newshost:
In military terms do we have the right kind of force structure for that sort of 21st Century war?

Bob Stewart:
Yes I think we do. When I was a military officer, which wasn't all that long ago, we used to think that if you train your soldiers for high intensity warfare they can actually do all the other levels too. And so that is the reason why the British army is trained to quite a high level because it can then adapt and be flexible. And it is pretty flexible. I would love us to see - for us to have many more special forces, many more tanks, many more - but that's not the reality, we seem to have what we've got and we have to work with what we've got.

Newshost:
Turning to the enemy, in that sense, Cristobalg in the USA says: "If the Taleban disperses in the mountains and canyons how much more complex and difficult do the operations become?" I suppose this presupposes a ground force of some sort.

Bob Stewart:
The answer is, hugely complex. At the moment what we have in phase one of the operation that I outlined, phase one is an unequal contest, it's raids from the sky, Tomahawk missiles, precision-guided munitions coming in, air power - which of course the Taleban have not got. That situation changes with phase two, if phase two includes ground warfare. Then we have men facing men, men with rifles facing men - technology does matter, it does give you an advantage - the same as intelligence - but essentially the competition - the context is much more evenly matched. And then of course you've got to overcome the fact that people like Taleban armed forces, or Bin Laden's armed forces, know the countryside, are very hardy and crucially and most important are very courageously determined to actually do what they think is right and by that they may even be quite prepared to go to their deaths. That's a very difficult enemy to take on.

Newshost:
Peter Downing in the UK wonders: "Who will be supplying the Taleban with weapons?"

Bob Stewart:
Good point. I don't suppose many people will be supplying the Taleban with weapons at the moment but in the past I'm quite sure that we've seen some of the states close to the Taleban, for example, Iraq may well have provided weapons. But equally Taleban were once armed by the United States. So before we pick up a stone and start casting at anyone we actually have to think whoops this is where we're at and we have to be very careful. Do you know it's all very well to say that but equally, people change, we're not the same all our lives and situations change. The situation has changed - the Taleban are a very evil regime.

Newshost:
John Campbell in the UK wonders if there's anything we could or should learn from the former Soviet Union's conflict in Afghanistan in the 1980s?

Bob Stewart:
It's very simple there are some good lessons there. Don't try and take territory, you're not there for conquest ...

Newshost:
It's a big country isn't it.

Bob Stewart:
It's a very big country. It's a country about the size of France with 26 million people, so a country the size of France with half the population of the United Kingdom in it and it is no good us actually saying we want to conquer territory - we don't, we want one thing - well three things within one - Bin Laden, Bin Laden's organisation and the Taleban to be neutralised. All three have proved themselves to be sworn enemies of our way of life.

Newshost:
Martin Boyle in Australia says: "Do you see a role for the Russian military now beyond that of providing intelligence and carrying out strikes on Afghanistan?" Can you see them getting involved?

Bob Stewart:
Well they said they don't want to get involved but they certainly have said that they are prepared to be tacitly supporting. They were certainly provide intelligence after President Putin's meeting with Mr Blair, a couple of days ago, it was clear that they will provide intelligence and frankly why not - let's actually get intelligence from where we can as quickly as we can because intelligence enables us to speed up procedures, speeding up procedures can also lead to less lives being lost.

Newshost:
Intelligence comes down to intelligence on the ground, doesn't it, in the end, I mean the Americans have all amount of military hardware, surveillance planes, drones, satellites, high level reconnaissance planes and so on but unless you actually know what's happening on the ground it's very difficult to pursue your objectives isn't it. What's their level of intelligence like as regards to Afghanistan do you think?

Bob Stewart:
I don't know and it's not fair for me to comment. I know one thing though - the best intelligence comes from what we soldiers always call the mark one eyeball. In other words seeing it for yourself and reporting back. Satellites can see objects, well probably they can see an object about that size but they can't identify it positively, they can certainly identify vehicles and planes, they can identify where groups of people might have camped, they can identify flags but they won't be able to identify Mr Bin Laden from the sky, that requires human intelligence.

Newshost:
And that brings us back to the role of the special forces apart from anything else.

Bob Stewart:
The special forces might be there but equally Mr Bin Laden may be a disappearing one at the moment but his time is running out, he will be found - he'll either come out himself, or he will be found - it's just a matter of time. And we have time, in a way, on our side.

Newshost:
We don't have time on our side I'm afraid, we've got time for one more. An interesting one I think from Daniel Levy in Australia who says: "How likely is it that China will get involved and what effect will that have on the military options?"

Bob Stewart:
China's not important. I think China are playing it, you know, please don't involve us, we understand what's going on, we tacitly support, we don't like terrorism, we understand what you've got to do but don't get us involved.

Newshost:
You can't imagine they would have any sort of territorial ambitions to their west?

Bob Stewart:
Anyone that has territorial ambitions on Afghanistan wants their head examining.

Newshost:
Ok, Colonel Bob Stewart thank you very much. And that's all we've got time for. Thank you for sending your e-mails, I'm sorry we couldn't get through any more of them but that's it from this BBC News Online Forum for today.

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