Mehdi Hasan: I'll kick off. Brigadier Butler - can I call you that?
Ed Butler: Call me Ed - I'm a civvy now.
MH: Ed - are we winning in Afghanistan?
EB: It depends - I'll be as straight as I can be. I've been in Afghanistan three times. I know what the significance of the operation is, and it's very easy to say: "How do you define winning?" . . . I think as I mentioned to you on the phone: winning or success, military success can be very different from political success, and ditto failure. Militarily, we won't lose, in terms of technology - the amount of effort that the Americans will put in there. But you've got to say, at what cost? Clearly, economic cost and cost in human life.
Are we winning at the moment? I think we are succeeding militarily; we are continuing to clear ground of those opposition groups - Taliban, former warlords, narco-criminals who don't want the coalition forces there - we're challenging them for space, so that has been successful. This month - this last month - has been at a very high cost, with Panther's Claw, but they have cleared a significant amount of ground, which will create the conditions to allow elections to take place. So the mission has been successful, but at a high human cost, and the tragedies associated with it. So, we - when I say we, [I mean] the international community, the coalition forces, alongside the Afghan forces - are getting into more parts of Afghanistan than we were before, principally in the south . . .
The numbers of Afghan soldiers coming under arms is increasing and it's at 80,000 or 90,000. They are considerably better than they were when I was there in 2006, when they weren't really there in any real numbers. So those military metrics are succeeding - in terms of the clearing, the holding, the building, the clearing is succeeding. The holding is where the challenge is, because if you don't have a permanent occupation, of coalition and/or Afghan forces - ideally Afghan forces - and you go away, the Taliban will come back in and reoccupy. And this is what the debate about numbers is at the moment: that you need sufficient numbers of coalition forces to hold the ground, as well as sufficient coalition forces to build up the numbers of Afghan soldiers, their competences and capacities, so that they can take over that holding task. And that's the tension we're in at the moment. Have we got enough? Should we be putting more troops in to increase our probability of successfully holding on to the clearing? . . . Because what the military are doing - and this is how I spent a good proportion of my military career - is buying time for other activities to take place, whether it's a UN Security Council resolution, whether it's an election, which is a short-term aim in Afghanistan at the moment, or some other activity.
So we're buying time. The coalition is buying time, in this case, for improving governance, improving construction and development opportunities in Afghanistan, plus the rule of law, the judicial system, human rights, women's rights and everything else: to improve them so they are better than they were before. The military buys time and it buys space. And, in effect, if we're really realistic about it, the military will continue to contain the situation of all those opposition groups who don't want us there and who want failed-state status. The military are succeeding - at quite a high cost, in human life; [and at] quite a high economic cost, which I think is another factor. It is making slow progress, slow but steady progress.
Mehdi Hasan and James Macintyre: But that's describing success in military terms. What is the end result of that? You talk about defining victory, the metrics of success. How do I say "We've won" to a person on the street?
EB: This is where the debate is clouded between what political success is and what military success is. The military success - what military success would look like - is that there are sufficient Afghan forces, military and police forces, who can stand on their own two feet. They'll still need support - military support, with technical support, provisional intelligence and so on - for quite some time, so that they can do the vast majority of security operations, which we've seen in Iraq. I mean, the campaigns are apples and pears in many ways, but the Iraqi army was rebuilt into functioning security capability and it's doing a pretty good job; it can operate a brigade size, so a sensible size.
The challenge from the Afghan army is that we're creating it from nothing - so we've got someone who is a private soldier coming out of a training establishment, as well as a commanding officer, and then the British army, [where] you could spend . . . 16-18 years before you become a commanding officer with all those experiences. But we're throwing them straight into contact combat with the enemy, which is bloody difficult for them. I could take you two and say: "Right, you're going to be commanding officer, and you're going to be private soldier, and you're going to be fighting pretty serious battles tomorrow, after six weeks of training." Difficult, but the building blocks are in place. So that's what the military will do: the military will stay there as long as it takes to build up the Afghan capacity, so that it is competent, capable and everything else, but having also put down any remnant of al-Qaeda and those hardline Taliban and international fighters who want to impede progress.
MH & JM: A question in brackets here: you've consistently talked about the differences between the military and the political, in your BBC interview and so on. Can you just expand on that a tiny bit, and can one detect slight doubts about the military strategy, about the political strategy, or an incompatibility between the two?
EB: What does political success look like? And I say there's capital "P" and lower-case "p". I was asked this question day in, day out by every visitor who came and saw me (and preceding this in 2005 and 2006). It's very simple: if Afghanistan is the sixth-poorest country in the world, what are we going to turn it into? If we want to get it to the tenth- or the fifteenth-poorest country in the world, is that a metric, and what does that look like? Now you can go through all the indices - the corruption indices, nutrition and child mortality, etc - and you'll get up the UN statistics . . . So you could say you'll get to that, but who defines that? That you should go from 16 to 15 - it's very simple, and not very appropriate, but that is one way of demonstrating that when the international community went in, in 2001, it was pretty wretched - we shouldn't forget that - and what the Taliban regime was all about.
There have been a number of steps forward in a lot of areas, which were pretty bloody brutal. If you talk to any Afghans (and I've talked to good number in my time there), they hate the Taliban, they hate the regime, they hate everything they stood for and the terror there, and actually they don't want to go back to that. The vast majority of the Afghans still want the international community to be there. But they can't make that leap yet because they don't feel confident enough that the international community is going to stay, because if the international community goes, the Taliban are going to come and say: "You, you and you worked with the international community . . . "
MH & JM: But then, they are economic indices. You could have a dictatorial government that raised living standards - there's a separate issue about democracy . . .
EB: You're right, and that's why I've tried to say big "P", lower-case "p" - political and economic, social. But that's much harder to define, what it actually looks like . . .
MH & JM: You've said it won't be a western democracy.
EB: No. I mean this where, naively, many people in this country, and I think in other countries, took the view that we would turn Afghanistan into a western-style democracy . . .
MH & JM: Who?
EB: Within the government here, and across all government departments, some in the military included - that we would have this idealistic state. I think the military were always more sceptical because actually the military, the British military, has been, is a very sophisticated beast. You had young officers who were in the Balkans in the early Nineties who are now commanding officers in Afghanistan and above - so they've been through it, they've seen what human tragedy and everything else of these very complex conflicts is about. So what are the other metrics - what are we trying to say? There are economic indices. [Or] are we trying to say, "What does better governance look like?" And you know Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and that is probably the biggest hindrance to a successful progression into something better. And then people talk about how people at very senior levels all the way through the Afghan government are corrupt, but that has been a way of life for them - they have lived in wretched conditions. You know the Afghan first and foremost is a survivor and he will take advantage of every single opportunity to look after himself, and then his family and then his tribe, and that has been a way of life for many of them.
And here we are, saying we are going to make it less corrupt. But what does that look like? And that's the confusion and the ambiguity. It's hard to define - who are we to say, sitting in Westminster, what an Afghan government looks like? Because yes, we'd all love to have equal opportunities for men and women, we'd love to have perfect human rights, we'd love to have the best rule of law and judicial system and no corruption in our police force - their police force - but is that achievable anywhere? How long has it taken a mature democracy in the west to get to that stage? Hundreds of years. And we're trying to accelerate this and say we can achieve it in ten years.
MH & JM: It's interesting, because lots of reasons for the war are thrown about. We hear the phrase "mission creep" bandied around; the foreign affairs select committee said it recently. Just sitting in reception, [I read] Bronwen Maddox in the Times saying: "We must save the women of Afghanistan." We interviewed Douglas Alexander recently, who said it's all about getting women in school. Tony Blair once said it was about stopping drugs getting on to the streets of Britain . . . Ask a different minister, get a different answer. Did you get that sense five years ago, when you were there fighting, or even now: that there's never been a clearly defined, single aim - destroy the Taliban, build a democratic government, destroy Bin Laden . . .?
EB: In 2001, it was very clear. It was to go in and bring the perpetrators of 9/11 to justice. That was a sort of mission statement we set ourselves, from a UK perspective. And the Americans were the same. And we achieved that . . .
MH & JM: Well, not quite - Bin Laden's still alive . . .
EB: The purpose was to hunt down terrorist camps, logistics, in order to bring the perpetrators to justice, and steps have been made. So militarily and politically that's as close as it's ever been. And after the attack we had a UN Security Council resolution and a mandate to go in and do it. Since then, and since early 2002, it hasn't been "mission creep", because that's a term which we really brought over from the Balkans - peace support - but the ambiguity started from 2002 onwards. Because actually a number of missions - the Americans having certainly a very strong counterterrorist [aim of] "kill or capture al-Qaeda and senior Taliban", that being their primary focus. Their political and other effort then switched to Iraq, which was always where we strategically (we being the international community) made a mistake. The nation-building stuff - the women's rights, health and safety, all those other things - started to come in then, and there was never real clarity from 2002 to when I started in part of the military planning process in the middle of 2005.
It started back at Riga - the Riga summit in 2004 - and even before then in 2002 or 2003, when Lord Robertson said that Nato was going to expand its operations outside Kabul and into the south. He was absolutely right: it needed a new role. But that was then another confusing element of this multiple purpose of why we were going there. And you're right, it ranged from counter-narcotics - the UK was the lead G8 nation and we took that [position] in 2002 - and other countries took on other roles: nation-building, state-building, development, counterterrorism and counter-insurgency, the future of Nato . . . encompassing all of that.
I think what's important is this: the symbolic significance that this was a campaign that could not be lost in terms of the wider "war on terror", or whatever the current term is . . . There had been lots of incidences of where al-Qaeda and radical factionalism had been doing strikes against the US forces. But this was the real symbolic strike at the heart of America and I don't think that symbolic strike is recognised enough. Now, is that a driving reason for being there? Well, that's another debate that you can have . . .
MH & JM: What is your answer to that, though? Is it a good enough reason to be there?
EB: I think it's a very important reason, because the direct threat of al-Qaeda launching an operation from Afghanistan is not going to happen. It could happen, and if we left there's no one who can say to me or anyone (as a previous practitioner) that the Taliban would not let al-Qaeda back in . . .
MH & JM: So you actually make the link that Brown and Blair make - that being in Afghanistan makes us safer in Hammersmith?
EB: There's a distinct link? That's certainly an original argument. A direct threat from Afghanistan - al-Qaeda launching an attack, tomorrow, from al-Qaeda to here - is not going to happen. But it could still happen if we left tomorrow, which is what some people would argue. The other consequences of that - the domino effect into Pakistan, which is much more serious in terms of economic and security issues - that is something we wouldn't want to see happening. So it's as much regional stability, and there's the question of the amount of military and economic effort you put within the region to keep those fairly unstable plates balanced.
But al-Qaeda have diversified, franchised out to other parts - Africa, Somalia and other places - so there's threat from there. I mean, it's all directions, not just from Afghanistan. But I gave you that point about the symbolic: if we were defeated, seen off, because we ran away with our resources, that to me would be a huge succour to al-Qaeda and its followers. They'd be thinking: "We struck at their heart, their central nervous system on 9/11, and look what happened. They came into Afghanistan and we saw them off for more than ten years. Brothers, we can achieve all our aims and objectives."
MH & JM: Am I wrong in detecting an element of regret in you about the nature of that evolution? I mean you're fired up, clearly, about the link to 9/11 and the need to defeat al-Qaeda and the Taliban, but do you regret the way in which the mission itself has diversified? Do you wish we'd just stayed focused on al-Qaeda?
EB: Well, that's interesting. We had an option in early 2002 - this is hindsight, but we did have the option then to say: "Right, we achieved our limited military aims of destroying al-Qaeda's infrastructure, training camps and everywhere else, dispersed them." There was an option then (and I'm not saying what I think here) to say, "We've achieved our aims. Let's get out. And when the threat reappears, in terms of intelligence, do strikes . . ." This is what happened when Clinton tried to bomb the camps, and it's not as simple as just hunting the key players in al-Qaeda. I mean, the Americans have invested a huge amount of effort and technology; it is difficult to find key leaders of these terrorist organisations. It's not as straightforward as just saying we can go back in every now and again, lance a particular boil - with one out of ten, you might be successful - and [incur] all the collateral damage and everything else. You can't hang a political process on that approach.
We did have an option there; but what didn't happen there - and I was in Afghanistan in 2002 - was that there was not a serious or deep enough debate about what we were trying to achieve, and how much, how long that plan was going to take, how much it was going to cost us. Because we'd been there in the Balkans, we'd been elsewhere. You can talk to industry - actually, you talk to big corporates and governments about natural resources; they'll know how much it costs to build railways, deep-water ports (not that that's applicable to Afghanistan). To build an infrastructure, you [need] an economy. But we never looked at any of that; we never actually said (and we weren't even really saying this in 2005/2006: the Treasury and the government were very clear in saying, "This is a three-year commitment" and giving the figure of £1.1bn to £1.2bn). And when we came up with a plan, the first attempt to take a comprehensive approach - the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the military working together, a huge step forward - the main point that came out of that was, "This will take longer than three years and the military part of it is going to cost more than £1.1bn." What's going to happen in years three, four, five, six? At that stage, we'd only just about had the last significant troops coming out of the Balkans, ten years on. And that was not as complex, in many ways, in terms of tribes and factions and everything else. But there was no long-term plan, no long-term investment strategy undertaken.
So that's been my frustration. The benefit of all this debate now, of which the catalyst has been a horrific number of casualties, is none. (In relative terms, 8,000 troops over 20 people killed is relatively, in pure combat terms, not bad.) So that's been my frustration from the word go, and those were the questions I was asking as a tactical commander in 2005 and 2006: "Where do you want this to go?" Based on my experiences with other operations, I've always asked a politician senior to define to me what success and failure look like. I mean, we can see it's Hamburger Hill, but if a hundred people are killed in the process, and x amount of collateral damage means political failure, then I won't do it, or I'll do it another way.
MH & JM: So you've had a lack of definition from the government in recent years - towards success and failure . . .
EB: Yeah, but now we're actually having the political debate - forced by public opinion and other troubles (and the economics, which is probably one of the biggest constraints, or will be the biggest constraint now) - about what we are actually doing there. I feel no sense of surprise: we asked all these questions in 2005 and 2006 and since, but we haven't had that definition. Then there's matching one's ambition, political ambition, public ambition, with the resources.
MH & JM: We're having the debate but not getting many answers at the moment - because, for example, at the weekend, we had that suggestion that we'd be there for decades, and then you had a statement saying, "That's nonsense, the British public will no longer tolerate long wars like we did in the past." Where does that leave us? What's your view of how long we're going to be there, how long the public will allow it?
EB: I think the factors that will determine how long for the British public (and I think they are probably representative of other coalition members - though the Americans are slightly different) are: public support, back on the British streets, popular support of the Afghans, and economics, resources. Because it's a very expensive campaign when our national resources are pretty low.
MH & JM: Given those three factors, what's your prediction?
EB: Well, at the moment . . . money is short across all government departments, in particular Defence, [at a time] when we should be injecting more - whether it's people [or whatever]. Because troops on the ground matter in something like this; if you want to succeed, then you've got to resource it. I've said somewhere else: "We go long, we go deep, we go home." But you've got to define that. So the economics and resources, I think, are a big question mark.
The majority of Afghans still want us there - I haven't read anywhere that the Afghans have said, "Go home." They don't like occupying forces, we know that. But resources, Afghan support (they still want us there) . . . I mean, at any meetings, I say: "We come here as your guests. We want to make a difference. We'll go home when you tell us to go home." We haven't been told to go home yet, so that's significant.
And things may change. Public support here is wavering - I think it's probably 50-50. The polls and statistics will say support for the mission is there. What I think is confused, as in all questionnaires, is that support for the military is very high, in terms of what the army and the RAF and the marines are doing there. But I can't link that support to the mission. So, from the army's and others' perspectives, really good: support is very important for soldiers, sailors and airmen down, knowing they have public support behind them. If you actually phrase the question better, saying: "Should we be in Afghanistan? Would you prefer people to come out?" I think you'd get a very different answer. Because it's still not been explained clearly why we're there . . .
MH & JM: But given where we are, what's your instinct? As somebody who's served in the Balkans, Northern Ireland - you talked about Balkans troops coming out ten years after - in 2020, will we still be having this conversation?
EB: Few more grey hairs. I've always proposed that if we started the expanded mission into the south in 2006, the military would be there in sizeable numbers for ten years. We will probably still have a presence there in 20 years, but it will be specialist. It will be training teams, it will be seconded officers. This will be if it progresses the way we want it to. This is the good scenario. I think the bad scenario is we won't be there. So the good scenario, the positive scenario, is that, rather like we did with the Omani and other forces, we help training teams to stay there - specialists, whether it's the EOD [Explosive Ordnance Disposal], intelligence support, or building up their specialist capabilities with training, that sort of thing. But in terms of a large mass of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, we won't be there. I think it could be . . . We've done what . . . eight years now? Well, if we take it from 2006, do we just write off the previous five years? Look, we went in with relatively small numbers of forces in 2001 - it was special forces and air and everything else - and then in 2002, we kept force levels to a very small packet: small reconstruction teams in the main cities and towns . . .
MH & JM: Fine, start of 2006 . . .
EB: So, from 2006, we're talking in the order of ten years in sizeable numbers. But will we still have the money to resource it with that sort of intensity? Will public support be there either . . . ?
MH & JM: Just on resources, were the public to turn against the war, would that be enough reason to get out?
EB: You've got to look at what drives politics. I think what's going to be very interesting, and I've mentioned this to David Cameron last year when he asked my opinions about Afghanistan. I said (informally): "I think your biggest foreign policy challenge for the next government, or any government - the election's in the way for the next couple of years, because that's obviously focusing everybody's minds and decisions - but in two years' time, the next government is probably going to face its biggest foreign policy challenge because public opinion will have started to wane." We saw it in Iraq, it was a misunderstood mission, when more men and women started coming home injured and killed. Public opinion will start to wane unless it's clearly articulated and people can see demonstrable signs of progress. In a couple of years' time, we could be at that tipping point. Therefore, we need to be really clear now, in 2009 . . .
MH & JM: Did you tell Cameron that?
EB: Yeah. I think this will be [important], because you'll be balanced against foreign policy objectives where there are national securities at stake against what politics and political support is all about. That's always a tension.
MH & JM: Did he absorb that and agree?
EB: Yeah, I mean, you can see it in what's happening in Pakistan and Afghanistan. So it's going to become more complex, more expensive to contain, economically and security-wise. We're not over the hill yet, in a positive sense.
MH & JM: Do you not think Cameron's being slightly opportunistic since you saw him, in attacking the government over its handling of the mission? Or do you agree with him?
EB: He takes advice from hundreds of people. I was just one of them. The election in nine months' time is what's driving a lot of political debate at the moment, as opposed to having an in-depth, cross-government discussion. Where I'm coming from - as a military man, and having spent a lot of time in the intelligence arena, specialist arena and counterterrorist arena - to me, this is such an important issue that it should have cross-party consensus.
MH & JM: So would you call on Cameron to put domestic concerns to one side and be a bit more firm in his support?
EB: I'm not in politics, I'm not in Westminster. You know better how much is said publicly for political advantage and public opinion and what's actually being said behind the scenes.
MH & JM: You've spoken before about equipment. Are the 18-year-olds who are being killed being properly equipped by this government? What's your view? Are there enough helicopters, say?
EB: Yes, it's dominated the last few years of my military career. We made it very clear at my headquarters. We went through a very detailed estimate, a logistic estimate, about how many helicopters we needed, how many flying hours we needed, how many people we needed. And we said, on a normal, steady-state day in the Helmand Province in 2006, we had just about sufficient helicopters and helicopter hours to do the job. And we put into the equation one sort of pre-planned and two or three active operations, and we had just about enough. And I said, having been there before, and based on our experiences in Iraq and everything else, that we were going to be short from the start. So we made it very clear from the military perspective that we never had enough resources, in terms of helicopters and intelligence, and in terms of people, boots on the ground. The commander said if you give me 3,150 troops (we were initially capped at that), we can hold only three places.
MH & JM: That's a more general point, though. The recent debate has focused on specifics in terms of 2009, now, in a month when you've lost a record number of troops and when opposition parties are raising this as an issue - Lib Dems, Tories, press. Are we to believe there is or isn't enough equipment?
EB: I'm always very positive when I talk to the media. There's a multitude of audiences that read your magazine. A lot of them are in the opposition, those people who are trying to kill the soldiers and sailors and airmen, and they're encouraged by what's been said about how we're going to run out of money, or we haven't got enough. But the proportion of resources we had, the helicopters, the intelligence-gathering and everything else, was just about enough for a force of 3,000. We've now gone to a force of 9,000 with the potential to increase that by another 2,000. The number of enablers has not been increased, proportionally, to that amount. Yes, they have increased the number of flying hours, but not to the proportion. There's a scale of expectation because the helicopter needs to run on good intelligence. And if you combine aerial systems - your eyes and ears in the sky - with helicopters, you'll achieve surprise. When I drive out of this house, I can go one way, then I turn left or right. Well, that's what's happening in Afghanistan. You [don't] always have to drive, or need to drive the majority of the time, so there's at least the drive/fly, fly/drive option. The enemy doesn't know where you're coming from, when you're moving. So you can surprise and outwit him and keep him off his guard, take advantage of that without having such a large force.
MH & JM: But your point is that they haven't increased the proportions. Surely you need more helicopters to do the job effectively . . .
EB: You need the enablers. You can be more efficient with the number of troops you have if you have more enablers, if you've got better intelligence gathering and more intelligence-gathering systems. It's not just equipment - it's intelligence, technical intelligence, aerial platforms that can see and hear and see in various different spectrums what's going on. So if I know where you are, where the enemy is, if I know where he's going, then I don't have to go into contact and bump into him or him come to me. I can seize the initiative. I can get behind him, I can make him very uncomfortable, because I can have him second- and third-guessing what I'm trying to do. So I need fewer troops, and I can be more surgical. That gets you to a certain stage.
I mean, you're always going to have to have troops on the ground to hold, because with the Afghan in particular - the Afghan farmer and his family - in his definition of security (the Russians found this, an important lesson), he wants to see a security man every few hundred metres. That to him defines security, because he's lived, he's suffered a terrible time, and unless he sees a policeman on the corner he feels insecure, because then the Taliban can come in and get him. So that's where you do need the mass. But to be clear, you can be much more fluent if you have the helicopters and the intelligence and everything else.
MH & JM: A quick question about Afghan politics. We've got the election coming up; Hamid Karzai and his government have been particularly identified as being connected with corruption. Do you think he's the right man to be running Afghanistan while we're trying to support the government? Or do you think actually our mission would be easier with somebody else in charge?
EB: I don't know enough about who the genuine alternatives are. Karzai has been supported by the international community for the last eight years. Many of the elements of his government from top to bottom are very corrupt; they do take advantage of the huge amount of international aid that comes in. Is he doing enough to try and root this out? The western view is "no". Do we understand enough of how his system works, the policies, the tribes, the nationalism? It's a very complex tapestry, and we're all judging it. I'm not condoning corruption, far from it, but if you're trying to keep all these different groups and factions - there are over 50 different elements of the Taliban, for example, and numerous tribal groupings - how do we judge the best way of managing that? Is it paying people off? Is it building up our own little fiefdoms?
This is where it comes down to what the political solution will look like in Afghanistan. Actually, the Afghans will be determining that with our assistance. I think again, intellectually, we've crossed that point now and said, "Ah, maybe we were wrong to try this western democracy. What does Afghan democracy look like? . . ." I started identifying this in 2006: the Afghan self-ruling economy. They want to run their own districts with their own peace forces, and they may not have wheelchair access, equal rights for women and everything else, but actually it is a stable, tribally run system. Which, at the moment, we have an issue with, saying, "That's no way to run a developed country." I say, "Well, it's not a developed country, rather it's still biblical, medieval in the way it stands, so it's going to take a very slow progression before it gets into a more workable democracy." Having a vote is a big step forward for that. Which may well lead on to an improved form of government.
Is corruption still going to be there in ten years' time? Yes. Are the Taliban still going to be there in ten years' time? Yes. Are guns and warlords and narco-terrorism still going to be in place? Yes, [but] hopefully at a lower level than they are now.
MH & JM: You mentioned 50 different elements of the Taliban. I get the sense that you're one of those who doesn't think we need to talk to some of those elements of the Taliban, because they're not going to be around in ten years. But Hamid Karzai said we do need to talk if we can get the chance. Is that something you endorse?
EB: I recognise - and I mean, it's on record from 2006 onwards - that elements of the Taliban will make up part of a future government of Afghanistan. We know that from all conflicts, all disputes - whether it was in our own backyard in Northern Ireland, or elsewhere. Now the issue of the moment is trying to define - and this was very successfully done, but again it's apples and pears in Iraq and Afghanistan - who are the irreconcilable and who are the reconcilable. There is a far greater grouping within the organisation of the Taliban who are reconcilable. There's a hard core who will never be. They could easily be put into a minority.
One of the elements of reconciliation of any armed conflict, any dispute, is that you've got to have sufficient pressure on them, that they've got to feel you know they are losing, because then they want to get into political dialogue. War is a continuation of politics by other means. The converse of the equation is that it must return to political process. So, we're challenging that at the moment. And this is where I think the military successes have not been advertised. There's been a considerable amount of attrition on the Taliban, a considerable amount of attrition on their senior leadership and their mid-level leadership. We saw it in 2006 (remember, we are in the middle of war-fighting season, hence why July contributed to the high casualties): significant damage to their communications structure, their logistics structure, their own medical chain out of Afghanistan. Again . . . we're having success there, we know that, and it's not reported because it's classified. So we could be getting to that point, whether it's this year or next year, where we're pushing those reconcilable elements of the Taliban [and they are] saying, "Actually, it's not looking as good for us as it was a year or two ago." The Americans are coming in with more troops. My experience is we should never underestimate the Americans' ability to wage war and do very heavy and deep reconstruction. We saw how much they put into Iraq. I'm not suggesting for one moment they're going to put 150,000 troops in there, but if you think, in 2003 [we didn't realise] they were going to surge to that level and achieve what they did. It's a big military machine and a big industrial machine which we, in England, don't understand. You can't underestimate that. In terms of militarily being able to make a less porous border, make it more difficult - it's 2,400km or thereabouts, so it's always going to have leaks - but [even with] that amount of mass, the Americans and their technology will make it much, much harder for them to campaign. So the conditions for reconciliation and talking will be more likely . . .
I mean, in 2006 I was acknowledged as having had dialogue with the Taliban - with the tribal elders, with the full recognition that the Taliban were sitting in the audience; they were part of that very lay-level discussion and reconciliation. Actually, it was more a sort of ceasefire arrangement. So it was a fledgling sort of Afghan autonomy. It was an opportunity that we missed for several reasons, or it moved on. But we were actually saying: "You Taliban commanders, it's time you came back into the fold. Lay down your arms and then we can go into a reconciliation process."
MH & JM: Just a quick question on British politics. The current Defence Secretary, Bob Ainsworth, has been criticised for being a bit inexperienced. And generally you've expressed a bit of doubt over a political strategy under Labour, which has had five, six defence secretaries in 12 years. Looking back at your grandfather's generation, Churchill et al, do you acknowledge a bit of a decline in politicians' grasp of issues, particularly with their crude, "grand design" policies?
EB: I mean, you brought up five or six defence secretaries, in what has been one of the most challenging periods in your and my lifetime, since 9/11, when the world turned upside down. It turned upside down again last September with the economic crisis. The combination of that, to me, is that the world is more uncertain, it is potentially more unstable. Therefore you need to have more strategic thinkers and actually invest more in your defence and your security.
They've replaced five or six secretaries of state in the most unstable period we've been in for some time. It doesn't reflect very well, certainly from an outsider's perspective, on the defence of the realm, of our country, with all the interlinked threats and everything else. You've got to think of the links between all these trouble spots, of a multicultural population that we have here, of which the vast majority are law-abiding and peace-abiding and get on with their lives, but there are those extremist elements who are here who can be exploited, and they're making all the linkages between here and the places where we're campaigning. So, to me, it should be that much more [of a priority] and have a far more strategic significance within government.
MH & JM: Going back to when Brown was chancellor, there was a Treasury cap on Afghanistan. When you think about it - looking forward, strategically and so on - it's as if the government just neglected that area . . .
EB: Yes, I'd say it was at best short-sighted.
MH & JM: What do you think of Blair and Brown - a lot of modern western politicians, "chicken-hawks" who've never served in combat? Not having ever fought, having ever had that perspective? How does it feel to receive orders from these people to "start" democracies, fight a global "war against terror", people who, in their youth, were anti-war?
EB: You could have a long discussion about that. It's very difficult for someone who hasn't served, in any form or capacity, or who has had another view on security as a younger man or woman, to then take long-term strategic decisions about the security of our country. There have been some very good politicians: I don't think you can say that none of them had a clue, that'd be totally wrong. I think . . . somebody like John Reid, who was [defence secretary] for a couple of years, actually had a pretty good understanding of the military. But what we don't seem to understand nowadays in contemporary politics (and I'm talking as a political student, from a political family) is that we don't seem to grow our politicians like we used to in my father's and grandfather's generations, where you were a parliamentary private secretary, a junior minister, a middle minister, a senior minister and then a cabinet minister, and you didn't get into the cabinet until you'd done ten or 15 years as an MP. So you understood how government worked, you understood the department, you grew up . . .
You make sure you've got the right people there. And if you ask what I would do differently, in hindsight the answer is far more engagement from now of the private sector and business. There are moves being talked about in this, but it's a pretty slow bureaucratic process, engaging the private sector to provide logistical support to the military. So, [involve them in] the running of bases: providing the security for some of the bases, with private security guards from reputable organisations, to go out and actually relieve front-line troops, so that your paratroopers, guards and anyone else can get out and do some proper fighting. The same with helicopters. I argued this in 2006 and it was knocked into the long grass - actually utilising a commercial aviation company to do the humping and dumping of your standard -
MH & JM: But people might criticise that as privatising war - in America, there was Black Hawk et al. Isn't it war profiteering?
EB: The legislation's moved on - but if you go back (because this is the campaign of our generation that we've got to succeed in, and we've just had an economic collapse and significant trouble across all departments, nationally and internationally), then actually the private sector has a role to play. Because the world is more unstable and we cannot afford to garrisonise. There is therefore a requirement, and a question of how we meet that requirement. Now it's about building up capability, but in the interim you can fill that by the private sector, logistically.
The other thing is actually engaging businesses in the corporate and the financial sectors into investing alongside the government and the military - into building up the economies of these places. Because we could have done this in 2002. And we could still have done it in 2005 and 2006. Vast areas of Afghanistan are still untouched. You actually want to have a very inefficient way of building up an economy, so you have inefficient roadbuilding, and that gets people off the payroll of the Taliban or the narcos, because you can provide them with employment. Because what employment gives them, clearly, is a job and a wage, which breaks them out of the poverty subsistence cycle. If you give them clean water and a mosquito net . . . I simplify this: some development is appropriate. But if you give them too much they just get a dependency. They don't have malaria, and they don't get dysentery and cholera, great - but they don't have a future. So this is why we need to get businesses . . . This is what we're [Butler's company Corporates for Crisis is] trying to facilitate, globally, in emerging markets. Our current focuses are sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, not Afghanistan. But it's going out into far-flung places and it's advising corporates on how to invest in a sustainable way in an uncertain location, post-conflict, post-crisis . . .
You've got to bring the privates in, because they've got the money, and you've got to accept (which the government finds very hard) that profit is not a dirty word. Business will engage if it can make money. I agree, you've got to be cautious of the Blackwaters and everything else, if they're profiteering. But if we're serious about making a difference in Afghanistan, then we've got to provide them with an alternative economic platform which breaks them out of the subsistence economy, pulls them away from the Taliban. When they've got that, when they've got the security - physical security, job security - even against all their codes and everything else, they will tell the Taliban to go away. And I spoke to Afghans in 2006 on this very subject: you give them some wages. But actually now I would like to take it a step further with the big construction companies, the big mining companies. Imagine if you open up an open-cast mine in Afghanistan. I mean, the Chinese are all moving in . . . If you did that, you could be employing 10,000 or 20,000 people. Even if it's 10,000 people, that's 10,000 families, that's 100,000 people. And then there are all the secondary and tertiary industries . . . Now, when I talk to chief executives and senior management in the big corporates, I ask: "Could you do this, in terms of the telecoms sector, oil and gas, construction?" And they say, "Yeah, we could come up with a plan. Because we go into these countries for 20 years, because that's the return we've got to look at in length of investment: first ten years at a loss and last ten, roughly . . . Let's put part of our [plans out to] concession. We might have to build a 200km railway, we might have to build the airfield, we might have to build hospitals, not just for our employees but also for the local people. Let's cost that. So we now add x billion to what we're going to invest, but we're going to get back x billion plus plus."
You could do that on the scale, but there's a reluctance to say, "Let's get the senior chairmen and chief executives of the top 100 . . ." All this depends on what happens under a new government.
MH & JM: There's a lot in the news at the moment about torture, about British complicity in torture, which perhaps started in Afghanistan in 2002 when British agents got advice from American officers . . . What's your position on that? Did we go too far in trying to handle terrorism?
EB: From a military perspective, from all nations there was ill-discipline, there was a naivety, there was a lack of understanding. Which was chain of command, bad leadership. Some nations have been more directly affected than us - the US were strategically raped in 9/11. You could see it, it was palpable in 2001 and 2002, what it really meant, very different from what we were [thinking] . . . They immediately declared they were at war: they said there were 3,500 of our folk, our friends killed. That was really emotional. That's where Afghanistan is a very emotional campaign, where Iraq was different . . . Some of that would have been reflected in the early days, what people were doing from primeval instinct.
But then there's the other side of it. I'm not condoning torture, but in the early days, there was a huge concern that [9/11] was going to happen again. You had a very sophisticated enemy who wasn't prepared to talk, who wasn't prepared to divulge information because he'd taken the oaths, and nothing was going to turn him away from that. And this is what people were thinking at the time: "He will sit here for 20 years and not say anything. He's not going to be brought back. He's not going to be rehabilitated like a normal citizen." We'd never come across it before (and I say "we" generically) - the misunderstanding and, sometimes, the desperation, with huge political pressures . . . to find out how they operate. Because we knew very little about al-Qaeda - and then, suddenly: Whack! This had happened. So people were saying the ends justified the means - with probably less regard . . .
MH & JM: Brits as well as Americans? Did you feel the pressure to get results, answers?
EB: I'm talking conceptually - but also I think this is where the theory behind Guantanamo Bay was probably right. What happened there wasn't right, [but] what did you do with these people who weren't saying anything?
Take here in Afghanistan. There's always no judicial system or no prisons or anything else. At the main prison, you go in one door and out the other. So what were we going to do with these suspects, before you could prove that they were innocent?
So there was a huge, very complex, very hard-driven requirement to get information and put these people somewhere safe. What happened then, I think, was where it started to fall apart. There was, again, no clear strategy, because we'd never been in that position before: "Now, do we hand them over to the Red Cross?" With hindsight [all that thinking] should have gone into it . . . But 9/11 happened. It wasn't a pre-planned campaign, it wasn't "a work-up of international dissent and then the Second World War happened". We reacted to a strategic shock . . . Suddenly people were thinking about a whole plethora of strategic issues, and I think the one, clearly, that we didn't think about was what we did with these people, how we gathered intelligence on them to prevent another attack taking place.
MH & JM: Another moral question: in Afghanistan . . . we didn't see the numbers of civilian casualties that we saw in Iraq, but the numbers are growing. Do you think we helped the Taliban by bombing so many civilians over the years?
EB: Collateral damage is an unfortunate aspect of warfare. It always has been. It is easier now, with modern technology and targeting systems, to reduce your collateral damage considerably. There were always going to be accidents, and accidents are always a messy business. There's lots of dynamics, friction - so collateral damage will happen. And the targeting process is very, very rigorous to make sure which targets are being hit and what isn't. I think in the early days of Afghanistan, when I was there, the targeting was pretty loose - I mean, who could bomb what, what was positive identification and everything else. But the Americans learned, and the entire coalition learned [in Iraq], that you couldn't just say, "If that man looks at us we'll bomb him."
MH & JM: But casualties are up 70 per cent on last year from air strikes . . . That's American statistics.
EB: My point is that the technical side is improving rapidly, the positive identification, the targeting processing clearances - there's now a very good system forward. Now, I'm not an expert in why the figures are up by nearly 70 per cent, apart from saying that actually the volume of engagements has increased, so the likelihood of collateral damage has increased proportionally with it. Now, this was supposed to be all special forces and surgical strikes, and that was the nature of warfare in the future. Well, us infanteers and ex-infanteers know that if you're doing counter-insurgency, whether it's in Northern Ireland, Malaya, the Balkans, or Iran, you've got to have boots on the ground. And this goes back to the recognition that actually you can try to make up for the lack of boots on the ground by technology and bombing. Well, that can take people out, but you've still got to have clear objectives, clear sights, and then you've got to hold them. So you can't just win everything from the air.
There's a realisation that it's a complex thing. But you can't then go back to it saying: "Well, you can't approach Afghanistan." Remember, you go long, you go deep, you go home . . .
MH & JM: A second part of that question - fighting the Taliban. The Taliban came back with a greater strength: it's not the Taliban of 2001 and 2002 that we're fighting now. Would you refute, utterly, the assertion that part of that was to do simply with the western occupying presence, which is going into people's houses shooting and bombing?
EB: We knew we were going to have a reaction when we went into the Helmand - I did, and not everyone listened. But we knew the propaganda was there, they were pulling it out, saying "We're going to bury you with your fathers and your forefathers" and everything else. Their propaganda is very effective . . . In under an hour - 57 minutes, I think, in 2006 - they could have an incident on al-Jazeera. And we would take a day or two to counter that and put our [case] . . . So it's very clever. And I agree with you, the fact that we have caused collateral damage, we have killed innocents and ordinary people has been a useful recruiting message for them. But they've managed to put together a very sophisticated publicity campaign that they've built that into. So how many of those that are coming up are ideologically driven? And how many are actually coming up to support their brothers? No, I think that's a factor. I mean, it always is. That's [the problem] again in most campaigns: it's very easy to turn the population that you're trying to help against you. I haven't seen any reports of our having done that yet, actually. There isn't an uprising among ordinary Afghans to say, "No, we no longer want you here." And I think that the public, the polls, are saying that they do want the coalition here.
MH & JM: Last question. You mention that you knew there would be a reaction. But there's that famous John Reid quotation that he gets very upset about now, saying we were hoping we could go in for three years and not fire a shot. He now says that was an aspiration, not a prediction. Do you not think that there was a sense on the part of British politicians that they didn't realise what you realise: that there was going to be that reaction - that the Taliban were warning us, "We're going to kill hundreds of your soldiers?" Which they have . . .
EB: I think that goes back to your earlier question about how, if you've got no one in government with any form of military or security experience, it's very hard to understand when they're conducting campaigns as a brutal, messy, tragic business or in terms of blood and treasure. This is where I've always struggled with many of the lessons of Iraq [and other] campaigns. There are a lot of very similar tactical, technical and strategic lessons that we're slow to adjust to, that we've been very slow to adjust to in Afghanistan. Because in history it is written - and don't forget, in both campaigns, defining campaigns of the early 21st century: "Why did we start to make the same mistakes in Afghanistan as we made in Iraq?"