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The NS interview: Ed Butler

The retired brigadier, original mastermind of Britain's strategy for fighting the Taliban, now belie

''Call me Ed - I'm a civvy now," says the retired brigadier Ed Butler, original mastermind of Britain's strategy for fighting the Taliban in Helmand. Although relaxed in chinos and reclining on a sofa, "Ed" retains the stiff, clipped demeanour of a senior military man, and grills us on our backgrounds in journalism, as well as our knowledge of Afghanistan, before we are allowed to ask him anything.

Our bona fides established, the interview with the former commander of 22 SAS and 16 Air Assault Brigade in Helmand begins. Are we winning the war in Afghanistan? Butler leans right back, his hands clasped behind his head. There is a pause. "I'll be as straight as I can be: military success can be very different from political success, and ditto failure. Militarily, we won't lose," he says, citing the huge "amount of effort the Americans are putting in there". (His experience, he later adds, "is we should never underestimate the Americans' ability to wage war".) Nonetheless, he concedes: "You have to say, 'At what cost?' Clearly economic cost, and cost in human life."

We meet Butler in the wake of a disastrous month for British troops in Afghanistan, with 22 soldiers killed, 11 of them during Operation Panther's Claw. "But they have cleared a significant amount of ground that will [create] the conditions to allow elections to take place, so that has been - the mission has been - successful, but at high human cost."

“Clearing" the way for politics to work, he explains, is what the military does best. "This is what I spent a good proportion of my military career [doing] . . . buying time for other activities to take place, whether it was a UN Security Council resolution, whether it was an election - which is a short-term aim in Afghanistan at the moment - or some other activity. So we're buying time . . . in this case for improving governance, construction and development opportunities in Afghanistan." He also says: "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 is succeeding . . . making slow progress, slow but steady progress."

A soldier for 24 years, Butler has a distinguished and decorated background; he was mentioned in despatches in Northern Ireland, and awarded the Distinguished Service Order for displaying exceptional bravery in Afghanistan in 2002. Despite some criticism that he had been too gung-ho in the early months of his command in Afghanistan, he was touted as a future head of the army until he suddenly retired in 2008. The reason he gave for leaving early was his family - he is married, with two children aged 14 and 12 - but he is clearly frustrated by what he described at the time as the "well-known constraints and restraints" within which his soldiers were required to fight. Since then, he has called on the government to send more helicopters, troops and resources to Helmand, and accused the Treasury of crippling the British war effort by imposing a spending cap.
Butler takes a dim view of politicians. He criticises the "confusing" and "multiple" explanations offered for our presence in Afghanistan, and rejects the idea of imposing democracy through the barrel of a gun. "Naively, many people took the view that we would turn it into a western-style democracy . . . [Some] within the government here - and some in the military - thought we would have this idealistic state. I think the military were always more sceptical, because actually the military, the British military, is a very sophisticated beast." He also seems to dismiss the reconstruction efforts on which ministers are keen to focus. "Who are we, sitting in Westminster, to say what an Afghan government looks like? 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? I mean, how long has it taken a mature democracy in the west to get to that stage? Hundreds of years, and we're trying to say we can achieve that in ten."

For Butler, the mission should have stayed focused on defeating the terrorists following the 11 September 2001 attacks, which loom large in his thoughts. "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." He repeats his view of what he calls "the nation-building stuff": "The women's rights, health and safety, all those other things started to come in [later] and there was never real clarity from 2002 to when I started in part of the military planning process in the middle of 2005 onwards."

Butler makes a distinction between al-Qaeda, with its terrorists and training camps, and the Taliban, with its "50 different elements", from hardcore Islamist extremists to more moderate Pashtun nationalists. "Elements of the Taliban will make up part of a future government of Afghanistan," he says, a view echoed in recent weeks by the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. "The issue at the moment is trying to define . . . who are the irreconcilables and who are the reconcilables. There is a far greater grouping within the Taliban who are reconcilable; there's a hard core which will never be." When deployed to Helmand in 2006, Butler engaged in dialogue with what he calls Afghan "tribal elders", in meetings also attended by Taliban representatives, and he argues that the reconciliation process could have started several years ago. "It was an opportunity that we missed," he says.

Asked about the rising civilian death toll in Afghanistan, Butler reverts to cold military-speak: "Collateral damage is an unfortunate aspect of warfare. It always has been." And when we discuss the recent row over torture, and Britain's alleged complicity, he seems somewhat equivocal. "From a military perspective, from all nations, there was ill-discipline, there was a naivety, there was a lack of understanding. Some nations [have] been more directly affected than us. The US was strategically raped on 9/11. You could see it: it was palpable in 2001 and 2002 . . . very different from why we were there."

He continues: "But then the other side of it, and I'm not condoning torture, but in the early days, when there was a huge concern that this 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 . . . I think this is where the theory behind Guantanamo Bay was probably right. What happened there wasn't right."

In Butler's eyes, there is a widespread lack of understanding of what the military is and does. He criticises Labour under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown for not giving defence the attention, significance or resources it deserves. "They've replaced five or six secretaries of defence in the most unstable period we've been in for some time . . . since 9/11, when the world turned upside down." It does not reflect well, he says, on "the defence of the realm". Butler has some brief words of praise for John Reid's one-year stint as defence secretary, but asked about the new incumbent, Bob Ainsworth, who has been pilloried for being too junior an appointment, he says: "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 . . . We don't seem to grow our politicians like we used to in my father's and grandfather's generations, [when] you didn't get into the cabinet until you'd done ten or 15 years as an MP, so you understood how government worked."

He mentions his father - Adam Butler, a former Tory MP and junior minister under Margaret Thatcher - and his grandfather - "Rab" Butler, chancellor under Winston Churchill. Butler, too, seems close to the Tories. He admits he has met privately with David Cameron and warned him that Afghanistan would be his "biggest foreign policy challenge" in government, because "in a couple of years' time, we could be at [a] tipping point" in terms of public opinion on the war. He is keen to play down his links with the Conservative leader - "He takes advice from hundreds of people. I was just one of them" - and even makes a veiled criticism of the opposition's recent attacks on the government's handling of the Afghan conflict: "To me, this is such an important issue that it should have cross-party consensus." But later, by email, he seems to endorse the recent Conservative proposal to create a new minister for Afghanistan and refuses to rule himself out when we ask whether he would consider filling such a post: "It would certainly be an interesting and intellectually challenging appointment for someone with the right skills and experiences."

Butler is at his most animated talking about his new commercial venture, CforC Ltd, which he describes as "a 'boots and suits' organisation . . . a business intelligence company that provides specialist advice to alternative investors and corporates in emerging and challenging frontier markets". And he now says that there should have been "far more engagement of the private sector" in Afghanistan, in the running of bases, providing security guards and building up the local economy. "Profit," he insists, "is not a dirty word."

Butler is a man of firm beliefs, whether on fighting wars or running companies. Although he goes further than any military man associated with Afghanistan by saying that British forces could have "come out" in 2002, when the al-Qaeda training camps had been destroyed and the Taliban were on the back foot, he is strongly opposed to withdrawal now. For him, the foreign military presence in Afghanistan continues to prevent "the direct threat of al-Qaeda launching an operation from Afghanistan" and, he argues, "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."

Asked how long the UK will have to stay in Afghanistan, he says the "good scenario, the positive scenario" is between ten and 20 years, while the "bad scenario" is that we simply will not be there at all because the turning tide of British public opinion will have forced an earlier - and, in his view, dangerous and mistaken - withdrawal. Butler himself is uncompromising: "We go long, we go deep, or we go home."

Read a full transcript of the interview.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: The Lost War