During a visit to see the 40 Commando Royal Marines who have recently returned, Foreign Office Ministers spoke to BBC Somerset about the work that they did in Afghanistan.
Matt Faulkner - Breakfast BBC Somerset: The Royal Marines from Somerset’s 40 Commando will meet the Government’s Minster responsible for Afghanistan today. They ended their deployment last month, handing over operations in Sangin to American troops.
Alistair Burt is the Foreign Office Minister for Afghanistan and he’s joining Taunton Deane MP and Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne in the studio this morning.
Good morning gentlemen.
Alistair Burt: Morning.
Jeremy Browne**: Morning.
MF: Thanks very much for coming in. Alistair if I could start with you. You’re meeting Royal Marines from 40 Commando this morning; some of them will feel quite disheartened having come back from Sangin without a clear victory. This is Marine James Kelly from 40 Commando.
Marine James Kelly (40 Commando): The amount of effort, time, lives lost, I do feel a little bit hollow that we didn’t break this place, we didn’t bring it to our way of thinking. You know I, I feel a little bit heartbroken that we didn’t finish it. However I’m a hundred per cent sure the Yanks will and that is always a good thing.
MF**: So Alistair what are you going to say to people like James?
Alistair Burt: Well the first thing I want to say is thank you very much for everything that’s been done by 40 Commando and all their colleagues. It’s a remarkable record of service, they lost fourteen men over the period of time that they’ve been deployed and this had been a huge amount of sacrifice.
I would then turn to today’s papers and ask colleagues to look at the interview given yesterday by Governor Mangal who’s the Government of Helmand Province who was reporting to journalists in London on the progress of the last couple of years, his tribute to the troops and then the progress that’s been made over the last couple of years because of the work done by 40 Commando and others. And that will show what’s, what’s being achieved. More territories being taken by the Government so it’s secure, there’s a drop in, in poppy production, more people are accepting that the Afghan Government is the, is the way forwards.
And every indicator suggests there’s been good, solid progress made and the Governor was at pains to say lives have not been lost in vain. And I think hearing it from the man who’s in charge on the ground, who’s very close of course to Afghan opinion, I hope will make our soldiers feel much better about what they’ve achieved.
MF: But is that what you’re going to say to the soldiers?
AB: Yeah, I’m going to talk to this, I, first and foremost I’m going to listen to them. I mean part of this is to understand from those who have been there talking to a Minister to get a good feel from them about their experiences, what they’ve achieved, what they feel about it.
MF: They’re obviously disheartened.
AB: Well, again part of the job is to say look, there is a wider picture here. You have made a fantastic contribution. There, there, there’s no sense that, that Afghan will be dealt with by some form of military victory. What we’re looking for in Afghanistan to make us more secure here at home is to make sure that al Qaeda were forced out and that they don’t return. There is a process there for us securing the country, Afghanising the, the forces to make sure the army and the police are taken over by those locally so they can secure the ground which has been so hard won by our forces. And that there is a process of government that’s acceptable to people in, in Afghanistan and all the normal things of life that have been denied through so many years of conflict there, health care, education and the like, is able to be, to be delivered. And …
MF**: But can you understand that they feel they didn’t finish the job?
AB: I think I, if I can help by saying it’s a job that will take time in which everyone has got to play a part, but the, it, it could not be done without everything that they have done. There isn’t an end date here. What we’re looking for is a situation by the end of 2014 when combat troops can be withdrawn because the Afghan troops are then doing the job to have the country secure. Without everything that has already been done that would not be possible. I think we’re going, only going to see progress and success in Afghanistan measured over time. It isn’t a question of sort of leaving yesterday and have we done the job? They have done their job, and they have done a wonderful job, and now the job is being carried on by others and there’s much more work to be done. But without everything they’ve, they’ve done then Governor Mangal wouldn’t have been able to come to London yesterday and report the progress that he has.
So they’ve done a great job and I hope by, by my being able to communicate that to them and the wider public, then I hope the forces will feel better about what they’ve done, because they have done a wonderful job.
MF: Now we’ve heard a lot recently about negotiations between the Afghan Government and the Taliban. Is it a sign of acceptance that you’ve given up on trying to defeat the Taliban?
AB: No, not at all. As I said a little earlier, there was never any question that Afghanistan was going to be some form of military victory. As everybody will tell you, you go back in history, this can’t be done. What there has been is a process of replacing a, an oppressive Government which had given space to al Qaeda for them to attack the world in general. They are being forced out and a new process is being introduced whereby Government with the acceptance of the people, and remember four and a half million valid votes were cast in elections just recently in Afghanistan, a process of Government is being introduced which the Afghans this, the Afghan people will be comfortable with.
Now it, clearly some of those who have been fighting on the other side, the Taliban is not a unified whole, there are local groups who say I don’t want to go on fighting any more. They’re seeing their leaders killed, they’re seeing the leaders of the Taliban knocked out, they want to come over to the Government because they want to be secure and safe for the future, and they are building, the system is building on what has already been achieved by the work of 40 Commando and others.
So in talking to the Taliban only those who are prepared to give up their, give up their fight to support the Government, people who have moved over, it’s an Afghan process to bring them back on board, it’s a national process of reconciliation, reintegration, it is not uncommon. And by the Afghan Government talking to those people actually it’s a sign of victory because if you think you’re going to win you wouldn’t be coming over to the Afghan Government …
MF: But let’s go …
AB: … and that’s what’s going on.
MF: … let’s go back to the beginning because nobody surely would have been expecting nine years on for you to even have been thinking about negotiation with the Taliban. Isn’t that a sort of we’ve failed.
AB: No, I don’t think it is and I, I don’t think sort of going, going back even nine years I don’t think it was ever in anyone’s mind that Afghanistan would be conquered and occupied. What did people expect? They expected British troops or NATO troops to stay there for ever? Surely there was going to be a process of returning Afghanistan’s security to the Afghans themselves.
Now bearing in mind there was nothing to build on at all, the work that’s been done, a hundred and thirty thousand are now in the Afghan Army, a hundred and ten thousand in the Afghan Police, the opportunity for them to take over the security of their own country has only been bought by the efforts of those like 40 Commando. And the political process to make sure the country is politically secure has got to involve a process where those who have been at odds with the Afghan Government are now coming, are now coming to work with them.
But again, it’s an Afghan process and that’s only being done with the members of the Taliban who wish to do this, who are giving up their, their weapons, giving up their fight. And if that can’t be done of course then they will continue to be pursued by the Afghan Security Forces and by us while we’re still there.
MF**: Do you think that the Taliban are, are really interested in negotiations, ‘cause they’ve got the upper hand haven’t they?
AB: Not with their leadership being killed and not with members of the Taliban moving over to support the Government. So no, they’re not winning, we’re winning, but it’s a process which is not just military, it’s military and political and development, and all that work is going on hand in hand. And so I, I, I, I think the sense that by talking and negotiating with the Afghan Government that’s any sign of victory, as I say, if you were winning why would you do that? It’s absolutely the reverse.
MF: But if they negotiate they could end up with a role in Government and nobody wants that surely.
AB**: Well we are not, we’re not in a position to say what, what the ultimate outcome of negotiations should be. But the Afghan Government is now negotiating from a position of strength. A very big international conference in, in July, the Kabul Conference, which set out the guidelines of where the future governance would be, but a reconciliation and reintegration programme is absolutely essential. Every form of, of conflict that you can recall and think of in a territory ultimately is only made secure because the population become, to use the term, at ease with their own Government.
Now that’s a process when people have been fighting and involved in, in, in a civil conflict, that’s a process that takes the building up of confidence.
Villages that had belonged to the Taliban or where they’d put their security in the hands of the Taliban, they will only come over to the Government if they think the Government is going to keep them secure. And that that process is going on is a remarkable change from where we were two or three years ago.
The effort that’s been put in the last couple of years to build up the, the numbers of troops, to give the opportunity for this process to work well, that’s been absolutely crucial, and the process you’re seeing, and as I say, if people would rather hear from someone on the ground, look at the papers today, see the evidence from Governor Mangal of what he’s talking about, that’s a process which shows the success of the forty eight nations that have been engaged and brave people like 40 Commando.
MF: Now earlier in the show I spoke to Timor Sharan and he was born in Afghanistan, he’s studying for a doctorate at Exeter University. He’s one of the founders of the UK Afghan Studies Group. This is what he had to say:
Timor Sharan (Co-Founder, United Kingdom Afghanistan Study Group): Talking to friends and colleagues I, I have to say, I mean most of the people were absolutely disappointed with what was going on. It is really frustrating for ordinary Afghans after ten years of rhetoric of peace building and all this amount of aid coming in, you suddenly hear that the international community are really now going back somehow in a vicious cycle to 2001 and saying well, we will now negotiate with Taliban and bring them to the Government. It is really, really frustrating. It somehow shows to ordinary Afghans this, this is somehow an alarm bell that the international community has not done what they should have done, and this country has somehow, has not moved on.
And of course the election was a sham, people were frustrated, angry, disappointed, and, and it’s this mood of uncertainty where the country is going, is really I, I think an enormous factor that bothers most of the Afghans.
MF: Was the election a sham Alistair?
Alistair Burt**: No it wasn’t and, and it wasn’t an election that we would naturally sort of passed as an election process valued in the United Kingdom. But it made great strides on the elections of two years ago, more polling stations, more votes cast, more valid votes cast, four and a half million valid votes cast. More new Members of Parliament elected, about fifty per cent of, of sitting members were, were, were voted out by the public, a large number of women candidates were elected. No, it wasn’t perfect, but no one is saying that Afghan is in a, a situation where there is going to be either a perfect Government or a perfect system of security or anything else at this stage. But I’m …
MF: Can you understand the frustrations of the Afghan people ‘cause they feel they haven’t moved on?
AB**: I would contrast what you’ve just heard with what we heard yesterday from the Governor of Helmand Province and ask people to look at that. Eighty five per cent of Afghans now have access to healthcare; that was only nine per cent back in 2002. The number of children in schools increased fivefold. As I indicated the number of people in the Afghan Army, the Afghan National Police, has been increasing and they’re under training from people in the United Kingdom and throughout the, the international coalition in order to make sure that they can keep hold of their own security.
Of course it’s not going to be perfect yet and everyone is not going to say it’s perfect; this is a process that’s going on. But I would contrast what’s been said with plenty of other evidence that we have which indicates that the country is being made more secure and there is a process going on. The reintegration and the, the reconciliation process it, it’s led by the Afghan Government, it is not a, it, it, it is a process where only those who are prepared to come over and accept the Afghan Government’s terms, they’re the only people being reintroduced.
There is no international negotiation with the Taliban as such. It’s a local process but as I say, the indications are if a village, if a local leader and a local community decide to switch their allegiance from the Taliban to the Government, it is a sign that they feel more secure with the Government, they feel confidence in the future, they don’t feel they’re going to be let down. And that I think is an indication of success, and that’s probably the most positive thing that we’re seeing throughout Afghanistan at the moment, and that is the right interpretation to put on the negotiations that are going on.
MF: Alistair let me talk to Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne now. Morning Jeremy …
Jeremy Browne: Good morning.
MF: … now you’ve been to Norton Manor Camp to meet some of the injured Marines since they returned. What sort of situations have they been injured in?
JB: Well fighting in, in Afghanistan and a few I’m afraid to say have been very seriously injured, life changing injuries, but the Royal Marines I met had been relatively, and I, you know I don’t want to make light of it, but relatively less seriously injured. They were in a process of rehabilitation and they were, they were very impressive and …
MF: How were they coping?
JB: They were coping very well and their spirits were very good and I, I think what I’d say following on from the previous interview you were just doing with Alistair is actually I think the Royal Marines at Norton Manor are extremely proud of what they have achieved. It is not a conventional war like the Falklands, you know, where we go in and we’re there for a matter of weeks and we run up the Union Jack and we have won. It isn’t as straightforward as that. It is a process and it’s a process that has a military angle, it has a political angle, it has a development angle as well. What we are trying to do is get Afghanistan, and for that matter the borders in to Pakistan as well, in a state where we don’t live in constant fear that terrorists are going to use that as a base to attack our country.
So that is what the Royal Marines have contributed to, they are part of a bigger picture, most obviously with the Americans, and what we are trying to do is make sure that we protect our national security.
MF**: Okay, and we heard from the family, family of Marine Liam Brentley who serves with 40 Commando. He suffered a bullet wound to the head and has been left with memory loss and deafness after being shot at whilst on patrol in Afghanistan in June.
Now they’re disappointed with the response from their private insurance company, clearly not your responsibility, but are you concerned that armed forces feel they need private insurance in case they’re wounded and that the, the state provision won’t be enough?
JB: Well I’m extremely sorry to hear about that particular case, I mean obviously I mean everyone would accept that in a situation of warfare soldiers are at risk, I mean that’s the nature of the, of the occupation. But the Royal Marines I spoke to who have been injured were extremely complimentary to me about the rehabilitation they got and I, I don’t think they were saying that just because I was a politician, I think they were entirely free to say the opposite. But they said that their, their body armour, their protection in Afghanistan was as good as they have ever had and the level of treatment and rehabilitation when they got home, you know, exceeded their expectations, it was fantastic, the level of support they had.
MF: But if (indistinct) …
JB: But if there are individual cases, I mean I, I don’t know if I’m, I’m …
MF: Well I just want to ask you one other question if I may …
JB: … his individual MP but if, if we can do more to help …
MF**: … is, is the Government committed to, is the Government committed to caring for these Marines, and is there enough money?
JB: Well the answer is yes to the first question and I hope the answer is yes to the second as well. I mean I haven’t seen the details of this particular case and of course every single case is different. But some of the soldiers who suffer really, really severe injuries and it is, you know it’s terrible, of course everybody feels very strongly on their behalf, but a huge amount of, is done to support them in the initial phase but in the months and years afterwards to make sure that they have the best quality of life possible.
But we are going to go and see them today. I’m, I’m delighted that Alistair, my, my fellow Minister, but the Minister specifically responsible for Afghanistan, is down here in Taunton today. We’re going to see them, we want to learn, he wants to learn as the Minister, find out what, what they have to say, both the injured Marines and obviously the larger number who are not injured. Talk to the senior officers but also talk to the Marines as well and say thank you to them for what they’ve done for our country, but also listen to them and learn from them as well. And we’re really looking forward to going along and talking to them this morning.
MF: Gentlemen thank you both for coming in to see us this morning.
That’s Alistair Burt, Foreign Office Minister for Afghanistan, and Taunton Deane MP and Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne.