Speech

Afghanistan: Foreign Secretary's interview with Today Programme, Radio 4

Foreign Secretary William Hague was interviewed on the UK's engagement in Afghanistan.

Justin Webb, presenter: Well, just a few moments ago the Foreign Secretary came on the line from Kabul, where he is at the moment, and I asked him if Britain was going to make its own extra troop withdrawal announcement soon.

William Hague, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs: Well, in the case of the British forces, we’ve already announced what we will be doing this year - the Prime Minister made that clear a few weeks ago - that about 400 will be the reduction this year in the British forces deployed in Afghanistan, continuing our base level of 9,500. We’ve said that by 2015 British forces will not be engaged in combat in Afghanistan or in anything like the numbers that they are now. What happens between now and 2015 depends on the conditions on the ground and our continuing assessment of those.

JW: But in 2015… it’s not condition-based, by 2015 we stop fighting whatever happens?

WH: Well, one of the conditions is that by 2015 we reach that point. And the reason we say that is because by 2014 Afghan national security forces are meant to have security control throughout the country - that is starting, by the way, I’ve seen in Afghanistan in my visit this week, in Lashkar Gah in Helmand, which… that has been a very difficult area, the Afghan forces now ready to take responsibility, and, indeed, they’ve been doing that since last August, only needing to call on assistance on one occasion since then…**
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JW: But if we’re…**
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WH: So that is already starting to make progress.**
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JW: If we’re stopping fighting for certain by 2015, why has the head of the army, General Sir Peter Wall, not been told that?**
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WH: Well, everybody… as I can tell you, that that is the policy of the whole British Government and everybody is aware of that and cannot…**
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JW: But it’s not what he appears to believe. He says, “Whether or not it turns out to be an absolute timeline or a more conditions-based approach nearer the time” - he said this on BBC television last night - that seems to be a very significant difference between him and you.**
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WH: No… well, I’m in Afghanistan so I haven’t seen that, but the… I can tell you that there are no ifs and buts about that, the Prime Minister and I have made that clear repeatedly, and everybody should be aware of that either in the House of Commons or through the armed forces. That’s our position on 2015 and there’s no equivocation about that. And I…**
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JW: But can I put it to you that it is plainly not the position of the armed forces - they are plainly worried. I mean, he wouldn’t have said that in public if they weren’t.**
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WH: No, it is the… it’s the position of the United Kingdom and therefore of the armed forces and of the Government, and it’s the right position because it does focus on Afghans taking responsibility, and again I’ve seen that in Helmand this week. The beginning of transition makes a big difference in how the Afghan forces themselves regard themselves and think about their own responsibilities, and so we do have to come to that point where we say, you know, in a… at a certain point you will be doing this on your own, we will be a friend to you in so many other ways but you will have to do the security responsibilities yourselves.**
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JW: Yeah. So when Sir Peter says it could be a conditions-based approach nearer the time, he is simply flat wrong?

WH: It’s a condition - as I have set out to you a few minutes ago - between now and 2015 the level of British forces, the pace of any reductions, depends on the progress we make, the conditions on the ground, the consultations with our allies. But we’ve been very clear, and I make it clear again, that by 2015 British forces will not be engaged in combat here or in anything like the numbers they are now.**
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JW: And Foreign Secretary, are we talking to the Taliban?**
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WH: Well, contacts do take place with the Taliban. President Karzai has spoken about this in the last week and so has Secretary Gates, and so I think it is fair for us to say that… officially that contacts do take place. Britain, let me put it this way, is connected to that and supportive of that; clearly we have been at the forefront of arguing for reconciliation in Afghanistan, but I can’t expand upon that or say anything further about those contacts at the moment.**
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JW: But why not, though, because, I mean, surely that is the only way in which this is going to be settled, and everyone recognises that on all sides now, perhaps with the exception of some soldiers, that there do have to be serious talks and that is the way out.**
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WH: Well, of… that is generally recognised and… that’s absolutely right. However, that’s not…**
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JW: So why not get down to it now?**
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WH: Well, you’re asking me a different thing, you’re asking me to give more details rather than get down to it now, and I’m saying of course that it’s in the interests of any such contacts or any future negotiations, in what is an Afghan-led process, by the way - this is for the Afghans to take forward and for other countries to facilitate or support in that process - and, of course, giving an update or a running commentary in matters that are at a preliminary stage, it really would not be helpful to such a process.

JW: But it is the case that we might find ourselves in a position, then, where we were both fighting the Taliban and talking to them seriously about their future role in running the country at the same time.**
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WH: Well, it is the case that the efforts to arrive at a political reconciliation in Afghanistan must run alongside our military efforts, and indeed the military efforts, the improvement of security on the ground are, of course, part of keeping up the pressure for such a reconciliation to take place.**
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JW: I suppose that’s the point, though, Foreign Secretary - sorry to interrupt - but I suppose that’s the point, is that is it worth carrying on with the military effort? Once we’re sitting down to talks with the Taliban - and we accept that they are going to be a part of the future of Afghanistan, which we appear to do - is it worth a single other British life?**
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WH: It… the reason we’re in Afghanistan in a military effort is for our own national security because, of course, what we haven’t yet achieved is a point where an end to fighting in Afghanistan guarantees our own national security, so we do have to keep up that military effort. We have done enormous damage to al-Qaeda - that is clear - this is an opportunity, the death of Osama Bin Laden is an opportunity for the Taliban to break its links with al-Qaeda, but they haven’t yet done that and it is important to keep up the military pressure on them - that will be continued through this fighting season this year - to keep building up the Afghan forces, now becoming one of the largest armies in the world, nearly 300,000 strong, and President Obama’s announcement must be seen in that context. It’s very important to keep those things up, to answer your question, if we are also going to achieve reconciliation and long-term peace here.**
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JW: William Hague, thank you very much.

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