New Forest East



World at One, BBC Radio 4 – 22 December 2015

MARK MARDELL: Afghanistan is, of course, just one area where Britain is taking part in operations. The MoD tells us that there are over a thousand military personnel in the Middle East, and of course the UK is taking part in airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. General Richard Dannatt, now Lord Dannatt, former Chief of the General Staff, told the Today programme that choices have to be made:

GENERAL LORD DANNATT: Are we going to make a bigger effort into Afghanistan again? Are we going to hold ourselves in reserve to go into Syria if that totally implodes or, if there is some form of government in Libya that we can support, are we going to make a deployment into Libya? All these things actually get to the same problem which is the growth of the so-called Islamic State-type jihadi influence. We can’t do all of those things: the Government has to decide what its priority is. Something, however, must be done, because just looking at what is going on in the wider world against the jihadi threat, the Government has got to decide where we are going to do it and how much we are going to do.

MARK MARDELL: We had asked to speak to a Defence Minister, but no-one was available. The Conservative MP Julian Lewis chairs the Defence Select Committee, and he can join us now. Good afternoon.

JULIAN LEWIS: Good afternoon.

MARK MARDELL: Do you agree with Lord Dannatt that the Government has to make choices?

JULIAN LEWIS: Yes, but I am not sure that I agree with Lord Dannatt that they have to be geographical choices. The choice the Government have to make is to do with the strategic concept that they adopt. In the past they have taken this view that you go into these countries, you conduct what was called 'war down among the people' and you build a new nation. That is not fighting on the ground where you’re strongest. That’s actually playing to the strength of the enemy – and what we need is a more flexible concept of Selective Intervention.

MARK MARDELL: So what about Afghanistan? What are the implications there?

JULIAN LEWIS: Well, that’s quite interesting. Recently, I was on your programme talking about the folly of airstrikes in Syria which weren’t in support of ground forces. Here, in Afghanistan, we’ve got ground forces that we could support, but no-one is proposing to mount airstrikes. Our enemies, who are fuelled by this poisonous Islamist extremist doctrine, operate without borders, as it were, and seamlessly, whereas we have this clunky approach where we take on one country at a time separately. Now, what we ought to be doing in all these countries is having a flexible force which can swoop in and swoop out again – a mixture of Special Forces supported by air power, in support of friendly ground forces where they exist. But we should resist getting drawn-in permanently to build up a nation in a country that is not ready for it.

MARK MARDELL: Well, the trouble is just on a practical basis. When they swoop out, the Taliban swoop back in again.

JULIAN LEWIS: Yes, but you cannot expect, with these sorts of insurgencies, that you are ever going to get some sort of short- or even medium-term result. Look at what happened in Northern Ireland. We fought that campaign which was of the utmost importance to us. We fought a campaign that lasted 38 years –

MARK MARDELL: And negotiated.

JULIAN LEWIS: And eventually negotiated. But the negotiation at the end of it would not have happened if a generation of insurgent leaders hadn’t grown up, for a sufficiently long time, to realise that they were not going to win and that half a loaf was better than no bread.

MARK MARDELL: Well, you are talking about a very long timescale; but it does suggest, looking at Afghanistan, after 13 years, a huge amount of effort and, of course, people dying, that we are not winning. And it does suggest we can’t win.

JULIAN LEWIS: Well, let me just remind you of something else. This sort of ideology which is causing so much trouble in one country after another is actually something that has been around for a very long time. It cannot be defeated, but it can be contained – just as the Marxist Communist ideology was successfully contained for 70 years, before it imploded. Now, Containment doesn’t mean that you are passive. You can have Active Containment. What that means is that, where there is a danger that these people are going to take over a country, you intervene selectively. You beat them back with very firm use of hard military power, and then you withdraw yourself from the scene until you need to apply that hard military power somewhere else. And that’s why you need Strategic Bases from which you can sally forth and, as I say, swoop in – swoop out. As Dr Afzal Ashraf of RUSI puts it, you need 'boots with wings'.

MARK MARDELL: Julian Lewis, thanks very much.