Newsmaker: Jack Straw
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RAY SUAREZ: Great Britain has been the lead ally in the coalition and the first to participate directly in the military campaign in Afghanistan. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw made a quick trip to Washington today to talk with Bush Administration officials and congressional leaders, and he joins us now.
Mr. Secretary, welcome.
JACK STRAW: Thank you very much.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, in your consultations both on Capitol Hill and with members of the Cabinet, what news have you gotten on the conduct and progress of the war on Afghanistan?
JACK STRAW: Well, not news particularly, because the news is made pretty public. But what we’ve been doing is showing our views about the progress of the military campaign, and the need to follow that through with political action to secure a far better future for the people of Afghanistan, for the region, and to do that, above all, in order to defeat terrorism on the terrible scale that occurred on the 11th of September. And I think progress is being made.
But one of the issues I’ve been discussing, particularly on the Hill, was how patient the American people were likely to be, and I must say I’ve been very reassured by the messages that I’ve had back, that such is the strength, not just of the anger and grief of the American people, but also their determination at which we profoundly share to see this terrorism defeated, that they’re going to see it through however long it takes. We will hope that the military conclusion to the campaign will come quickly, but of course it may not. We may have to be, as your president has said, be prepared for the long haul.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, in recent weeks, administration spokesmen have been counseling patience, giving people signals that this may take a long time. If we were listening to the British media, watching your papers, the debates in parliament, are the British people getting the same message and are they in for the long haul?
JACK STRAW: We are. The prime minister, Tony Blair, myself and our cabinet colleagues are giving exactly the same message for exactly the same reason, which is that we’re fighting in terrain which is very complex, very difficult, with allies on the ground within Afghanistan who are allowed certain prominence. So there are more uncertainties in this situation even than in other military campaigns, which were replete with uncertainty. So we have been doing that. But it’s important at the same time as we say, please be patient.
But we also provide reassurance, that behind the military action, there is a political strategy. I made a speech about this on Monday of this week, setting out what I saw as the four essential conditions for a stable and secure government in Afghanistan after the military action has been completed. And I was pleased to say that many of these ideas are plainly shared and supported by the administration here.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, I’d like to get to some of those ideas in a minute. But first, you talk about the conclusion of the military campaign. How will you know when it’s done? When you’re making war, as you point out, not against a state, how do you know when the campaign is finished?
JACK STRAW: I think we’ll know when we know, but I think that’s a very good question, because this is not like a classic war between two nation-states where the conclusion of it is a victory by one side or another and there is a surrender document and preceded probably by a white flag. It won’t be like that. It’s about — I think most likely, although I’m not certain — securing the territory of Afghanistan, area by area, and seeing a gradual removal of the Taliban. But then of course, there will have to be a good deal of work on the ground to check that the damage that has already been done and will continue to be done to the terrorist training camps and to the military assets of the Taliban is definite and complete and permanent. And that’s going to take time as well.
RAY SUAREZ: Are there elements of the Taliban, as far as you know, that might be part of a future ruling coalition for that country?
JACK STRAW: Well, we have no indications that there are, and moreover, I find it almost impossible to conceive of circumstances in which people in the core Taliban organization could take part in any kind of regime that is worthy of the name of government, given where they’ve come from and what they’ve done, given their refusal to take any action against the worst perpetrators of the worst terrorism that we’ve ever seen in the world.
That said, I’m not in any doubt that there are members of the same ethnic group, the Pashtun, who may have gone along with the Taliban because they’ve had to, because the alternative is almost literally a bullet in the back, who might be able to form part of a broader based administration. One of the key points that I suggested is that the test for a decent future administration of that country is that the government has to be broadly based, representative of all the many various sections of the Afghan community.
RAY SUAREZ: You referred to your speech earlier this week. One quotation caught my eye. “Our message to the people of Afghanistan is this: In the past we have let you down, but we will not turn our backs on you again.” This is very different in tone from what many American officeholders have said to Americans about Afghanistan. Please fill in the background for that remark.
JACK STRAW: I don’t think it is different in many respects, and I hope it isn’t. It’s to draw a profound distinction between the Taliban — we certainly have not let them down. I mean, they have let down the rest of the world and they have let down Islam above all — but to draw a distinction between the Taliban and the people of Afghanistan. And I… That quotation came at the end of a discussion about the historic role of the great powers in Afghanistan. We in Great Britain and Russia were playing throughout the 19th century what came to be called the “Great Game” in Afghanistan. It was a pressure point between two competing empires, and frankly, we cared more about our self-interests than we did about the people of Afghanistan.
You then had the, more recently, the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, and it then walking away following its near military defeat. You then had the West at the same time originally supporting forces opposed to the Soviets, and that included at that stage people who have now come to form the Taliban, and then walking away from this and leaving a vacuum, which has been filled by a particularly evil regime.
So my message there, looking just at the history as well as our moral and political obligations, is that we are involved in Afghanistan for good or ill. There are very good reasons for that. But if we want to secure the future of that area, the stability of the region, and in doing so, greatly reduce — if not eliminate — the threat of terrorism from that area on the rest of the world, we’ve got to stick in for the long haul this time. We really have.
RAY SUAREZ: How does yesterday’s declaration from the Irish Republican Army that it’s ready to put its weapons out of use and in a word, disarm, fit in with Britain’s involvement in this war against terrorism?
JACK STRAW: Well, what it shows is that where it is appropriate, it is the right thing to do to have a peace process to resolve some conflicts. But it also needs to be said, we’ve only got to the point of having a peace process over terrorism and the future of Northern Ireland as a result of a determination, our determination, by the British people that terrorism was not going to succeed in Northern Ireland. So these are in a sense two sides of the same coin; they’re not alternatives at all.
Had it not been for very great firmness by successive British governments — backed, I’m pleased to say, by American administrations — not to allow the terrorists to win through terrorism, we wouldn’t have had a peace process. At the same time, we had to recognize that both sides of the community, but particularly nationalist more Catholic side, have deep-seated grievances that did not make any of them, all of them by any means, terrorists. But those needed to be dealt with and dealt with by a peace process.
And the other thing, lesson I draw from it is that if you get a peace process going, you’ve got to keep it going, you mustn’t let it stop, and you’ve got to be patient. And there are lessons there, I have to say, for the Middle East, where we all look forward to a resumption of the peace process. We’ve been urging restraint, as Secretary of State Colin Powell and I did earlier today. But we need to recognize that we won’t get there until there is a real commitment on both sides to restart that process.
RAY SUAREZ: British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, thanks for being with us.
JACK STRAW: Thank you very much indeed.