General Sir Mike Jackson
Sir David Frost: We begin with Iraq.  This week the US Congress heard an optimistic message from General David Petraeus, who insists that the so-called surge is bringing results.  In a primetime television address in fact, last night, just last night, President George Bush announced plans for a partial troop withdrawal from Iraq by next summer. 

So, what does all that mean for Iraq?  Well I'm joined by General Sir Mike Jackson, who was head of the NATO peacekeeping force in Bosnia and stepped down as head of the British corp last year. He has recently written his autobiography... and he's in the best-seller list already too. It tells about the whole 45 years of his career, from the troubles in Ireland to commanding Nato troops in Kosovo, and deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq.  But just starting with Mike, welcome first of all...

In the book [his autobiography] you talk reflectively about Iraq and so on. The message that's coming through the optimism of David Petraeus, the non-optimism of the Democrats and some of the Republicans and, and too little too late and so on, do you think it's possible, Ryan Cocker said it's possible that we can succeed in Iraq, can we?

General Sir Mike Jackson: I don't discount that as still being possible. You said, David, David Petraeus was optimistic. Yes, I, I understand. But I, I also believe him, and I know him quite well – I'm a, I'm a great admirer of his, that, that he would say nothing which he didn’t believe to be right and true. So realism as well as optimism there, and we all heard what he said. And indeed the president appears to have largely followed the recommendations which General Petraeus put before him.

DF: But it's diffi … It's a balance isn't it here?

MJ: Yes.

DF: We, we had, we've had the surge coming in of 30,000 and now we may have 30,000 coming out and so on. But I mean …

MJ: But …

DF: … are we making progress? I mean, I mean do you think David Petraeus' basic message was that the surge is working or?

MJ: Yes, I mean I think he, he, he went through it quite carefully…

DF: Yes.

MJ: … and he differentiated geographically where, where that was appropriate. And you're right, David, of course you know those additional 30 odd thousand American soldiers which went in will, will come out. But during that time we heard David Petraeus talk about the, the progress on the ground in security terms and he produced some statistics to support that. But I note he also mentioned, rightly, that there, there has to be in parallel political progress alongside that security progress. And you know the Iraqi government has been urged for some time to take a, take perhaps a, a, a wider view in terms of its approach to all Iraqis, all sects, all, all parts of Iraqi society. And I hope they, they will do that. Very important.

DF: And in terms of the approach, in fact Donald Rumsfeld said just recently that he blamed the Iraqi politicians and, and so on for there not being great progress. Equally there, there are politicians in America who are blamed for lack of progress. I mean do you think the politicians have performed as well as the soldiers?

MJ: I'm afraid I don't. No. I, when you put it as starkly as that. I mean I have been hugely impressed by the American army's commitment, courage, and willingness to sacrifice on behalf of a future better Iraq. And that is … quite an undertaking indeed and they have I think done magnificently. Whether we're quite at the same degree of political commitment, to push on you know whatever the difficulties, but to move Iraq forward to a better future for all Iraqis, that's where we must be. 

DF: That's where we need to be. And as you look at it, you comment in, in the book on the what happened after the, after the actual war was fought …

MJ: Yeah.

DF: … and the lack of numbers and how before the war was fought there were, the Americans wanted 400,000 troops and Rumsfeld wanted 60,000 troops and so on. Was the, was the lack of numbers a mistake in the war bit …

MJ: No.

DF: … or only in the after war bit?

MJ: In the after war bit, David. The, the actual process of the manoeuvre war force-on-force.  Somebody asked me I remember and I [INAUDIBLE] I referred in the book that it would take two weeks. I was wrong. It took nearly three, but that's not the point. The point is that it, that's what the American army does best, and does it extremely professionally. No, there was never any question that the coalition would not be able to defeat Saddam Hussein's forces. That was in a way the opening; this was not the whole story by far! What it, what is the end status? A stable Iraq, at peace with itself, at peace with its neighbours, with the economy moving on. Easy to say, complex and difficult to achieve. And so, it was in that period from the fall of Saddam Hussein onwards that I think we could've all done a bit better than we did, in fact a lot better.

DF: And in, and that would've brought more people in and, and given the …

MJ: Yeah.

DF: … the new peaceful …

MJ: Well …

DF: … Iraq a chance?

MJ: Yeah. I mean there just, you know as I say in the book and I think many other commentators have said, that Washington did not really get its head around this complexity and what it would entail. It just seemed, seemed to think it would be enough: remove the Saddam regime, put in another one, that;s it, we can, we can go home. It's not that simple.

DF: Mmm. 

MJ: On the contrary.

DF: Yeah. And, and we in Britain, were we pushing for more, more soldiers at that time immediately after the war?

MJ: No.  We, we were not because we had an adequate number in, in, in, in my, in my judgement we put in an adequate number of 35,000 off the top of my head, to, to cope with the manoeuvre war and then the immediate aftermath. It is true we then brought them … the numbers down quite quickly because we could not in our army sustain that deployment of 30,000 plus, no. It's a, it's a one-off.

DF: It's a one-off. A one-off.

MJ: Yeah.

DF: Tell me, Afghanistan …

MJ: Yes.

DF: … has had a lot of your attention and gets a lot of your attention, in, in the book as well.  And you've, you've said and implied that, that in some ways it could prove eventually to be strategically more important than Iraq. Why do you think that?

MJ: I think that because … the genesis of the dreadful events of 9/11 seems to have come from al-Qaeda's safe havens in southern Afghanistan. Those safe havens given by the Taliban regime at that time. And if we do not support, sustain and build Afghanistan into a better future, my fear, my almost certainty, is that without that international assistance the Taliban would back. They would overthrow President Karzai's government again, al-Qaeda gets safe havens gain, we're back to square one, if not worse. 

So, I believe what we're doing in Afghanistan is vitally important for all in … starting most importantly with the Afghans themselves, who have come through several decades of, of a pretty miserable past. And we have made pledges, the international community's made pleasures, pledges to Afghanistan to help it through into a better future and a stable future. And I believe we are, we are getting there.

DF: And, and you, you give Karzai, President Karzai, relatively high marks for, for his efforts?

GenerMJ: He has a very difficult job.  Afghanistan has never been a, an easy country to govern…

DF: No.

MJ: ... because of the nature of the terrain, and, and the tribal structure of the Afghani people.  But I do believe Afghan is fortunate to have him. He's now been president for, what is it, four, five years I think. And he is of course popularly elected by the people.

DF: Mmm. And his sheer survival as well as his [charm]…

MJ: Oh. Long may that be so.

DF: Yeah. Long may, long may that be so. Tell me there was a report this week about al-Qaeda suggesting that they have refurbished themselves and so on.

MJ: Mmm. I have read it, yes.

DF: Yeah. And as strong as ever, or maybe stronger or so on. Do you think that al-Qaeda is that much of a menace still?

MJ: It is difficult, and of course I've been out of, out of office for a year - I don't get access to intelligence, David, obviously now so I have to make my own judgements on, on open source material. But the International Institution of Strategic Studies, and IISS who produce their report, are an extremely authoritative and highly respected organisation. They will have written I think that report with, with, with great care, not in any way to be sensationalists, but, but as a proper academic report. I have no reason to disagree with IISS.

DF: So that, what, what should we do about that?

MJ: Well…

DF: What can we do about that?

MJ: Yeah. Well, what we’re doing we'll have to redouble our efforts. Yes, of course there is a military dimension but, but it's only one dimension, in a way. Which is a struggle not for terrain, although al-Qaeda talk about imposing their rule on terrain, it's, it's a battle for values, attitudes, tolerance, freedom of expression. All the … qualities which we hold so dear in our own freedoms. That is the battleground. Rationality and reason against unreason and irrationality. 

DF: Can the military have influence as well, or only purely military influence?

MJ: Well, by their, by their operations, provided they're, they're, they're very careful, that, that they deal only with those who are true enemies not, not with those who are caught up and who are innocent - that's very important, the influence has been … is, is that al-Qaeda will not prevail. And pe … soldiers are dying to make sure that is the case on our behalf, on this nation's behalf, and, and indeed wider than that. And I think you know that carries its own influence as well, that we are, you know, we are prepared to stand on behalf of freedom on behalf of Afghanistan.

DF: And in fact I mean amazingly we read that not only are we stretched or over-stretched possibly in terms of the limits on the numbers we can put into the field, but America is in the same situation!

MJ: Well, yeah, even America’s military capability is, is not limitless. It is of course huge, but Iraq is, is, is a great commitment for them.

DF: And what about all the other things that you cover in your book? What, these are, these are important current issues that you were very much intimately involved with. Of the rest of the things, the Balkans …

MJ: Mmm.

DF: … Northern Ireland …

MJ: Mmm hmm.

DF: … the other, the other assignments that you've had, what, what stands out most as a sense of adventure, pride, danger?

MJ: No, I think you know what stands out most is, is, is perhaps a more subtle point in terms of the use of force. Northern Ireland for example, where I spent just over seven years, the origin of the conflict in Northern Ireland was a political one - as you know conflict is, in that the two main groupings of people in Northern Ireland had no sense of shared identity, common future or whatever: in fact the contrary. Such a problem can only at the end of the day it seems to me have a political outcome, a political settlement. It is the task of the police, the armed forces, the army in particularly where Northern Ireland's concerned, to hold the ring whilst this political process eventually took place; it took a long time before the settlement. 

But I think one of the extraordinary things, people have probably almost let it pass by, what two months ago or so the British Army went non-operational in Northern Ireland after 38 years. Extraordinary. Because we have achieved a political settlement, which I very much hope will, will last into the indefinite future. But there’s a lesson there I think. That rather glib talk, defeat, victory, winning and losing, what do you mean by these terms? And I go back to where I was. Winning here is to achieve a settlement for people who are in conflict which will last. That may require military force, almost certainly will at some stage, but it also requires the politics to come right.

This interview aired on 14 September 2007.


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