From: Head to Head

Transcript: Mike Jackson

The full text of our discussion with the former head of the British army on the ethics of Western military intervention.

Read the full transcript of Head to HeadShould the West end its wars? below:

Part one

Mehdi Hasan (VO): Chasing al-Qaeda from Afghanistan. Hunting down Saddam Hussein across Iraq. Bombing Colonel Gaddafi out of Libya. Could Syria be next? Or have the Western powers lost their ability to win wars abroad? My guest tonight thinks they didn’t always achieve what they set out to do, but won’t admit failure. 

Nicknamed ‘Darth Vader’ by his men, General Sir Mike Jackson was Britain’s top soldier during the invasion of Iraq. I am Mehdi Hasan and I have come here to the Oxford Union to go Head to Head with General Sir Mike Jackson over the West’s military track record – from Kosovo to Kabul. I will be asking him if Western powers have a right to intervene in faraway countries, and whether humanitarian and strategic objectives can ever be reconciled. 

I will be joined in the discussion by three experts: Frank Ledwidge, a former British military intelligence officer turned author and anti-war campaigner; Nadim Shehadi, a Middle East expert at the foreign policy think-tank, Chatham House; and Deborah Haynes, the defence editor for The Times of London

Mehdi Hasan: General Jackson, we are talking about some of the big conflicts tonight: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Kosovo. On what basis do you think the West gets to intervene in these places in the first place? By what right? I mean, British and American governments have troops stationed in hundreds of countries across the world and a lot of people say, “Why? Who made them the world’s policemen?” 

Mike Jackson: Nobody other than, perhaps, circumstance. It is not just the West but it is fair to say, I think, that only the West has that ability to influence events, far from their own shores. I think lying behind your question is, “Should they be doing this?” rather than, well, it’s always going to be controversial – in some cases more so than others.

Mehdi Hasan: Syria is one country which is in a real mess. There has been a great deal of talk about military intervention – whether it is doable, possible. You are one of Britain’s best-known generals. If David Cameron, the prime minister, came to you and said, “Mike Jackson, what shall we do in Syria? Is there a military intervention that will work?” What would you say to him?

Mike Jackson: Probably not to.

Mehdi Hasan: Why?

Mike Jackson: Because we are now seeing the sectarian war in the Middle East as between Sunni and Shia. And I do not think this is necessarily a place where Western intervention is going to help. I don’t think it would necessarily, my own personal test, can we leave it better than we found it?

Mehdi Hasan: One of the reasons why public opinion in the West is so hostile towards intervening in Syria is the legacy of Iraq. That’s still there hanging over a lot of this. Is it true, by the way, that you became head of the British army a month before the invasion?

Mike Jackson: Yup. Thereabouts.

Mehdi Hasan: That’s a baptism of fire, indeed, to get the top job just as we’re going to war.

Mike Jackson: Well, I had the number two job before, so one was completely involved.

Mehdi Hasan: You were ready to go. You talked about leaving things better than when you found them. Do you think the Iraq war was worth it?

Mike Jackson: We will never know because we did it. What we will never know is what Iraq would have been like had we not and had Saddam Hussein and his two revolting sons continued in their pretty bestial behaviour. We will never know.

Mehdi Hasan:  Even despite the civilian death toll, the sectarian strife, the regional instability, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction. You still think it was the right thing to do.

Mike Jackson: Right and wrong to me is far too simplistic. Do you mean legally right? That’s part of your question.

Mehdi Hasan: So you believe the war was legal at the time in 2003.

Mike Jackson: I did.

Mehdi Hasan: And yet Kofi Annan said it was illegal, the UN Secretary General at the time.

Mike Jackson: Yes.

Mehdi Hasan: The Dutch government enquiry said it was illegal

Mike Jackson: Yeah, I’m sure there are many lawyers.

Mehdi Hasan: Countless international lawyers did say it was illegal.

Mike Jackson: And many said it was the other way.

Mehdi Hasan: And what was your basis for saying it was legal?

Mike Jackson: I took my own view in the light of, indeed, the Attorney General’s second opinion in this country.

Mehdi Hasan: And if you had come to the conclusion, as many others did, that it was illegal, that it was a violation of international law, would you have refused to obey the orders given to you?

Mike Jackson: As a senior officer in the Armed Forces of a mature democracy, such as we are fortunate enough to be in, yes, your job is to give your military advice. It’s to explain how a political objective might be achieved wholly perhaps, unlikely, but partly by the use of military force. But if that advice is not taken or it’s overruled or whatever your constitutional position is utterly clear. You either bite your lip and get on with it or you say, “You’ll have to find somebody else to do this.”

Mehdi Hasan: So I am asking you: Would you, had you believed it was illegal, would you have said, “I’m not doing this? I’m not having anything to…”

Mike Jackson:[INTERRUPTING] Had I believed so, I’d have had no choice.

Mehdi Hasan: Between 2003, when we went in, and 2011, when British troops pulled out, can you tell me how many Iraqi civilians were killed by British bombs or bullets?

Mike Jackson: I don’t think a number can possibly be established.

Mehdi Hasan: Can you give me an estimate?

Mike Jackson: No.

Mehdi Hasan: Why not?

Mike Jackson: Because I don’t know.

ehdi Hasan: Shouldn’t you know?

Mike Jackson: I think it’s impossible to distinguish who killed whom in a very messy and difficult situation. I don’t know.

Mehdi Hasan: Do you think armies should do body counts? An American general phoned me and said, “We don’t do body counts.”

Mehdi Hasan: There have been lots of estimates from epidemiologists, academics…

ike Jackson: I have seen this.

Mehdi Hasan: …the Lancet medical journal…

Mike Jackson: Yes.

Mehdi Hasan: Some say half a million Iraqis were killed. That’s astonishing.

Mike Jackson: I have no idea of the evidence for that.

Mehdi Hasan: But when you see those numbers, how does that make you feel?

Mike Jackson: Well, I think you’re driving at the, sort of, cost benefit of intervention and casualties. I don’t look at it like that and it’s simply not possible to come up with this rather…

Mehdi Hasan: How can you evaluate whether a war was a good thing or a bad thing or right or wrong if you don’t know how many innocent people died in it?

Mike Jackson: How can I possibly judge overall whether a person in Iraq, an Iraqi was killed because he was or she had taken up arms against the occupying forces. Whether it was sectarian. Whether it was by accident, and they happen. It is impossible for me to categorise casualties in that way or I would put to you, anybody else.

Mehdi Hasan:  And yet we judge a lot of our enemies, a lot of people we don’t like – Bashar al Assad – we’re happy to judge their civilian death tolls. We’re happy to count up how many people have died in Syria and here and there but not our wars. We don’t count how many died.

Mike Jackson: You’re putting words into my mouth which I have not used.

Mehdi Hasan: Okay, before we go to our panel, I just want to ask one more question about Iraq, which is the treatment of prisoners, which was a very controversial subject. The abuse, torture of prisoners in US custody and in British custody. Did you know what was going on in Iraq at the time?

Mike Jackson: What you mean is the alleged widespread …

Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTINTG] No I didn’t say anything about “alleged widespread” I said did you know what was going on? So in Iraq, hooding went on. We know that hooding went on, which was banned in the 1970s.

Mike Jackson: This is what lies behind your question.

Mehdi Hasan: Did you know hooding was going on in Iraq?

Mike Jackson: No, I did not.

Mehdi Hasan: Did you know that sleep deprivation techniques were being used?

Mike Jackson: Nope.

Mehdi Hasan: Why not?

Mike Jackson: Because…

Mehdi Hasan: Shouldn’t you have known, as the head of the army, what certain people were doing – members of the Armed Forces? Should you have?

Mike Jackson: No, because I suspect they didn’t want it to be known themselves. Any breach of the Geneva Conventions, due process of law must follow. I am not trying to excuse or condone any such behaviour.

Mehdi Hasan: But did the army under your command, I am talking about the army as a whole, as a body with an ethos and a culture, did it do enough to prevent those things from happening?

Mike Jackson: Clearly we did not do enough.

Mehdi Hasan: Okay, well let’s go to our panel. Deborah Haynes is the defence editor of The Times of London. She reported from Iraq on the ground for several years. Do you think it’s too black and white to judge the Iraq war as a failure or a success as General Jackson says?

Deborah Haynes: I can speak from my perspective: before the invasion happened, I listened to what our government was saying and I, as, just as a human, believed that it was the right thing to do to go and intervene, to, sort of, rid this awful dictator and free this country. But then having lived in Iraq, and seen the descent into chaos and the inability of our government and the US to implement a meaningful plan – it undermined our whole meaning of intervention because what we left at the end is not better than what was there at the beginning.

Mehdi Hasan: And Nadim Shehadi, you’re an associate fellow at the foreign policy think-tank Chatham House in London. You hail originally from Lebanon. Would it be fair to say that the Iraq war did a great deal of damage to regional stability?

Nadim Shehadi: I think that a future historian looking at the Iraq invasion will not look at 2003 onwards. One would look at the Western policy from 1991 onwards or even from 1980. For example, the Iran-Iraq war with one and a half million dead did not help with Sunni-Shia relations. And in the same time allowing Saddam, giving him the green light, in fact, in 1991 to massacre his people where in a month he killed as much as Bashar al-Assad in three years also did not help with the Sunni-Shia relations. So the sectarianism you saw after the removal of Saddam is not a consequence of what Saddam did before and what we allowed him to do before.

Mehdi Hasan: Okay, let me bring in Frank Ledwidge who’s a former military intelligence officer who served in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in the Balkans, and has since written two very critical books about those conflicts. When General Jackson says it’s very difficult to do kind of body counts and it’s very hard to work this out and therefore to make a judgement call, is that a view you share?

Frank Ledwidge: We have a duty under international law to ensure that we do keep tallies as far as possible those civilians we’ve killed. We’ve never done that. We’ve done, of course, in Northern Ireland but Northern Ireland is in our own country. No effort was made to do that in Iraq or Afghanistan. General, you went around the buoy, as you would put it, concerning a definition of success. We may have a problem in defining success but we don’t really have a problem in seeing failure and defeat when we see it and we see it in Basra.

General Jack Keene, a four star American general, said, “Gentlemen,” he said, “you let us down in Iraq. You let us down badly.” It is also a feeling, General, that’s very, very prevalent in officers such as myself, mid-ranking officers who’ve gone through these wars and have seen failure and mismanagement after failure and mismanagement. We skedaddled from Basra, tails between our legs, and left it to the Americans. But one thing which really irks many of us is that generals such as yourself appear before the Iraq Enquiry. 30 full generals. Not one of them was willing or able to say, “Yes, this was my baby. I take responsibility – for the success or failure…”

Mehdi Hasan: Okay, well, let General Jackson come back to that. Who do you think should take responsibility, if not yourself, then who?

Mike Jackson: Well, in the sense that your point being that somebody somewhere got it wrong – I think that’s what you’re saying isn’t it? I mean, in the sense that I…

Frank Ledwidge: [INTERRUPTING] Culpability or responsibility, but responsibility is…

Mike Jackson:  But I was head of the army and of course one is responsible in the broad sense but I, anyway, I mean, I left in 2006.

Frank Ledwidge: Alright, well, up to 2006 then, were you responsible for the fiasco that Basra was – Basra turned out to be until charge of the nights?

Mike Jackson: No I wasn’t.

Frank Ledwidge: Who was?

Mike Jackson: The Operational Commander. I was not…

Frank Ledwidge: And who was that?

Mehdi Hasan: And do you accept Frank Ledwidge’s description?

Mike Jackson: You know the chain of command as well as I do.

Mehdi Hasan: Do you accept Frank Ledwidge’s…

Frank Ledwidge: Well, I know there are several chains of command.

Mehdi Hasan: Do you accept his description that we skedaddled from Basra?

Mike Jackson: I wouldn’t use that language myself.

Mehdi Hasan: But it wasn’t the proudest of moments in British…

Mike Jackson: No, it was very difficult. Basra is a city of two million…two million?

Frank Ledwidge: Yeah, about the same size as Birmingham, yes.

Mike Jackson: And simply for reasons we could go into in my view the force levels were inadequate for the nature of the task, which got more complicated after the summer of 2003. We’re putting a lot of emphasis at the moment on the military dimension to an intervention. There’s political, economic, humanitarian, and if we forget the other parts we will get a skewed and distorted analysis because the non-military dimensions of that campaign were not properly thought through.

Frank Ledwidge: And nor were the military implications of the campaign?

Mike Jackson: I would beg to differ with you.

Mehdi Hasan: Okay, let’s talk about the war in Afghanistan, which is ongoing. Afghanistan, I think many people would say, is far from a victory.

Mike Jackson: Define winning. Define your victory.

Mehdi Hasan: Okay, well, defining victory being defeating the Taliban. Have we done that?

Mike Jackson: No.

Mehdi Hasan:  Destroying al-Qaeda, have we done that?

Mike Jackson: Not… in Afghanistan, perhaps, yes.

Mehdi Hasan: Building a democratic nation?

Mike Jackson: It’s better than it was. Much better.

Mehdi Hasan: Okay.

Mike Jackson: Educating women, perhaps.

Mehdi Hasan: Yes.

Mike Jackson: Far, far better.

Mehdi Hasan In Afghanistan…

Mike Jackson: You know, we really mustn’t keep… you mustn’t keep putting to me these biased questions. There is a balance – always a balance.

Mehdi Hasan: Yes.

Mike Jackson: And you’re looking at the downside.

Mehdi Hasan: I’m not… Yes.

Mike Jackson: It’d be very nice to…

Mehdi Hasan:  And you’re looking at the upside.

Mike Jackson Well, of course. Because I have to balance.

Mehdi Hasan Well, of course, so let’s take your balance.

Mike Jackson And if you came and said, “Haven’t you done well with women’s education,” and I can say, “Yeah…”

Mehdi Hasan Okay, well, I apologise. I apologise, General Jackson, let’s start again, let’s start again.

Mike Jackson Yeah, yeah. Thank you.

Mehdi Hasan: Unbiased. Women’s education is much better than it was.

Mike Jackson: It is. By far.

Mehdi Hasan: Afghan’s government is much better than it was. We have 5,000 British troops still there. 70,000 US troops. And yet despite the progress on women’s rights, you have suicide bombings up, civilian casualties up, heroin production up, corruption up. I would say it’s not biased. I think it’s just fair to say that if you look at the balance sheet, Afghanistan is not doing well at all and we failed in our major goals.

Mike Jackson: You’re saying it’s very imperfect. Indeed it is. But has it improved? Has life got better for the majority of Afghans? And I believe that it has. Now, is it sustainable? That’s the big question. I don’t think there’s any doubt that life has got better.

Mehdi Hasan: At what stage do you say the costs are too high, even if it’s got a little bit better? We’ve been there for 13 years. Do we need to stay 20, 30, 40 years? At what stage do you say the cost in blood and treasure has been too high for the little that’s been achieved?

Mike Jackson: Well the prize was a huge strategic prize and let’s not be in any doubt about that.

Mehdi Hasan: Which was?

Mike Jackson: Which was to prevent the Taliban regime ever giving succour again to international terrorist organisations.

Mehdi Hasan: And yet they’re closer – the Taliban are closer to al-Qaeda now than they’ve ever been. We now have a Pakistani Taliban that specialises in suicide bombings as a result of that invasion.

Mike Jackson: Yeah, yeah, yeah yeah…Indeed. So there’s a big, really big difficulty with the whole of the region. It’s not just Afghanistan. And what’s going on within Islam itself. But that’s not what we’re here to talk about, I know.

Mehdi Hasan: Well, if we touch on that subject, a lot of experts say that interventions like Afghanistan, us being over there, is what prompts them to come over here, ie, it’s a Western military presence that acts as a recruiting sergeant to extremists. Do you agree with that?

Mike Jackson: I entirely accept that is a position to be taken.

Mehdi Hasan:  And, but you reject it, you don’t share the view.

Mike Jackson: You use this very emotional language. “I reject it.” I listen to it and I think about it.

Mehdi Hasan: Do you agree with it? It’s not emotional. It’s a very simple question. Do you agree that Western military interventions provoke terrorist attacks and help extremists recruit new recruits?

Mike Jackson: It may do but I do not see this is cause and effect necessarily. You know, when you look back at the history of Afghanistan since 9/11, do not forget that ISAF, the international force, was set up by the Bonn conference with Afghan representation post the fall of the Taliban. This was done by consent. I mean the implication that it’s always a heavy-handed West knocking doors down willy-nilly is, I think, not borne out by the facts.

Mehdi Hasan: It’s a view that was recently expressed by the president of Afghanistan, our friend and ally Hamid Karzai, who said the British should never have deployed to Helmand. It was a waste of time.

Mike Jackson: He’s said a lot of things which I think many people would disagree with.

Mehdi Hasan: Yeah, slightly awkward when the person you’re saying is representative of the new Afghanistan thinks actually the British military did a bad job and weren’t needed.

Mike Jackson:Yes, and, well, the good president of Afghanistan seems to shift his ground, shall we say, from time to time.

Mehdi Hasan: Frank Ledwidge, you were shaking your head as Mike Jackson there speaking about Afghanistan.

Frank Ledwidge: When we got there in 2006 Helmand was a relatively stable society run by a combination of tribal gangs and drugs cartels which made about something in the region of 20 percent of the world’s heroin. Now it makes 50 percent of the world’s heroin. Somewhere between 10 and 30,000 people have died in Helmand in the most savagely violent province in the world’s most corrupt country. Of course, we haven’t counted the number of civilian dead. Now if that can be characterised in anything other than epic fail, one would like to see that characterisation.

Mike Jackson: But you’re talking about Helmand in isolation.

Frank Ledwidge: Where the British were, General. Where we lost 450 men.

Mike Jackson: You’re talking about…

Frank Ledwidge: 2,500 wounded…

Mike Jackson: Yes, indeed

Frank Ledwidge: …and killed thousands.

Mike Jackson: Yeah. But, but you might want to think about the connection of Helmand to Afghanistan as a whole. It’s a bit like your Basra piece. Britain Basra. It wasn’t, it was a large coalition, Iraq. Now if one area didn’t…

Frank Ledwidge: Also a disaster.

Mike Jackson: …didn’t go as well as others, so be it. I mean, you’re not going to get…

Frank Ledwidge: “So be it” is your answer.

Mike Jackson: You are not going to get constant progress everywhere and both Basra and Helmand had particular problems which distinguished them from the rest of the country.

Frank Ledwidge: When we arrived in Afghanistan…

Mehdi Hasan: Let me just clarify, do you think the British military failed in Helmand, the province they went in to secure in 2006?

Mike Jackson: They have failed to produce what we set out to do which is a secure environment.

Mehdi Hasan: So they failed?

Mike Jackson: …. They have not achieved that.

Mehdi Hasan: So, that’s a failure.

Mike Jackson: I’m not going to concede that point. I’m not going to concede it.

Mehdi Hasan: They didn’t achieve what they set out to do, but they didn’t fail.

Frank Ledwidge: They achieved nothing.

Mehdi Hasan: There seems to be, kind of, talk, you said let’s talk plainly. Let’s talk plainly. Is it not a failure to not achieve what you set out to do and to lose hundreds of people’s lives in the process?

Mike Jackson: I’m not going to accept that it’s a complete failure, no.

Mehdi Hasan: Deborah.

Deborah Haynes: Sir Mike, that was a good concession there of accepting the fact that Helmand, you know, we haven’t set out what we set out to achieve and that’s the strongest I’ve ever heard you acknowledge that, in fact. The impact of Helmand and Iraq on the UK public and the US public is this massive loss of trust. And I think that’s going to have a terrible impact on future interventions like we’re seeing in Syria at the moment.

Mike Jackson: If we take counsel of all of that and say, “Ok, next time, when there may be a strong strategic, moral, whatever, both perhaps, case to become involved, we’re not going to do it because of Helmand, because of Basra. We will be, I think, stepping into considerable danger.

Mehdi Hasan: One war we did get involved with was Libya post-Iraq and Afghanistan, which was a relative success in comparison, but even in Libya… let me throw a biased question at you: It took the world’s greatest military alliance in human history eight months to topple a tinpot dictator in a tiny developing country. We’re just not very good at winning wars these days?

Mike Jackson: That is so simplistic, I don’t know where to start.

Mehdi Hasan: Start wherever you like. It took eight months. We were told it would take days by President Obama.

Mike Jackson: I don’t recall but lots of things take longer than you think and certainly intervention is not gonna be over by Monday morning or anything like it and anybody who’s been around for a while knows that. Libya was very measured application of force.

Mehdi Hasan: The prime minister was kidnapped. The interior minister dodged an assassination attempt. Some of the militias that the West allied with have turned out to be Jihadist militias controlling vast swathes of the country. It’s not the greatest place to live. Even Human Rights Watch, which isn’t averse to…

Mike Jackson: Well, it wasn’t great under Gaddafi.

Mehdi Hasan No, agreed, but isn’t that the point about making sure things are better when we go in – your point earlier? Human Rights Watch says the country is sliding deeper into lawlessness. It’s not the greatest evaluation of a conflict.

Mike Jackson: No it isn’t. It’s particularly Western, I think and particularly media, if you don’t mind me saying so, that everything must be achieved by tomorrow morning. Well, it’s not going to be. I’m reminded…

Mehdi Hasan: But it’s…

Mike Jackson: Let’s lighten it for 30 seconds. I’m sure it’s anecdotal but there we are. Nixon says to Chuan Li, “Tell me, Mr Chairman, what is your judgement of the historical significance of the French revolution.”To which, after a moment, Chuan Li said, “Mr President, it is far too early to tell.”

Mehdi Hasan: On that note, we’re going to have to take a break. Join us in Part two where I’ll be asking General Jackson about his experiences and his accomplishments in Northern Ireland and in Kosovo and we’ll be hearing from our audience here at the Oxford Union. That’s after the break.

Part two 

Mehdi Hasan: Welcome back to Head to Head on Al Jazeera. My guest tonight is General Sir Mike Jackson, we’ve been talking about Iraq and Afghanistan, Libya. I want to kick off this part of the programme by talking to you about Northern Ireland – the conflict that happened in this country, the so-called troubles, that lasted around three decades. You served three tours of duty, I believe, in Northern Ireland.

Mike Jackson: Yes, six years in all.

Mehdi Hasan: On this programme, sitting in that very chair not long ago, Martin McGuinness, the former IRA commander who’s now the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, said to me, and I quote, he “joined because the British army, an occupying army, came onto the streets of my city and shot citizens dead before the IRA ever engaged in any combat whatsoever.” What’s your response to him?

Mike Jackson: It is true that the British army used force – lethal force at times – against citizens in Northern Ireland. Mostly within the law. There are, again, some exceptions to that which I absolutely abhor. But when you look at the number of basically soldiers but some airmen and sailors as well, who served in Northern Ireland over those three plus decades, I think the record is pretty good. And indeed, Martin McGuinness’ part of the population, the so-called nationalists, welcomed the arrival of the British army.

Mehdi Hasan: In the same way that many Afghans may have welcomed the British army.

Mike Jackson: Indeed.

Mehdi Hasan: And is there a crossover point that you can say that where the British army deploys in recent years, there has been this blowback effect where the actions of some British troops enables your opponents to recruit better, more easily?

Mike Jackson: I think that’s a very narrow analysis and in many cases the wrongdoings were not, did not become, public for a long time. I think it’s a very…

Mehdi Hasan Ok, well, one…

Mike Jackson: No, I need to say something else about it. We keep talking about the use of the military as standalone in a vacuum. We’ve got to do better than that. You and I have got to do better than that.

Mehdi Hasan: You’re referring to the political role as well.

Mike Jackson: The political dimension, the economic dimension, the humanitarian dimension – you’ve got to understand all of that…

Mehdi Hasan: Well, you’re a soldier so I’m asking you about the military dimension.

Mike Jackson: Yeah, I know but you can’t talk about it in isolation and in an intervention the politics and the use of force have got to be absolutely hand in hand. Where Northern Ireland is concerned there were no real politics.

Mehdi Hasan: You were there in Northern Ireland on the ground in 1972.

Mike Jackson: Yep.

Mehdi Hasan: Infamously on Bloody Sunday when 13 civilians, were killed by British paratroops. A few years ago you offered a, quote, “fulsome apology” to the families of the victims for those killings but you also said it should be seen in the wider context. A context that you elaborated on that most of the British troops didn’t carry out abuses. That there were provocations. Some people in the nationalist community think that apology didn’t go far enough because you added that caveat. It wasn’t fulsome. Because…

Mike Jackson: I said what I said and I stand by it.

Mehdi Hasan: Would you not give an unconditional apology?

Mike Jackson: I said what I said and I stand by it. But we’ve all moved on, have we not?

Mehdi Hasan: Indeed.

Mike Jackson: So thank heavens we have the Good Friday Agreement. Everything that went on before is imperfect, inevitably, under great strain at times but what I’m very proud of is that the British army basically was able to hold a space open for the politics to come good. Even though it took so long.

Mehdi Hasan: You talk about pride. Would it be fair to say that your proudest moment as a soldier was the Kosovo War and the 78 day NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. Would you say that was a success and something that you’re very proud of?

Mike Jackson: It was my last time in command in the field, which is really what any solider worth his salt is wanting to do. And I believe we were able to achieve pretty largely that which was set out to achieve, which was to prevent further abuse of the civilian population by the Serb forces. To return refugees to their home and to start to build a new Kosovo with a secure environment.

Mehdi Hasan: NATO still bombed bridges, bombed power stations, bombed television studios with make-up artists inside. Amnesty International accused NATO of committing war crimes during that conflict. Cluster bombs were used. There were some pretty nasty things on our side of the balance sheet.

Mike Jackson: Mistakes were made.

Mehdi Hasan: It wasn’t a mistake. It was deliberate targeting. No one ever said the television studios that were blown up in Belgrade was a mistake. We were told that that was a propaganda unit that needed to be taken out yet innocent civilians died in it.

Mike Jackson: You need to read the Geneva Convention as in some circumstances are methods of propagating propaganda.

Mehdi Hasan: So Amnesty International were talking nonsense when they said there were cases of war crimes?

Mike Jackson: They have their view.

Mehdi Hasan: They have their view, okay.

Mike Jackson: I stick by the Geneva Convention.

Mehdi Hasan: Frank Ledwidge, what do you make of the legacy of wars like Kosovo in relation to Afghanistan, which you’re such a critic of?

Frank Ledwidge: Well, first of all it has to be said that the General played a superb role in the Kosovo campaign. He’s quite right, in a conventional war such as that mistakes will be made. Perhaps the legacy of Northern Ireland and Bosnia and Kosovo and perhaps even older campaigns for the British army look taking several steps back is that we believed we were capable of more than we probably were and the legacy of that or immediate legacy of that, in my view, is failure in Basra and Helmand. We took on a lot more than we could chew.

Mehdi Hasan: Deborah Haynes, you’re a defence correspondent, you cover wars. Wars like Iraq and Afghanistan which are considered, relatively, failures, though General Jackson doesn’t like to use the word. As a reporter who’s covering this, where do you stand?

Deborah Haynes: It feels to me as though the British military is very bad at learning lessons. Who’s culpable for failure? You never seem to get that so my worry is in the future when you do look back, there aren’t going to be those lessons learned that are required in order to have more successes like Kosovo and less failures like Iraq.

Mehdi Hasan: Nadim Shehadi, very briefly.

Nadim Shehadi: Acting at the time when it was right to act should not be judged by the outcome. What you have to judge is whether the failure to intervene in such places is also moral. Could we have not intervened in a place like Kosovo?

Mehdi Hasan: General Jackson, is it true, can I check, did you really tell Wesley Clark, the US General in charge of NATO at the time, and I believe your superior, that when he told you to block off Russian troops at Kosovo airport, you’re checking your memoir.

Mike Jackson: A fiver!

Mike Jackson: Well, he says I did, so I take his word for it.

Mehdi Hasan: And had you blockaded that airport, that runway, do you think we would have been at war with the Russians?

Mike Jackson: I’ve no idea.

Mehdi Hasan Okay.

Mike Jackson: I wasn’t prepared to take a risk which had nothing to do with what we were about in Kosovo. It wasn’t worth any such risk.

Mehdi Hasan: You were nicknamed Macho Jacko by the British press.

Mike Jackson: Oh, well, so? 

Mehdi Hasan: Were you pleased?

Mike Jackson: The British press make many misjudgements. That’s probably one of them. 

Mehdi Hasan: A few months ago the former US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, said cuts to the British defence budget and our armed forces would limit the UK’s ability to play a major role on the world stage and would undermine the UK’s “special relationship with the United States”. Do you share his fears, his concerns?

Mike Jackson: We are heading now for the smallest armed forces we’ve had since the ’30s at least. Is that wise, in a troubled, uncertain world where the unexpected is round the corner? I have considerable caution thereby. Does it diminish Britain in the special relationship in the way that Mr Gates said? Do you know, I don’t think it does, probably.

Mehdi Hasan: Okay.

Mike Jackson: The nature of the special relationship is as much about the political nature as hard power as well.

Mehdi Hasan: Let’s go to our very patient audience.

Audience Participant 1: As an Afghan, I feel really, really bad and hurt that we are forgetting the sacrifices in the suffering of Afghan people. The so-called war on terror 12, 13 years ago. It was nothing to do with Afghanistan. The reason the international community, the US, NATO intervened was because of Osama Bin Laden. He was found next door. The Taliban was supported, still supported and will be supported by next door. Hundreds and thousands of lives have been lost so I don’t know why we intervened. What was the main objectives and what was the main reason and why are we leaving now? People like myself are made refugee. At the age of 14, I had to leave my family because of the invasion and occupation of NATO and American forces. Thank you.

Mike Jackson: Yes, there is much in that question. I mean the dimensions to it are very considerable and go much wider than Afghanistan. Without doubt, al-Qaeda were defeated after that first, intervention with the Northern Alliance on the ground but they were not destroyed and they found Sakah in Pakistan. So you’re right, the question is much wider. Why did we go there in the first place? The narrow reason, since the Taliban regime would not remove al-Qaeda itself, the narrow reason was to kick  al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan. But then it grew. It grew rapidly.

Mehdi Hasan Why didn’t the West just leave then?

Mike Jackson: Because it was deemed that the West, having intervened, it should then do what it can to take Afghanistan from an authoritarian and sectarian regime to a modern democracy.

Mehdi Hasan: And we failed in that objective.

Mike Jackson: It is a great, great challenge. Afghanistan is on the way. We have not failed in the way you insist on putting it so dramatically. We have not yet achieved…

Mehdi Hasan: I’m confused that you’re – Your refusal to define failure and then you say failure is a dramatic word. It’s not a dramatic word.

Mike Jackson: No…

Mehdi Hasan: You set an objective. You don’t meet the objective. It’s a failure. Violence is up, as I mentioned. We’re not leaving behind a less violent country. We’re not leaving behind a less…

Mike Jackson: But we are leaving behind a much better-educated company, country, for example, you put this in black and white and I won’t have that.

Mehdi Hasan: Okay, we’ll have to agree to disagree on that. Let’s go to a question at the back. Lady there in the glasses with her hand up right in the middle, to my right.

Audience Participant 2: I was wondering if you really want to end the wars because, for me it seems we go, we produce weapons, chemical weapons, we sell those weapons to other countries such as Syria and then go there and say, “Oh, you are not allowed to use them.” So do you see it as a kind of responsibility?

Mike Jackson: Again, this is entirely a political question, with…

Mehdi Hasan: Feel free to answer it.

Mike Jackson: Yeah, I know, but I’m not a politician.

Mehdi Hasan: No. You’re just a former head of the army who surely has some views on this.

Mike Jackson: Yes. I don’t think in an uncertain world, again, to deny that Britain should ever sell a weapon overseas is frankly naïve. What we haven’t always got right is to whom we sell them. And I accept that.

Mehdi Hasan: Okay, let’s come back to questions here. Lady here in the front row. Just wait for the microphone to come to you.

Audience Participant 3:  There’s been an absolute lack of leadership, of great leaders coming out of that part of the world. Remove Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi, but where are the leaders?

Mike Jackson: You have to work with what you’ve got. You can’t invent a perfect world. You can’t conjure up…

Mehdi Hasan: Are you a fan of Hamid Karzai?

Mike Jackson: He is what emerged from that process of the Afghan loya jirga immediately after 9/11.

Mehdi Hasan Do you think he’s a good president?

Mike Jackson: That is a very loaded question and, the politics. No, don’t do that. I’m not just any bloke on the street.

Mehdi Hasan:  Exactly, you’re not a politician, as you keep telling us, so why don’t you give us a non-political answer?

Mike Jackson: Because, I am what I am. I am a retired head of the British army.

Mehdi Hasan: So you keep some of your views to yourself?

Mike Jackson: It is prudent to do that.

Mehdi Hasan Fair enough. Lady there in the purple hat.

Audience Participant 4: Definitely a military question. Are you concerned about the use of depleted uranium and cluster bombs in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq? As well as the other weapons that contravene the Genocide Act like the thermobarbic weapons that they used on the streets of Fallujah. And do you think that our use of weapons that impact so heavily on civilian populations might have given the impression to other countries such as Israel or even Assad in Syria that the use of weapons like that is acceptable?

Mike Jackson: You put me onto some quite technical ground, depleted uranium, to the best of my knowledge, is lawful under the Geneva Convention. I don’t think Britain would use any weapon which is forbidden by international law.

Mehdi Hasan Well, cluster bombs have been forbidden in the last few years.

Mike Jackson: They’ve been made illegal, you say.

Mehdi Hasan: Yes, subsequently.

Mike Jackson: By?

Mehdi Hasan: By international treaty.

Mike Jackson: Okay, I wasn’t actually aware of that but if you’re implying that we used…

Mehdi Hasan They’re pretty nasty weapons.

Mike Jackson: They are very…

Mehdi Hasan: …They kill a lot of civilians.

Mike Jackson: They are very unpleasant weapons but they can also be very effective. Sorry, it’s a hard old game sometimes, the use of force. But in any event, it seems to me this is historical because they are now…

Mehdi Hasan: Well, but in Iraq, for example, where we argued about the balance sheet, plenty of studies have been done showing babies being born around Fallujah with all sorts of birth defects, deformities. A lot of American scientists have published articles on this. Does that worry you that there may be a link to these weapons we used in and around Fallujah?

Mike Jackson: Does it worry me? The use…

Mehdi Hasan: Phrase the question how you like.

Mike Jackson: Yup. The use of force, war is a dreadful thing, as anybody who’s experienced it knows. It would be wonderful to think it would never happen again, that such weapons and such a method of settling difference did not occur but we live in a difficult and conflict-ridden world.

Mehdi Hasan: Let’s take a question from a man. At the back, gentleman there with his, who’s got a hand up high with white paper in his hand.

Audience Participant 5: My question is to General, that is the West doing any good by going into wars in these countries in terms of winning the hearts and minds of the people? Like in Afghanistan or Iraq?

Mike Jackson: Well, certainly, it is deep inside the British army’s DNA when on these sort of operations that is what you’re about. Your objective is not hill 123 to take it by a night attack from some enemy, probably another state’s forces. The battleground is people’s minds, their attitudes. You want them to think that the future is going to be better than what is so often a pretty miserable past.

Mehdi Hasan: Gentleman here in the jumper, second row. Do you want to wait for the mic to come to you, to my right?

Audience Participant 6: What about more recent interventions like the one in Mali where Western forces came in to help and support a democratically elected government. Do you think that is more virtuous? Probably promising more success or is that just like any other intervention?

Mike Jackson: Yeah, yeah, but thank you for the question. More often than not, intervention by the West has been by invitation and quite often, with the UN Security Council resolution behind it. Kosovo was an exception. I mean to those of you…

Mehdi Hasan: But you don’t mind not having UN resolutions?

Mike Jackson: Of course one minds.

Mehdi Hasan: We had a long discussion about the legality of the Iraq war and you didn’t think that it mattered.

Mike Jackson: You use some very strange language. One wants the best context you can get. But funny old thing, I detect the majority of you in this hall think that Iraq was illegal. I’ve given you my own reasons for not believing that to be so. Without doubt it would be, you would be very pressed to make any sense of a case that Kosovo was legal. But it was widely deemed to be legitimate. Now, legal and legitimate ideally should be one and the same thing but they are not.

Mehdi Hasan Okay, let’s go to the gentleman there in the checked shirt just on third row back, on the left.

Audience Participant 7: It’s been estimated that it will cost approximately a total 100 billion pounds to upgrade Britain’s trident nuclear weapons system. Do you think this is money well spent, given the possibility of a global nuclear weapons ban?

Mike Jackson: Thank you. I’m absolutely hard over on Britain remaining a nuclear weapons state. I dispute the 100 billion pound and it depends over how long that is as well. If it’s over the full life, which could be 30, 30 to 35 years, that’s three billion pounds a year. I do not regard the cost argument as really of any weight at all.

Mehdi Hasan: Why does the UK government get to have nuclear weapons and, say, the Iranian government doesn’t?

Mike Jackson: Well, because we chose to so equip ourselves.

Mehdi Hasan: Why can’t they do that?

Mike Jackson: Because governments which are irrational who have nuclear weapons, or who may become irrational, pose a particular threat. I’m afraid, you’re not going to like what I’m gonna say, I suspect, but we have Iranian leaders who clearly think it was a very bad idea that Israel was ever invented and they look forward to the day when Israel will be dis-invented.

Mehdi Hasan: Take Iran out of the equation. Can other countries, who don’t say bad things about Israel, can they have nuclear weapons?

Mike Jackson: Well we have non-proliferation treaty.

Mehdi Hasan: Whereby we get to have nuclear weapons and no one else does.

Mike Jackson: That is what the treaty set up.

Mehdi Hasan: Okay, I am going to take the gentleman there.

Audience Participant 8: Do you think that the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the way that certain people like Baha Mousa were treated by British soldiers has diminished the credibility of the British army and of British foreign policy to the public. And if you accept that, what do you think needs to be done for that credibility to be restored?

Mike Jackson: We know that Saddam Hussein had had them. We know that he had used them. Not only in the Iran-Iraq war but against his own people in a pretty bestial way. But the intelligence was there that he had continued, not only had he had them, he continued to have them. We know now that intelligence to be flawed and incorrect. It was not known at the time. When it was clear that there were none to be found after the invasion, I accept that not only Britain’s reputation here, but the coalition’s took quite a knock. Baha Mousa is a source of great shame that British soldiers mistreated prisoners. And the rule of law must be upheld. There is no condoning such behaviour, otherwise we cease to be what we are, which is the Armed Forces of a law abiding democracy.

Mehdi Hasan: General Jackson, just before we finish, you spent 45 years in the military serving your country. You saw people die in various conflicts – soldiers under your command, enemy soldiers, civilians. How do those deaths affect you as a person?

Mike Jackson: Very personal. Soldiering is a hard business at times and casualties are inevitable but you know that when you take the Queen’s shilling in the first place. It’s part of, it’s the hard part of and one of the great things about retiring from the army seven years ago was saying to myself, “I will never have to write another letter to the next of kin.” Without doubt, a relief. At the same time there’s a danger that soldiers, sailors, airmen who may become casualties are seen as victims. Can I beg you, all of you in the room and to whomever you speak, this is not what they’re about. They are not victims. Only in the sense we are all victims of human nature, for which sadly, conflict seems an eradicable dimension.

Mehdi Hasan: You once applauded, quote, “the urge of red-blooded men to want to fight in wars.” And I wonder, earlier you said that war is horrific, no one wants to go to war…

Mike Jackson: Yes…yes.

Mehdi Hasan: …So where does that urge come from? Given war is always an evil – sometimes it’s a necessary evil but it’s always an evil.

Mike Jackson: Yeah…yeah, we need to be very careful there, it can be the lesser of two evils…

Mehdi Hasan: Agreed. But why have “the red-blooded urge to fight”?

Mike Jackson: Having fought their first battle, they’ve had that, dare I say, somewhat youthful, enthusiasm, tempered by the reality of a battlefield which is, almost inevitably, a dangerous, frightening and unpleasant place. That doesn’t mean to say they change their minds but they mature. They grow up. They’re not for the urge of it. They’re doing it for the duty and ‘cause that’s why they joined.

Mehdi Hasan: On that note, we’ll have to leave it there. We’ve run out of time. Thank you, General Jackson for joining us this evening. Thanks to our audience here in the Oxford Union. To our panel of experts. Thanks to you all for watching at home, this debate will continue, as ever, online. Good night. 

Audience: [APPLAUSE]