tv Political Thinking with Nick... BBC News October 3, 2021 10:30am-11:01am BST
the way forward for our country is not to just fill the big lever marked uncontrolled immigration and allow in huge numbers of people. new verification checks are introduced for lone police officers in scotland in the wake of the murder of sarah everard. marching for abortion rights across the united states, as pro—choice supporters fear the supreme court could impose further restrictions. and the wait is over for more than 40,000 runners taking part in the london marathon.
hello, welcome to political thinking, the programme in which i have a conversation with, not an interrogation of, someone hello, welcome to political thinking, the programme in which i have a conversation with, not an interrogation of, someone who shapes our political thinking. my guest is the chief of the chief staff, britain's top soldier in the prime minister's top adviser, general sir nick carter. the cry has gone out to call in the army to help deliver fuel, to deal with the fact the nhs in some places is running out of ambulances. call in the army to help deliver the vaccines. we believe in the value of our armed forces, and yet all this comes at a time when there are real question marks about what has gone wrong over the past 20 years. wrong in iraq, wrong in afghanistan. welcome to political thinking. thank you very much. it's a great privilege. you only have a few weeks after four decades in the army.
do you approach the end of this time with trauma, with relief, with excitement? gosh, it's mixed emotions. i've been institutionalised from between 43—41; years. it's going to be quite a wrench. but i think there are all sorts of opportunities. i have to confess, the last years have been relentless and i'm actually looking forward to spending a bit more time with my wife and my family and my golf. the last eight weeks have been pretty relentless. we'll talk about the afghan withdrawal later, but as lead to personal criticism of you and other leaders. is that a frustrating thing? yes, you are not necessarily
in a position to answer back, and criticism is painful. but one has to realise you're communicating in modern media to multiple audiences and you can't please everybody. i think what you have to do is be true to yourself, to the advice you're giving, and then i think you can probably find a way through it. is it also the case that people who do my sort ofjob, in this era, have very rarely had any service? i think that's very fair. i think particularly my generation, which has served in the campaign since 9/11, we've lost a lot of people under our command, and that has a marked effect on you. not a day goes by when i don't think of the people who died under my command and wonder whether my plan could have been better. so i think responsibility that comes with thejob i do is something a lot
of opinion formers don't understand it. i want to reflect on the times you've had. and what we can learn. let's begin with how on earth you ended up where you are. was it always going to be the army? definitely not. it wasn't until i planned... my father was clear that red brick universities weren't on his sheet. oh, really? yeah. 0n the basis of that, it was i suggest you go in the army, and maybe a professional qualification. he was in the army. he did half his life and the army, and then he worked in insurance. he thought the army was a good career. i think he was surprised that i stayed and profited, but he thought it was a good thing to do for three years. it almost went horribly wrong
when you were kicked out of winchester college and the cadets. i wasn't terribly successful. i was drawn to the golf course. not wearing my uniform on a wednesday afternoon. i got called out. i reverted to private soldier. because you went to play golf! absent without leave. the theory was that you would join the army, leave and do what? i think my father thought accountancy. and he had a good mate, and the answer was i was going to work for smith and williamson. three years in, i rang a friend. what kept you in? why the love of it? people, first and foremost. responsibility, interesting places and tasks, tours in cyprus and the opportunity to do more things like that. you look back to those of you who've
served in the troubles. huge responsibility at a young age. was that a traumatic thing to live through? yes and no. i mean, i don't... i only did six months. nowadays, they do a year. in those days, i was commanding my platoon in northern ireland. i was just 18 years old and i remember arriving in londonderry, having driven from the overnight ferry in belfast. got it wrong, miraculously found my way. not the ideal place for soldiers. no. we were a bit naive in those days. but i remember arriving and being told to get my uniform on and i'd be commanding my platoon. you knew would have been the target. for sure.
we were going to do an ambush on the road, which was a very notable place. the veterans will know very well. it was an extraordinary thing to do, and my commander listened to the orders i gave. my sergeant was very much there to make sure they were decent orders. but you are thrown in at the deep end, and it was once in circumstances where you sink or swim. i think the system around you wanted to to succeed. but you do succeed, as what something people call a political soldier. you get drafted in to make plans for politicians. when it comes to the gulf war, you were involved in the planning of that. i was working for the land deputy joint commander who had been a former sas officer. he was the first general officer
officer to travel to saudi arabia. storming norman? indeed. he wasn't really quite a storming norming. we arrived at half past midnight, and it was very clear in the conversation that he looked at mike wilkes's wings on his arms and said he didn't want any... special forces. he wanted tanks. i remember writing tanks in my notebook. in what became a series of mass mobilizations and major conflicts, in which britain and us were fighting side by side, you must be aware that people look back at those — not the gulf war, but what some call the second gulf war in iraq — and they say they all failed.
jeremy corbyn, once a marginal figure, came to office because people said he was right about that, wasn't he? i think failure it's a powerful term and it's easy to reflect on whether we failed to win battles, we probably didn't succeed in winning wars. we probably didn't fail to win the battles. i also think in the case of afghanistan, it's too early to say whether it was a failure. but i would observe that 60% of afghans had been born since 2001 and they will want a very different afghanistan. coming to the detail of the afghan withdrawal. i just wonder what if any conclusions you can draw from the fact that not one, but a whole series of military interventions have not succeeded.
was it that we perhaps got over cocky? that the political class had seen success? had seen some success dealing with saddam hussein? and thought they could make the world a better place? i think if you look back, you'll recall that was the era was about. robin cook and tony blair had a view on how we could make the world a better place. but i think it's deeper than that, and a lot has been written about the interaction between senior military leadership and policy makers, and i think how that relationship works is pretty fundamental to the lessons that we learned from the campaigns. the military has a very important responsibility to make sure that they receive the right political guidance, and policymakers have a very important responsibility to give the right political guidance.
is there a difficulty that you're hinting at in the way the military talk? you are by definition can—do people. some people describe it as happy talk. no, we can do this. you have to motivate. you're asking people to risk their lives, and politicians, particularly with no experience in the armed forces, can mistake that and think it's going to be fine. it can't go wrong. there's definitely something about leadership and the importance of being positive in leadership, because if you ask people to do difficult things, often things where they can lose their lives, you're hardly likely to do it if you're not positive in your approach. but you have to be realistic. and pragmatic. i'm fundamentally not political in my approach. behind closed doors, i'm very clear. about what we can achieve. in public, i don't necessarily
reveal my advice because it's not my position. i'm going to try to be positive when it's appropriate. you said it's too early to know whether our withdrawal of afghanistan marks a moment of failure. why so? how could it ever be anything other than a failure, given that the people who are running it 20 years ago haven't changed very much? yes, i think afghanistan is really only governed inclusively... last time was probably the early 1970s. since then it's never had an inclusive government. what you now see is one group coming in with a different view and they are not going to succeed in the way they will govern, because they are governing in an exclusive way. i'm afraid we are likely to see some more blood—letting, and that is something many of us predicted. and that blood—letting perhaps
will lead in a few more years to a recognition that they've got to form amongst afghans a government that can govern all afghans. and i think because 60% of afghans have been born since 2001, they don't want to return to the middle ages. i think they perhaps will encourage their country to think more inclusively about how it should be governed, and that's where i have hope. let's go back to some things that did seem to go wrong. did british politicians not pay enough attention to the fact that in the united states, they made a really cross party decision to get out and get out quickly? no, i think the national security council understood all of that. what, knew that biden might set a very early date to get out? it looked like people were taken by surprise. i don't think anybody was surprised
by the decision of president biden. i'm on the record of saying it wasn't the decision we hoped for, but i think the die was cast in february 2020, when president trump signed that deal. with the taliban. it was then cast. the deadline was extended to august. but the die was cast. so the people who argued that we could've just carried on as we were, that there were no casualties at the hand of the taliban, why didn't we just stick with the status quo? was that a delusion? i personally think so because i think the taliban would have gone on the offence against us. i think we'd have had to reinforce our presence on the ground. let's go back to your own service. yes, you were in charge, but you served for many years before that. if you go way back to the invasion of iraq in 2003, you were not there but you are doing
a fascinating job in government. yes. in 2002, i did my first afghanistan tour and got very involved in nation building, if we can put it like that. i got a bit of a reputation for understanding how one might rebuild states after they had collapsed, so i was brought into a joint team in the foreign office. it was about aftermath planning. 0urjob was to try and encourage the coalition led by the americans to think the thing through to the finish and think hard about what might happen once iraq was defeated militarily. how would you put it together again? it was a very interesting job. fascinating in particular because the one thing everything thought failed, failure to plan for the aftermath. indeed, and these were things that i think some of us had some questions to ask about. we well know this
was comprehensively covered by the inquiry... but you would say you did foresee? i think we were very worried about how this would work out. and all of that was revealed. later on, you are serving on the ground as a commander. you will be familiar with this charge. i suspect it's one that frustrates you, but there's a joke in the american army, how many brits does it take to clear? none, they couldn't hold it except for the marines. i do remember that. that happened... the answer is i think the people involved at the time, they thought they came to an accommodation with the forces of the iraqi military on the ground, and they thought it would prevail. it became a target of influence, and that took the forces of the coalition as a whole
to resolve it. yet, in a sense, we see the exact mirror in helmand and again heroic efforts made. i first met you and i walked around places i wouldn't now. but it collapsed again, and the americans had to come in? i think if you look at afghanistan as a whole, kandahar was the centre of gravity. it's where the taliban emerged from in the 90s. if you're going to adopt what became described as a population centric approach, you will need a lot of troops. i think people were not trying to do that and the mission began to change over time.
by the time i was there in 2009, president 0bama signed up to the so—called surge and that's why so many troops arrived. it was a different job to the beginning. there was never going to be a solution, was another view. and there were people even as the surge was taking place, this is the moment to say to the taliban, we need to do a deal. you will remmeber when we met with david cameron, the day before, i gave an interview to the guardian newspaper. i said we should speak to the taliban. david cameron was not impressed with this. it was against policy, but also stole the headlines. you will also recall that we went back up to kabul, where we were given an audience with the president. he said what generals should have
been saying since 2002. the answer is you are never going to solve this problem unless you bring everybody into the tent. if you look at the mission, it was not a mission at the beginning. the bush administration did not do nation—building, it was about bear hunting. it was appropriate for them to work with these interesting characters. bear hunting, looking for bin laden? and al-qaeda more generally. but it was then very difficult to start nation—building when you needed to work from the ground upwards. i think people can see the campaign evolved, but by then, we made a mistake before. there has been a big debate about how our armed forces should be configured in the future. a big review came out, lots of talks of concepts that many barely understand.
the importance of cyber, and so on. does what's happened in afghanistan make us think, hold on, before we abandon all that stuff about mass mobilisation, let's remember we still need an army? yes, and of course, some of the challenges we're having at the moment would explain why we need a force of national resilience. but the bottom line is that we've already learned a lot of lessons from the afghan campaign, and we know very well that if you are going to get involved in these sorts of environments again, you need to have the basic insight to have an effect. if you go in there without that, you are going to fail. we've already begun to get the army in particular to be reconfigured to be better able to be engaged with indigenous forces in areas that potentially have become failed states in order to help build
the capacity of those local forces to take the problems on their selves. is it also a question of what public will tolerate? you referred to your generations as the post—9/11 generation. is it possible that public opinion here and the us will say after afghanistan, after syria, no thank you, we don't want any more of that. they may say that, but it depends on what sort of world they want to live in. we've never had a more interconnected world. if we are not compared to compete, it might not be a world we want to live in. why so? we will end up in a world with totalitarian surveillance. that's why. .. if we want to stand up for the life we have,
we cannot put ourselves back. we have to become part of the global enterprise, and that's why we need to be involved. you mention another role that the army are playing at the moment, the force of national resilience. when the politicians ring you up and say, "can you help us with the vaccine" or now this week, we need fuel delivered? are you pleased or do you think, why don't you get your act together on your own? it's complicated. i often used to say that the armed forces have probably never been more popular emerging from the campaigns, but that popularity has been based upon sympathy and not empathy. so the opportunities to do the olympics or support the government in covid or drive tankers in a fuel crisis, these are opportunities to show ourselves off and show the qualities and values that we stand for. the answer is, i'm clearly think
this is a positive opportunity. and it's what we do. it's why the government gave us an uplift in funding. but equally, we have to recognise our proper role, to deter who we're up against from fighting us. you have been in the room where it happens. you advised prime ministers cameron, may, johnson. what you make of the quality of the national leadership that we have, and whether we have people who really understand the world in the way you would want them to? i think i have found sitting around the national security council table that the system isn't bad. i think the people who sit around that table come from different perspectives. i think they're very well advised and we still produce very good national security experts and professionals. i think our services
are world—class. so the answer is i think provided politicians are prepared to listen and apply the politics to the advice, i think we'll be fine. not bad and fine are not the highest form of praise it sounds. you're doing what you have to do, make do with the people you're offered. yeah, and at the end of the day, i serve the prime minister and we live in a democracy, and i wouldn't have it any other way. what's fascinating, and in that last answer, you're preparing you're preparing your own obituary. you are going to get some pretty bruising obituaries. not so much because of what you've done, but you've been around when people have perceived the military force has failed. do you have moments late at night or elsewhere where you look in the mirror and think, is the basis of what of what you believe in wrong?
have we just not been able to do what i hoped we would be able to do? i think you have to look back at what our principal function is. we have avoided war throughout my lifetime, and i think that is what we are here to do. and i often say to chiefs of staff, we need to think really hard about how we prepare to fight the war, because that will prevent from that happening. that is our principal task. yes, when you get involved with the complexities of these very complicated campaigns like iraq and afghanistan and the other things that we've seen, they are incredibly complicated, but the brutal reality is that i will look at myself in the mirror and believe i did the best i possibly could given the circumstances i lived through. i do hope when people think
about this, they recognise that from the day i became the chief of defence staff, a week later, i was in front of prime minister may to make the case, and the fact that we achieved that of affect last year, when we were given £24 billion, it's something i shall look back on with pride. general sir nick carter, thank you very much forjoining me on political thinking. thanks. there is no doubt that politicians want a can—do attitude from those who run the armed forces. they come to believe they can offer something that mere mortals in the civil service or in private corporations can't actually offer. yet, general sir nick carter and others now find they're being criticised for not stressing enough what can't be done. that's it from this addition of political thinking. thank you for watching.
hello. you may have to dodge the odd downpour through the day but overall compared with yesterday a lot more in the way of drier and sunnier weather around. certainly into the afternoon, a good part of eastern england will see plenty sunshine, although some heavy showers in the north—east of england. not too bad in the north—east of scotland, but some strong to gale force, if not severe gale force winds, continue in shetland, and a blustery day elsewhere. showers a little bit more frequent in the west as the breeze picks up. but some sunshine in between, as i said,
some of you avoiding the downpours altogether. nice enough when you're in sunshine, a little bit on the cool side out of it and in the breeze. still a bit breezy through tonight. the showers keep going as well and there could be some heavy and thundery ones towards southern counties of england and south wales and into tomorrow morning. we won't get clear skies for any length of time. temperatures down into single figures, maybe lower single figures across parts of scotland, northern england and northern ireland. but it will be, while a fresh start, a dry and bright start for many. more showers towards the south east corner to begin with for monday, compared with today. showers still there in the west, pushing away eastwards on the breeze. persistent rain towards south wales before the day's out.
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