General The Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank, GCB, LVO, OBE
On: Defence and Security: The Future Threat
17 January 2002
“You’re Excellencies, my Lords, and gentlemen. Thank you so much for your invitation; thank you very much for your introduction although it wasn’t completely accurate. I’m not an official advisor to the Prime Minister, and I had good relations with two Prime Ministers, not just one.
I was asked to say something about what happened on the 11th of September, what the implications were, and then to talk about Europe and the Atlantic relationship. I think it would be quite wrong for someone like me to stand in front of you and not actually say what difference the 11th of September has made. I would like to start by talking about whether we were taken by surprise. Was it, as Natanyahu said when he was in Washington on the Hill, that ‘We received a wake-up call from Hell’? Should we have woken up before and done something about it, even though it was really difficult?
I think it is a bit unfair to say the British should mend the world but I think that a lot of our political leaders were very coy about the situation. A lot of work had gone on in Ministry of Defence and foreign ministries amongst academia about the possibility of what we called asymmetrical warfare, weapons of mass destruction, and what terrorism may do. And, governments barely listened. They really didn’t do much about it. I think that the intelligence services may not have come up with the answers that we wanted. I don’t think it was altogether their fault. After the cold war a lot of money was taken out of intelligence. Priorities were re-ordered. The British took their spies probably out of Afghanistan and put them into Brussels (Laughter). And I think that another reason, particularly in the United States, was that political correctness crept into spying. Spies and agents are never really nice people. And the Americans had a disaster in Guatemala when one of their agents behaved extremely badly. That really made certain people of the administration feel that they had to be very careful of who they recruited as agents. It doesn’t take me to tell you that the best agents are not sisters of charity. They are people who are probably reprehensible themselves. I was very interested when I said goodbye to my Russian opposite number, who was not a man with who I had particularly good relations, because he usually belaboured me about enlargement of NATO or missile defence. But what he did say was that he felt the United Kingdom, United States and most of the countries of Europe had no idea about what the terroristic menace really was and that we should wake-up.
If you look at the soft under belly of Russia – the former Soviet Republic and Muslim ones – he was really worried about it. At the time, I suspected he was making an excuse about Chehiniy, but you know he had a point. A point in which we I‘m afraid our country didn’t realise. We were harbouring people in our country that were causing, and could cause, trouble. And when I was Chief of Staff, I was always interested how, when I went to Turkey, Egypt or other countries, what admittance was made in their choices to harbour people who were terrorists.
Now what else should we have taken seriously? From what happened in Tokyo, we should have seen from some religious sects that danger could lurk and what the terrorists could do very cheaply. Also I think we should have learned a bit more about Al Qaeda then we did. The message was there. Al Qaeda had been committing murder in different countries all over the world and it didn’t go unnoticed. Al Qaeda blew up the U.S. embassies in Saudi Arabia. Al Qaeda blew up the U.S.S. Cole and Al Qaeda was well known to have its main base in Afghanistan; its main training camps were in Afghanistan. They have trainees in thirty-four different countries throughout the world and people of Al Qaeda are in seventy-two different countries and yet we didn’t seem to do much about it. Now I really do feel we can be criticised. I am not just saying just us but the international community also for not taking more notice of what happened. We knew that Al Qaeda operated in small cells of about four or five people, one of who was a commander, one of who was in intelligence, one of who planned operations. They were sent to other countries and they slept there until they were activated. So the writing was on the wall and we were a bit complacent. I say again I think our government, all governments, probably were rather coy perhaps about doing anything about it.
Now how has it gone so far since September 11th? September 11th was a well-correlated and clever operation by Al Qaeda whether we like it or not. It was a long executed plan. I think the United States has done extremely well so far. I think that the fears of the Europeans and many others around the world was that Americans would have some knee jerk reaction and quickly attack something. It was the right move because the Bush Administration listened, made a careful analysis and it took them four weeks before they struck. However, when they struck, they struck very effectively.
I think what has happened so far is perhaps the easy bit. The last bit is much harder. How do you actually rid the hearts and minds of many people in the world of anti-American and ‘anti-us’ views? How do you win their minds? Who will recall the Gulf war and the most decisive defeat of Saddam Hussein who killed over one million Muslims – probably more than any other person has ever done – and yet he remains a hero to some of the young in the Muslim world? How do you win that battle? I think it is very difficult if you really want to eradicate terrorism. I don’t personally think you can eradicate terrorism in the world, But you can drive the amount of terrorism down.
How do you do that? Terrorism is always inexcusable but if you really want to drive terrorism down, it takes a lot of money, a lot of aid. It takes encouraging good governance, and reducing the reasons for discontent. Many countries have uneducated people who have no chance of having their voice heard. There is Bin Laden – and you have to recognise that Bin Laden’s surname is from the government, the Royal Family of Saudi Arabia. So, it is extremely difficult. You have to ask, who has the energy, who has the money, who has the will to go on and on year after year? That I think is a question that remains unanswered. I am not going to say that I am sceptical, that we can’t do it, but I am worried about it.
Now, I have said that the United States has done extremely well. I actually think our Prime Minister has done extremely well to rally the coalition and to support the United States. I was visited by two eminent ambassadors who remonstrated with me, and introduced me as being close to the Prime Minister, not particularly close to a Prime Minister, but then to the Ministry of Defence. ‘Why has the British Prime minister gone right ahead to associate with the President of the United States? Why can’t he wait until the European Union gets its act together?’ Well, the reason was, we would probably still be waiting. I think that he has been terribly impressive. I also feel that the Americans are quite happy to have the British to be there, but they don’t really want a lot of Allies milling around Afghanistan. I think they learned this lesson the hard way with NATO in Kosovo. Now when I was brought up in Germany it was very clear what our role was. We relied on American leadership. Have we got American leadership? Are we all frightened? We weren’t really frightened in Kosovo; we are not really frightened in Afghanistan. Our national survival is not threatened. In Kosovo it wasn’t threatened and then19 nations had a point of view. I think it must have been maddening for all of them to define everything clearly; one great nation wouldn’t allow them to bomb something; domestic politics took a part, and so forth. I don’t blame them for wanting to ‘drone’ on this occasion. I think they are happy for us to be there. I think there are some people – apart from the ones at the airport – doing certain things. But they are not really involved in the main operations.
I believe in NATO and I believe in the Trans-Atlantic alliance. I believe passionately in America being involved in the security of Europe and I think the Europeans have to pay their bit. When it comes to European defence, I am very clear, the European capability is very poor and we need to do more so that we can show the world and the Americans. Now that costs money and we have to be prepared to put our money where our mouth is. I don’t see much evidence of the Europeans increasing their capability and that I find very worrying indeed. The Germans are setting a bad example and the French are in disarray; we don’t get more money and other people in Europe are hiding behind the example we are setting. We do need to play a better part in what the Americans are investing. When I was the Chief of Defence Staff, military defence was not just our role or capability and I could just see a time when the Europeans have to do something just like the Americans. I worry what they could actually do. Very little I think. The differences between us are tremendous. What I didn’t want is the European Defence force, which actually weakened NATO. I didn’t want more headquarters, I didn’t want more flags, I suppose I didn’t want more generals. I think we should spend more money on defence and the sad thing was, the biggest debate in our country was actually a game of political football between Euro sceptics and Euro followers. I thought the defence was far too important for that to happen. I was certainty not against a separate European defence but I do think we all need to do more and play our part.
Sir Michael (Burton) talked about 1990 and how the world has changed since then. I was privileged to have been a commander in Germany and I remember the wall coming down. That brought absolutely huge changes. The ‘something must be done’ school is alive and well. In June 1990 it was very rare for countries to become involved in domestic affairs of other countries. In those days, it was called interference. It very rarely happened and peacekeeping didn’t happen much either. Between June 1986 and 1990 there were 40 UN operations. Since 1990, there have been 1345. So the world has changed and the ‘something must be done’ school of foreign policy is alive and well. I think we have to be very careful about that.
The other huge change, more recently, is between our nation and Russia. Russia is now an ally. Russia has actually been enormously helpful as far as the Balkans are concerned, as far as Kosovo is concerned. It would be very dangerous, I think, for Russia not to be treated as a proper partner and not to give her the respect she deserves. Some people find that difficult. I don’t. I always was amazed at what happened at the airport at Pristina. Whatever some people thought about the arrival of the Russians, I thought it was part of the solution, and I would like to think I was proved right.”