POLITICS

David Richards: 'As A General, I Could Literally Change The Fortunes Of A Nation'

09/10/2014 14:04 BST | Updated 09/10/2014 14:59 BST

"If western boots were on the ground," David Richards, the former head of the British armed forces tells me, "if western armies were to be applied to the problem [of the so-called Islamic State, or IS], it could be over in six months."

It is a bold claim from a bold soldier. The retired general served as the Chief of the Defence Staff between 2010 and 2013, in which capacity he coordinated the British military effort to topple Colonel Gaddafi in Libya in 2011; won plaudits for defeating the thugs and hand-choppers of Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front as a brigadier in 2000; and commanded Nato forces against the Taliban in Afghanistan between 2006 and 2008 where, as he proudly writes in the introduction to his new memoir 'Taking Command', "I became the first British general to command American troops at theatre level since the Second World War."

He doesn't lack allies - or admirers, for that matter. In the book's foreword, military historian and journalist Sir Max Hastings calls Richards "a wonderfully grown-up general.. a remarkable man". The book's cover endorsements include quotes from celebrated US general David Petraeus ("the UK's most significant soldier-scholar-statesman of the new century") and novelist Frederick Forsyth ("a consummate soldier").

I meet General Richards - now Lord Richards of Herstmonceux, a cross-bench member of the upper house - in the rather grand environs of the Army and Navy Club on Pall Mall, where plush, high-ceilinged meeting rooms are named after the likes of Nelson and Wellington.

Sitting across from me, in a blue blazer and red-and-blue striped tie, the former commanding officer of the British military listens carefully to my questions before answering with them in his deep, and deeply authoritative, voice. I begin by asking Richards to clarify his headline-grabbing remarks in a recent BBC interview with Andrew Marr in which he called for "boots on the ground" in northern Iraq, as part of the West's campaign to counter IS, also known as Isis or Isil. Is he calling for British boots on the ground?

"No, no," he says, waving his hand. "What I'm essentially saying is.. wars, historically, have never been won by air power alone. That's self-evident but clearly it needs saying because certain people wish it could be won by airpower alone."

Certain people? "Well, many politicians are very leery after.. Iraq and Afghanistan to commit to the size of expedition that the aims they have set themselves, to defeat Isis, actually imply. The ends, i.e. defeating Isis, are out of kilter with the ways and means that are being applied."

The general checks himself. "I am all for the bare-bones strategy that President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron have described, which is essentially raising, training and equipping a regional army, for want of a better phrase. Peshmerga, FSA [Free Syria Army], whoever.."

Obama and Cameron have both spoken of "destroying" IS, but Richards thinks such overblown rhetoric is a mistake. The challenge, he explains, is "getting that [regional] army not to defend but to contain, essentially contain the problem.. but then you've got to attack. Then you've got to quote ‘defeat’ and some perhaps unwisely have talked about ‘destroying’. That I think is impossible to do. It’s very hard to destroy an idea. But I think you can defeat it."

How does he define defeat? Forcing IS to surrender the territory it currently controls? "Yes [and] to squeeze them into strategic irrelevance."

I ask him for a further clarification: is he opposed to deploying UK troops on the ground in principle? "I am not opposed to them [deploying in principle]," he replies. "I don’t see any requirement for them to be right up front in the front line. But I do see a great requirement for western military assistance, in terms of logistics, command and control.. the provision of niche areas of activity, intelligence, so on and so forth. The idea that you can make these armies successful in the time we have available to us.. without much more active and fulsome western involvement is, I think, naive."

Richards also told the BBC's Marr on Sunday that UK military action against IS targets in Syria was "a no brainer". What about the legality question? Wouldn't it be a crime under international law to bomb a sovereign state without UN approval?

"Well, okay, but our Arab allies and the Americans seem to think it’s legal. The Syrian regime is not actually stopping it. They're not retaliating [or] shooting down American aircraft for example.. I'm not an expert on [the law].. from a military perspective alone, it is a no brainer. You can’t fight half a war."

Richards thinks IS are beatable on the ground - given the right level of commitment. "I don’t think militarily [IS] is a great challenge. If western armies were to do what we did back in 2003 it would be easy to take back that ground [from IS] and occupy that territory. The issue is: are the political foundations for such action now in place? And that’s the difficulty."

In pure combat terms, the former chief of the defence staff wants the fight against IS to be treated as a "traditional military campaign" which is "what we're good at". He points out that IS have "got tanks [and] artillery, they’re holding ground. They're going to fight to keep that ground.. so the idea that this is some sort of counter-terror campaign is the first big error. It’s not.. it’s a conventional problem which needs to be fought conventionally."

He says it'd take "six months" if western ground forces were deployed but "that's not going to happen, clearly." Both Obama and Cameron have pledged to avoid putting US or UK boots on the ground (aside from a small continent of Special Forces operatives). Therefore, explains Richards, "you've got to equip, train, mentor this regional army that’s going to do the same. With the proper amount of support, with our airpower.. then it could be still done within a year. The key thing after that is that during the period when we prepare that army we are getting the politics right; the [Iraqi] Sunni tribes in particular see what’s coming their way is a much better alternative to what Isis is offering."

cameron obama

Richards is critical of Obama and Cameron's opposition to 'boots on the ground'

I mention former US defence secretary Leon Panetta's recent assessment that the fight against IS might take up to 30 years. Richards shakes his head. "When someone like Leon Panetta... talks about 30 years, he’s talking about changing a mindset where at the moment thousands of disenfranchised young men, presumably, find it attractive to go and fight for Isis. What we have got to do is make it unattractive and give them an alternative."

He pauses. "It’s essentially a political, social, economic, religious problem, it's not one [for] soldiers."

Isn't it also a consequence of Anglo-American foreign policy, too? Our support for dictators and despots, our invasions and occupations of Muslim-majority countries, which have acted as recruiting sergeants for Islamist terror groups?

The former chief of the defence staff chooses his words carefully. "I absolutely buy the case for examining the issue... how we now confront them, which is why people are leery about putting any western boots on the ground - I think over-leery [as], people in the region are saying ‘That’s the help we need’ - but [let's] do it cleverly, do it subtly. Don’t hang around after the event. Be generous in victory. All these sorts of things that our forbears learned."

Some have suggested that the US and UK governments should take some direct responsibility for the threat posed by IS, having attacked Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 2003 and created the conditions inside that country in which jihadist groups such as Al Qaeda and IS have since flourished. Richards doesn't disagree with that assessment. "With the benefit of hindsight.. the invasion of Iraq in 2003 [will] certainly be viewed in 10 to 15 years time as a grand strategic error."

Richards may have had his doubts about Iraq in March 2003, but he tells me that he firmly supported the invasion of Afghanistan from the get-go in October 2001. In his memoir, he calls the country a moral and strategic "vital interest" for the UK and proudly claims that "not one terrorist incident has been planned or executed from Afghanistan since we deployed there in 2001".

Of course, there are plenty of terrorism experts who believe our military presence in Helmand and other Afghan provinces helped bolster the Taliban and exacerbated the global terror threat from Al Qaeda and its affiliates. Does the general really believe the world is a safer place as a result of the Afghan war? Safer than it was on, say, 10 September 2001?

He leans back. "That's a different issue. I don't know the answer but you cant prove it isn't and I cant prove it is safer. If we had not confronted Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and they'd got away with it, the chances are they'd have repeated [9/11] or tried to repeat it. I don’t know but you don’t know either. From [Afghanistan] at least, there has been no terror plot. They have been squeezed out of their ability to operate like that."

What about all the Al Qaeda franchises which have sprung up around the world since then? From Yemen to north Africa, from Iraq to - most recently - India? "I know they've spread across the world but you don’t know they wouldn’t have done that anyway," is the general's rather defensive retort.

And the Taliban, like Al Qaeda, still exist, despite 13 years of conflict, more than 450 British troops killed and billions of pounds spent. The Taliban weren't defeated or destroyed, were they? How can anyone, therefore, describe the Afghan war as a victory for Nato or the West?

"I haven’t said it is a victory," he says quietly. "I have said it is a successful operation."

general david richards

Richards was in charge of Nato's Afghan war and continues to defend it

This feels like an exercise in pedantry. In practical terms, how does a "victory" differ from a "successful operation"? I can't help but be reminded of a recent Times review of the general's memoir: "There's a fair amount of score settling, as former foes in Whitehall get the equivalent of a silent commando dagger between the shoulder blades and are damned with the faintest of praise.. As with all such autobiographies, Richards is here to defend his legacy."

He calls Afghanistan a "successful operation" so I respond by pointing out the mess that the country is currently in: a resurgent Taliban, the opium harvest at a record high and civilian deaths on the increase.

For Richards, however, the recent presidential election was a vindication of the Nato strategy. "Eight million Afghans very courageously came out to reject the Taliban recently. Don’t they need our support? Deserve our support after the hell they went through in the 1990s, because we neglected them then? I feel quite good about that."

What about the Afghans who went through "hell" as a result of the Anglo-American occupation? Who were tortured at Bagram airbase? Or killed in Nato air strikes?

"The vast majority [of Afghans] have spoken. Eight million people said we don’t want the Taliban," he repeats, before adding: "We're not perfect.. but.. no western forces have gone out there by design to blow up civilians. We've had the odd bad egg.. and of course I bitterly regret. But we cannot be placed in the same moral box as the Taliban."

Some might say that 'we are better than the Taliban' is a pretty low bar to clear. They might also say that the fact the Taliban haven't been defeated, despite the best efforts of the most powerful military alliance the world has ever seen, is a pretty damning indictment of the strategy formulated by Western politicians and generals.

Richards concedes that "we haven't defeated the Taliban in the traditional sense" but believes the Taliban will never get back into power" in Kabul. "We have given a whole generation or two of Afghans hope about their future," he says. "I think you're at risk of looking two much at the negative and not enough at the positive.. So, the jury is out. But things may not be as bad as you think."

The US general, Tommy Franks, once famously remarked, when asked how many civilians had been killed as a result of the invasion of Iraq, "We don't do body counts." Does Richards "do" such counts? Can he tell me how many civilians have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001?

"Depends which statistics you believe."

Well, which ones does he believe?

"It’s probably.." He pauses. "It’s in the many thousands," he continues. "I keep going back to the fact that the Afghan people had the opportunity this summer to reject democracy and say ‘Taliban, come back’ and they didn’t. They did the opposite.. that is the metric I would hang on to. They want to stay with us and they want us to stay with them."

Richards may be guilty of over-spinning the successes in Afghanistan. A 2013 poll of Afghans, for example, found three out of four of them "say they would be afraid when encountering international forces".

Another recent Anglo-American war that the general was intimately involved in, and that looked at the time like a clear-cut victory but now looks a blood-stained failure, is the 2011 conflict in Libya. The post-Gaddafi government-in-exile is hiding out in a car ferry; Islamist militias battle for control of major cities; Gulf states launch air strikes on militia-held enclaves.

Yet Richards, curiously, describes Libya in his memoir as a "qualified success". Does he regret using that phrase?

"It was a tactical success, that’s why I said it was a ‘qualified success’," comes the reply. "We achieved our immediate war aims."

He continues: "This goes back to a bigger issue about the Arab Spring and the stage of development in which many of these counties are. Someone described it as ‘cultural imperialism’, that our Western-style democracy is the right one for these countries. Like most liberal people, I’d like to think that it is but I suspect one of the big deductions is that we should just be a bit cautious about imposing our own solutions on people who are not necessarily up for it or ready for it without sounding, I hope, too condescending."

Here, the general seems to echo the David Cameron of opposition, who once said: "You cannot drop democracy on a country from 30,000 feet." The David Cameron in government, however, like his prime ministerial predecessor but one, Tony Blair, seems much more messianic, much keener on using military action and, specifically, air power, as a key tool of British foreign policy. Did the former chief of the defence staff get a similar sense of messianism and complete faith in the hard power of military force from those two prime ministers, I wonder, when he served under them?

For Blair and Cameron, argues Richards, "there are bad things happening in the world and they would like, with others, to do something about it. I think they do enjoy being influential, feeling that together with others they are making a difference. It's quite a drug. What I have been saying is that if you want to do that, for goodness sake, please do it properly, full-bloodiedly. Don't play at it."

In March, Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, provoking a massive international crisis and warnings of "World War 3".

Does Richards believe there is a viable military option for the West vis a vis Russia? "Obama and Cameron have said we're not going to go to war over Ukraine and I think that’s right. We have to understand that Ukraine is very, very important to Russia, emotionally, historically, it was part of Russia for hundreds of years, which is why they were never going to allow Crimea to become part of this new Ukraine."

However, he adds, "what we must make clear to President Putin is you can do so much there but you are going to pay a penalty and, secondly, don’t even think about breaching the [Nato] Article 5 guarantee because in that case you're in a different league."

Would such a breach trigger a military response by the West against Russia?

"Well it would have to," he says with a shrug. "My own reading, and I know a number of learned Russians with whom I have got a relationship, is that’s not their intention. I don’t actually think what’s happening in Ukraine today was Putin's design. He actually had a solution through an acquiescent president, who was democratically elected, we forget, when he was removed, effectively in a coup d'état."

Richards criticises the "liberal Western media" for turning a blind eye to the fact that former Ukrainian president, and Putin ally, Viktor Yanukovych was elected in a free election and then removed from office without due process. They would have made much more of a fuss, he says, "if it was someone else, which I always find a little bit bizarre".

The general thinks the West has "misunderstood" Russia. "We lost great opportunities in the 1990s to bring her into the family of nations when we should have done. We sort of ignored her, almost stiff-armed her. We had another go in the early 2000s when Putin came to power and made overtures, and again we didn’t really take him up on [them]."

vladimir putin

The West has 'misunderstood' and 'ignored' Russia and Vladimir Putin, says Richards

Perhaps recognising that he might be slammed as a Putin supporter by hawks in the West for making such comments, he quickly adds: "I am not an apologist for Russian aggression.. but I do understand Russia.. and you have to go to empathise with their position.. very emotional, very patriotic, willing put up with a lot of hardship for their kith and kin."

As for Putin, "I think we've got to make sure that he knows there are penalties. I personally think there is.. a federal solution in Ukraine. It’s absolutely vital, as I am glad to say that no lesser authority.. than Henry Kissinger is saying, that we deal with the problem in Ukraine and bring back Russia into the family of nations."

And if the Russians were foolish or reckless enough to attack a Nato member country, perhaps a Baltic nation, what then?

"The Article 5 guarantees that an attack on one is an attack on all and we will respond appropriately [and] militarily. This is into speculation but if the Russians - and I don’t for one minute think they are.. unwise enough to do it - were to attack visibly a Nato nation, Nato would have to respond militarily. That, I think, is a message we have to send Putin."

Throughout the interview, time and again, Richards reminds me that he is a "soldier, not a politician".

In his memoir, the former head of Britain's armed forces reveals some of the sharper exchanges that he had with the country's elected prime minister. During the Libya conflict, for example, after the general told a BBC interviewer that he was wary of the legal case for targeting Colonel Gaddafi himself, an irritated Cameron told him to keep quiet: "You do the fighting, I'll do the talking."

On another occasion, during the same conflict in 2011, Richards says he bluntly told the PM that "being in the Eton Combined Cadet Force" was no qualification for running a foreign war.

So, is he maybe interested in a political career himself? He smiles. "You're the third journalist in the past 24 hours who has asked me that," says the general. "The answer is ‘No’. I've learned one thing: if you want to exercise real influence then you probably have to be in politics."

But isn't he already "in politics" as a member of the House of Lords? "No, as a member of the House of Lords.. I'm simply a voice with some relevant experience... But I'm not a politician, I'm a parliamentarian."

So he would turn down a job offer from the prime minister? He wouldn't, for example, consider a job as a junior defence minister?

"No, I wouldn’t be a junior minister," he says, with a laugh. "I'd be joining at Cabinet level." There's an awkward pause. "This is idle speculation." Another pause. "In my judgment, someone of my background.. you can't go and be a junior minister."

So he has thought about it then. "It’s gone through my mind.. I don’t think it's a serious proposition so I don’t entertain it."

What made him go for a military career in the first place? "Well my family were in it, my brother, my uncle, my cousin. They had a good life. I liked soldiers. I liked the environment, the people. I can't say I joined the army to make a decisive difference because you don’t. You join it for much more mundane reasons, like travel."

Nevertheless, he tells me, "I did stay in the army on a number of occasions when I could have been drawn from it. I almost became a journalist.. I thought about becoming a diplomat. But by then I'd decided that.. [on] quite a meaningful scale, and this came home to me in Sierra Leone, I could literally change the fortunes of a nation."

He is also, as one would expect of a former chief of the defence staff, a firm believer in "the morality and necessity of armed force". Richards explains that "there are some people out there who are more brutal then I ever realised and there's a vast majority of us who just want protection from the bully. And armed forces, well-deployed and well-led, can provide that."

What about those occasions when we, the UK, the British army, British soldiers, are the bullies? Or, at least, are perceived to be the bullies?

"We should never do that."

But we do, don't we? Look at what happened in Iraq, for example. "Well, Iraq sadly is an aberration," he says, before citing what he believes to be more morally-just wars in the Falklands, in 1982, and Sierra Leone, in 2000. In the latter country, says the general, "we stopped bloodthirsty men from cutting off hands and legs of a whole load of people".

Nonetheless, in all wars, especially modern wars in which there is a heavy reliance on air power, civilians are killed, aren't they? Women and children. Noncombatants. As a general who has commanded troops in conflict zones from west Africa to south Asia, do the deaths of innocents as the result of his own orders keep him up at night? Does it haunt him?

"It doesn’t haunt me but it weigh on my conscience."

Even now, in his retired life?

"Yes."

Richards says he would like to think that "the decisions I took were very carefully weighed up and the risks were understood and accepted but we strove very hard to avoid the thing you're talking about. But I am sad to say there will have been errors, there will have been troops under my command who didn't act as judiciously."

Nevertheless, the general is defiant: "If you believe in the greater good, then it probably was a necessary part of defending an idea, a people, whatever it was I trying to do."