No link between Iraq and terror attacks, says Straw

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Indy Politics

Nobody would accuse Jack Straw of jingoism, much less of showing any sign of gloating. But in a burst of patriotic pride, he cannot resist a dig at how the Cassandras of the media's commentating classes have been confounded by the interim administration taking over in Kabul tomorrow.

In an interview with The Independent, the Foreign Secretary said: "There were quite a number of people who suggested we would be bogged down in Afghanistan like Vietnam." Speaking 100 days after the terrorist attacks in the United States, Mr Straw said the progress made by the coalition had been "astonishing".

Osama bin Laden is still on the run, but Mr Straw predicted "sooner or later" time would run out for him. "None of us thought 100 days on we would realistically be in a position where the al-Qa'ida organisation has almost been broken up, the Taliban routed and, as a result of both, the people of Afghanistan liberated.

"The overwhelming majority of people in Islamic countries are delighted at what has happened. President Musharraf [of Pakistan] is more secure than anyone anticipated and we now have in prospect a route to a peaceful future for the people of Afghanistan."

Success, however, has also brought problems. Putting together the British-led peacekeeping force for Afghanistan has become a rather messy business. Asked if peace was harder than war, Mr Straw conceded: "The variables in sorting out the peace are in many ways more complex." But he insisted: "All this has been organised in what is almost record time. It would normally take weeks and months. We are doing this in days. Trying to get all the ducks in a row is an enormously complex task."

The Foreign Secretary disclosed that Italian, Spanish, Canadian and Jordanian troops would join their British counterparts in the initial deployment. He admitted the involvement of Germany and France would take longer to secure because they needed to resolve internal issues, which include Germany's reluctance to see the force under the overall command of America.

Everybody hopes the force's mere presence will have a stabilising effect. But the decision to seek a United Nations mandate under Chapter VII rather than the less robust Chapter VI reflects a determination to prevent a repeat of the grisly spectacle of Dutch UN soldiers standing by while Serbs massacred Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica.

"It is a huge compliment to British forces that we emerged as the one country that could be the lead nation in these circumstances. It is also a mark of the development of British foreign policy that we are very comfortable with that position," Mr Straw said. Historians would judge that Tony Blair, from his instinctive reaction after the second plane went into the World Trade Centre, had played a critical part in this benign interim outcome. "What we have seen is British foreign policy really making a difference. And now, particularly within Europe, providing natural leadership."

But had Mr Blair's coalition building really influenced – even moderated – America's strategy? Mr Straw, too much of a diplomat to go down that road, would say only: "President Bush has emerged from this as a man of great qualities and a statesman. He has made his own decisions. I think he would say he has been assisted in that by the environment we have helped to create."

Mr Straw is more reticent about the second phase of the war, insisting he will not get involved in "speculation". But aren't some in the Washington administration openly calling for a war to topple Saddam Hussein in Iraq? "An open foreign policy debate takes place in the US, that is a good thing ... What matters is what decisions are made. The decisions which the Bush administration have made have been careful and thought through up to now. I have no reason to think that won't continue."

He went on: "I have seen no evidence to support any link [between Iraq and the 11 September attacks]. On the general issue of military action, it is only ever contemplated on the basis of very good evidence pointing to that necessity and after a very careful conclusion that military action is the only possible option. On that basis, the only theatre in which we are currently involved in military action is Afghanistan."

On the Middle East, the Foreign Secretary made strikingly clear that his patience with Yasser Arafat was running out. Now was the time for the Palestinian leader to crack down on terrorists and declare an end to the intifada.

Has Britain's policy tilted in favour of Israel because of the wave of suicide bombings? No, Mr Straw said, the strategy had not changed, but the circumstances had. He made a telling parallel with Northern Ireland. "If there was an Omagh [bombing] happening every weekend, then this would place any government under the most astounding pressure," he said. "Israel has the same population as Scotland. The pressures on any government would be unbelievable."

On Europe, Mr Straw stuck to the government line on the single currency, saying a referendum would be held only when its five economic tests were passed, and praised the "hard-headed" approach of the Chancellor, Gordon Brown. Mr Straw, long seen as a Eurosceptic, describes himself these days as a "practical European" and there are clues that he is warming to the euro. After the 1975 referendum on whether Britain should remain in the EU, his two mentors took different routes. Peter Shore remained a diehard Eurosceptic while Barbara Castle, in contrast, joined the European Parliament. "I was more influenced on this by Barbara's approach," he said.

"The euro will become a reality on 1 January. We can then move on to a more serious debate. We will see proud nation states sharing their sovereignty in a single currency. We will be able to see whether the single currency weakens their sense of themselves ... I don't think it will."