What foot and mouth can teach Blair about warTelegraph By Alice Thomson
RETURNING from Dushanbe to Devon this week, it couldn't seem farther from a war zone. In Tajikistan, the harvest has failed, the tractor wheels have been made into shoes and Afghan refugees stranded on the borders have killed all the birds and are eating grass. In Devon, the hay bales were neatly stacked and children were collecting chestnuts - all that was missing were the sheep in the field.
I asked our local farmer what had happened. "We're the last farm to have tested positive for foot and mouth," he said. "They came while I was away on holiday and shot all my sheep. Now they think it was a false alarm but it's too late. They're dead. Everyone's forgotten about our war."
In some ways the war against foot and mouth and the war against terrorism couldn't be more different. One started with a boil and the vet at an abattoir in Essex who noticed some lethargic looking pigs. The other began with a bang as a hijacked plane careered into the World Trade Centre. Nearly four million animals died in one, but no humans. In the other, 5,000 people were buried in rubble.
One caused panic. In the foot and mouth crisis, supermarkets ran out of meat, Cheltenham was cancelled and Chinese stir fries were shunned. There were rumours that the disease could be carried 100 miles on the wind; the tourism industry lost £10 billion. In the war against terrorism, most people in Britain have remained calm despite the men in white suits and a couple of knock-kneed cricketers.
Tony Blair treated them differently, too. He has called both disasters "devastating" and "grave". But over foot and mouth he vacillated for weeks, refusing to take responsibility and insisting there was no crisis. He put his junior, Nick Brown, in charge but gave him little more than a hessian sack to beat the virus.
The Army wasn't called in for 36 days, so they were always one step behind events, constantly outflanked. One day Farmer Brown would order a retreat from the countryside, the next Michael Meacher would demand an advance to roadside cafes. It was a mess.
By contrast, Mr Blair insisted on taking responsibility for the war against terrorism and got off to a great start. He is not interested in farmers, whom he dislikes as forces of conservatism, but he is fascinated by the Muslim world and is constantly flicking through the Koran. He took sole charge of British operations, lapping the world, encouraging the troops, calling for humanitarian aid, soothing the Arab and Islamic countries and providing strong support for President Bush.
But there are similarities in these wars. Both times Mr Blair has used extreme methods to try to eradicate the scourge. In the case of foot and mouth, cows ended up being slaughtered after eating blackberries. Anything that limped was put on the death list; farms 10 miles from an outbreak were purged. Yet the Government refused to contemplate vaccination, which should have been part of its armoury.
In Afghanistan, there has been heavy use of bombing. Again, they won't back this up with the necessary second step. Now that they have wiped out the key strategic targets, they must use ground troops.
As with foot and mouth, we keep getting conflicting signals. One day Downing Street sources were quoted as forecasting ground operations within days and Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, was insisting that the Marines were poised for action. The next day, Rear Admiral James Burnell-Nugent, one of the most senior military figures in the operation, when asked if he knew how the campaign would proceed, replied: "I don't think it's clear in anybody's mind." Brigadier Roger Lane, head of 3 Commando Brigade, which includes the 200 Marines destined for Afghanistan, made it clear that he didn't want his troops to fight until he had much better intelligence of the situation on the ground and the men had more training.
Each time, Mr Blair has hidden behind the experts. With foot and mouth it was always the chief vet dispatched to Cumbria to calm angry farmers or the chief scientist told to produce his graphs. This time it's senior military officers.
Both times, the Prime Minister has tried to bypass Parliament. Over foot and mouth, Mr Brown insisted it was a waste of time to come to Westminster to tell MPs how the battle was going. Mr Blair still doesn't trust his MPs to have a proper debate or vote on the war.
In both cases, the Government's spin squadrons have floundered on the PR front. People felt sorry for farmers when they saw the medieval scenes of pyres burning in the countryside; now many feel wretched watching Afghanistan being bombed even further back into the Middle Ages.
As Mr Blair ponders what should be done in Afghanistan, he can learn from foot and mouth. First, don't dither, it costs lives. Both enemies thrive in cold weather. Second, he needs to use every method available to him - that means shutting up his pusillanimous advisers and sending in ground troops immediately. Third, he must locate the source of the outbreak and get Osama bin Laden. We never learnt how foot and mouth entered this country, which means it is extremely likely to occur again. We haven't even tightened our regulations on food imports and exports.
Fourth, the Prime Minister must have a clear view about a post-bin Laden/Taliban Afghanistan. He had no constructive ideas for the future of the British countryside. Instead he has set up a series of back-covering inquiries designed to prove the outbreak wasn't the Government's fault. This won't do in central Asia. Once the Taliban has been displaced, he must make it clear that the West will help rebuild Afghanistan. The farmers were never consulted about their vision for the countryside; the Afghans must have a say in the new order. The foot and mouth fiasco has deepened the divide between town and country. We can't afford a Christian/Muslim split.
The pan-asiatic virus type O is as virulent as bin Laden, and unless we learn from our mistakes we are unlikely to have seen the last of either.