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10 Downing Street Lobby Briefing - 16 November

LOBBY BRIEFING: 11AM FRIDAY 16 NOVEMBER 2001

AFGHANISTAN

Mrs Blair/Mrs Bush

Asked to confirm reports that Mrs Blair and Mrs Bush were due to spearhead a campaign to highlight the Taliban's treatment of women, the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that the First Lady would be doing the weekly radio address in the US over the weekend which would focus on the plight of women under the oppressive Taliban regime. There would also be an event at Downing Street next week on a similar theme in which Mrs Blair and senior female members of the Cabinet would be involved. Asked whether Mrs Blair and Mrs Bush had had extensive discussions about this issue, the PMOS said they might not necessarily have talked together directly about this, but that said, there was a lot of co-ordination taking place between us and the Americans on the military, diplomatic, humanitarian and communications fronts. We believed that we needed to 'lift the veil' and show what had been happening to women in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime. This was something on which there would be an important focus on both sides of the Atlantic over the next few days. Put to him that everyone knew about the treatment of women, the PMOS said that was not necessarily so. You couldn't underline too often the way women's rights had been denied by the Taliban. It was also important to look forward to the future. Questioned as to why Mrs Blair was fronting the campaign given that she was not a member of the Government, the PMOS pointed out that other senior female members of the Cabinet - of whom there were many - would be involved. It was obviously an issue which Mrs Blair felt strongly about. Asked if Mrs Blair also felt strongly about the rights of Muslim women in other countries such as Saudi Arabia, the PMOS said that the focus of the event would be on Afghanistan where by any standard women had been treated appallingly.

British Forces

Questioned as to whether the British Special Forces who had been deployed around Bagram had a wider role to play given the distinct possibility that they could be drawn into confrontations between opposing Afghan factions, the PMOS suggested that journalists were getting a bit ahead of themselves. He said it was important to recognise who had been deployed and why. Around 100 troops currently on the ground at Bagram had been drawn from the high readiness forces which had been retained in theatre post Saif Sareea. They were there primarily to look at the situation on the ground, to secure the airport and to look at how it could be used for future UN and humanitarian missions. One of their tasks would be to reconnoitre the area and make an assessment of the conditions in relation to any future deployments.

In answer to further questions, the PMOS said it was important to put the situation into context. He pointed out that, in reaching this juncture, it was always going to be the case that difficulties would present themselves. That was understandable given the fact that the military conflict was continuing, that there were still pockets of resistance, that there was a difficult humanitarian situation to overcome and that there was a political process which was still in its infancy. Clearly a lot of momentum was going into trying to sort through all these issues. The deputy to Mr Brahimi, Francesco Vendrell, would be in Afghanistan tomorrow, as would Mike Sackett, the UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator. A lot of work was ongoing to try to move the political process forward. It was important to recognise that a situation like this did not unfold like a Steven Spielberg script. There would be problems along the way which we would have to face up to and address. By any assessment, however, we were in a much better position today than we had been this time last week before the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif. Yes, there was a lot more work to be done. Yes, we were still some way off achieving our objectives. However, a lot of activity was going on to drive them forward.

Questioned as to whether the reason the Special Forces had not been asked to undertake a combative role was because we had been unable to agree with our allies exactly what their role should be, the PMOS said no. The members of our forces were carrying out the tasks they had been asked to do under direct British command. However, the operation had been co-ordinated by General Franks of the US army through CINCCEN. We acknowledged people were asking legitimate questions about the future, as they were entitled to do. However, the Prime Minister had spelled out to the House the direction in which our thinking was going. In a situation like this, there would always be a trade off between doing the job quickly and getting it right. Of course we understood the need for speed. However, in talking about the use of coalition forces in a conflict situation, it was also right to make assessments and judgements and to move together. These discussions were continuing amongst coalition members. If things looked a bit 'ragged' at the moment, that was entirely to be expected given the fast moving situation we had currently.

Asked about the rules of engagement, the PMOS repeated that our troops who were in Bagram at the moment were there primarily for reconnaissance duties and to secure the airport. If he was being asked about future deployments, he would point out that we were not at that stage yet.

Put to him that we had a responsibility to try to establish order given that the political process would take time to be completed, the PMOS said that as the Prime Minister had spelled out in his statement on Wednesday, there was an understanding that there were jobs to be done now which we hadn't had to do at the beginning of the week because of the dramatic military progress which had been made during the course of the week. These tasks included securing airports and mine clearance to help the humanitarian situation. As a result, there was a lot of consultation going on between the different members of the coalition. Clearly we had been making progress on these issues given the fact that the UN was going to be on the ground tomorrow. He highlighted the interview with Rabanni's son this morning in which he had looked forward to seeing the arrival of the UN and the prospect of talks to discuss to the establishment of a broad-based government. However, we acknowledged there was more work to be done.

Questioned as to whether we had contacted the Northern Alliance to urge them to show restraint in terms of their treatment of captured members of the Taliban, the PMOS said we had been in close touch with the Northern Alliance for some time. There were people on the ground who were liasing with them as you would expect. That level of contact had been instrumental in co-ordinating the air and ground campaigns. As the Prime Minister had said yesterday, it was important to treat with some caution some of the stories about 'atrocities' committed against the Taliban. This was a conflict situation. In some of the cases which had been reported, we simply did not know what had happened and it was therefore important not to rush to judgement. We had been clear throughout that we condemned any reprisal attacks. That said, it was worth focussing on the bigger picture. Following the fall of Kabul, the great fear had been a possible descent into a bloodbath. That had not happened. Of course that was not to say that we did not have to be vigilant and that we weren't aware of some of the difficulties on the ground. Clearly we were.

Future of Afghanistan

Asked for further information about the meeting of various ethnic and political groupings in Afghanistan, the PMOS said that the work under Lakhdar Brahimi was moving forward as quickly as possible. It was important to recognise that orchestrating something like this was a complex task. It had to be handled delicately and in such a way that would give the best chance of success. He was unable to give a timescale at this point. However, everyone was aware of the need to move forward as quickly as possible. Questioned as to whether the meeting would take place in the UAE, the PMOS said we had not given confirmation of a venue as there wasn't one yet, although the possibility of using the UAE as a location had been floated during the past week. Nothing was fixed. There were obviously issues to be considered and factors to be taken into account such as whether people would want to travel, the situation inside Afghanistan and security matters.

PRINCE OF WALES/NHS

Asked to confirm reports that Prince Charles had been appointed the Government's official 'NHS Design Czar' and how likely it was that the son of the Queen was seen to be the best person to advise the Government on hospital design, the PMOS said that 'Design Czar' was a media concoction. The Prince of Wales was someone with a keen interest in this area whose expertise could be used. Both he and Alan Milburn were attending an NHS design conference at the Prince's Foundation today.

ENDS

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