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10 Downing Street Lobby Briefing - 19 November

From the 10 Downing Street Lobby Briefing: 11am Monday 19 November 2001

AFGHANISTAN

Stephen Evans

The PMOS said that Stephen Evans, a senior FCO official, had arrived this morning in Kabul where he would be setting up an embryonic diplomatic mission together with a team of eight officials from the FCO, DfID and MoD. This was clearly a significant development which had been made possible because of the successes we had had in recent days. In addition to making contact with the Northern Alliance and others in Kabul, Mr Evans would be liasing and working alongside Francesc Vendrell and the UN on the humanitarian and diplomatic tracks. Mr Evans' presence meant that our voice would be heard in the various discussions going on inside Afghanistan at the moment.

Questioned about Mr Evan's background, the PMOS said that he was a former head of the South Asia Department in the Foreign Office. He was an expert on Pakistan and Afghanistan. He had served in Afghanistan with the UN in 1986-7 and had therefore acquired on-the-ground knowledge. Consequently, he was the obvious person to be sent out to Kabul to pick up the threads and establish contact with the key players.

Afghan Women

The PMOS advised journalists that Mrs Blair was due to meet a group of Afghan women who used to teach in the region. Following the meeting in Downing Street this afternoon, a press conference, which would also be attended by Clare Short and Estelle Morris, would take place.

Asked about Mrs Blair's interest in this matter, the PMOS said she would point out that much of her career had been spent specialising in human rights and equality issues. Since her husband had become Prime Minister, she had met many women, both at home and abroad, who had suffered injustice and cruelty. She would say that she could not recall any repression and cruelty quite as horrifying as that demonstrated by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. We believed it was important to keep coming back to what this regime had meant for the people of Afghanistan - in particular for women who had had their human rights denied in a most extreme way. Anyone who had seen Saira Shah's documentary 'Behind the Veil' would know exactly what life had been like for women. Under the Taliban, girls had had to be educated in secret, only the most basic health facilities had been available to women, infant mortality was one of the highest in the world, women had been unable to work, they had been unable to go out without their faces being covered up and there had been grotesque scenes of women being executed in football stadiums with thousands of people cheering them on.

Put to him that his description sounded like Saudi Arabia, the PMOS said he would disagree. He pointed out that the Taliban's particular brand of Islamic fundamentalism had led to the most extreme denial of female human rights probably anywhere in the world.

Questioned as to whether there was a connection between this event and Mrs Bush's radio broadcast at the weekend, the PMOS said yes. He pointed out that just as there had been co-ordination between the US and UK on the military, diplomatic and humanitarian tracks, so too was there a concerted effort, on both sides of the Atlantic, to lift the veil and publicise the suffering of women under the Taliban regime.

British Forces

Asked for a reaction to reports that the deployment of British troops to Bagram airport had been delayed, the PMOS said it was important to recognise the fact that although we had shortened the notice to move for several thousand of our forces, that was not of itself a deployment. At the moment, British forces were at Bagram airport, together with a small number of US forces. Their role was to secure the airport and carry out reconnaissance work and they would report back. There was a fluid situation on the ground and a number options were being considered in relation to further deployments. We would not have changed the notice to move unless that was a serious option. Put to him that the job of securing the airport at Bagram would indicate that further arrivals were expected, the PMOS agreed. He pointed out that the fact that Stephen Evans, Francesc Vendrell and others had been able to get in, in addition to the fact that we had been able to make progress on the humanitarian front, was a result of their presence.

Put to him that the British forces at Bagram airport hadn't received a particularly friendly welcome and whether it was still felt that outside forces were needed to stabilise the situation, the PMOS said that if he was being asked about stories over the weekend regarding the Northern Alliance, he would point out that the fact a spokesman for the 'Northern Alliance' had said what he had said, this should not be seen as the considered view of the leadership there. Yes, they were 'Northern' inasmuch as they were from the North. However, they did not necessarily speak with one voice, as an 'Alliance'. We had dealt with this on Saturday. Pressed as to whether British troops were still intended to act as a 'stabilisation' force, the PMOS said that the position had not changed since the Prime Minister's words last week. We had indicated that there were a number of different options on the table in terms of how our forces might be used, for example for de-mining duties and humanitarian work. These options were being considered carefully, as you would expect.

Asked about the report in today's Telegraph which claimed there had been ten missed opportunities to attack Mullah Omar and other Taliban and Al Qaida targets because of bureaucracy and slow-decision making in Washington, the PMOS said that given the speed with which military operations had been taking place, it was strange to be talking about delays. He pointed out that the opposite had been put to us last week when people were saying the military had got ahead of the diplomatic. Questioned about reports of a rift between the US and UK over deployments, the PMOS said that some people had tried to divide the two countries from the start. However, it clearly hadn't worked, and wouldn't now. We were a coalition and were working together in step. He repeated that a small number of US forces were working together with British forces at Bagram airport. In any military conflict, a judgement had to be taken concerning a trade-off between speed of deployment and getting it right. This meant taking further steps in a safe, sensible way which would obviously put the security and protection of our forces as the number one priority. Given the events of last week, we recognised that there were issues to be resolved as we went along, although we acknowledged that that might take a little time. However, the problems we had were 'good' problems rather than 'bad' problems inasmuch as they were problems associated with success rather than failure. Mr Vendrell had been talking to Mr Rabanni over the weekend. Mr Brahimi was hoping to convene talks soon. Yes, the military campaign was continuing. However, there had clearly been dramatic successes in recent days. We now had Stephen Evans going out to Kabul - something which people would have found incomprehensible this time last week. We were moving forward.

Questioned as to whether any future deployment of British forces would have to be cleared in advance with the Northern Alliance, the PMOS said that as Geoff Hoon had stated yesterday, there would continue to be consultation with the Northern Alliance, in the same way that contact had been maintained at many different levels throughout the campaign. The military successes on the ground were a direct result of the co-ordination between land and sky. Obviously we would stay in touch with the Northern Alliance regarding future deployments, although these were clearly decisions that would be made in the fullness of time. Asked if he was saying that there was no question of any further troops being deployed without the Northern Alliance's agreement, the PMOS noted that the question had been put in a way that suggested a sense of hostility between us and the Northern Alliance. This was not borne out by the facts. There had been just one voice which had said there was a problem with the presence of British forces. Our troops were there as part of the coalition operation and with a UN Security Council mandate. They were there for a specific purpose which they would continue to undertake. Pressed as to whether we would tell the Northern Alliance that it was our decision, not theirs, as to whether further British troops would be deployed, the PMOS said that we would keep in touch with the Northern Alliance as we had from the outset. However, we would make the appropriate judgements in order to meet our different objectives, which included the diplomatic effort and the long-term future of Afghanistan. He pointed out that Mr Vendrell and Mr Rabanni had had a productive meeting over the weekend. The Northern Alliance were making it very clear that they were committed to talks which would lead to the establishment of broad-based government in Afghanistan. Asked whether it would be within Stephen Evans' remit to hold discussions about further troop deployments with the Northern Alliance, the PMOS said that Mr Evans would have an important role to play in continuing our contact with the Northern Alliance.

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