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10 Downing St Lobby Briefing: 11am Tuesday 20 Nov

Lobby Briefing: 11am Tuesday 20 November 2001

PM'S SPEECH

Asked about the Prime Minister's speech in Germany today, the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that he was expected to develop some of the themes he had set out in his Party Conference speech and in his speech at the Lord Mayor's Banquet last week.

AFGHANISTAN

Phonecalls/Update

The PMOS advised journalists that the Prime Minister had had a twenty-minute telephone conversation with President Bush last night as part of their ongoing dialogue. He had also spoken to President Musharraf.

Asked for further details about the Prime Minister's conversation with President Bush, the PMOS said it had never been our practice to give a detailed briefing of such phonecalls, and he did not intend to start now. Last night's conversation had been part of an ongoing dialogue which the Prime Minister and President had been having from the outset. Both had agreed that great progress had been made in the last ten days. However, there was obviously a lot more to be done. They had reviewed the military, humanitarian and diplomatic tracks. Both had welcomed the fact that the Brahimi-convened talks on setting up the interim broad-based government in Afghanistan looked likely to happen this weekend. We expected Mr Brahimi to confirm today that a meeting of the different groups would take place later this week, probably in Germany.

British Forces

Questioned about reports of a rift between the UK and US on the issue of deployment, the PMOS said that had journalists listened to the Prime Minister's phonecall last night with President Bush, they would have seen just how baseless the stories about divisions were. As Jack Straw had said today, there was a coalition. The US was in the lead for obvious reasons. Our forces at Bagram were serving with US forces and were under Centcom command (under General Tommy Franks). Discussions were continuing in relation to the question of exactly what 'follow-on' forces might have to be used. Those discussions would continue and would address questions of where, who, how and when. These issues would be assessed and decided in due course.

Put to him that he had said last week that the forces at Bagram airport were under British command, the PMOS explained that the overall force there was under Centcom command, given that Centcom was carrying out the overall co-ordinating role. Clearly there would be a senior British figure with our forces at Bagram. The two things were not inconsistent. The idea that the two countries were pulling in different directions when their forces were actually operating together on the ground together was nonsense. Asked how we would respond if we reached a situation where we were concerned about the wellbeing of our troops but the American Commander on the ground was not, the PMOS suggested that journalists were looking for difficulties which didn't exist. He pointed out that our forces would not have been deployed to Bagram had it not been for Centcom's co-ordination of the whole operation and their subsequent decision that British troops should be deployed there. Questioned as to how that decision had been reached, the PMOS said that different countries were making known different assets to the US as part of their coalition role. It was for the US to draw those assets down and use them as they saw fit - hence the deployment of British troops to Bagram.

Asked how long we could keep British troops on 48-hour standby, the PMOS said it could continue for some time, depending on the situation. As we had said yesterday, the decision to shorten the notice to move was not of itself a decision to deploy. It had been a recognition that, given the changing situation following the fall of Kabul and the significant military advances, other issues had come to the fore and it had been important to have forces on a state of readiness to be deployed as required. We did not make any apology for the fact that prior to making a decision as to whether to send our forces into a fluid, difficult conflict situation, detailed discussions would be had with our allies, the situation on the ground would be given full consideration and a detailed assessment about the environment into which they might be deployed would be made. The safety of our forces was of course one of our paramount concerns. That would remain the case - and quite rightly so.

Put to him that the UK and US were pursuing different objectives in that the UK appeared to see the reconstruction of Afghanistan as a priority whereas the US was focussing on the capture of bin Laden, the PMOS said this was a false caricature. He pointed out that a Reconstruction Conference regarding the future of Afghanistan was taking place in New York today and was looking at some of the longer term issues, such as what measures might be taken to rebuild the country. We had said from the outset that this was a different sort of conflict to any other in the past. There were different tracks - the military, diplomatic and humanitarian - all of which were important. The military campaign was continuing. In terms of the diplomatic track, talks were being convened under the auspices of the UN's Lakhdar Brahimi later this week. Stephen Evans had now arrived in Kabul to establish a UK presence. He was due to meet Francesc Vendrell today and would also be meeting Dr Abdullah Abdullah of the Northern Alliance. The humanitarian effort was also continuing. All three tracks were progressing in parallel and all were interlinked. If progress was made on one, it could open up opportunities on the other two fronts, which was something we had to grasp - as we were indeed doing. Following the fall of Kabul, there had been widespread predictions that the city would turn into a blood bath. That had not happened. Of course that was not to say the situation was not fluid or difficult. It was. Assessments therefore had to be made relating to the situation at a given time.

Questioned about reports in today's papers claiming that our forces were under siege at Bagram, the PMOS said these stories were absolute nonsense and to pretend this was some sort of 'Rourke's Drift' situation was ridiculous. The forces there were carrying out their tasks. They had excellent relations with the people on the ground and did not feel threatened in any way. To pretend otherwise was simply wrong. Asked if we were concerned that there were only a hundred troops on the ground, the PMOS said that the forces had a specific job to do at Bagram - to secure the airport and undertake reconnaissance work. We had already seen some of the advantages in their presence there, specifically the fact that Mr Vendrell and Mr Evans had been able to get into the country and carry out their work. As we had acknowledged throughout, this was a fluid situation. We did not have a book where you turned the page and found that the next chapter had already been written. Of course we were alive to all the problems and difficulties. However, it was important not to exaggerate, or indeed invent them.

Asked if he was implying that we had not announced further deployments because the situation in Afghanistan was considered to be too unsafe at this stage or whether it was because there was a sense that additional troops might not be required to undertake the tasks we had initially identified as necessary, the PMOS repeated that there was a developing situation inside Afghanistan. Decisions would be made based on judgements reached at a particular time. There was a shared recognition with the US that 'follow-on' forces might have to be deployed. Discussions were continuing between coalition partners as to the questions which might flow from that. People should be reassured that we were not rushing into anything and were taking the time necessary to get it right. We would certainly not be thanked were we to rush into a potentially hostile, difficult environment which could result in negative consequences.

Questioned as to whether British forces at Bagram would be involved in the security operation in terms of making sure that representatives from Afghanistan's tribal and ethnic groupings would be able to get to the UN-convened talks in Germany later this week, the PMOS said that given that British forces were securing the airport to enable people to get into the country, it would follow that people equally would be able to get out if necessary.

UN-Convened Meeting

Asked for further detail about the UN-convened meeting in Germany later this week, the PMOS said that it was for Mr Brahimi to make an announcement. A lot of work had been taking place on the diplomatic track in parallel with the military campaign. The diplomatic track had not started with fall of Mazar-i-Sharif. Discussions about the establishment of a broad-based government had begun some time before that in an attempt to bring about some stability and help rebuild Afghanistan. Talks were continuing as to how that process could be taken forward. We hoped an announcement would be made today which would set out some sort of 'route map' as to where we might be going.

Asked who would represent the UK, the PMOS said that if our presence was thought to be helpful at the meeting, representation could be arranged at different levels. However, in the end, what mattered was to bring the representatives of the different tribes and ethnic groups inside Afghanistan around the table. It was not us who would be forming a government - it was them. We could help bring about an agreement, but could not impose one. Questioned as to whether British representatives at the UN could attend, and if so who, the PMOS said it was perfectly possible. He pointed out that Robin Cooper, a senior FCO official, had been doing a lot of work on the diplomatic track there, but underlined that our presence was not important when compared with the presence of the different ethnic groups.

TERMINAL FIVE

Asked why it had taken so long to announce the decision on Terminal Five, the PMOS said that Stephen Byers was making statement to the House this afternoon where he would no doubt set out the background to his decision. Pressed further, the PMOS said there were complex issues which had had to be considered. Mr Byers would no doubt want to mention the whole issue of timetables and planning applications.

GIBRALTAR

Asked whether joint sovereignty might be considered an option to resolve the difficulty over Gibraltar and whether it would be put to a referendum, the PMOS said that Jack Straw had made the position very clear this morning. This was a process to resolve some of the issues that were causing difficulty for the people of Gibraltar - practical things such as the number of telephone lines they were allowed to have. These problems were already being resolved as a result of these talks. Our position remained absolutely as set out in 1969. There could be no change without consent. Any change in the status of Gibraltar - and he was not indicating that any was planned - would require a referendum as a guarantee that the people of Gibraltar would have a say about their future.

Put to him that Jack Straw had said this morning that any transfer of sovereignty from Britain would require a referendum but did not specifically say that this would be so with joint sovereignty, the PMOS said that Mr Straw had been making the point that there could be no change of sovereignty without the consent of the people of Gibraltar. Joint sovereignty would obviously amount to a change. The PMOS added that this issue was not the focus of today's talks.


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