10 Downing St. Lobby Breifing November 21st
Wednesday morning lobby briefing
[21 November 2001]
The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) updated journalists on the current position. He said that, as the Foreign Secretary had indicated this morning, the situation in Afghanistan had developed more speedily than we had initially anticipated, but that it had done so in a far more benign way than anyone had predicted. That said, we all recognised that the campaign was far from complete in any of its dimensions, whether military, humanitarian or political. The important thing was for progress to continue to be made on all fronts and for us to retain the flexibility to respond, as events required. This was not a television series in which the plot lines had been laid out months in advance. As we had acknowledged, there was a rapidly changing situation. However, we knew the direction in which we wanted to go and we would respond accordingly day by day, in militarily, diplomatic and humanitarian terms. The storyline was going the way we wanted it to go. However, we were taking nothing for granted. Each day posed new challenges which the Coalition had to meet. Nevertheless, we were in no doubt that the overall picture was a lot better than it had been on September 11. The amount of aid currently going into Afghanistan far exceeded that going in prior to the time of the atrocities in the US. Moreover, there was agreement on all sides about the need for a representative government. As a result of the process being set up by the UN, there was a far better chance of achieving that than at anytime since 1973.
Questioned as to whether we wanted to be in a position where we could ensure there was a broad-based government in Afghanistan, the PMOS said this was precisely what the purpose of the UN talks, beginning next week in Berlin, would be about. The establishment of a representative government was not something which could be achieved with a click of the fingers or by flicking a switch. This was a process which had actually already begun. Asked the point of the process if we had already decided on the direction in which we were going and whether troops on the ground could enforce a solution, the PMOS said that we had never talked about imposing a solution. The main purpose of the meeting in Berlin next week was to bring together the main parties for talks. As we had said throughout, it was for the people of Afghanistan and their representatives to decide what the future government of the country should be. In terms of the point about the use of troops, the position remained as had been set out many times previously. It was up to General Franks to decide what troops were needed on the ground as and when it was necessary. The PMOS pointed out that at one stage last week, a number of grim predictions had emerged from Kabul, anticipating the horrors about to happen. However, those reports had not been borne out by reality. Of course that did not mean we were in any way complacent. All he was indicating was that we were responding to the situation on a day by day basis and that predictions about internecine warfare so far had not been borne out by reality.
Asked whether we accepted Mr Rabanni's authority as leader of the Northern Alliance given his reported comment about the talks in Berlin, the PMOS said he was not going to get drawn into commenting on individuals. It was important to recognise that the Northern Alliance had accepted there was going to be a representative government and that they had agreed as a whole to take part in the talks. We acknowledged that it was not going to be the case whereby the meeting would take place on Monday and that there would be solution on the table by Monday afternoon. We accepted that this was a process which would take time. We were not going to be able to solve the problems of nearly thirty years-standing overnight. We needed to give the process time and space and provide Mr Brahimi with room in which to move.
Asked what would happen in the interim period given that an agreement on Northern Ireland had taken many years to be achieved, the PMOS said Northern Ireland showed that if there was momentum - and sufficient weight behind that momentum - then it was possible to achieve results within a reasonable period of time. In the case of Afghanistan, it was clear the momentum was there, as was the unprecedented weight behind it, in light of the fact that all those with an interest in Afghanistan, including Russia, India, Pakistan, Iran, the US, the UK and other European countries, had agreed that a representative government was the way forward. That was historically unprecedented.
Put to him that it remained unclear whether we or the Americans were ready to put in the kind of troops necessary to allow a representative government to be born and develop, the PMOS pointed out that General Franks had said yesterday that there could be more troops on the ground, but that it would depend on circumstances. We had no intention of trying to second-guess his judgements. The PMOS took the opportunity to point out that the fallacy about rifts and differences in opinion between the UK and US ignored a very simple fact: UK troops were already on the ground in Bagram and were working alongside American troops quite happily and with the acceptance of the Northern Alliance. He continued to get the impression that there was one storyline which the media wanted to project. However, so far events had developed in a more benign way. He repeated that of course we did not take that fact for granted. We would continue to work our way through the campaign day by day and step by step.
Asked if there was any doubt as to whether British troops would ever be needed for humanitarian support and whether the perceived delay to deploy was the result of safety concerns or political disagreement, the PMOS said that troop deployment as regards humanitarian work would depend on the nature of events. In certain areas, such as southern Afghanistan, we recognised that the aid effort had become more difficult because of the security situation on the ground. That was the temporary price we were paying for the success we had had to date. In the north of the country, the situation was much better. The first deliveries of aid had reached Jalalabad from Peshawar on Monday, aid had reached Kabul for the first time yesterday and we hoped to re-establish a supply route very soon to Mazar-i-Sharif. In terms of questions relating to troop deployment, the PMOS said that it would depend on the need as the situation on the ground evolved. It was absolutely clear that the way to normalise aid supplies to the country was to make military progress. We had only been able to get aid into Kabul again because of the military successes we had had. Likewise with Jalalabad. So, if he was being asked whether the military campaign was helping the humanitarian effort, the answer to that was yes. Asked if he was implying that it might not be necessary for troops to give humanitarian support in order to get aid into places like Kabul, the PMOS said he had no intention of getting drawn into hypotheses. Decisions were made on a day to day basis because of the evolving situation. People shouldn't write scriptlines about what might happen. They should deal with what was happening.
Put to him that, following the Prime Minister's statement last week in which he had appeared to say that British troops would be used for humanitarian and stabilisation purposes, it now seemed that the Government was changing its mind, the PMOS denied that was the case. He pointed out that as we had said consistently, our troops would be able to fulfil whatever role was necessary, although it was clearly impossible to predict what the situation might be this time next week. There were different roles our forces could play, and would do so as and when necessary.
Asked about the situation in Kunduz and the US's demand for the Taliban there to surrender or be killed, the PMOS repeated that he was not going to second-guess what was happening on the ground. That said, there was a balance to be struck between on the one hand avoiding unnecessary blood shed, and on the other making sure that the people in Kunduz, whatever their background, were not in a position to commit terrorist acts again. Achieving the right balance was a difficult process and it was best left to those on the ground to do. Asked if we believed the Taliban in Kunduz should surrender to Western forces or the Northern Alliance, the PMOS repeated that these issues were best dealt with by those on the ground. If the Taliban did surrender, it should be done in such a way that they would not be able to commit acts of terror again.
Questioned as to whether it was Clare Short's personal view or the Government's view that not enough importance was being attached to the humanitarian issue, the PMOS said that Jack Straw had dealt with this question in a briefing this morning in which he had pointed out that Ms Short had been highlighting a more general point that she wanted to see governments world-wide spend more on aid. Mr Straw had also underlined this morning that no one should overlook the fact that before 11 September, 80% of the aid going into Afghanistan had come from the US. Along with Japan, the US made a bigger contribution towards aid than any other country due to its sheer size and economic weight.
Put to him that Ms Short had made a specific criticism about the lack of support to counteract the security risk, the PMOS said there was nothing wrong in wanting to see the security situation improved through military action, since it was through military action that we could create the ability for the aid agencies to operate, as had been demonstrated in places like Kabul and Jalalabad.
Asked whether the Prime Minister accepted a differentiation between different types of terrorist, the PMOS pointed out that the only differentiation that existed was in terms of the powers of detention and deportation since there was no domestic equivalent. When there had been exclusion powers in the past to enable terror suspects to be sent back to Northern Ireland, the UUP had been one of the parties which had opposed that move. The full panoply of powers contained within the anti-terrorism legislation applied to terrorists, whether domestic or international.
Asked if the Prime Minister was planning to use his speech on Friday to reassure Lord Simon about the Government's position on the Euro, the PMOS said that journalists would have to wait until Friday to hear what the Prime Minister was going to say. In terms of Lord Simon, however, everyone was aware of his enthusiasm for the views he held about the single currency. That said, we would disagree with his specific criticism on this occasion. The 5th report on Euro preparations had been published a fortnight ago which had shown the real progress which had been made in relation to the prepare-and-decide policy.
Asked whether the Government's position on the Euro might be more finely developed in the Prime Minister's speech, the PMOS said that the Government's position on the single currency remained unchanged, and would remain unchanged after Friday as well.