10 Downing St - Monday Briefings On Afghanistan
LOBBY BRIEFING: 4PM MONDAY 26 NOVEMBER 2001
Asked if the Prime Minister had a message for the British soldiers who had been injured in Afghanistan, the PMOS said that as Geoff Hoon had stated in the House today, a very small number of our forces had been wounded on the ground in the country. The Prime Minister paid tribute to the professionalism, courage and bravery of all our forces who were serving, particularly those who had been injured. They were helping to do a very difficult and important job - doing it superbly as always. The country could continue to be proud of how they were carrying out this role and what they were helping to achieve.
Asked to comment on a Time Magazine report claiming that the violence in Kunduz had been triggered when a British journalist had been beaten up by some Taliban soldiers and subsequently rescued by Special Forces and whether the journalist might have been a Special Forces agent and if the injuries related to this incident, the PMOS said we never commented on the role of the Special Forces.
In answer to questions relating to how the British soldiers had been injured, the PMOS said that the number that had been wounded were not the totality of our force currently operating inside Afghanistan. Asked where the forces had come under attack, the PMOS said that these soldiers had not been injured at Bagram. For obvious reasons it would be unwise to go beyond that.
LOBBY BRIEFING: 11AM MONDAY 26 NOVEMBER 2001
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER
The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) advised journalists that the Deputy Prime Minister was departing today for a series of important visits to the US, Australia, Malaysia and Vietnam. His focus would be the Coalition against Terror, the World Summit on Sustainable Development, trade and other bilateral relations. He was due to meet US Vice President Dick Cheney on Wednesday, followed by Kofi Annan. He would also meet Helen Clarke and John Howard on Friday. Before leaving for his tour, the Deputy Prime Minister would chair the first meeting of the new Cabinet Committee for the World Summit on Sustainable Development, which would co-ordinate our response and strategy for the Summit next year.
Asked whether Geoff Hoon would be announcing the deployment of British troops during Defence PQs this afternoon, the PMOS pointed to speculation in today's papers in relation to the notice to move and said that if there was anything to say on this matter, Mr Hoon would use the occasion of Defence PQs to inform the House. Were he to do so, it should not be assumed that a change in the notice to move would necessarily apply to all our forces. Equally, any change should be seen in the context of what was a fluid situation. The fall of Kabul had led to a period of great uncertainty. There had been widespread predictions of a possible bloodbath. However, that had not happened. Moreover, the humanitarian effort had made a lot of progress and aid was getting in. The position on the ground was a lot more stable than anyone could have predicted, which was obviously to be welcomed. Order had been kept and a political process had begun with talks due to start tomorrow in Bonn. In relation to the initial decision to shorten the notice to move, the PMOS underlined that this had not of itself constituted a deployment. He pointed out that what went down could go always go up again and vice versa. One of the many strengths of our armed forces was that they were able to respond quickly and flexibly to changing situations.
Put to him that our position looked a bit 'ragged' given the US were sending in additional troops to Afghanistan at a time when it appeared we were winding down our involvement, the PMOS said he would disagree absolutely. British forces had been put on reduced notice to move just after the fall of Kabul to deal with a very fluid situation there. In his statement to the House at the time, the Prime Minister had underlined the possible need to put in stabilisation forces there for humanitarian and other purposes. British troops had been deployed to Bagram and were carrying out important work at the airport. Were an announcement to be made today, it would show that we were able to adjust to a changing situation, which was actually better than anyone could have predicted, not worse.
Asked whether Clare Short had been wrong to say that forces were needed to protect the international agencies providing aid and that a stabilisation force was required, the PMOS said we had dealt with this question last week. We acknowledged there were always ways to improve the humanitarian co-ordination. However, so far we believed it was working well in relation to the dovetailing of the military and humanitarian tracks. We were now getting aid into places where it had not been possible in the past, such as Jalalabad and Kabul. Obviously the situation was being kept under regular review. In answer to further questions about the use of British troops, the PMOS reminded journalists that we actually had forces on standby in the region following the Saif Sareea military exercise. That position had not changed.
Asked about perceived differences in opinion between the UK and US as to what the longer term objectives in Afghanistan should be, the PMOS said that despite attempts by some people to indicate divisions between the US and UK, there were none. He pointed to the US's humanitarian efforts and drew attention to the fact that they had hosted a reconstruction conference on Afghanistan only last week. We had always said there were three tracks to the campaign - the military, the diplomatic and the humanitarian. If progress was made on the military front, obviously that opened up opportunities on the other two as we had seen. In terms of Kandahar, it was for the US to brief on any deployment they might be making. However, if the Taliban and Al Qaida thought that we had forgotten about Kandahar just because we had taken Kabul, they would have to think again. We had been absolutely clear about the three tracks from the outset. We had made progress on all of them. We would 'keep on keeping on' until all our objectives were met. That was not to say that there weren't going to be difficulties along the way. There would be, and people needed to recognise that the campaign would be a long haul. Nevertheless, it was also important to keep in mind the progress which had been made and not to look constantly for differences where none existed.
Asked how long the British troops at Bagram were likely to remain there, the PMOS said they had an important job to do and would stay there for as long as it was considered necessary for them to be there. Asked if we had obtained permission from the Northern Alliance to put in additional troops at Bagram should we wish to do so, the PMOS said if that was felt to be necessary, obviously we would consult with the Northern Alliance as we had done in the past. He added that people should not be too surprised if the number of troops there increased or decreased. He underlined that our forces were under no threat despite some reports yesterday, and they were carrying out important work - not least in allowing people such as the UN and our diplomats to get in and representatives of the ethnic groups to get out of the country to attend the talks in Bonn for example.
In answer to questions about an international force, the PMOS said that as Jack Straw had indicated through his remarks about a 'coalition of the willing' on the radio this morning, we were not ruling about the possibility of deploying an international force to Afghanistan in the longer term. However, we had to wait and see how the talks process developed in Bonn. As Mr Straw had suggested this morning, a 'coalition of the willing' could include a UN force or one under the umbrella of the Organisation of Islamic Countries. Put to him that the talks process was likely to take time and that in the meantime there was no one to impose order, the PMOS pointed out that people were likely to be killed in war. Yes, we had all seen the footage of the Taliban prisoners trying to escape a fort near Mazar-e-Sharif. There had been a situation there which had been dealt with. However, it was important to recognise that the widely predicted bloodbaths following the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul had not happened, despite what might have occurred in previous years. Of course no one was being complacent about this. However, the reality on the ground was infinitely better than people could have predicted ten days ago. If we needed to make adjustments to the new reality, the flexibility of our forces and the way they were configured meant that we could do that. It was not the case that if we reduced the number or even increased it, it could not change back again. It could. We had some of the best armed forces in the world, if not the best. He repeated that the way they were configured for rapid reaction deployment was one of their strengths.
Asked for an update on Kandahar and whether British forces would be involved, the PMOS said that Jack Straw had set out the position this morning. We had not made any announcement on deployments to Kandahar. We had all heard about deployments on the US side, but it was for the Americans to brief about it, not him. He repeated that we had forces in the area in theatre post-Saif Sareea who were available to be used if necessary. We remained 100% committed to the coalition's military objectives. Questioned as to whether we would agree to allow British forces to be involved in the US military operation in Kandahar were we to be asked, the PMOS said he was not aware we were being asked to provide further forces at this point, but we stood shoulder to shoulder with the US in seeing this through.
Asked for a reaction to Dr Abdullah Abdullah's assertion that bin Laden and Mullah Omar were 'contained' together in Kandahar, the PMOS said we had to tread cautiously in this respect. He underlined that we had very detailed objectives, one of which was to bring Al Qaida and bin Laden to justice. Bin Laden was clearly an elusive character, was heavily armed and surrounded by fanatics. We had never been in the business of giving predictions as to how long this could take, although clearly the sooner the better. Nevertheless, as we had acknowledged on many occasions, it could take some time. That said, it was clear we were making progress and bin Laden's ability to move was severely restricted as a result.
Asked whether the Government was determined to see the Terrorism Bill go through it final stages in its current form or whether it would make concessions, the PMOS said we made absolutely no apology whatsoever for introducing a Bill of this nature at this current time. We believed the public understood why we had to take additional measures to protect ourselves. Yes, some of these measures were controversial and some people had difficulties with them. However, were we not to do this and an individual, who would be dealt with under some of the measures in the Bill, not detained and subsequently go on to commit terrorist acts, we would be subject to strong criticism - and quite rightly so. David Blunkett had indicated and demonstrated through the amendments he had taken that we were prepared to listen to concerns, for example the five year sunset clause and the annual review. Asked whether reports over the weekend suggesting that incitement to religious hatred would be removed from the Bill were accurate, the PMOS said the proposals on religious hatred continued to form part of the Bill. He did not know where these reports had come from, but they were wrong.