Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-97)



  80. Prioritise it a little.
  (Mr Bergne) Obviously they need reconstruction; road building; practically nothing is not destroyed in Afghanistan. All the bridges are destroyed; the roads are destroyed; the irrigation channels are destroyed. Assistance with rebuilding their agriculture is very important, particularly in the context of providing a substitute to narcotics. The cultivation of poppies is relatively profitable in cash terms. Encouragement to grow alternative crops.; but also reconstruction of an infrastructure to encourage refugees to return. Many refugees, both in Northern Pakistan and, more particularly, in Iran, are hoping to return but of course they have no villages left and everything has been destroyed. An infrastructure to make life possible once they return, which again is related to agriculture, and to communications as I mentioned.

  81. I think we all recognise that, but one of the things that needs to kick-start that is their own administration and their ability to pay them.
  (Mr Bergne) I was going to come on to the question of rebuilding the administration, government structures, paying for ministries to re-form themselves and to establish contacts with the provinces, and training them in administrative practices. These are all particularly painful, and training a new administration is one of the priorities. I do think agriculture, being the mainstay of the Afghan economy, and the provision of water and practical problems like that are outstandingly important.

  82. To what extent do you think international organisations should be involved in the day-to-day administration?
  (Mr Bergne) As much as the Afghans are prepared to accept, if they accept it.

Mr Hamilton

  83. Mr Bergne, in your view do you think Afghans regard the establishment of an international security force in their country as a positive development?
  (Mr Bergne) I am sure there are 18 million different opinions about that! I think on the streets, in Kabul at any rate, people are very positive to that. I think they are fed up with the depredations of warlords, militias and unofficial groups. I think it will get more difficult outside Kabul. People are less understanding of the need for that, and more, if you like, traditionally tied into support for some of the armed groups that have been causing problems. So it depends very much where you are. I think in the North people will be more supportive than in the South; for example, Pashtuns will be more hostile than northern groups. I think the people who will be most receptive will be the ones in Kabul but it will get difficult outside.

  84. You wrote that you were "able to play a significant role in de-fusing the fury of the North Alliance leaders when the United Kingdom landed troops at Bagram airfield without seeking their agreement. On that occasion . . . some of the Afghan military threatened to open fire on the C130s which were bringing the SBS into the airfield. Can I ask you why, in your opinion, agreement with the Northern Alliance was not obtained by the United Kingdom Government or the United States before British troops were landed at Bagram airfield. Do you think failure to reach agreement on this point put British troops at unacceptable risk?
  (Mr Bergne) I do not really know why agreement was not sought. I was only informed about the arrival, or the immediately impending arrival, of British troops by the Afghan Foreign Minister, Dr Abdullah, by telephone approximately half an hour before the first aeroplane flew in, so I was not informed that they were coming. I was able to send some fairly urgent telegrams to the Foreign Office asking them to investigate what was happening to try and stop any further arrivals until the problem had been discussed with the Afghan Government. I asked Dr Abdullah, the Foreign Minister, not to take any hasty action, because he was extremely angry, and he agreed not to take any action. When I got myself to Bagram airfield, about five days later, I understood from the British CO that he had discussions with the Afghan commander of Bagram airfield who had said that they had been sorely tempted to open fire.


  85. Did you hear any satisfactory explanation of why we had failed to communicate adequately?
  (Mr Bergne) No.

Mr Maples

  86. Now that Afghanistan looks as though it is effectively being denied to al-Qaeda as a base for training or other operations, is there any possibility of them establishing any such facilities in the countries that border Afghanistan to the north, particularly Uzbekistan, or are those very home-grown Islamic movements loosely under al-Qaeda's umbrella but unlikely to provide them with facilities? I would just like to know whether we have removed the danger from the region or just one country?
  (Mr Bergne) I think there is the possibility that members of al-Qaeda might be able to find a foothold in Northern Pakistan, in the north-west area of Pakistan which is semi-autonomous anyway. I think it is just conceivable that they might find a foothold in the mountains of Tajikistan; but I regard that as being very much less likely than Pakistan because the governments of the former Soviet Republics are much more intrusive, if you like, than the Government of Pakistan. I think the extent to which such a residual al-Qaeda group might draw upon Islamist sympathisers in Pakistan to reactivate the network is something I cannot really comment on. I think there obviously are people in Pakistan and organisations in Pakistan which are sympathetic to al-Qaeda, as indeed there are in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan but the ones in Pakistan are much more influential and active; therefore it follows, theoretically at least, that in Pakistan a residual group of al-Qaeda activists might succeed in contact with Pakistani sympathisers and spreading their tentacles once more.

  87. To operate to the extent that al-Qaeda managed to operate in Afghanistan they really needed if not the active encouragement at least the tacit approval of the government of the country. You are saying they are unlikely to get that, and they will not get that in any former Soviet Republics. They would not have that in Pakistan, although they have got friends in high places. Do you think there will be enough connivance, or acquiescence in Pakistan, to enable them to re-establish (and I do not just mean secret bases and the odd cell here or there) training camps?
  (Mr Bergne) It would be very difficult, from what I understand. General Musharraf has taken a very firm position on that, and has taken really quite effective steps to try and control illegal activities by Islamist groups. No, I do not see any chance at all, with the present political situation in Pakistan and, indeed, in the northern former Soviet Republics, of al-Qaeda succeeding in building up the sort of arrangements it had in Afghanistan where, as you say, it enjoyed the full support of the Afghan Government.


  88. We know of the terrorist problems in the Fergana Valley and the problems which Uzbekistan has faced, the terrorist groups operating in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan coming from Tajikistan. With the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, to what extent has that been a severe blow to the terrorist groups operating in those Central Asian countries which you know so well?
  (Mr Bergne) I think it has been a severe blow. From what I have heard from Northern Alliance commanders several hundred, possibly even as many as a thousand or two, members of the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan, which is the main organisation accused of terrorism in Central Asia, were fighting in Taloqan and Qonduz in Northern Afghanistan, and also Mazar-i-Sharif fighting on the side of the Taliban. When those three cities fell, a large number were killed in the fighting. Indeed, it was rumoured that the head of the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan, known as Juma Namangani, was also killed although that has not been confirmed. Their organisation, therefore, will have suffered a severely disruptive blow. I would not like to suggest that it has been completely destroyed. There will, no doubt, continue to be cells in the former Soviet Republics of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and of course there will be large numbers of sympathisers given the nature of the governments which are in control there at present, which are seen by political Islamists as being both oppressive, inefficient, corrupt and anti-Islamic. I think that is a fertile ground for that version of political Islam, even though the networks that existed up until now have been badly damaged.

  89. Do you see any evidence that those same governments with whom we are allied are using September 11 and its aftermath as a good reason or an excuse for shutting down legitimate dissent among the Islamic groups within their own countries?
  (Mr Bergne) It depends what you mean by "legitimate".

  90. Non-terrorists.
  (Mr Bergne) Dissent certainly, yes, I do see evidence for that.

Sir Patrick Cormack

  91. This is a difficult question to answer, I appreciate that, but do you think in the medium-term any of the regimes, about which we have been talking, are very vulnerable?
  (Mr Bergne) Vulnerable to a political Islam—a revolutionary Islam?

  92. Yes.
  (Mr Bergne) Yes, I think the Governments of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are vulnerable, particularly Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan is a country with a very strong, popular Islamic tradition. After 70 years of Communist rule Islam has a rather different identity in Central Asia from what it does in the rest of the Islamic world. That can work both ways because people can misunderstand it in different directions. I think Uzbekistan is a country where the Government has, first of all, been confronted, like all the former Soviet states, with considerable economic problems, and coming to terms with those economic problems has been difficult and the Government has not always been successful in coming to terms with those economic problems; poverty and unemployment have grown in Uzbekistan against a background where all secular opposition have been forbidden. The result is, very naturally, that people who are fed-up with the Government go to the only form of opposition which remains in their consciousness, and that is Islamism. I think there is a danger but I do not think it is a very strong danger, because the Government is a very determined government and a very strict government not likely to shrink from drastic measures when it sees them to be necessary—but I think there is a danger. I think there is a similar although slightly less of a danger in Tajikistan. The Islamic element in the political spectrum is involved in the government and was included after the United Nations brokered the peace agreement.


  93. Kyrgyzstan.
  (Mr Bergne) As you know probably, the south of Kyrgyzstan is situated in the Fergana Valley, which is sometimes described as a hotbed of Islamic activity, and the south Kyrgyz are very influenced by Uzbek politics and Uzbek perceptions of the way society should be organised. I think the south of the country is vulnerable. The north of the country is much less religious; much more nomadic; much more secular; much more Russian, I have to say; therefore there is a danger in a sense that Kyrgyzstan might be threatened with some sort of divisive influence.

Sir Patrick Cormack

  94. How would you rate the chances of a peaceful transition to what we would recognise as democracy, as against the chances of fundamentalists taking over or a coup in those countries?
  (Mr Bergne) I do not reckon that either has very strong chances. I think the more likely future is of rather disciplinarian, autocratic, secular, somewhat Soviet in flavour governments continuing for many years to come with lip service to democracy and relatively strict attitudes towards Islam. I do not think either of those are likely.

Sir John Stanley

  95. Can I just bring it back to Afghanistan. There is clearly a defined role for the British Government in the international development field in reconstruction; and there is clearly a defined role for the British Government in the defence field in providing a significant contribution to the internal security dimension there. Do you see any specific foreign policy objectives that the British Government should now be pursuing in relation to the new government of Afghanistan; and, if so, what do you think they should be?
  (Mr Bergne) I think they should be removing the army as soon as is practical once the multilateral United Nations force has been formed to take its place. The understanding, from what I hear, has always been that the British should send in their troops to establish a structure of which a multilateral force could take advantage later, command structures and so on and then withdraw. I think it is important that the British should withdraw their forces from Afghanistan once that position has been reached; and that, in the meantime, it should make every effort to encourage that position to be reached—that is, for the other contributing nations to send troops. Of course, I think it is a mistake that Britain should be seen to be overwhelmingly the most important contributor of forces to Afghanistan. I think it is very important that Britain, if it is going to contribute forces, should only be one of a lot of countries which do that, given the history of our relations with Afghanistan. I think that is one aim for British foreign policy. On the other hand, there is a great deal that Britain could do to contribute to the reconstruction of the country, both physical reconstruction, in agriculture, communications, road building or medical care, because the medical network of Afghanistan has been badly damaged—perhaps the NHS might be a good model for them to follow!. Also I think in education and broadcasting in particular. The BBC, for example, could play a very important role in re-establishing a competent and effective radio and television network in Afghanistan. I understand the first steps in that direction have already been taken, in fact. Given the usefulness, or widely perceived usefulness, of the English language, I think there is a good deal we could do in the educational field.


  96. Finally, how concerned are you that the United States and its allies will be linked with regimes in Central Asia which are seen to be oppressive? That anti-western sentiments will arise with the new forces in those countries?
  (Mr Bergne) I think that is particularly true of the United States; I do not think Britain has got significantly more deeply involved in Central Asia from a military point of view, at least not in comparison with the United States at any rate. We have, which I think is a good thing, opened a new embassy in Tajikistan, which we did not have before. I do not think that would be cause for resentment amongst people, the fact we have an embassy there. Given the limitations of our economic muscle power in projecting ourselves into Central Asia, I do not think there is a real danger that we would become the target of resentment, because I think our involvement is likely to be limited. With regard to the United States, I think that is a considerable danger.

  97. What about the position of the Russians in respect of the involvement of the United States in Uzbekistan and other areas? Will this be a complicating factor in US/Russian relationships?
  (Mr Bergne) Yes, I am sure it will. I think it varies though from country to country, as it were. I think the Russians will reluctantly come to the conclusion that Uzbekistan is likely to act fairly independently as long as their present government is in charge in Uzbekistan. The present government of Uzbekistan is seen as being at least a candidate to become a regional power and likes to operate independently of Moscow. With regard to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, on the other hand, which are strategically quite important for Russia as they border on China as well as Afghanistan, both countries are still very beholden to Moscow both economically, culturally and every other way. I think the American presence in Kyrgyzstan, for example, is deeply unwelcome to Moscow, which will be eyeing that presence with considerable suspicion and worry as to whether it is likely to be a long-term presence. I think the Russians very much hope that it will be of limited duration.

  Chairman: Mr Bergne, may I on behalf of the Committee thank you very much indeed for your help.

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