Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 71 - 79)



  Q71  Chairman: May I welcome on behalf of the Committee our next two witnesses, who will focus mainly on Afghanistan. First, Kate Clark of the BBC, who I am told has visited Afghanistan on a number occasions.

  Ms Clark: I was there for three years, from 1999, so during the time of the Taliban. The Taliban expelled me in March 2001, during the destruction of the Buddhas, and I was based in Pakistan. Then I came back through northern Afghanistan after September 11 and came to Kabul on the day that it fell, and I was there until the summer of 2002.

  Q72  Chairman: We also welcome Mr Peter Marsden, of the Refugee Council and the British Agencies Afghanistan Group.

  Mr Marsden: That is right.

  Chairman: The Committee will later be visiting Pakistan and Afghanistan, and therefore it is particularly valuable that we obtain the up-to-date information from the two of you.

  Q73  Mr Chidgey: I am very pleased you were here for the earlier session, because you will have heard my series of questions about security and the position regarding the Taliban which I put to the previous witnesses. I would like to carry on with that. You will be aware, I am sure, that in December of last year, Kofi Annan expressed his concern about the security situation in Afghanistan and said basically that it was a deteriorating situation which was of major concern for the UN and for himself. What I would like to ask you directly is what do you   believe is the current security situation in Afghanistan?

  Mr Marsden: I think we can say that the military intervention of October 2001 resulted in a reversion to the power-holding arrangements that existed prior to the Taliban taking over, and this fragmented power-holding situation has been aggravated by an expansion of the opium trade, by efforts by the Karzai Government to replace governors and chiefs of police, by the US-led coalition paying various militia groups to assist them in the war on terror, and by growing criminal activity, particularly banditry. Government control is tenuous in all areas, including Kabul.

  Q74  Mr Chidgey: If you have a written statement there, it would be helpful if you could submit it to the Committee.

  Mr Marsden: I chose my words carefully in preparing for this hearing this morning because I need to get through a lot of information in a short time. It is not a long statement, but I would rather do bits of it at a time. It is just that, having tried to cut it down this morning, I would rather read.

  Chairman: It would be helpful if we had that on record, if you could submit it, and perhaps you could summarise in response to Mr Chidgey's question.

  Q75  Mr Chidgey: I appreciate what you are trying to achieve, but we have to be rather precise with our questioning, if we can. For example, you are in a position now to compare, which we are not. How strong are the Taliban now? What level of support do they command in comparison to previous years, when the military action was taking place?

  Mr Marsden: I think a significant development is that the Taliban have clearly radicalised, in the sense that before they lost power they were not engaged in terrorist activity, which clearly they are now. They have been engaged in an orchestrated campaign to murder those associated with what is seen as a US-led state building process. One sees a very similar pattern in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  Q76  Mr Chidgey: Would you call them terrorists or would you call them guerrillas?

  Mr Marsden: I would call them radicals who are now engaged in terrorist activity.

  Q77  Mr Chidgey: How do they see themselves?

  Mr Marsden: They would see themselves as radicals aimed at undermining the US.

  Ms Clark: Just to back up what Mr Marsden is saying, when the Taliban were in government, it was pretty safe for foreigners to travel in Afghanistan. Now it has become much less safe. There is about a third of the country where aid workers find it too insecure to go. That is mainly in the south and the east. The actual attacks on aid workers, on clerics, on people associated with the coalition forces, have gone up. Care, which is an aid organisation mainly from America, have found some statistics. About a year ago we were talking about one to two killings a month. In late 2002 there were one to three murders a month. By late summer last year we were talking about 20 a month. In January alone there were 80 people killed. So the numbers of attacks are increasing, and it is something which the aid workers are very worried about. However, if you look at what Afghans say—there was a very good questionnaire or survey done at the end of last year—most Afghans are quite optimistic. They are quite happy with security. That is partly because there is not much fighting, so in Afghan terms, the country is quite secure at the moment.

  Q78  Mr Chidgey: That is quite interesting, if I may say so, because on the one hand you are saying that the Afghans are optimistic, and on the other hand you are telling us that the number of killings has been increasing. I am trying to work out what level of support the Taliban command and from whom.

  Mr Marsden: A health warning on that particular survey: it was conducted in areas that researchers could access; in other words, it said people were optimistic in areas that were safe, and they were not able to access large areas of the south, where people continue to feel that security is a serious problem. Going back to this question of how powerful the Taliban are, one can say that the Taliban are seeking to undermine the US-led or supported government in Afghanistan by seeking to undermine the reconstruction process, and they are doing that by killing aid workers, by killing people, for example, working on the major highway between Kabul and Kandahar, by killing telecommunications workers in Kabul and so on, and they have been very effective. As Ms Clark has said, the south is now effectively out of bounds for the aid community, and much of the aid is now concentrated in Kabul and the north. So one can say the Taliban have been successful in one objective. They have to a degree managed to build up a power base in the south, to the extent that people are providing them with protection against US forces; in other words, when the US forces are going into villages and asking people whether Taliban or al-Qaeda have passed through, people on the whole are not telling them. Whether the population would be willing to accept a return of the Taliban I very much doubt. The Taliban were becoming increasingly unpopular prior to their overthrow, because they were becoming increasingly radicalised in the wake of US air strikes in Afghanistan of August 1998 and two lots of UN sanctions. So the Taliban were, in a sense, on the way out before the US intervention, in my view, and I very much doubt that the population would want the Taliban to return. On the other hand, the US forces have behaved extremely badly in the villages of southern Afghanistan in pursuit of the war on terror. A recent Human Rights Watch report documented this very well. So the potential is there for the Taliban to build on antipathy to the US presence and the fact that the Pashtun feel inadequately represented in the corridors of power in Kabul, although that has somewhat modified since the constitution of the Loya Jirga. So the potential is there for the Taliban to gain a degree of popular support even if the population in the south would not actually want them back.

  Q79  Mr Chidgey: Where do the warlords fit into all this?

  Ms Clark: Could I just come in on the Taliban? When the Taliban were popular, they were popular with Pashtuns. It was generally a Pushtun movement. When the Shura-e Nazar group took Kabul in 2001—this is the part of the Northern Alliance that mainly comes from the Panjshir Valley—many Pushtuns felt very marginalised. They felt that they were no longer represented in government. As Mr Marsden says, it is slightly better now. When I was travelling in the south, though, people were angry about what had happened, but they were angry because they wanted to be included in the Kabul government. They did not want to go back to the Taliban, and I think the Taliban have lost all credibility. They were losing credibility when they were in government, and the sort of attacks that they are carrying out now are not popular.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2004
Prepared 29 July 2004