Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 69-79)




  Today, Mr Bergne, we continue our inquiry into the foreign policy aspects of the campaign against terrorism. We have three groups of witnesses: the second on terrorism, as such, and its exponents; the third on the Middle East; and you, Mr Bergne, we welcome on Afghanistan and Central Asia. We welcome you as a former adviser to the Committee; a distinguished ambassador both to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan; and, latterly, in October and November of last year, the Prime Minister's envoy to Afghanistan and, effectively, to the Northern Alliance. We look forward to your evidence to assist the Committee in this critical area.

Mr Chidgey

  69. Can I ask you some questions in the context of the Bonn negotiations and the agreement on provisional arrangements in Afghanistan. I believe you wrote that, "During my mission I was able to play a certain role in moving the Northern Alliance leaders towards accepting the concessions that would be necessary in forming a post-Taliban government". What concessions did the Northern Alliance leaders make to secure the agreement at Bonn? Why did they make these concessions, and to whom? Secondly, to what extent does the authority of the new interim administration extend throughout Afghanistan?

  (Mr Bergne) I should emphasise the reference there to "on the wings" or "the peripheral". Could you read again what I said.

  70. "During my mission I was able to play a certain role . . . ."
  (Mr Bergne) I was not a member of the British observer delegation, which was headed by Robert Cooper, who is a member of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It was agreed with the Prime Minister that I should go to see if I could be of any assistance in the wings of the conference. I think I was of some marginal assistance, in that I agreed with Robert Cooper that, for example, one group which the British observer team had not been able to establish contact with, and about which the British observers knew relatively little, was the so-called Cyprus group. There were several groups represented at Bonn: one being the Rome group which represented the King; one being a group from Pakistan, who were largely Pashtuns in exile in Northern Pakistan; and there was another group called the Cyprus group with whom the UK had relatively little contact. I was able to establish contact with them, and introduce them to Robert Cooper. I also was able to establish contact with Mir Wais son of Ismail Khan who, if you remember, was one of the warlords in the Northern Alliance operating in the area of Herat. He was representing his father at the conference. The British observer group had not had any contact with him before then. I also established contact with the daughter and son-in-law of Pir Gailani who was a Pashtun exile in Northern Pakistan, with whom they had not had any contact either. My function really, insofar as it was useful, was in introducing these people to the British team. I should make it clear that the British observer group was an observer group, because they did not take part in the actual negotiations between the different parties from Afghanistan, which was organised of course by the United Nations. These negotiations between the different Afghan groups took place behind closed doors in rooms to which the observer team did not have access. I think, by introducing these various groups, with which the British team had not had contact up until then, I was able to promote a dialogue between them and the British observer group and promote the observer group's knowledge of their attitude and position.

  71. I understand the point you are making that you were assisting observers rather than part of the negotiations. Are you basically saying to the committee you are not able to answer these questions because you do not have any information about what concessions were made and to whom? "In your view" would perhaps be a way of phrasing it.
  (Mr Bergne) I can give you my opinion. The Northern Alliance was represented by a man called General Qanuni, who was the Minister of the Interior and is now the Minister of the Interior in the new government. He represented both the Panjshir group of the Northern Alliance, that is to say, Dr Abdullah, General Fahim Khan and President Rabbani, all of whom were members of the Tajik group of the Northern Alliance. I think when the Northern Alliance was victorious in Kabul there was a certain feeling amongst some of them perhaps that they deserved a good degree of recognition in the forthcoming government: while, on the other hand, accepting that of course Pashtuns would have to play a role in the future government of Afghanistan, their main concern being how do you find Pashtuns who were not being infected with the Taliban's virus, to coin a phrase. I think the concessions which they made, if you like, were first of all on the part of President Rabbani, that he should abandon his hopes of remaining President of a state, which he had been recognised to be by the United Nations up until that point; and by the military leadership that they would perhaps not remain in complete military control of the country after their victory, and would have to allow the United Nations to form a multilateral force to go in.

  72. To what extent does the authority of the new interim administration extend throughout Afghanistan, in your opinion?
  (Mr Bergne) I do not know is the answer to that. I have not been associated with Afghanistan since I came back.

  73. Then you may have difficulties with the next few questions. To what extent do senior figures in Afghanistan's interim administration view themselves as acting on behalf of the Afghan people as a whole? Is there a danger that the administration might become divided along ethnic lines? Finally, how vulnerable politically is Hamid Karzai, and to whom? Has the interim authority headed by him grown stronger or weaker since it was established in December?
  (Mr Bergne) I think in answer to the first question, clearly, there is a danger that rivalries may develop between not only ethnic groups but regional groups in Afghanistan. There is no doubt that some people in the government may see themselves as representing their region or their ethnic group rather than Afghanistan as a whole. At the same time, I think there is a widespread recognition that regional and ethnic problems have been one of the factors behind the instability in Afghanistan in recent years, and indeed behind the war, and efforts must be made to overcome that. I am reasonably optimistic that the different ethnic groups represented realise that they have to rub along together—not so much rub along together, because they have rubbed along together one way or another in the history of Afghanistan, and there have been periods when they have got on very well one with the other—but that they should see themselves as representing Afghanistan as a state and the people of Afghanistan as a people, rather than just their regional interests.

Sir John Stanley

  74. I would like, Mr Bergne, to take us back a few months to the point between the September 11 atrocities and the subsequent decision to go to war to remove the Taliban regime. The war has resulted in large damage cost, running into very substantial sums of money, and has also, of course, resulted in the deaths of a significant number of civilian casualties. That war would have been avoidable if the Taliban regime had been prepared to give up Osama bin Laden. The Prime Minister, when he made his second statement to the House on 4 October, said this: "We must bring bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders to justice and eliminate the terrorist threat that they pose. We must ensure that Afghanistan ceases to harbour and sustain international terrorism. If the Taliban regime will not comply with that objective we must bring about change in that regime to ensure that Afghanistan's links to international terrorism are broken". The question I would like to ask you is this: do you think, with obviously now the benefit of hindsight, there was any realistic prospect of the international community being able to avoid the war in Afghanistan by bringing pressure in a different way, in a more intense way, on the Taliban regime so that they responded to what the British Prime Minister and President Bush were demanding at the beginning of October, namely the giving up to the international community of Osama bin Laden and his close associates?
  (Mr Bergne) Briefly, no. I think that both the British Government and the American Government examined what alternative forms of pressure there might be, to which you refer; and, indeed, examined these together with the Government of Pakistan, which played a very significant role, as you will remember, in trying to persuade the Taliban to give up bin Laden, and failed on two separate occasions. Of course, they did not take, "No" for an answer the first time and sent a second delegation to Kandahar to try and persuade them to give him up. Although I was not directly involved in the Government's deliberations at that time, from what I heard considerable thought was given to how pressure might be brought to bear on the Taliban government to give him up. In the short to medium term, at any rate, no effective pressure was suggested.

  75. Not putting words into your mouth, you say it as you wish, but my understanding of that reply is that you, from your expert position, are satisfied that the international community, including the British Government took all reasonable, possible steps to try to avoid having to go to war to remove the Taliban regime?
  (Mr Bergne) I do not want myself described as an expert on what happened with regard to Afghanistan before I was asked to go there. I was asked to go there on about 17 or 18 October and I left four days later. Until 17 October I had no idea I was going to go to Afghanistan; nor had I ever been to Afghanistan; and I was not engaged in Afghanistan affairs in any way. I cannot claim to be an expert of any sort, but particularly not in the period before I was asked to go. Really I cannot answer that question. What I have given you is my opinion based on what I have heard from the press, from discussions with people in the Foreign Office, but I have no knowledge of detail.

Sir Patrick Cormack

  76. Can I just take you back to Bonn, Mr Bergne. How great was the influence of the King behind the scenes and those who supported him, or was it negligible?
  (Mr Bergne) Negligible.

  77. There was much talk at the time, as you well remember, and has been some talk since, although not so much, but you do not think there is any particular place for him in the future of Afghanistan?
  (Mr Bergne) No.


  78. One thing you have mentioned, the bane of Afghanistan, is the tribal conflict and warlords. Are you encouraged by the general change, by the individuals who are represented at Bonn?
  (Mr Bergne) Not by all, but by several of them, yes; by many of them indeed. I think there is a strong and well educated younger generation of Afghans who are determined to develop their country in a different way from the path it has followed in the past.

Mr Olner

  79. Just following on from that, if there is to be this new administration in Afghanistan, what kinds of assistance do they need, other than humanitarian assistance?
  (Mr Bergne) I can hardly think of any assistance they do not need.

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