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banner Thursday, 29 November, 2001, 15:03 GMT
Quiz Correspondent's Phil Rees

To watch full coverage of the forum, select the link below:

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Award-winning reporter Phil Rees first reported from Afghanistan for the BBC 13 years ago. Since then, he has covered conflicts throughout the world. In his most recent visit to Afghanistan for Correspondent, he travelled with the victorious Northern Alliance from Faizabad into Kabul.

On Sunday 2nd December he reports on what the Northern Alliance victory means. For many who observed Kabul that day, the city's fall seemed a genuine act of liberation. But the Alliance's record on human rights is atrocious.

Once upon a time, there were celebrations when the Northern Alliance were beaten by the Taleban. Now they're back ... what now for Afghanistan?

What do Afghans really think about the return of the Northern Alliance? Is there any hope for a peaceful future?


Transcript

Newshost:
Hello and welcome to Correspondent's Forum. It's your opportunity to quiz our reporters and find out more about their programme making. With me is the BBC's Phil Rees, Phil thanks very much for coming in. Phil's back from several weeks in Afghanistan where he travelled with the Northern Alliance from the north of the country and accompanied them on their entry into Kabul.

Now Phil at one point in the Correspondent film we saw you helping to clear the road into Kabul, I wonder if there were any times on the journey towards the city when it looked as though you were going to have give up and turn back?

Phil Rees:
There were many times that I would have liked to have given up and turned back but of course once you've gone down that route there's actually nowhere to go quickly. Certainly that rock fall was tricky, I mean we got some local men to help us. But I think what the worse thing was, and probably the lowest points of all, were at night, which you didn't see in the film, because if you can imagine there are no hotels in that area, no running water and very little heat - the odd stove - but the temperature plummeted - minus 10, minus 15 degrees - and we were in our sleeping bags and I think that was the worst part of it that we really, really did feel the cold. But of course we had to carry on and do the film.

Newshost:
Over how many nights?

Phil Rees:
It took us four days altogether, so we were three nights staying in these conditions. So at one point though genuinely we did wonder whether we would complete it because the snows come in and the pass does close, usually from say mid November. Now we were there middle of October, so we did have to turn back at one point when there was a terrible storm and our vehicles were sliding on - and these paths are very thin with a cliff edge down below it, so even with chains on the vehicles they were unable to grip. So that day we did go back and we were very despondent but the next day it was sunny and the sun does melt the snow in the daytime there because you're at quite a high altitude, so that allowed us to carry on.

Newshost:
Let's go to our first e-mail question, it's from Lawrence, he's from France, and he writes: "I've heard the Taleban have offered a $50,000 reward for the head of any Western journalists killed." He wants to know if you've heard of this and if it affected your work and that of other journalists in Afghanistan?

Phil Rees:
There were many rumours of money being offered for the heads of journalists. Personally I wasn't sure about it and in fact any evidence there's been of journalists that the Taleban have captured they've returned them. A Canadian recently was returned, in fact in the last few days, safely and well across the Pakistani border, as was a British journalist. So I don't particularly believe that. There are a lot of rumours flying around, there are a lot of journalists in the area. I'm afraid if you get a lot of journalists together stories can move very quickly even if they're not actually true.

Newshost:
Very well. Next question is from Barbara Finch, she's turning to the political history of Afghanistan and you've been reporting from there for quite some years now. She says that back in the 1980s the Afghan government invited the Russians into the country to help them against the US backed Mujahideen and so it's not quite right to say the Russians invaded the country.

Phil Rees:
I consider that a nuance of history. There was a faction in the ruling elite that did invite the Russians in but this was a very pro-Russian/pro-Soviet aspect of the ruling elite. There'd been a coup there the year earlier and in fact Afghanistan was in a mess and I don't think the majority of Afghans would say that the Soviets were welcome there. Therefore I think the term invasion is quite proper, there was military - several thousand of their troops and you know I would consider that an invasion.

Newshost:
Very well. She goes on to say the government then was doing more for human rights and education than has been the case since - do you think that's true?

Phil Rees:
I think it probably is true. Certainly the Soviet Union did respect women's rights, they brought schools to Afghanistan. The problem for the Russian influence then, the Russians had tried to influence Afghanistan from in fact the 1960s, is that it was only amongst the urban elite who benefited from this and the rebellion which overthrew the Russian government there - the Russian supported government - was one that came from the countryside and these were people who never benefited from that and who continued with their traditions, which certainly in terms of women's rights did not afford the types of opportunity and employment and in the home that the Russians had provided to those in the urban areas.

Newshost:
You noted more than once in your film that even in the non-Taleban controlled areas women seemed more comfortable hidden under burkas - why do you think that was?

Phil Rees:
Well this is the culture that has been in Afghanistan for many, many years. The Taleban did impose the code - the cultural code - more strictly than perhaps the Mujahideen, the Northern Alliance as they were then. The Taleban had religious beliefs that tried to enforce it. But nevertheless for most women this was the way they were brought up to behave and to wear - this is a clothing custom there. I think most in the West regard this as a very suppressing activity to have to wear the burka and I mean personally I would agree but nevertheless this has been the culture of their country for hundreds of years and for most women they have done this - it doesn't matter who the rulers were - probably 95% of women, and I'm guessing there, would have worn the burka even during the time of the Soviet occupation and during the time of Mujahideen.

Newshost:
Very well. Tamara Dragadze, she's formerly the co-director of London's Centre for Caucasian and Central Asian studies: What do you think will happen to drug trafficking in what she calls "the post-Taleban quagmire."

Phil Rees:
One of the things that the Taleban was very annoyed about is that they made significant efforts to reduce opium cultivation and the UN in fact established that - they cut it by some 70% I think in the year prior to the recent war. If you look back at the Mujahideen, now the Northern Alliance is a reincarnation largely of the Mujahideen, it's a power in 1992, then you'll find that drug production increased dramatically then. Several of their warlords financed their own battles and their own armies through drug production. So I think that the West in supporting a non-Taleban government may find problems regarding the increased production of drugs now that there's more, as it were, independence to the various warlords who govern their own fiefdoms.

Newshost:
Still on drugs then - Glen from the UK asks: "Given it's been widely reported that the Taleban were cracking down on opium production," as you said, "why are - can't the West see that what you said may be bound to happen?"

Phil Rees:
Well remember that this war was fought in order to make the West a safer place - free from Islamic militants and indeed to find Osama bin Laden. So drug production was not an issue here. How concerned they are about it - well I don't know. Remember if you go back in time the Americans were backing the Mujahideen and were quite happy - I wouldn't say happy, they were certainly tolerated - increased production of opium in the late 80s. I in fact knew one Pakistani general, who was known as General Heroin because he used to take opium from the Mujahideen, supply them with arms which had been sanctioned by the United States and then he used to then distribute the opium down to Karachi and then it went worldwide. So I think when the priority is not drugs then perhaps some of the consequences may have been overlooked.

Newshost:
Now you cast much doubt in your film on the past record on human rights of the Northern Alliance and in particular you mention a massacre at the town of Afshar where over a thousand people are said to have been massacred by them in the 1990s. Let's see a clip from the film where you put this to the Northern Alliance commander who many say was responsible for the massacre and is still a Northern Alliance faction leader, he's name is Abdul Sayaf:

Clip:
Human rights groups have described terrible activities - the chopping off of hands, the killing of children and old people - how can one simply [indistinct words]...

Believe me noothing of this thing has happened. I was there.

There was no massacre at Afshar?

At all, at all. No single body of the civilians have been [indistinct word] If anybody claims it I am ready to [indistinct word].

So the human rights groups all their information you say is mistaken?

A big mistake because what is their witness, what is their witness?

Newshost:
Now we've had an e-mail from a 13-year-old boy - Ahmadi Hazara who's in Afghanistan. He says he was there and he remembers the days of the attacks and Sayaf's involvement and he writes: "Sayaf killed everyone he could catch, they were shooting rockets." How much credence do you give to Sayaf's claim there that the allegations are false?

Phil Rees:
Well I think the body of evidence that suggests his involvement and the fact that those people were massacred is huge. So I suppose one has to say that he's not telling the truth. I suppose that his only defence, if there is one, is that there was a lot of infighting in Kabul, there was Shiite, that's the minority in Afghanistan who are mostly the dominant Sunni Muslims, there was a Shiite group there who he was involved in fighting with and they had been involved in some destruction earlier. Sayaf went in there and basically went in there without compromising anything, so he might claim, or at least in his own mind feel, that he was trying to restore order or whatever. But the massacres were, without any doubt, were totally brutal and would constitute a war crime.

Newshost:
Abdul Sayaf also says in the film that the West had demonised Osama bin Laden and that he's not as evil as we're led to believe, now how do you explain this coming as it does from a leader of what we in the West understand to be the opposition to the Taleban and then presumably also opposed to Bin Laden?

Phil Rees:
Well one of the things that I hope the film brought out is that the Northern Alliance are not that different from the Taleban in many aspects of their rule. Yes there are certain differences but primarily they come from the same culture - there are tribal differences. But when it comes to the role of Islam and militant Islam as well, remember that the Mujahideen, again who are now called the Northern Alliance, that they were propelled by a belief in jihad, in a duty to struggle and fight for their faith and that's exactly the same motivation that has propelled Bin Laden. And Sayaf knew Bin Laden well during the war against the Russians and it did seem to me generally that Bin Laden, you know, it's just a matter that he changed alliances - the Afghans are used to changing alliances. So he still had, I think, the respect of someone like that, certainly for his devotion to his faith, even though they would have considered the acts in New York and Washington as being ill considered.

Newshost:
Abdul, who's an Afghan living in the UK, writes and says that his father died as a result of beatings received at the hands of the then Mujahideen, now the Northern Alliance, and warns against the West giving any funds to the Northern Alliance who he says are only interested in increasing their own bank accounts. How far do you think - is this a widely held view among ordinary Afghans?

Phil Rees:
Well again I think that the United States did not want to back the Northern Alliance completely but it found it had no choice really because its aim was to get Osama bin Laden, the Taleban were protecting him and they had to somehow topple the Taleban - that became one of their policy goals. So, yes, I think they have been supporting the Northern Alliance, they're continuing to have to deal with the Northern Alliance because they're the people now in control. Their human rights record was terrible when they were the Mujahideen. I met one person who was saying about the gang rapes that used to take place and that's what he was worried about. Another woman who was actually in Afshar who just remembered them coming back. And therefore when one looks at certain scenes of jubilation that were broadcast at the time when Kabul fell to the Northern Alliance I think it's just worth remembering that they carry with them years of misrule which brutalised a lot of the population.

Newshost:
Very well. Our second clip from the Correspondent programme shows a mortar attack on the Taleban positions by the Northern Alliance brigade that you were travelling in. Let's take a look at that.

Clip:
On the battlefield Abdul Majee has received orders to attack the Taleban. It was a daily routine, part of a stalemate that only American bombing would break.

[Gunfire]

We looked to see if the Taleban positions had been struck. It was hard to tell. To find out if anyone had been killed Abdul Majee simply tuned in to the Taleban's radio frequency.

Newshost:
Now after that attack, as we saw there they were listening to the radio, and then they told you, Phil, that they'd heard the Taleban arranging for a truck to take away their dead and wounded but later when you had the message translated you found out they'd actually been saying they had had no casualties at all on the Taleban side. When did you find out that that commando was lying to you and imagine that was a bit of a surprise?

Phil Rees:
It was a surprise, in fact when we film events going on around us it's very hard to know, because I don't speak the languages that are in that clip - both Farsi, which is a form of Iranian and indeed the Pashtun, the language of the Taleban in the south. So when that's filmed it's done on location and we try and capture events going on but when we come back to London we then have it properly transcribed by Farsi and Pashtun speakers. So I at the time was building up an interview with Abdul Majeed and simply asked him there in order to just construct various aspects of the film. So it was only when one really got back here that one found that in fact he'd totally, I mean basically he was lying to us.

Newshost:
What about the other soldiers near him - would they have spoken English, would they have been realising what was going on then?

Phil Rees:
Well I think that they're probably part of that deceit because throughout the time I've covered the war in Afghanistan in its various permutations I've been aware of the way people present their truths. Now of course that's true in any war but I found here that there's such a lack of concern with the truth that it's just passed by as just a fact of life that people simply say what they want to.

Newshost:
They weren't necessarily lying because you were there with a camera - that was just ...?

Phil Rees:
Well, you know, unfortunately and it sounds a terrible thing to say but I think lying becomes very instinctive when you're in that environment because really their own versions of the truth are the only thing that they're concerned with and such things especially when it comes to viewing with the media and the outside they're actually quite savvy about it. So had I not translated this back in London one could have shown a greater effectiveness of their forces than they really are because in fact their army was rather shambolic, in my view. Certainly they didn't fight the Taleban when they went into Kabul and while they've had a lot of support, military support, from the Russians a lot of the guns were very old and in fact everyone misfired I think that we filmed at some point or other. So they're just trying to dress themselves up to be much better and those people around probably assume that was what they do in front of the Western media.

Newshost:
Steve Lowrie is in the UK and he asks: "As someone who's seen the war first hand, as you have, how do you think the West should handle Afghanistan now?"

Phil Rees:
Well that's a very, very tricky question. I think that the West can influence Afghanistan but the bill will be absolutely huge. I reported from Cambodia back in 1993 when the UN set up a provisional authority and in fact formed in a way a new government there. Now they didn't change the leader, the same man is still in charge, but I think the UN did improve a lot there - they got a lot of people who were refugees back into the country and they effectively created a government. That cost about 3-4 billion US dollars. If you look at the situation in Afghanistan with the tribal rivalries, with the geography - there are no institutions in place at all - then the task is huge. And I think you're talking about sums of money of 20 billion, maybe 30 billion. Now as the world slides into recession I wonder if it will really be prepared to do this. So I think the West must either admit to itself that it's not going to get involved and that if the situation there does deteriorate, well what can we do about it. Or indeed it tries to work with the existing power structure to improve humanitarian conditions, which I think it can do, but in saying that it accepts the realities of power on the ground. I'm worried that the West will try in a half hearted way to influence the situation, pour a lot of money in but then the situation will spiral out of control after a few months or years.

Newshost:
Shah, he's an Afghan in London, picks up on this point and says: The Northern Alliance killed thousands of people when they last held power, he wonders whether the outside powers who are now backing them care at all about the Afghan people, you know are they just interested in pursuing their own political and foreign policy agendas?

Phil Rees:
Well I think anybody who studies the role of outside powers in Afghanistan should be extremely cynical about the motives of outside powers. I mean one can be altogether cynical - I mean this Labour government spoke about a moral foreign policy at one time, I mean I still see little evidence of that. In Afghanistan I think it's mostly been a matter of meddling for one's own interest, I mean the US put huge sums of money, the largest CIA operation ever, to topple the Soviet backed regime there and then left immediately once the Cold War ended and left these people, whom it had promoted for so many years, to simply collapse into infighting. Once the issue of Bin Laden and the threat of international Islam, as it were, militant Islam under the Bin Laden, al-Qaeda kind of operation, once it is seen that that has been dismantled and quashed I wouldn't be surprised if the world doesn't turn its head again and let Afghanistan continue in its own way.

Newshost:
So finally from Hesham in Egypt, you've sort of really answered this: "Do you expect Western troops to leave the country or stay on?"

Phil Rees:
Well I think it's quite clear that the Northern Alliance does not want a large number of Western troops there - a few hundred, even a few thousand. I mean if you've watched the film you'd have seen the terrain there, there are fiefdoms throughout, the number of gunmen is huge, how can you have a peacekeeping force there unless you throw in even tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands? I don't think that that sort of force will be the answer. The West may now put these people in there and hope that they can, certainly in Kabul, oil the changes that will take place but they won't be fundamental to the changes that occur in Afghanistan in the long run.

Newshost:
The Northern Alliance how do they see the difference between battle combat troops and a UN peacekeeping force?

Phil Rees:
Well it depends on the remit obviously of any force there. But the traditional role of the UN has to be a peacekeeping force. Now that assumes that there's no war and we found all the problems in the former Yugoslavia when these forces simply stood by and watched as each side at times mutilated each other and mutilated civilians as well in one or two cases. So it'll be very interesting to see what remit any UN peacekeeping forces have. But the place is very hard to govern and if you saw the journey, I mean if the UN have to travel days and days to get to the next valley where something has happened it's not going to be a very effective peacekeeping force.

Newshost:
Very well. Phil, thank you very much for coming in. And thank you very much for all your e-mails and to Phil Rees for joining us and answering some of them. Now next week Syrian-born writer and broadcaster, Rana Kabbani, reports on the roots of the anti-US feeling across the Middle East. And for more information on this and other Correspondent programmes you can log on to our website, it's at bbc.co.uk/correspondent - goodbye.


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