British Council Attack: Is What We Do Worth the Lives of Soldiers?

The tragic attack in Kabul last Friday is felt intensely throughout the British Council but, while there is demand for our work and presence, we will continue.

The phone call I received at 3.30 in the morning on Friday, with the message that our office and staff in Kabul were under attack, was the beginning to one of the hardest and certainly most tragic days in my 27-year career at the British Council. It is a testament to the planning and bravery of our security team, the Afghan National Police, the Quick Reaction Force and others that the attack on our Kabul office did not become a full scale massacre. But it is a tragedy that twelve people died protecting our staff, our office and the ideas that we represent.

This demands the question: Is what we do worth the lives of soldiers to protect us? One answer is that the Taliban certainly thought it was, but that is not enough. If you visit one of our 110 British Council offices and teaching centres around the world and meet our staff, you would be amazed to think we cause so much fear it provokes an attack. For we have no military power, and we are non-political. But some people fear our values. They fear the access to freedom of thought and freedom of expression and the opportunity to be part of the global community that the British Council represents.

Within a few days of the Kabul attack came the news of the rebels entering Tripoli. How does a cultural relations organisation react to that news? At the time of the original uprising we had some 50 teachers spread across the country, in Benghazi and at a thriving centre in Tripoli. And the value of our cultural and educational work was reinforced by Mustafa Abdul Jalil, chairman of the National Transitional Council, when he said in May "The Libyan people will never forget British Council officers within Libyan territory and its effective role in spreading culture among the Libyan people". We hope to continue our work in Libya as soon as it is possible.

There are a number of reasons why people welcome the work of the British Council and similar organisations from other countries. The vast majority of our staff in each country are recruited locally, with deep knowledge of the cultural context. We are experienced in cultural relations, and create programmes that bring people together face-to-face where differences can be freely debated. That is why our buildings, although protected where necessary, are as open and welcoming as possible. People remain attracted to British culture and education even when they might disagree with British foreign policy.

Cultural relations creates a foundation for and contributes to diplomacy, development aid and nation-building. We are in Afghanistan because the next generation of Afghan leaders demand the skills, knowledge and opportunity to define the future of their own country. They demand practical education, English language skills, leadership skills and help in setting up local organisations to manage local issues. And it means contact with their peers anywhere in the world. The fact that we remain with the people and are not deterred by threats gives us unparalleled credibility and trust. We focus our projects on the next generation of leaders, and so when the 'veil of oppression' is lifted, we are in a strong position to have an even bigger impact in society. The power of cultural relations is in evoking rather than projecting values. We create openness and build trust. Ideologies which require violence and oppression to thrive are threatened by this work. The soft power of cultural relations is often most valuable in the hardest of locations.

The tragic attack in Kabul last Friday is felt intensely throughout the British Council but, while there is demand for our work and presence, we will continue. As the people of Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya demand more of their societies and their leaders, it is essential that the UK is able to reach out to them and build new relationships. It is those new opportunities for ordinary people who demand a better future that the Taliban sought to destroy in Kabul and that young people in Libya are asking for.

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