Kabul attack: What is the British Council?

Image caption Teaching English is a key focus of the British Council in Kabul

Suicide attackers have stormed the British Council office in Kabul, killing a number of people, including Afghan policemen and a foreign security official.

The UK Foreign Office has condemned the attack, and said all British citizens had been safely removed from the building.

The BBC looks at what the British Council does in Afghanistan and what life is like inside the compound.

What is the British Council?

The British Council is a UK-based agency that promotes educational and cultural relations with other countries. "Connecting the UK to the world and the world to the UK" is its focus, its website states.

The organisation works in more than 100 countries through arts, education and English language projects. It teaches residents of those countries about the UK, and has set up English language schools across the world.

The agency says that in the past year it has worked directly with 30 million people, with the wider impact of its work reaching more than 578 million people.

How is it funded?

The British Council is partly funded by the British government.

The council is independent from government, but the foreign secretary is answerable to Parliament for its policies and performance.

Last year, its turnover was £693m, of which its grant-in-aid from the Foreign Office was £190m. The remainder was generated through commercial activities, such as English language teaching.

How long has it been in Afghanistan?

The British Council has had a long association with Afghanistan, having arrived in the country in 1964.

It left in 1979 in the wake of the Soviet invasion and returned in 2002.

What does it do in Afghanistan?

Its main focus is teaching English, for which there is "overwhelming demand" according to its website.

British Council chief executive Martin Davidson said there were now four million students in the Afghan education system, whereas a few years ago there had been "only a handful".

The council also offers arts and educational programmes, working closely with the UK Foreign Office, British Embassy and the Afghan government. Among the schemes it runs is a Foreign Office scholarship for Afghan nationals to study masters degrees in the UK, with 14 doing so this year.

The organisation promotes education for girls, and its website states that it champions the development of women leaders.

How well known is it?

The agency's presence is seen as culturally significant and symbolically important in the capital.

"The British Council is known to most Afghans because for decades it has taught Afghans English," said the BBC's Bilal Sarwary, in Kabul.

The agency says it reaches people across Afghanistan from its single office in Kabul. "The work of the British Council in Afghanistan is designed to contribute to development and stabilisation of Afghanistan, and helps to develop and inspire the next generation there," a spokesman said.

Where is the compound?

The agency is based in the Karte Parwan area of Kabul, about 2.5 miles (4km) from the US Embassy and the Presidential Palace.

It is located close to a busy dual carriageway next to a girls' school, and well away from the Green Zone, says a source who has worked with the British Council in Kabul.

What is security like?

The BBC's Bilal Sarwary said the British Council office was located in a residential area where there was less security than in other parts of the city.

"Chris", from Lincoln, worked for the British Council in Kabul in September 2010, and stayed in the compound for four nights. He described the building as reminiscent of a "small medieval castle" with layers of defence.

There was a double gateway and visitors went through the first gate where their vehicle was stopped to go through metal detectors, he said. Visitors given the all-clear are then allowed to pass through the second gate.

Chris described high walls of up to 15ft (4.6m) around the building, with up to 3ft of fencing on top. Anyone entering the compound would be given "very clear instructions" about how to get to the panic room if alarms went off.

He said he felt "extremely safe" in the compound, which also had a rose garden.

"You can sit out in the garden with the walls on either side of you and you can watch the kites - both human-made and the birds - circling in the sky," he said.

"You could be anywhere - but the reality when you go out of the gates is very different."

Following the attack, British Council chief executive Mr Davidson said: "We did have in place security arrangements to ensure the safety of staff on the compound and those security arrangements appear to have worked."

How many staff does it have?

The British Council has 6,800 staff worldwide. A spokesman would not confirm staff numbers in Kabul for "security reasons".

How many are British?

The organisation would not confirm how many British staff it has, or the nationalities of other staff. Since July 2004, the UK-appointed director of the Afghanistan operation has been Paul Smith.

What is life like working at the compound?

A source who worked with the British Council in Kabul last year said that British staff sometimes only left the compound once in a six-month period, but quality of life was generally good.

The current director gives a flavour of what life in the Afghan capital is like in his blog.

"For all of us privileged to be in Afghanistan at this extraordinary time, it's both energising and unnerving to be working in a nation in transition," wrote Mr Smith in December 2010.

He adds that it's "reassuring that the British Council is here for the long haul".

British Council chief executive Mr Davidson said there had "never been any specific threat" against the operation in Kabul and the attack had come as a "complete surprise and shock to us".

"This attack must not and will not prevent us from giving the young Afghans the support they need to be part of the wider world," he said.

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