The Obama administration wants to convene an international conference on the future of Afghanistan and is suggesting that it may be time to bring some elements of the Taliban into the discussion, a break with the policies of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, during whose presidency Al Qaeda established its foothold there in the late 1990s. Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations official who led the 2001 Bonn conference that created the current Afghan government, says new talks, while a welcome first step, may be at least six years too late. In a March 7 interview, he said NATO has no comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan, only a clutch of national armies with their own agendas and battle plans. Foreigners have ceased to be seen as friends and are now occupiers who sideline the government of President Hamid Karzai, and then turn against him when things go wrong. Here is an edited transcript of the interview.
What should happen in this forthcoming conference?
What has been missing these past few years is a common strategy for all who are involved in Afghanistan. What we’ve had until now were different national policies. It was not a division of labor; it was different agendas. That is ineffective and at times disastrous because, obviously, it is not possible for several countries to wage separate wars in the same country and be successful.
So to bring everybody together around the same table and discuss what needs to be done is a step in the right direction–on condition, however, that this is prepared seriously and that the agenda is not any more the so-called “war on terror,” which has been a very questionable concept and, at any rate, not very successful in Afghanistan (or anywhere else, for that matter).
The objective should be obvious: how to effectively help the people of Afghanistan, in close cooperation with them, to address their problems, rebuild their country and not allow their territory to be used by anybody else for anything that is alien to the interests of the people of Afghanistan.
If I understood Secretary of State Hillary Clinton well, she is thinking of a conference at the end of March. That is very, very close, indeed. I know that the Americans have done a lot of work, that General Petraeus in particular has had, I understand, 300 people working for him to make an assessment. That’s very good. But I’m not certain how much cooperation there has been with the government of Afghanistan and with other stakeholders–the Afghan Parliament, for example, and various groups and personalities.
Since Bonn, what has unraveled?
I’m afraid, almost everything. We are now paying the price for what we did wrong from day one. First, the people who were in Bonn were not fully representative of the rich variety of the Afghan people. I underlined this fact to the thirty-five delegates we brought together in Bonn again and again. I made the point once more when an agreement was reached and we all prepared to return to Kabul: the popular base of the interim administration put together in Bonn under President Karzai was far too narrow.
We all vowed to work hard to widen that base once we returned to Kabul. Unfortunately, very little was done. On the contrary, the Northern Alliance [the remnants of the old mujahedeen], which had been thoroughly defeated by the Taliban and had been literally resuscitated from certain death by the US, was actively engaged in consolidating its grip over the country.
We now have a very, very serious situation. To be sure, the Taliban are not universally liked in Afghanistan. But when they first erupted on the Afghan scene in 1994, their success was due to the fact that those who were in charge [the mujahedeen] were much worse. I am afraid today’s government is not much better than that of the mujahedeen after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union and the fall of the man they left in charge, Najibullah.