Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations’ top troubleshooter and mediator for more than a decade in Afghanistan, Iraq, South Africa and Haiti and the chair of a panel that produced a landmark report on the limits of UN peacekeeping, has often been an incisive and unrelenting critic of American foreign policies. But for many around the world, he ranks as a touchstone wise man in international affairs. He was recently invited to join The Elders, a small private group of global statesmen and former government leaders.
Brahimi, now a director’s visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where he is framing some thoughts into a possible book, is an Algerian who began his diplomatic career in Southeast Asia, representing the country’s independence movement against the French from 1956 to 1961. He went on to become ambassador of independent Algeria in London, Cairo and Khartoum, and undersecretary general of the Arab League. From 1991 to1993 he was Algeria’s foreign minister, before turning to international service as a leading UN envoy and administrator in countries in crisis.
Educated in law and politics in Algeria and in France, where he now has a home, Brahimi was a major player through the late 1990s in negotiations with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and returned in 2004 as the UN representative in Baghdad responsible for helping form a transitional Iraqi government under US occupation. He is also remembered for his shepherding of Afghan factions through the Bonn agreement that restructured the country after the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan.
In a conversation over several hours in Princeton, Brahimi spoke about what should come next in Iraq and how the regional powers must step up, in their own self-interests, to unite in helping the Iraqis establish stability. He assessed the evolution of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, suggested how the US miscalculated in Afghanistan and Washington’s failure to address effectively the core crisis of the Palestinians.
The Iraqis, capable and educated, really had it in them to make the country work. What happened?
What happened is that after the invasion took place, I don’t think they [the United States] made one decision that was right. Paul Bremer is already defending himself, saying it was not I who decided to dissolve the army and so on. Somebody told me–I don’t know if this is true or not–that Yeltsin, when he took over and was very close to the Americans, thought of dissolving the Communist Party. And the Americans told him, You’re crazy. Don’t do that. That’s the state. And yet, they go to Iraq and they dissolve the army, which was part of the system. And the Baath party.
Good people were pushed out?
Absolutely. The Iraqis had been through regime change many times. They know how to do it. You put aside 100 military officers, all the ministers and the secretary generals of the ministries and so on, and the country continues. Now the Shia who came with the Americans, they were the most sectarian elements in the Shia–those who came from Iran. The Americans handed the country over to them. They would have found it difficult to dissolve the army, so the Americans did it for them.
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When I was there [in 2004] I went to Mosul, and people told me, We have no teachers. Mosul is the city in Iraq for culture. In the Iraqi system, just like in the Soviet Union, you could not possibly get hired for anything if you were not a member of the party. That includes teachers. I spoke to Bremer and said, This is not possible. Teachers, engineers, have been kicked out because they were members of the Baath.
Now look at what we have today: the national police is 80 percent militias. The army is less than 80 percent, but it is very, very heavily supported by militias. So these forces are not a national security apparatus. In the army under Saddam, they certainly had more Sunni officers than Shia. But the troops were mostly Shia.
When [Zalmay] Khalilzad was appointed [US ambassador] to Iraq I told him, that deck of cards with Saddam and so on, how many Shia were there? No idea. None? Three? Four? Five? Thirty five! Saddam was not pro-Shia or pro-Sunni. Saddam was pro-Saddam. If you are with him, you are all right. If you are not with him, you are not all right, whether you were Sunni or Shia or whatever.
Is there no way Sunni and Shia can work together now?
I heard some time ago that there are now some Shia who are getting together with Sunni and saying, To hell with the government, to hell with the Americans. We are not going to kill one another. I heard on Arab television just three days ago when I was in Cairo [11/24] that there is a petition [against violence] signed by 300,000 Sunni and Shia.
Although there is sectarian killing on both sides, the fact is that in this ethnic cleansing that is taking place, when a Sunni is forced to leave his house, he gives the key to his neighbor, the Shia, and the Shia will protect his house. The same thing when a Shia is forced to leave an area that is Sunni. Marriage in Iraq between Shia and Sunni is very, very, very common. I’m not sure if it’s too late now, but I am encouraged to hear about this petition.
Are governments in the Middle East focusing more in recent months on the possibility of a post-American Iraq?
The idea has probably developed a little bit, but not very much. Now I say very, very bluntly: The Americans have broken Iraq and destroyed it. They cannot fix it. Iraq needs to be fixed by the Iraqis with the support of their neighbors. It’s crazy for some of the neighbors to say, The Americans have broken it; let them fix it. It’s crazy. The Americans–one day they are going to pack up and go. What do they care? Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have got to get together.
How can that happen?
This is what diplomacy is about. If you find, somewhere, people who are convinced that this is the way to go, you need to start working on it. It takes a hell of a long time and all sorts of compromises. There is no other way. They are going to be forced to understand that they have to go this way. A civil war cannot be bottled up in Iraq. Even in Iran, they would be affected. If the Shia are going to win and they are going to take over the country, then the Shia will not want to be directed from Iran. They have a long history of tensions and competition between the Arabs and the Persians. I don’t think the Arabs will [say anything] now. They will keep quiet. As soon as they are all right, they will say, Get off our backs. Some of them are already saying that. Even some religious groups have publicly said, This is too much. There are some organizations that are already criticizing Iran.
I think that Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey–with the other Arab neighbors–have got to come together and go to the Iraqis and say, We’d like to help you solve your problems. If they go together, I think the Iraqis would listen. If Saudi Arabia goes alone, then the Shia will say, No, No, No. You are coming here to help the Sunnis. If Iran goes alone, then the Sunnis will tell them, You are here to help the Shia take over.
And the Americans?
When I say the Americans cannot succeed, I am not saying that this can be done without the Americans. It has to be done with the Americans. You cannot ignore a party to this mess which has 150,000 soldiers. They [the Americans] used to tell me–when I told them to get the neighbors together and talk–We ask them, we are begging them, but they refuse. I told them why they are refusing is that you are telling them, Come and help us implement our policy. They are too polite to say, Your policy is rotten. So they just say, No, No, No. But if you tell them, Let’s sit down and work out a policy together, because we accept that our policy has failed, then it’s a different proposition.
Work out a policy together. Say we also recognize that you have interests. We all want to fix Iraq. Then maybe you can get somewhere.
Is there much commentary in the Arab media about the future of the region? Are there Arab think tanks working on these issues?
Yes, there is commentary but there is no authoritative voice. You don’t have any more somebody like [the Egyptian journalist] Mohammed Hassanein Heykal. He’s still around. He gives a talk on Al Jazeera television once a week. It’s tremendously popular. But he talks about the past. He is not a decision-maker any more. Now they are talking about local problems. You have, for example, some very good people in Lebanon, but even when they speak about the region, it is very, very colored by the local situation.
There are quite a few think tanks and so on in Egypt in Jordan. But there is no pan-Arab movement as existed in the 50s and 60s, and a little bit in the 70s. They are gone now. There is a lot of American influence. In Egypt, for example, you have a lot of these think tanks that are financed transparently by the Americans. So although they are not doing the bidding of the Americans, if you are receiving money from the Americans you have to take that into consideration.
What would leaders in the Middle East like to see in Iraq? What is salvageable?
There are certainly those who want to see a Sunni-dominated regime. I think anybody who has any sense knows that this is over. Even the Saudis now say that they have no problem with a Shia government in Iraq. The thing is that Iran has incredible influence now. In one thousand ways. The Americans handed the country over to them, and when they realized what they had done they said, Please give it back. And the Iranians say, Why should we?
Have the Iranians backed off supporting Iraqi militants?
No. This is what a country like Iran does. It has as many irons in the fire as possible. So whoever is willing to take money and arms from them, they get them. And the Iranians have plenty of their own people in Iraq.
Is Ahmadinejad a thorn in the side of other rulers in the Middle East?
He is probably a nuisance in that they are terribly worried if it is true that he is trying to get a bomb.
In the wider Arab region, how much is Iraq a concern?
Oh, yes. I think their concern with Iraq is like this: you already have Al Qaeda, which was nonexistent, and has become a very important organization. There are a lot of Egyptians in touch with it, and one day Al Qaeda is going to [emerge] in Egypt. This is one. Two, if you have a civil war in Iraq, and it continues, it is impossible to keep it within the borders of Iraq. It will definitely spill over. It will spill over in Lebanon, where there is a big Shia community. We will all be affected, because our young religiously minded in North Africa, in Egypt, will want to go and help their Sunni brothers.
Turkey is an important player, but they are on the defensive now. They were trying to see if they can salvage Kirkuk. They consider that Kirkuk is the place for Turkmen. But I think that the Kurds are making a bid for it and they will probably get it.
The Kurds are taking full advantage of the division of the Arabs in Iraq.
And the regional or pan-Islamic organizations–the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the OIC?
These two organizations have disappointed most people in the region. They are probably the weakest regional organizations, not anywhere near the EU or ASEAN and really behind the African Union
Has Egypt sunk in influence?
Egypt is still an important country in the Arab world [but] it has less influence than it did in the 50s, 60s and early 70s. Remember that for all practical purposes, President Sadat took Egypt out of the Arab World. Mubarak patiently brought it back into the fold. But it is a fact that Egypt gets $2 billion a year in various forms of aid from the US and Washington constantly reminds Cairo that if its Egyptian policy is hostile to the US, Congress might cancel the aid.
Is there a role for the UN now in Iraq?
What for? This is the question. When Sergio [Vieira de Mello] went in 2003, I told Kofi [Annan], the Americans have invaded the country and disregarded the UN. And then they came back to the UN and got a resolution that recognized them as the occupying power. There is no room for you. So you shouldn’t go at all.
One day they are not going to be able to manage. They will come back, when things become difficult. They will come back and ask for help. Then you go. But not now. Even that was mistake, because I thought that in January 2004, the Americans said in so many words, we cannot do the next phase alone. We need your help. The government I contributed to form [led by Ayad Allawi] is probably the best government they had–or the least bad government they had–since Saddam fell. But I shouldn’t have gone.
Does Allawi still have a political future?
He squandered it. I told him he had six months to become a national leader. But for that, you’ve got to take your distance from the Americans. Even if you are grateful to them, you cannot govern Iraq on behalf of them. What killed him was Fallujah and Najaf. He stupidly said what the Americans told him to say: that they were bombing Fallujah at his request.
Is Al Qaeda in Iraq still important?
Oh, yes. It is now having some problems. For example, in Al Anbar and also, I think, in Baghdad. But it’s a fact that this organization that did not exist in Iraq five years ago was [recently] running some districts not very far from Baghdad. They do now seem to be losing ground, but I think we have to wait and see how seriously, and whether they can solve their problems. I know that in some councils of coordination of the insurgency, Al Qaeda is a very, very strong presence. But at the same time I think that the excesses–the killing of kids and so on–have raised people against them.
Do you see Al Qaeda moving into North Africa?
It already has. The rebellion in Algeria, which was practically vanquished, is flaring up. And now they call themselves Al Qaeda for the Islamic Maghreb. They have changed their name.
Are these copycat organizations or do they have direct links to Osama bin Laden?
There may be some loose links, but it’s not a centralized organization with branches everywhere. I don’t think so. In Iraq I think perhaps it is a little bit different because what one hears is that there are a lot of couriers between Iraq and Pakistan, and there are a lot of people who travel back and forth–and I’m not sure how much money. Al Qaeda in Iraq has no money of their own, so they have some money from the Gulf and Saudi Arabia. I know for a fact some individuals are paying money to Al Qaeda. In Algeria there isn’t that kind of thing.
Given all the failures of American public diplomacy in the Middle East, is the US situation hopeless in reaching people in the streets?
It is. Kofi at one stage sent Ahmed Fawzi [a UN media expert] to the Middle East to see how they can improve the image of the UN. Ahmed asked me, what is your advice? I told him, Don’t go. The UN has a bad name. It’s not a misunderstanding. People know what the UN is, and they don’t like it.
Is this because of Palestine?
Absolutely. So the Americans’ public diplomacy–what can you do? Your policies–what you do in Palestine, what you say, what you don’t do–people know that very well and they don’t like it. You are going to tell them, No, you should like it. It’s not bad.
The thing is, is the government willing to at least listen to some of these grievances? When Mrs. Rice says publicly, Israel must continue to bombard Lebanon–it never happened since the UN has been created…that the Security Council says, Go on. Israel planted these fragmentation bombs after the ceasefire. These fragmentation bombs are from America. It’s allowed by the Americans. So, people don’t believe anything the Americans say, and it’s not bias. It’s reasonable. When they say human rights, for example, be careful of human rights, it’s not true. Because the Israelis have uprooted two years ago one million Palestinian trees–olives, citrus–and you don’t say anything. The Americans want to rid of UNWRA and Peter Hansen was thrown out [as head of UNRWA, the UN agency assisting Palestinians] at the request of the Americans, not the Israelis.
What do you think of Mahmoud Abbas–Abu Mazan–as a leader of the Palestinians?
What I liked about him was that he was the first one who said, Let’s go to the Israelis and make a deal, and he has never deviated from that. So at least there is consistency there.
Could he lead a truncated Palestine without Gaza? At least at the start?
No. It’s more serious than that. Fatah, his organization, has aged. It has lost its leader, Arafat, and a lot of other leaders who were well above Abu Mazan. With the Israelis destroying day after day, week after week, all their institutions, they have become corrupt and they have lost touch with their people. Sadly, I have to say that those who represent now the soul of the Palestinians are Hamas, not Fatah. They are now the militant organization that is clean, that is sincere, that is trying to do something no matter how ill advised some of their activities are.
[The election of Hamas] was a wonderful opportunity for the Americans, and definitely for the United Nations or the Europeans, to go to Hamas and say, You’ve won the election. Congratulations. I think you would have started something that would definitely have led somewhere. Definitely. I’m 100 percent sure. Instead of that, you say, with the Israelis, Give us everything that we want at the end of any negotiation and then we’ll talk with you. Your reward is that I talk to you. Who is going to accept that?
Let’s turn to Afghanistan, which seems to be sliding backwards. Car bombs were not the Taliban’s style. Who is doing that
It’s Al Qaeda. I have a theory, and it’s only a theory. That is, that the Americans went into Afghanistan very reluctantly. They pleaded with the Taliban to hand over these people who came and attacked them. And they told the Taliban in no uncertain words that you run your country the way you like it. We just want these people. You don’t even have to give them to us. Give them to anybody. The Taliban refused, so they attacked them. My theory now is that they attacked with the intention of staying there a few days or a few weeks, no more–that it would not take that long to get these bastards, capture them or kill them, and then move on to Iraq. I know for a fact that on the seventeenth of September 2001, there was a very big meeting in the Pentagon, not about Afghanistan but about Iraq. I have it from somebody who was there.
Mr. Rumsfeld said [of Afghanistan], We don’t do nation-building. We were telling him, Don’t arm the warlords. [The Northern Alliance of former mujahideen driven out of power by the Taliban.] He said, anybody who will help us, we will work with them, because we don’t care what is happening in Afghanistan.
It took two years for them to realize they cannot get out of Afghanistan that easily. It took us a few days to realize that the Afghans were dying to have foreign troops against their warlords. So in January 2002, one month after we arrived, Kofi and I started saying, Please let’s expand ISAF out of Kabul. They [the Americans] refused. We kept asking and asking. I’m certain if we had 10,000 additional troops around the country in those days then Afghanistan could have avoided the difficulties.
Ideally, we should have had the Taliban in Bonn, but it was not possible. The Americans would not have allowed it. The second best would have been to try and get in touch with the Taliban immediately when we went into Kabul. And I timidly suggested that. But the Americans, the Russians, the Iranians and the Indians, they all said no. I now blame myself. I should have raised my voice much, much more, because then the Taliban were routed, demoralized, split. If you had gone to them, you would have attracted quite a few of them. Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil [the Taliban foreign minister] negotiated his surrender in Kandahar, but the Americans did not keep their promise they would let him go, and they kept him in jail almost two years.
And in Pakistan President Musharraf says he does not know where bin Laden is. Does anyone believe that?
That the Pakistanis knew bin Laden fairly well is very likely. He was close to them–and to the CIA–during the struggle against Russian occupation of Afghanistan. When he returned–I think it was in 1995–he must have gone through Pakistan. Until 9/11, a lot of people were in touch with bin Laden and I don’t see how or why the Pakistanis would have no contact with him.
After 9/11, I am certain that President Musharraf had decided that the interest of his country demanded that he side with the US, not the Taliban. That decisions must have been difficult to accept for many in Pakistan–especially in the Security services–who had worked for years with the Taliban. Indeed many people said then and say today that Pakistan never had better support and understanding in Kabul than during the Taliban years. Pakistanis knew better than anyone else that by 9/11 the ties between the Taliban and bin Laden had become extremely close. One is allowed therefore to speculate that, even after Musharraf’s strategic option in favor of the Americans and against the Taliban, some, (probably many, in fact), would try to keep other options open, including contacts with bin Laden.
Later, the clearly anti-Pakistani posture of many very influential members of the Karzai Government and the growing influence of India in Afghanistan must have reinforced the position of those who felt that Musharraf”s all-out support of the Americans was perhaps premature.
How important has the India factor been in Pakistan’s Afghan policy?
Remember the visit of Clinton to India? That was the signal that Pakistan is not important anymore for the United States. America was going to lose interest. India was much more interesting. So how is Pakistan going to be important again?
How is it that Americans, with all their collective expertise, make so many mistakes?
You have in universities probably the best expertise, on all sorts of subjects, including the Middle East, and in the think tanks in Washington, all these people have access to the government. But the government, especially this one, doesn’t seem to listen. And on Iraq, for example, the media, even the quality papers like the New York Times, the Washington Post had really let themselves be dragged along in the wrong direction.