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.
And the Taliban watched from the sidelines as old warlords returned and much of the country was unprotected?
The Taliban never surrendered to anybody. They had been routed by the US bombing campaign, many were killed, a larger number of them were arrested, but the vast majority just left the cities and either crossed into Pakistan or melted in the countryside in the midst of their people.
The ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] was created in Bonn with 5,000 soldiers, and it was to be deployed only “in the capital and its immediate surroundings.” It was agreed, however, that if we felt the need to expand ISAF in numbers and out of Kabul, that would happen. It almost immediately became abundantly clear that there was a crying need for such an expansion. [Secretary General] Kofi Annan publicly asked for more troops for ISAF and for them to expand outside of Kabul. That appeal and numerous others we made were rejected or ignored.
We didn’t know then, but everyone does know now, that from September 11, 2001, the US administration was looking much more to Iraq than to Afghanistan. They were not really interested in working seriously to stabilize Afghanistan. They had already decided to invade Iraq, and they were looking toward Baghdad, not Kabul.
Around the middle of 2003, I went around begging everybody to do what I called then a Bonn 2 conference. Unfortunately, there again nobody was listening. The Americans had by then invaded Iraq. I am tempted to say that the conference Secretary of State Clinton is now talking about is very close to what would have been the Bonn 2 Conference. Alas, it comes after six very long, wasted years.
Did the Afghan government meet your expectations?
The government of Afghanistan did not do as well as it should have. It was very, very difficult for it to act. And the international community did not help it as effectively as it might have.
Another vitally important point is that Afghans know the difference between a friendly military force coming from outside to help them and an occupying force. ISAF in the beginning was seen as a friendly force, and it was liked, it was welcomed, it was supported, it was not attacked. But now [since 2003] NATO–I don’t think it has performed very well, and more and more people are looking at it as a force of occupation.
How big is Pakistan’s role?
Pakistan is absolutely key to any serious peace process in Afghanistan. Whether anybody likes it or not, if Pakistan says there shouldn’t be peace in Afghanistan, then there will be no peace in Afghanistan. Pakistan, no matter how weak, no matter how complicated its own problems, does have that kind of influence.
Now the gangrene that is eating Afghanistan is expanding into Pakistan. In 1999 I warned the Security Council that it was mistaken to think that Afghanistan did not matter, that if the inhabitants of that poor, backward, isolated country wanted to go on killing one another, let them do it. This is wrong not only on moral grounds but also because you cannot bottle up a conflict like the one in Afghanistan. It will spill over and may hit very, very far away from its borders. So it had done on September 11, 2001. I fear it has done so again a couple of months ago in Mumbai. The US was dragged into Afghanistan in 2001, and India may well be in the process of being dragged into the conflict today.
What about the role of Iran?
Iran is generally considered to be relatively less important than Pakistan. Iran has much influence; it has consistently cultivated its relations with a lot of people in all parts of the country. But there is not the sense of kinship that exists between the Pashtun on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border. The Pashtuns are the largest community inside Afghanistan, and they are a very, very large community in Pakistan.
Iran worked with us very actively in Bonn and during the first two years after Bonn. The framework for that cooperation was created by me in 1997, “the six-plus-two group”–the six were the neighbors of Afghanistan, plus Russia and the United States. That is the only place where the Iranians and Americans were sitting together and actually talking directly to one another. Later, US Ambassador [Zalmay] Khalilzad and the ambassador of Iran were meeting in the UN Residence fairly regularly. Yes, Iran helped. It is good that Secretary of State Clinton went out of her way to say that Iran must participate in the forthcoming conference.
Does Pakistan have any grounds for suspecting India of working against its interests in Afghanistan?
Pakistan has been always obsessed with the fear of being surrounded. It was first the Soviet Union that expanded its influence through the Communists in Afghanistan being friendly to India while being hostile to Pakistan. Then the government of the mujahedeen, after the departure of the Soviet Union, was also seen rightly or wrongly as rather hostile by Pakistan.
Then the Taliban came, and for the first time since the creation of Pakistan, Islamabad had in Kabul a government that was 100 percent with Pakistan and 100 percent against India. So you can’t blame Pakistan for rather liking the Taliban.
After 2001, definitely the people who were helped to regain control of the government in Kabul were hostile–were clearly hostile–to Islamabad and very friendly with India. Then India opened consulates in many cities, including in places like Kandahar that are relatively close to the Pakistani border. Afghan and Indian officials will naturally tell you that India is providing substantial humanitarian and development aid and that there are legitimate needs for them to have these consulates. Pakistanis doubt that. They think that Indian consulates are full of intelligence people who cooperate with their Afghan counterparts to work against Pakistani interests. They are adamant, for example, that the rebellion in Baluchistan is fanned and supported from these Indian consulates in Afghanistan.
For the future of Afghanistan, would it help if Karzai was not re-elected in August?
I have spoken to President Karzai recently, and I think he agrees with me that one shouldn’t look at the issues that are now plaguing his nation from the angle of whether he, Hamid Karzai, should or should not remain president of the country. I think that President Karzai served his country very well, in very complex and difficult circumstances. We, the international community, haven’t helped him much. Quite often we have hindered his actions.
As often happens when things are not going well, some in the international community are engaging in a futile blame game. That does not serve the interests of anyone–certainly not the interests of the people of Afghanistan. President Karzai says there isn’t much consultation between himself and his government and key members of the international community.
I have been talking for years now about the need for a comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan. This strategy cannot be worked out effectively without the full participation of the government and people of Afghanistan. Far too often there is a tendency among the internationals to look at the problems piecemeal. For the moment, for example, the presidential election is an issue. Should Karzai stand again or not? Should he be supported or, on the contrary, opposed?
How about arranging a meeting for President Karzai with President Obama in Washington (or elsewhere) in the not-distant future?
If there must be a transition in Afghanistan from a Karzai era to a post-Karzai era, he should be part of that effort, not the victim of it. He loves his country enough to accept what is good for his country, not what is good for Hamid Karzai.
Has he been personally hurt by a campaign in Washington to discredit him?
He did not speak to me about it, but I’m sure he must be hurt. I have the impression that some people in Washington are treating him as if he had been part of the Bush administration.