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Afghanistan: UN Official To Stress Regional Approach To Peace

  • Robert McMahon

With the appointment of Francesc Vendrell to head the UN's Special Mission to Afghanistan, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he was hoping to provide new impetus to the peace talks in the war-ravaged country. Vendrell is fresh from the negotiations on East Timor's independence from Indonesia, tells RFE/RL correspondent Robert McMahon that he will be putting special emphasis on involving all of Afghanistan's neighbors in the UN's renewed peace initiative.

United Nations, 28 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Francesc Vendrell says he has no illusions about finding a quick, lasting peace for Afghanistan.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a recent report to the Security Council that 20 years of nearly uninterrupted war continues to have a devastating impact on all aspects of Afghan society. Efforts last year at involving Afghanistan's neighbors in a new round of peace talks, as well as the ruling Taliban and the United Front opposition alliance were undermined by a new round of fighting that erupted during the summer.

Annan's report said many of the countries the UN tried to enlist in the "Six plus Two" peace grouping continued to be responsible for providing military support to the warring sides in the latest fighting. Meanwhile, the fighting has displaced hundreds of thousands of Afghans and prolonged the refugee status of hundreds of thousands more.

Amid an atmosphere of deep distrust among parties involved in previous talks, the UN earlier this month decided to appoint Vendrell as full-time head of its Special Mission to Afghanistan, freezing the activities of Annan's special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, until further notice.

Vendrell, a career UN diplomat and Spanish national, says he has never visited Afghanistan. But he became familiar with the issues involved, he said, during the past two years in his role the past two years of director of the Asia and Pacific division of the UN's department of political affairs.

He said he learned from his involvement in the East Timor negotiations that a peace broker needs to have stamina and a sense of timing sometimes to succeed.

"One must have faith in the importance of resolving an issue. I think one has to realize that the purpose of the UN role in Afghanistan is to help the Afghan people live in peace. In that sense, it's not unlike East Timor. But in East Timor, we had to be ready for an opportune moment. The opportunity to resolve East Timor came up after the fall of President Suharto (of Indonesia). I can't tell you now what the opportunity will be in Afghanistan but I think a deeper involvement by the UN may help mature the process"

Vendrell says one of his first actions after taking over as head of the special mission next week (Feb. 1) will be to make a three-week trip to the region, talking to all the parties involved in the conflict. He said the visit would include Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. He says trips elsewhere in Asia and to Moscow and Washington will also be necessary at the outset of his mission.

Vendrell, who now has the rank of assistant secretary-general, says the UN also wants to raise its profile in Afghanistan by moving part of its operations from neighboring Pakistan to Afghan cities such as Kandahar and Kabul.

He said the UN also wants to open an office in Tehran and work on establishing more frequent dialogue with all of Afghanistan's neighbors.

He has met already with the Taliban's representative in New York, Abdul Hakim Mujahid. In a telephone interview yesterday, Mujahid told our correspondent that his government is very optimistic about Vendrell's new role in Afghanistan. He said Vendrell was "very capable" and promised the cooperation of the Taliban authorities in both his peace efforts and in moving some UN operations to Afghanistan.

But Mujahid said the UN must abandon the "Six plus Two" negotiating model as a failed initiative. He alleged that many of those countries involved are working against each other as well as seeking to destabilize Afghanistan. Mujahid said the Taliban government preferred to negotiate separately with each of its neighbors as well as with the opposition.

"The only positive way will be that, to create confidence, bilateral confidence between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and the neighboring countries. I mean Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Pakistan, and China, and also to make bilateral negotiations between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and the opposition inside Afghanistan. This will be the only effective way."

On the subject of the Taliban, Vendrell was cautious, noting the ongoing UN dialogue with the government in Kabul. But he also noted that the great majority of UN members do not recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. The United Front government currently represents Afghanistan at the UN.

Vendrell was also careful about assigning blame in the conflict. He said a long tradition of warfare in the country was one of the main obstacles he will face in making peace.

"I would say too much emphasis, and again its a preliminary review, but there's too much emphasis on making war, too much emphasis in buying and selling weapons to the parties and not enough emphasis in trying to promote a peaceful solution."

Mujahid, the Taliban representative, said that, in order to succeed at peace, the United Nations would also have to limit the role of the major world powers in an Afghan settlement.

"If they accept the ground realities, we do hope that this organization will do much therein Afghanistan for peace and security."

The Taliban government is currently under economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. government and the UN Security Council for failing to turn over suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden for extradition. The Taliban says bin Laden is a guest of the Afghan people and cannot be forced to leave the country unless he volunteered to do so. The Taliban has also been repeatedly accused by Russia for contributing to the armed uprising by Chechen separatists.