The head of the UN's Special Mission to Afghanistan, Francesc, Vendrell, has just returned from his first visit to war-torn Afghanistan and neighboring countries. He saw first hand the enormous social, humanitarian, and economic troubles gripping the country and told reporters that the road to recovery must start with a verifiable ceasefire between the country's warring sides. UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.
United Nations, Feb. 26 (RFE/RL) -- Francesc Vendrell was named to head the UN. mission to Afghanistan at the beginning of this month to try to revive the political process toward a settlement of the country's civil war.
He has spent most of the month touring Afghanistan and the neighboring Central Asian states to study the situation on the ground and meet with interested parties. Vendrell is a veteran UN diplomat with long experience working on the case of East Timor sovereignty.
He told reporters at UN headquarters in New York yesterday that his findings in Afghanistan indicate he faces formidable obstacles as a peacemaker.
Years of civil war have created a refugee population of more than 2.6 million Afghans -- the world's largest single refugee group -- in neighboring Pakistan and Iran. Inside Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands more have been displaced by the ongoing conflict between forces of the ruling Taliban and an allied coalition of forces.
The Taliban, which controls about 90 percent of the country, faces widespread international criticism and has been recognized by only three UN member states. It is seen as enforcing a repressive code of law, profiting from a flourishing heroin trade and harboring accused terrorist Osama bin Laden.
The UN Security Council voted last autumn to set sanctions against Afghanistan for not releasing bin Laden for extradition. The main effect has been to limit the flights of the air carrier Ariana, which normal Afghans had relied on for remittances from relatives abroad.
To reverse these poor fortunes will require an end to the fighting between the Taliban and the northern alliance of forces, who are still recognized at the UN as representing Afghanistan. Vendrell told reporters he heard support from the warring sides for a ceasefire but he stressed that it must be lasting.
"It very much depends how the ceasefire would work and how it would be verified. Without verification, perhaps ceasefires are likely to be temporary at best. There is also agreement that there should be a multi-ethnic representative government but the problem is what the various parties mean by this term. And again, I think I would need further clarification and further discussions with the parties."
To help clarify issues, Vendrell said there would be a meeting on Monday of the "Six-plus-Two" countries at UN headquarters in New York. The group is composed of China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, and Russian Federation and United States. Last year, the group adopted -- in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent -- the Declaration on Fundamental Principles for a Peaceful Settlement of the Conflict in Afghanistan.
Under this declaration, members of the group agreed to not provide military support to any Afghan party and to prevent the use of their territories for such purposes.
But a report later issued by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said many of the countries in the group continued to be responsible for providing military support to the warring sides in the fighting that surged toward the end of last year.
The Taliban's representative in New York, Abdul Hakim Mujahid, told RFE/RL in an interview last month that the UN should abandon the "Six plus Two" negotiating model as a failure. 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.
Vendrell told reporters that Taliban officials he spoke with in Afghanistan were deeply concerned at their lack of recognition as the country's legitimate rulers. Vendrell said he told them that UN members were withholding recognition out of concern that the Taliban was sponsoring terrorism and for failing to extradite bin Laden.
"The response I've heard on the terrorism item has been to say that they deeply and totally oppose terrorism. But, on the other hand, they have reiterated that Mr. bin Laden is a guest, that he became a resident of Afghanistan prior to the Taliban takeover of most of Afghanistan and that Mr. bin Laden is no longer active, that he no longer has communication with his followers and outside Afghanistan. This is their view. I have pointed out that this is not a view shared by some other governments."
Vendrell says he will be focusing in the weeks ahead on filling many of the vacant posts in the UN Special Mission to Afghanistan and that he plans to set up major offices in Iran's capital, Tehran, as well as Kabul and smaller offices throughout Afghanistan. He said in recent months, UN agencies have found it easier to operate in Afghanistan, noting that women staffers were able to work without problems in some areas.