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Afghanistan: Peace Depends On Will Of Outsiders

By Hashem Mohmand

The Afghan civil war continues, despite years of efforts to reach a peace agreement, and Afghanistan has become known as a leading producer of heroin and a haven for international terrorists. The UN's special envoy to Afghanistan, Francesc Vendrell, speaks with Hashem Mohmand of RFE/RL's Tajik Service about the difficulties in negotiating a peace.

Prague, 23 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- When the fighting began in Afghanistan, Jimmy Carter was president of the United States and Leonid Brezhnev was leader of the Soviet Union.

Two decades later, the continued instability in Afghanistan has made it a breeding ground for international terrorists and rebels. Russia believes that Chechen rebels have training areas in Afghanistan. And Osama bin Laden, a Saudi national indicted for masterminding many terrorist activities, is also believed to have bases in the country.

But terrorists are only a symptom of the disease -- which is war. Peace initiatives have come and gone, and hope of a negotiated solution is diminishing.

The United Nations, however, has not given up on bringing peace to Afghanistan. Earlier this week our correspondent spoke with the new UN special envoy to Afghanistan, Francesc Vendrell.

There are now two main factions in Afghanistan -- the zealously Islamic Taliban movement, which controls most of the country, and a union of former enemies called the Northern Alliance. Most of Afghanistan's neighbors have been accused of aiding one faction or another. Many promises are made at international gatherings that no one will supply weapons to any Afghan party. But the war goes on, and there seems to be no shortage of arms.

Ambassador Vendrell said it is necessary to continue talking to the countries supporting Afghan factions. He declined to name the countries, but said they may be tiring of supporting groups who seem to be fighting an endless battle.

"I think it is much better to continue discussions with various governments who are involved in the Afghan issue. And I think there is growing perception on the part of all these governments that they have spent a good deal of political and financial capital in trying to influence events in Afghanistan. And I think there is a growing realization that their own interests would best be served if there was a unified, stable government in Afghanistan."

Vendrell says the UN is interested in a peace plan put forth by Zahir Shah, Afghanistan's former king. Vendrell said he just saw the king recently and considers him a key contact to the various factions in Afghanistan.

But Vendrell said the UN is also considering its own possible peace initiatives. He said it is extremely complicated to broker an agreement among all the parties involved.

"Before the UN launches a plan, if we are going to launch it, we must make sure that the key Afghan parties and the key governments involved accept it. We cannot have a peace plan elaborated in a vacuum, and then expect all the other governments and parties to fall in with it. But I do think this is something we must attempt to do."

The warring Afghan factions recently agreed to a prisoner exchange. It is not the first time they have done so and likely will not be the last, but it does demand some contact between them. Previous negotiations between the two sides broke down almost immediately. Neither side considers the other sincere and as long as each feels a military victory is possible, neither has any incentive to make concessions.

Ambassador Vendrell said this is the main obstacle to peace.

"I think there are two major obstacles still. The lack of trust between the warring Afghan factions, and I think that the second thing continues to be foreign interference on all sides."

Russia's threat of strikes against Chechen terrorist bases, and the U.S. missile attacks on suspected terrorist bases of Osama bin Laden, suggest that both those countries believe there will not be a durable peace in Afghanistan any time soon.

Such actions are rather like trying to rid a burning building of the explosives stored inside. But the UN has still not given up trying to put out the fire altogether.