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UN: Envoy Says Afghan Neighbors Hold Key To Future

  • Robert McMahon

The international community's top diplomat for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, has finished his first round of talks on the prospects for building a broad-based post-Taliban government for the country. The diplomacy now shifts to New York for a ministerial meeting of the "Six-plus-Two" group, which Brahimi has criticized in the past but which he says now has a crucial chance to provide stability for the region.

United Nations, 7 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- United Nations special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has expressed hope that a revived regional peace initiative can help put in place a stable post-Taliban government in Afghanistan.

Brahimi told a press conference yesterday in Tehran that the "Six-plus-Two" group will meet at the ministerial level in New York on 12 November. The group is to meet on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly and is expected to review a paper from Brahimi offering suggestions on how to move ahead plans for a broad-based Afghan government in the event the Taliban regime falls.

The UN Security Council is planning an open meeting the following day, on 13 November, to assess the political developments.

The "Six-plus-Two" group -- comprising Afghanistan's neighbors, as well as Russia and the United States -- has pledged to cooperate on peace initiatives in the past. But it has repeatedly failed to follow through as group members -- namely Iran and Pakistan -- continued to provide military support to the warring sides in Afghanistan's civil war.

Brahimi acknowledges the difficulties but said after high-level meetings in Pakistan and Iran during the past 10 days that the diplomatic efforts will continue through the "Six-plus-Two" group. UN spokesman Fred Eckhard quoted Brahimi as saying in Tehran that the United Nations has received encouraging signals of international support for Afghan reconstruction: "The special representative stressed at the press conference the need for post-conflict reconstruction of Afghanistan, saying that the international community for the first time has understood the importance of a determined, serious, lasting effort to help the people of Afghanistan reconstruct themselves."

Brahimi has widespread international support for his mission to help put together a post-Taliban administration encompassing the country's main ethnic groups, as well as women and representatives of the huge Afghan diaspora. But Iran and Pakistan remain fundamentally opposed on key issues.

In Islamabad, Brahimi heard from Pakistan's leaders of the need to have moderate Taliban elements represented in a future government. Pakistan is the only country to recognize the Taliban and has close ethnic ties to the movement's dominant Pashtun. Pakistan strongly opposes any leading role for the Northern Alliance, which now controls about 15 percent of Afghan territory.

In Tehran, Iranian officials told Brahimi they favor an interim government led by Burhanuddin Rabbani, whose coalition with the Northern Alliance is still recognized as Afghanistan's chief representative by the United Nations. Iranian officials have said they oppose a Taliban role in any future Afghanistan government and are against a return to power of Afghanistan's former king, Zahir Shah.

Experts on the region say Brahimi has a thankless task, but that he is one of the best-qualified diplomats to handle the job.

Barnett Rubin is director of the Center for International Cooperation at New York University and an expert on Afghanistan. He said during a recent lecture in New York that the U.S.-led military campaign against the Taliban and suspected Al-Qaeda bases will strongly influence Brahimi's mission: "[Brahimi's] role will be extremely important, but it's very hard to predict what it will be because what he will be able to do will depend on the evolution of the situation on the ground."

So far, the U.S.-led bombing missions -- now one month old -- have failed to noticeably weaken the Taliban's hold over most of Afghanistan. Rubin says even if the Northern Alliance, with U.S. assistance, is able to recapture Mazar-i-Sharif and most of the north of the country, the key power base remains the south.

Any future Afghan government, Rubin says, will need to control the south, and that will require Pakistan's help: "You have to have a new authority that exerts control over southern Afghanistan. That's also vital to the stability of Pakistan, so it's one of the conditions that Pakistan has really put on her cooperation."

Rubin says Brahimi has embarked on an ambitious but realistic diplomatic mission but is also wary of any demands for UN peacekeepers to be brought into Afghanistan. At yesterday's press conference, Brahimi said the insertion of UN peacekeepers is the least likely scenario for Afghanistan. He said support for this is lacking by the warring parties in the country.

Brahimi said a more realistic option is the deployment of a multinational force with a mandate from the UN Security Council and the ability to take more robust action.

This makes more sense, according to John Ruggie, a former United Nations assistant secretary-general and now a professor of international affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

But Ruggie says the composition of even a potent multinational force could be problematic for badly divided Afghanistan. He points out that Afghanistan is not like East Timor, where there has been little internal opposition to a UN-run transitional administration. And Ruggie says that, in the case of Kosovo, NATO and other forces have been responsible for security, while the UN manages civilian affairs: "The only way to make it work is for there to be sufficient deterrent and enforcement power, and a UN peacekeeping operation isn't going to have that."

Ruggie says Afghan politics are a sensitive matter on every front. In the case of Iran, he says, the government there seems to be trying to play a constructive role: "They don't want chaos to emerge in Afghanistan. Very nasty things could happen in the whole region if it did, and it would affect the Iranians adversely, as well, so they're trying very hard to be helpful. How far they'll go remains to be seen."

Prior to the 12 November "Six-plus-Two" meeting, a flurry of low-level diplomatic activity is continuing on the question of a new Afghan government. Brahimi says his deputy, Francesc Vendrell, heads today to the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, to meet representatives of the Northern Alliance.

Brahimi himself will travel to Rome to meet the former Afghan king and officials involved in what has been called the Rome Process. He says that, while in Rome, he will meet representatives of a process based in Cyprus that has the support of Afghans concerned that the Rome group is dominated by monarchists and fails to consider Islamic interests. The Cyprus process is supported by Iran.

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