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EU Foreign Ministers Discuss 'Afpak' Strategy, Iran, Middle East

  • Ahto Lobjakas

The EU appears to have taken heart from the relatively successful conduct of the August 20 presidential election and the announcement by a UN agency that Afghan poppy cultivation dropped significantly in 2008.

The EU appears to have taken heart from the relatively successful conduct of the August 20 presidential election and the announcement by a UN agency that Afghan poppy cultivation dropped significantly in 2008.

STOCKHOLM -- EU foreign ministers are in Stockholm for a two-day, informal meeting. The meeting, which takes place twice a year, will provide the EU's top diplomats with an opportunity for brainstorming without making any formal decisions or issuing statements.

The debate will focus on Iran's nuclear program, the Middle East peace process, and, perhaps most crucially, the EU's evolving strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Following the example of the United States, the EU is now intent to put together its own "Afpak" strategy.

A discussion paper, seen by RFE/RL, has been drawn up by officials in Brussels to structure the debate on Afghanistan and Pakistan, most of which will take place on September 5.

Although the document brings Afghanistan and Pakistan together under the same category, it begins with the caveat that "the complex issues affecting Afghanistan and Pakistan cannot be treated as one single policy."

Improving Governance

With most of the focus at the meeting on Afghanistan, the EU appears to have taken heart from the relatively successful conduct of the August 20 presidential election and this week's announcement by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) that poppy cultivation in the country dropped significantly in 2008.

Writing on his blog, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt -- hosting his colleagues on behalf of his country, which is holding the rotating EU Presidency -- said he was told during a visit to Kabul on September 1 that most of the country is now drug-free.

Bildt wrote that even in the south of the country, poppy cultivators are losing ground. He notes that these successes are significant given the ever-closer links between drug traffickers and the insurgency, "[parts] of which look increasingly like criminal drug syndicates."

Bildt, speaking to journalists in Stockholm on September 3, said the EU would work together with the United Nations and the United States to reenergize Afghan policy once the current election season comes to an end.

"We are now in the middle of an election in Afghanistan. There will be a new president or a reelected president, that remains to be seen, and a new government coming out of that. Then we have a period up until the parliamentary elections next year that I think are very important in terms of getting better development in the rule of law, in economic development, in governance on the local and district level," Bildt said.

"And I think both we and the United Nations, and America, need to do more. And that is what we will be discussing."

The draft EU strategy for Afghanistan contains few surprises and its focus is on improving existing policies and aid programs. It recognizes the "dominant role" of the United States in the region and says the EU must seek greater alignment with U.S. policy.

The "institutional side of security," governance, institutional capacity-building, and promoting the rule of law are singled out as areas where the EU wants to make a focused contribution. Ruling out a "military solution," the EU draft strategy says the bloc plays a "key role" in crafting a lasting political settlement.

"This is not a war that will be won by military means, this is a political struggle that will be won primarily by political means, by building the rule of law, by delivering good governance, by having economic development, by fighting the drug barons, by fighting organized criminality, by fighting fundamentalism," Bildt told reporters.

"So it's a political battle where we must give political and economic help."

The document proposes a new and enhanced "compact" for Afghanistan, to be drawn up by the international community at a meeting in Kabul as soon as a new government is in place this autumn.

The aim of the new, UN-driven compact will be to reconfirm objectives set out in the earlier Afghanistan Compact in 2006, and strengthen the country's commitments in areas which have seen limited progress -- such as human rights, the fight against corruption, and good governance.

Better Coordination

The document notes that the EU itself must better coordinate its own activities. Above all, the bloc will need to merge the positions of its two senior representatives in Afghanistan, one of whom currently represents the member states and the other the EU's executive, the European Commission.

The bloc is intent to channel a larger share of its aid through Afghan authorities. It is holding out the promise of providing training to Afghanistan's civil servants and making available a pool of EU experts to help reform the country's institutions.

The EU will also seek to "swiftly" deploy the remaining staff of the EUPOL police training mission, whose strength is currently some 200 people. The document expresses regret about lack of funding, which has hamstrung the EU mission.

The EU is also keen to reform Afghanistan's justice sector. However, the draft strategy notes, Afghan "resistance" is slowing down progress.

Another EU priority for Afghanistan is a more pluralistic party system and stronger parliament.

Taking a wider look, the EU draft document notes furthering regional cooperation is the one of the highest priorities for what remains the "least integrated region in the world." The EU's broader priorities include counternarcotics activities, offers of assistance on border and migration "management," and backing to trade and transit links -- above all railways.

The EU is also committed to promoting the recognition of the Durand Line -- the disputed border between Afghanistan and Pakistan that divides the Pashtun lands -- and is set to offer legal expertise and conflict resolution advice in this context.

In the shorter space dedicated to Pakistan, the document identifies human rights, counterterrorism, electoral reform, and assistance absorption as key EU priorities.

It shies away from contemplating a free-trade agreement with the country, something that was requested by Pakistan at the first EU-Pakistani summit in June. It does, however, say that Pakistan could at some unspecified date be recognized by the EU's most-favored-nation scheme, known as the GSP Plus.

Iran, Middle East

The two other headline themes at this weekend's EU foreign ministers' meeting are Iran and the Middle Eastern peace process.

On Iran, ministers from Germany, Britain, and France will brief their colleagues on this week's meeting of senior diplomats from UN Security Council member states in Frankfurt. The EU as such plays no direct role in the international efforts to contain Iran's controversial nuclear program, but broadly backs the current strategy of ratcheting up sanctions.

In the Middle East, the EU's mediation ambitions have hit a low point, with relations between Israel and the bloc's Swedish presidency barely above the freezing point.

Bildt angered Israel in the spring when he noted that "there can be no more peace without Hamas than there can be peace without [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu." More recently, the Swedish government refused to censure a newspaper in Sweden for publishing reports that Israeli soldiers harvested organs from bodies of Palestinians shot in Gaza.

"Since the Gaza war, everything has stopped and there have been political changes in the region that have made it slightly more complicated," Bildt said on September 3.

"There are now rather intense diplomatic efforts under way in order to try to revive the peace process. Whether that succeeds or not remains to be seen, but we are cooperating very closely with the American administration on this."

The EU has long demanded that Israel stop all settlement construction in the West Bank. This is something that Israel has refused to do so far, despite new appeals from U.S. President Barack Obama. As a result, a scheduled upgrade to the EU-Israeli Association Agreement of 2000 has been put off indefinitely.
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