Before his retirement last year, Spanish diplomat Francesc Vendrell was highly regarded for his work in peace processes across Asia, Latin America, and Africa. In Afghanistan, owing to his service as a special envoy for Afghanistan for the United Nations (2000-02) and later the European Union (2002-08), Vendrell is remembered across the political spectrum as a true friend of that country.
Now a visiting scholar at Princeton University, Vendrell tells RFE/RL correspondent Abubakar Siddique about Washington's new prism for viewing Afghanistan, efforts at reconciliation, and the risk of foreign forces "wearing out their welcome."RFE/RL: What are your views on the current political situation in Afghanistan, considering that presidential elections have been scheduled for August 20 despite the fact that President Hamid Karzai's term officially is to end on May 22? Is Afghanistan facing a constitutional crisis?Frances Vendrell:
To talk of a constitutional crisis is a bit premature. There is a potential for a constitutional crisis -- you are absolutely right. And I think it would be important for the UN envoy in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, to hold consultations with the various Afghan figures involved to find the way out of this potential crisis. And perhaps some kind of roundtable needs to be organized to see what should happen in this period between mid-May and late August.RFE/RL: Do you think that U.S. President Barack Obama's recent decision to send an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan will improve the security situation in Afghanistan?Vendrell:
It would have been preferable if any deployment would have waited until there was a total review of the strategy to be followed -- and also greater consultations with the allies. And then, only in that context, it might make sense to send more forces.
My impression is that no Afghan public figure is actually calling for more foreign forces. If you hear what President Karzai has said in the last few days, he is very much [concerned] that any deployment of further forces should be closely coordinated with the Afghan government. And the purposes for which these foreign forces would be used needs to be also agreed by the Afghan government.
One has to be careful in terms of increasing the foreign military presence because -- although we have been very lucky that the Afghan population has welcomed, particularly in 2001 and 2002, the arrival of international forces -- I think, we have to be careful that our welcome is not wearing out.
RFE/RL: What is your assessment of the apparent differences between President Karzai and Washington over the military strategy in Afghanistan?Vendrell:
There is a danger of spreading the blame for what has gone wrong in Afghanistan. And undoubtedly President Karzai, knowing that he is often portrayed by his own people as being perhaps almost a puppet of the Americans, wants to show that he is not one.
Well, there is a danger of spreading the blame for what has gone wrong in Afghanistan. And undoubtedly, President Karzai -- knowing that he is often portrayed by his own people as being perhaps almost a puppet of the Americans -- wants to show that he is not one. And he is obviously playing a nationalist card at this point. I think the new U.S. administration is viewing Karzai from a different angle than the Bush administration was doing.RFE/RL: Do you think President Karzai, by increasingly expressing his opposition to U.S. military strategies that result in civilian casualties, is using the situation for campaigning purposes ahead of the presidential elections?Vendrell:
I think there are very genuine Afghan grievances. He may be formulating them -- the timing may be somewhat linked to the elections, but I think the grievances are very genuine. Even though the Taliban may also be killing as many civilians, or more, than foreign forces. At the end of the day, Afghans are increasingly unwilling to accept civilian casualties at the hands of foreigners. And he is right in saying that Afghan patience may be wearing thin.
RFE/RL: What kinds of challenges can Richard Holbrooke, U.S. President Obama's special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, expect? Vendrell:
Former Taliban and other militants who pledged recently to abandon violence offer prayers at a ceremony in Kabul on February 17.
Well, he has got a plate full of challenges. It's wise to have appointed him as a special representative for both Pakistan and Afghanistan. There is a Pakistani angle that the Bush administration ignored until recently. Now that doesn't mean that the situation in Afghanistan will be resolved if Pakistan ceases to be a sanctuary for the Afghan Taliban. I think there are genuine grievances, inside Afghanistan, that have led to either Afghans joining the Taliban, or probably a very large number of particularly [ethnic] Pashtuns sitting on the fence between the government and the Taliban. We need to improve, but rapidly, local governance. It is necessary to do something very concrete in terms of getting rid of corrupt public figures. It is essential to have reconstruction programs that provide work for the average Afghan.RFE/RL: What is your prognosis of the issue of talking to the Taliban?Vendrell:
The Afghan government and the president need to define a framework about how to proceed with any reconciliation talks with the Taliban. And the president needs to reach a consensus with other legal political forces in Afghanistan as to what this dialogue with the Taliban will consist of. And then, of course, he needs to have on board the key members of the international community. I personally think that one should start by making approaches to some of the local commanders who may be fighting in Afghanistan not because they want to establish an Islamic emirate, but because they have local grievances that have not been met.
RFE/RL: Recent public opinion surveys suggest that support for the Afghan mission is dwindling in Europe. But with major reviews of the Afghan policy going on in Washington, the U.S. is likely to ask for increased European commitment. As a former EU envoy, how do you read the mood in Europe?Vendrell:
I think that one should start by making approaches to some of the local [Taliban] commanders who may be fighting in Afghanistan not because they want to establish an Islamic emirate, but because they have local grievances that have not been met.
There has been a failure by European leaders to explain to the public the reasons why we are in Afghanistan.
Second, there is a parallelism between Afghan public opinion and European public opinion. Whenever there are civilian casualties or whenever members of parliament or citizens in Europe read about corruption or about [Afghan] government officials linked to narcotics, their reaction is pretty similar to the one of the Afghans: It's negative. In the case of the European, they have to ask themselves "What is point in being there?"
I think [this question is] important if the U.S. administration wants a deeper European involvement, and I am very much in favor of that. They need to sit with the Europeans and develop a common strategy. Simply developing an American strategy and then going to the Europeans and asking for greater involvement may not quite do it.RFE/RL: You have lived in the Afghan capital for nearly seven years, and many Afghans consider you an understanding friend. Do you think that there is a common vision among Afghans for their country?Vendrell:
I am not sure that there is a detailed Afghan vision. I think that most Afghans want, first of all, security. Second, they want employment and some kind of livelihood. Three -- yes, I think they do want to be able to choose their leaders regularly. I think that they don't want to have a government imposed on them by a minority of their own citizens.