Brussels, 12 January 2006 (RFE/RL) – The assessment of the EU’s long-time representative for Afghanistan, Fransesc Vendrell, of the situation in the country is relatively upbeat.
He said the results of Afghanistan’s credible and "mostly free" elections largely reflect the will of the people, thereby removing a major cause of conflict.
Vendrell also said Afghanistan is a pluralistic society and that although the political situation is fragile, its views across the entire political spectrum are represented in the country’s parliament. And he said there has been progress on human rights and the situation of women -- although the central authorities hold on the country is in places "tenuous" and old customs still hold sway.
However, Vendrell warned, the country’s future is still hostage to the drugs problem. "It is essential to proceed with the fight against narcotics, being aware that it is a long process, but also being aware that it is urgent to ensure that government and institutions in Afghanistan do not become corrupted by the drug production and trade," he said. "Of course, if that were the case, drugs have the potential to undermine what has been achieved in the last four years."
Vendrell said drugs are at the center of a whole plethora of interconnected social ills. And these ills all have a tendency to reinforce each other. "There is bad governance, and therefore, because there is bad governance in many provinces, some of the provincial authorities are corrupted or have links with the drug production and trade," he noted. "The lack of rule-of-law institutions makes it all the more difficult to fight against drugs if you don’t have a proper police and a proper judicial system. The lack of security in the south, but also in other parts of Afghanistan, is the result of a lack of disarmament. And if you have weapons, it’s very easy to become connected with the drug trade."
The sluggish progress of development in many parts of the country is another problem. Vendrell said the pace of reconstruction has not been as fast as the local population would have wished.
He said that to secure Afghanistan’s future, a comprehensive approach to all these problems is needed. And Vendrell said this will be the aim of an "Afghanistan compact" to be adopted by leaders of the international community at a conference in London on 31 January.
This will be a predominantly political meeting, with some new pledges, he said, depending on budgetary cycles. For example, the United States is expected to offer "substantial" funds for one year, while the EU is preparing a longer-term offer. The conference will focus on three main areas: security, the rule of law, human rights, and governance; economic development; and counternarcotics.
Vendrell said the conference shows it is not all bad news for Afghanistan. "The good news is that at this stage of the process, at this stage of postconflict situations, in other countries the international community would be looking for the way out, thus ensuring that a few years later the country would be back to square one," Vendrell said. "Now, that that is not the case, fortunately not in Afghanistan, there is continued commitment by the international community."
He said there is some good news in the fight against drugs, too. Poppy cultivation acreage dropped by 21 percent last year, although production decreased only by 2.5 percent. This is mostly due to the efforts made in one major province, Nangarhar, where poppy cultivation areas contracted by 96 percent.
However, Vendrell noted that alternative livelihoods will take years to create and require large investments into roads and other infrastructure. He warned the "there will be disappointment" among those farmers who chose not to plant poppies last year.
The EU envoy said the rule of law is still weak in Afgahanistan. He said the judiciary must be overhauled and a "competent" supreme court created. The civil service needs reform, as does governance at the provincial level. There is an urgent need to reform the police and, Vendrell said, EU countries should follow a U.S. idea to send in a large number of instructors.
Meanwhile, the security situation remains fragile. Vendrell said a Taliban insurgency continues in the south, while tribal rivalries abound. He said Western countries need to assign their forces to areas where security is most difficult, not just the relatively safe north. But, he noted, in the EU only Great Britain and the Netherlands are willing to send troops to the south of the country.
In the Netherlands, however, the issue is highly contentious and the parliament will vote on 25 January whether to approve the government’s decision to commit 1,400 troops.
"I have to say that if the Netherlands found it impossible to send forces to the south, this would be a heavy blow for Europe’s prestige in Afghanistan," Vendrell said. "It would be less of a blow for Afghanistan itself because I suspect that other arrangements would need to be made -- be it by Americans, be it by some other European countries -- to fill up the void."
Vendrell noted that a very large number of illegal armed groups remains in existence in Afghanistan, possibly totaling 100,000 men.