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Afghanistan: EU Representative Warns Country Is At Crossroads

The EU's representative for Afghanistan, Francesc Vendrell, on 12 September warned that time is running out for efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. He said a stronger international security force presence and reforms of Afghanistans security apparatus are needed to ward off the threat emanating from remnants of the Taliban and the country's blossoming heroin industry.

Brussels, 13 September 2003 (RFE/RL) Francesc Vendrell, the EU special representative in Afghanistan, said he believes Afghanistan is at "a crossroads."

"We are at a crossroads. We are at a crossroads because we are supposed to have a constitutional loya jirga [grand assembly] in December, the constitution needs to be enacted -- first approved and then enacted - a constitution that ought to reflect if not a full consensus in the population as to what kind of constitution they want, certainly they should feel that the content of the constitution has been properly aired and discussed, even if, inevitably, perhaps some people might not fully agree with some areas of its content," Vendrell said.

Vendrell warned that without greater involvement of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), this process and elections in June next year are in danger.

Vendrell said he will tell a joint meeting of EU and NATO ambassadors in Brussels on 15 September that a few thousand more ISAF troops, robustly deployed, could make a huge difference.

He said he particularly supports the use of mobile ISAF units able to operate outside of the area around the capital Kabul. The NATO-led ISAF force currently comprises about 5,000 troops, with Germany being the largest contributor. Any extension of ISAF's mandate outside the Kabul region would need the approval of the UN Security Council.

Vendrell acknowledged that the military capabilities of some EU member states as well as the United States are currently overextended. But, he said, quick action is necessary to improve security in Afghanistan. "Whatever needs to be done in Afghanistan needs to be done quickly," he said. "We cannot afford to wait because the longer the situation remains as it is, the more difficult it is to remedy it later on."

Pointing to Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai's inability to extend his control far beyond Kabul, Vendrell said Afghanistan will need to quickly set up its own army. It currently numbers about 5,000 men.

He praised a recent decree signed by Karzai that approves a new structure for the country's Defense Ministry. But he said that senior positions in the new structure must be filled in such a way that does not put one single ethnic group or a political ideology in control.

Vendrell said Afghanistan must have its own functioning security forces in place by the June elections, adding that the failure of the registration process or the elections themselves in several provinces could "negate" the results.

In this context, Vendrell said, the fundamentalist Taliban - ousted from power nearly two years ago - still remains an important factor in Afghanistan. He said the EU is putting pressure on neighboring Pakistan to act against the infiltration of militants into Afghanistan.

Vendrell warned that a cocktail of internal and international neglect and intervention by Afghanistans neighbors could breed sympathy for the Taliban in Afghanistans southeastern provinces. "We're not talking here of tens of thousands [of Taliban], were talking of a [lesser but still] significant number," he said. "But, equally important to bear in mind is the reaction of the population to the Taliban. To the extent that the Pashtun population in Afghanistan feels -- rightly or wrongly, Im not saying [which] -- alienated or discriminated, they are more likely to be - I wouldnt say welcome the Taliban - but perhaps to be more passive when there is this kind of infiltration. And that's another reason why all these other changes in terms of security elsewhere, in terms of participation by all the ethnic groups in the 'power ministries' is essential."

Vendrell said the increasing activity of the Taliban threatens southern Afghanistan with a cycle of fundamentalist violence and underdevelopment as reconstruction efforts are hindered.

Vendrell also warned that the production of opium - which is increasingly being worked into heroin within the borders of Afghanistan itself - is on the rise. This, he said, was a direct function of the weakness of Karzais administration outside Kabul. He said drug producers have no interest in political reforms and are working to destabilize the country.

Vendrell said Afghanistan will need billions of dollars in the coming years. He said the United States might announce in the margins of a prospective donors meeting for Iraq in Dubai on 20 September an extra contribution of about $1 billion. Vendrell said he hopes the EU, which last year provided about 40 percent of the international assistance to Afghanistan, will match the increase.