Vygaudas Usackas has been EU Special Representative in Afghanistan for only a few months, but has already made many friends in Kabul. Despite the falling public support for the war in Afghanistan, the former Lithuanian foreign minister remains optimistic about the future of Afghanistan.
In an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Abubakar Siddique, Usackas says his main challenge is to convince Afghanistan's neighbors to emulate the European model in ending the numerous conflicts in the region.
RFE/RL: I want to begin by asking you about the peace process. Following the appointment of former President Burhanuddin Rabbani as the head of the High Peace Council, how do you view the way forward?
Vygaudas Usackas: I think it is very welcome news that the High Peace Council has been established and that such a highly respected person as Professor Rabbani was appointed chairman of the High Peace Council. I know Professor Rabbani rather well, and will be seeing him...and learning from him how he sees the process [moving] forward. We all know that the international community and the European Union [are] very much behind reconciliation.
We believe that the resolution to the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan rests in the peace efforts and in the peace settlement which will entail both the fractions within the country but also important contributions of the neighboring countries. I just came back from Islamabad -- we had meetings with representatives of the government and also with the NGO and think-tank communities -- and I was very encouraged to hear the voice of positive attitude in support of the reconciliation process in Afghanistan.
RFE/RL: In speaking to people on both sides while in Kabul, I have become aware of a key point in that the Taliban believe that tangible steps toward peace can only come when the international community lifts some of the blacklists, sanctions against some Taliban leaders, close detention facilities that are obviously very notorious, like the Guantanamo Bay prison, the Bagram prison, and also allow insurgents some political space. Do you see that happening any time soon?
Usackas: What I see happening is indeed opposition by the Afghan government to the talks. First of all, it is important to acknowledge that they will be Afghan-led negotiations; and I think that what we have heard from President [Hamid] Karzai numerous times is his support and eagerness to advance reconciliation. I don't want to go into details -- it will be a part of negotiations when they start.
We have heard the reports about the talks and connections being established between the government and certain types of Taliban -- the Haqqani Network and Quetta Shura. Again, I don't want to preempt those discussions. I think currently we only see pre-positioning for the future talks, and the first contacts, or talks, for the talks. However, again, I welcome the establishment of the High Peace Council. We support the efforts toward reconciliation -- the European Union itself is an example of reconciliation among the nations after the Second World War. So, I mean, the Afghan-led process of reconciliation has [the EU's] whole-hearted support in that respect.
RFE/RL: You said you were in Islamabad. What was the mood there after the government closed the main northern NATO supply route to Afghanistan? Is Islamabad ready to help with an internal political settlement in Afghanistan, or do they seek to realize what was traditionally their objective of seeing a pro-Islamabad government in Kabul?
Usackas: First of all, what I gathered is a clear sign that Pakistan sees internal settlement as an Afghan-led settlement in Afghanistan. And that's, I think, very important that we all -- all neighbors of Afghanistan and the international community -- would rally behind the efforts of an intra-Afghan peace settlement. On the other hand, what I found is also an understanding that both countries share the same security threats and security risks, which derive from militant extremism and the sources of international terrorism.
RFE/RL: How do you see the new parliament shaping up -- will the results of the September 18 elections be as contested as in the presidential election of 2009. I mean, it has already taken a long time just to announce the results of the elections; just to compile them.
Usackas: What is now important and what is happening right now is that both the IEC and the Election Complaints Commission are going through the tabulation of results and are going through the review of complaints. And what matters is that the tabulation and complaints would be reviewed in as transparent a fashion as possible so as to demonstrate to the Afghan people that the process is credible, inclusive, and transparent. It will not be, as I said, ideal elections, but what is important to what I discussed [on October 10] with President Karzai, is indeed to embark upon lessons learned as soon as the results are announced, and we stand ready to support the Afghan government, and Afghan institutions, and the Afghan people, in reviewing the electoral-reform process.
For example, no one knows how many people there are in Afghanistan; how many are eligible to vote. How are we going to address that issue? Are we going to embark on a voters' registry, or are we going to help with I.D. cards for Afghan citizens for example? How can we support the Afghan Electoral Complaints Commission and the Independent Election Commission? So those issues have to be addressed. And I hope that the Afghan government -- and I felt from my conversation [October 10] with President Karzai -- that he is committed to move forward with the electoral process after the election.
Is Democracy Delivering?
RFE/RL: You come from a country which has undergone in a way, tremendous transformation in the past 20 years. From being a Soviet state you are a member of the EU, a member of NATO, a country that has joined the largest regional corporation organization we see today. In your personal view, what kind of future direction do you see in this country? Is there democracy really working, is it delivering?
Usackas: What is rewarding, really, to see is the building [of a] consensus in the Afghan establishment from President Karzai to junior officials that a critical mass of issues has to be addressed in reforming civil service in making the civil service accountable and providing the best service for the people. And I think we can share that experience, which is of paramount importance. And I'm glad also to register that thanks to the Kabul Conference and especially thanks to the European Union's engagement, we helped to make that issue more prominent within the agenda of Afghanistan. That without good governance, without good public administration, without eliminating corruption from the government services they'll be no way to ensure and retain economic and political development of the country.
I think we're coming to that point where there is a clear recognition and actually request from President Karzai to me and the members of the European Union to come help. And I think Central European countries, the Baltic countries, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and others have a lot of offer to Afghanistan. I mean, we went through 20 years of reform. We went from the one-party system to multi-party democratic system. We went from the central planning economy to the free-market economy.
RFE/RL: Ambassador, what is EU doing to support economic development in Afghanistan? And how do you see the Afghan economy? Is it on the right trajectory?
Usackas: Well, first of all, often it is underestimated what a big contribution the European Union is making in Afghanistan. Since 2002, the European Union all together has contributed 8 billion euros of development aid. European Union's common budget, a part of the EU's member states' budget, annually is going to increase from 150 [million euros] this year to 200 million euros for the next three consecutive years. Annually, EU common budget, and EU states together contribute to Afghan economy and Afghan development projects worth 1 billion euros.
Our major focus areas are the following: Agriculture and rural development, to enable Afghan people to move from the poppy industry into the agriculture development, which is very rich especially with fruits, with different kinds of nuts and vegetables, and also we are supporting irrigation systems, putting up irrigation systems in different provinces, building dams, etc. Secondly, we are supporting Afghan people on the rule of law and governance. We are still supporting, salary-wise, Afghan police forces. We also have the European Union police mission in place, which during the last year alone has contributed to train 11,000 civil police, and that's a unique niche where European Union police mission is concentrated. That's something neither the NATO training mission nor the American bilateral mission can really address. The third important sector is the health sector. We've been supporting regeneration and renovation of building up the different medical care centers across the country, and thanks to that, the access to medical care has increased from 6 percent in 2002 to 64 percent in 2010.