When former Spanish diplomat Fransesc Vendrell was first appointed as a UN envoy to Afghanistan in early 2000, the existing circumstances required him to be based in neighboring Pakistan.
At the time, Afghanistan was mostly controlled by the Taliban. And with the UN's relations with the Islamic militia dicey at best, the country was deemed too dangerous for the international body's political and humanitarian missions.
With scant first-hand reporting available, horrific stories of suffering, gruesome tales of civil war, and information on the growing strength of Arab extremists in the country only occasionally made international news cycles.
That all changed after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. Within a month, foreign troops had invaded the country. By November, the Taliban had fled the capital, Kabul. And in the space of weeks Vendrell saw his position change dramatically, as he and other international diplomats scrambled to put together a post-Taliban government.
Vendrell -- having served as the UN secretary-general's personal envoy to Afghanistan, as head of the UN Special Mission to Afghanistan, and as an EU special representative -- has a unique perspective on events in Afghanistan. Never more so now that the country is embroiled in a political crisis as the result of flawed presidential elections on August 20.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Vendrell says it took phone calls from numerous world leaders and feverish diplomacy in Kabul by U.S. Senator John Kerry to persuade incumbent President Hamid Karzai to agree to a runoff against his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, on November 7.Good Omen
Vendrell's overall prognosis is that the second-round vote is a good omen for Afghan democracy.
"The more credible the new president is, the better -- the more credibility he has, first with the Afghan public and, secondly, of course, with the international community, who are so deeply involved, particularly in the Western countries and with Western public opinion,” he says.
“So I think it is good, but this does not mean that everything will be fine now," he adds.
Vendrell, who retired as the EU's special envoy in 2008, is skeptical that any election in Afghanistan can truly be free and fair. He sees the precarious security situation in Pashtun-populated regions of southern and eastern Afghanistan along the Pakistan border as a particularly formidable hurdle.
It would help Mr. Karzai enormously if, in one go, he got rid of 15 or 20 Afghan public figures who are notorious and disliked by most Afghans. It would help his image enormously.
Despite the increased number of Western troops sent to those regions in the past year, security had not improved, he says. Seeing this motivated some Afghan political players to commit fraud in the August 20 vote, he suggests.
"Given the security situation, there is going to be half the Pashtun districts where it will be very hard for the people to go and vote, and also it will also be very hard for any monitoring or observation to take place,” he says.
“And that is why I feel that any Pashtun candidate [who] wanted to win in the election would have to resort to an element of fraud in order to make up for the fact that many of his natural supporters would not be able to cast their votes."
Karzai, a Pashtun, and Abdullah, a Tajik-Pashtun, each received support that crossed ethnic and regional boundaries. But the mutual accusations of fraud that followed the first round at times developed ethnic undertones, with hawks from Karzai's side portraying themselves as protectors of Pashtuns, and hawks from Abdullah's side as protectors of Tajiks.
Vendrell says the notion that a coalition between Karzai and Abdullah could work is misguided. The two men already shared power in interim and transitional administrations between 2001 and 2005, Vendrell notes.
"There was such a coalition government in practice, and it led to paralysis," he says.
Vendrell suggests that a transitional emergency administration might be the best way to govern the country.
Such an administration, Vendrell says, would have to include Karzai, Abdullah, and other well-known Afghan political leaders, including parliamentarians and civil-society leaders.
"This government would have to agree before being established to a very clear program of reforms and a very clear time frame to undertake them,” he says.
"And that would, I think, first...revive hopes among the Afghans that things were going to change for the better. And secondly, that this transitional administration would have to decide how to run perhaps a joint parliamentary and presidential election -- how to run it in a way that no one would be disadvantaged."'Not The Right Solution'
In the event that insecurity prevented the running of free and fair polls, Vendrell says, an emergency transitional administration could revive the traditional Afghan Loya Jirga, or grand assembly, to formulate an Afghan solution to the ensuing political crisis.
Vendrell believes that a parliamentary system in which "power would be spread among a collection of people called the cabinet," as is the case in most South Asian countries, ultimately best suits Afghanistan.
"Simply replacing one person by another one and then giving him free rein for five years is not the right solution," he argues.
Corruption in the Karzai administration and its admission of notorious warlords into its ranks created a wedge between the president and the international community, according to Vendrell.
"It would help Mr. Karzai enormously if, in one go, he got rid of 15 or 20 Afghan public figures who are notorious and disliked by most Afghans," Vendrell says. "It would help his image enormously."
Eight years ago, Afghans for the first time in their long and tumultuous history welcomed foreign forces into their country, in the hope that they would help rebuild it. Vendrell now sees Afghan support for the foreign troop presence dwindling.
"Insecurity has worsened and governance is not good and [there's] no rule of law and a lot of corruption..." he says. "I think they associate us...with the current problems of the country."