As the people of Afghanistan gear up for electing a new president, their security concerns for the future of the war-torn country also grow. In the recent decades, Afghanistan has gone through consecutive ups and downs and there have been few moments of peace and tranquility in the landlocked country which has been long coveted by the Eastern and Western powers because of its strategic and geopolitical importance.
Afghanistan, which has begun striding on the path of democracy, is now rising from the ashes of the dark years of tyrannical rule by the Taliban fundamentalists who had turned the lives of the Afghan citizens into a state of constant trepidation and anxiety throughout the years they were in power from 1996 to 2001 when they were finally deposed by the U.S. military forces after the Operation Enduring Freedom was launched.
Now, Afghanistan is recovering from the wounds it has been suffering from for a long time, and it’s expected that with the complete withdrawal of the ISAF and NATO-allied troops from the country by the end of 2016, as specified by the post-2014 presence plans, it will gradually experience a new era of peace and security and its people will begin to realize self-determination and genuine independence.
To investigate the successes and failures of the project of War on Terror in Afghanistan, the security concerns of the Afghan people, their attitude toward the 2001 invasion of their country and the ongoing sectarian, ethnic conflicts which have undermined the Afghan national security, Iran Review conducted an exclusive interview with Prof. Francesc Vendrell.
Vendrell is a Spanish diplomat who has worked in different administrative levels at the United Nations for many years. From 1989 to 1991, he was the personal representative of the UN Secretary General in the peace processes in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala and East Timor. From 2000 to 2002, he headed the UN Special Mission to Afghanistan (UNSMA). Currently an Adjunct Professor of International Relations at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at the John Hopkins University, he is a former Special Representative of the European Union for Afghanistan. Prof. Vendrell has also been a visiting professor at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, a lecturer of Constitutional Law at the University of Papua New Guinea, director of studies at The Hague Academy of International Law and adjunct professor at Yale University and Rutgers University.
Francesc Vendrell took part in an exclusive interview with Iran Review and responded to some of our questions about the prospects of democracy in Afghanistan, the security concerns of the Afghan people, the successes and failures of the War on Terror and the responsibilities of the new president who will be announced soon. The following is the text of the interview.
Q: In October 2001, you said that any action that is going to be taken by the international community in Afghanistan must have the full consent of the Afghans and that they should not consider the measures of the U.S. and its allies as an occupation of their country. Now, more than a decade following the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, in a recent survey conducted by The Asia Foundation, it was found that more than three quarters of the Afghans (77% of them) are afraid of encountering international forces in their country. The Afghans have serious security concerns, and it seems that the presence of ISAF troops will not help alleviate their anxiety. What’s your take on that? Do you believe that the way to take security back to Afghanistan is to maintain foreign military presence in the country?
A: Any foreign military presence in a sovereign country is bound to cause resentment after a number of years. The US, in particular, has over the years provoked an element of anger among the local population, particularly, as President Karzai himself has complained, through the use of night raids, inaccurate bombings, arrests and detentions.
Another source of disappointment has been the lack of clearly defined western objectives to justify the continued foreign military presence and the failure to tackle persistent corruption and absence of rule of law in the country. On the other hand, many Afghans who resent the foreign military worry also about the consequences for their own security when US and NATO forces reduce their number to some 12,000 by the end of this year and to zero at the end of 2016. They are concerned that the Afghan National Security Forces may not have the capacity to protect them if, as it seems likely, the Taliban insurgency intensifies. The latest developments in Iraq where the military has retreated from Mosul and other northern areas in the face of attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), is likely to intensify Afghan security fears.
Q: Let’s get to another important concern on Afghanistan’s security. The rise of ethnic strife and sectarian violence has derailed Afghanistan’s young, nascent democracy in the past 12 years a great deal, inflicting a huge humanitarian cost on the country through claiming hundreds of innocent lives. Did the government of President Karzai have the determination to address this concern and bring about national unity and solidarity among the different ethnic and religious groups? Is it possible to eliminate all sorts of ethnic and sectarian conflict in Afghanistan in the future, especially given that the new president will be introduced soon?
A: Ethnicity has always been an important factor in Afghanistan. It was somewhat masked during periods of authoritarian rule where the pretence could be maintained that it was not an issue. It flared up badly during the civil conflict in 1992-96. Over the past 12 years, there has been an effort to disperse power amongst the four main ethnic groups. Ethnic tensions have risen up now in the second round of the presidential elections when support for the two finalists seems to have coalesced along ethnic lines. It is thus extremely important at this juncture to find a solution that will respect the will of the Afghan voters while ensuring that all ethnic groups feel that they will have due representation in the new government.
Q: One of the primary goals of the global project of War on Terror was proclaimed to be eradicating Taliban and Al-Qaeda and demolishing their bases wherever they are; however, after some 13 years, they are still active and carry out terrorist operations across the world freely. More importantly, the United States is funding and assisting Al-Qaeda and similar terrorist groups in their missions in Syria against the government of President Assad. What do you think about the project of War on Terror? Has it been a successful venture?
A: It was always a mistake to define the combat against militant and extremist groups as a “War on Terror”, which is a subjective concept open to conflictive interpretation. Countries engage in wars against other governments or irregular groups. They do not fight against an ideology or a strategy. So it is not surprising that the so called “war on terror” has failed in its objectives. In addition, the US invasion of Iraq, western unwillingness to put pressure on Israel to cease its occupation of Palestine and mistaken policies by the US in Afghanistan and elsewhere have contributed to the rise of extremism.
Q: Right. One of the points where the interests of Iran and the United States intersect is Afghanistan. Both countries are in favor of stability and peaceful settlement of conflicts in Afghanistan and the obliteration of Al-Qaeda and Taliban bases. However, the two arch-rivals have lost the opportunity for constructively cooperating on the security of Afghanistan and helping the government elected and voted for by the people. What do you think about this lost opportunity and the prospects of Iran-U.S. collaboration on the security of Afghanistan?
A: I was personally involved in contacts between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States in the months following 9/11. Iran played a helpful and constructive role which ensured the success of the Bonn Conference in late 2001. Unfortunately, the Axis of Evil speech and subsequent actions by the US put an end to such contacts despite the convergence of interests of the two countries on issues like Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region. I would like to believe that successful completion of a Nuclear Agreement between the P5+1 and Iran would be a game changer in the relationship between Iran and the West.
Q: And, as a final question, what are in your view the most important steps that the new Afghan president should take in order to improve the security, political and economic conditions of the war-hit country?
A: A new President of Afghanistan should establish a broad-based, truly multi-ethnic administration based on merit and competence, carry out immediate steps to improve governance in Kabul and in the provinces, take urgent measures to combat corruption and design a plan that will provide employment and shield Afghanistan from the economic impact that the departure of most foreign forces will have. As for security, it is essential that the training of a professional police force is intensified and that the performance of the Afghan National Army (ANA) be closely monitored. Though I understand Iranian concerns about the continued presence of US and NATO military forces in Afghanistan, I believe that the signature of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) is an irreplaceable necessity for the future President, not only in order to assist the Afghan National Security Forces in confronting the insurgency, but also because without the flow of western military and development, assistance would be imperiled.
This article was published at Iran Review.