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interview: lakhdar brahimi
Oct. 3, 2001 was when you were appointed special representative to Afghanistan. ... At that stage was the feeling that you were looking at post-Taliban arrangement or was that something that only became a live issue later on?

Well it's very interesting that you ask that question. I think that everybody thinks we're going backward and forth. One day you thought that the Taliban had a couple of days to go, and the next day, you thought they were going to be there for a long time. So the important point to make about this is that there was always a race between the political process and the military process. One day you thought it was horrible because the military campaign was moving very, very, fast and that a military solution was there and nothing had happened on the political front, and the next day, you'd say you're making [progress on the] political front, but you are talking about situation that militarily is blocked. And the impression I had is that it's as if we were rushing in all directions and I think you are familiar with my very strong resistance to this rush[ing]. I was the one who had to say, "Please, not too fast."

How did [the U.S.] engage you, try to get you to engage the U.N. in an initiative to find a replacement for the Taliban and what was your reaction to the line [it] was taking at that time?

... I'm sure my American friends will not object to me saying that they had really lost interest in Afghanistan for a long time. And so Sept. 11 had brought them back to Afghanistan. They were trying to catch up as it were, and have their own idea on where to go, and how to go about it.

The U.N. had an advantage in that it was forced to stay and gaze no matter how frustrating it was with the Afghan political problem. So, this may sound a little arrogant, but I think, on the political front, we were a little bit more aware at that stage than other players.

Brahimi was appointed U.N. special representative to Afghanistan in October 2001, a post he previously held from July 1997 to October 1999. In this position he oversaw the Bonn Conference, which was held under U.N. auspices to bring various Afghan factions together to create a post-Taliban interim government. In this interview, he discusses the challenges of trying to bring the various Afghan delegations to the table, while facing tremendous pressure from the U.S. and other external players with a stake in the outcome. This interview was conducted on May 4, 2002.

Your perception then was of the need for an outside-in approach as a way of finding an alternative to persuading Afghanistan to move on, and persuading its neighbors to move on as well. Can you tell me what your outside-in approach was?

I don't know whether that is how I would call it -- outside-in. But I have always been acutely aware of the importance of the external factor in the Afghan situation. Afghanistan is a land-locked country. It doesn't produce weapons. It doesn't even produce its food. So if you want to fight a war, you've got to get a lot of things from outside. And, clearly the Afghan parties were getting everything they needed to continue this fight for years and years.

This is a very fragile process. Any grain of sand can stop our machine.

So I have always been aware -- perhaps giving excessive importance to the necessity of bringing in the external players along with the internal players. You cannot just work with the internal players and ignore the others; you've got to take them. And in particular Pakistan and Iran as the two most important neighbors of Afghanistan, who have legitimate interests, concerns, fears, but also agendas, but were conflicting with one another. And even in my previous incarnation -- as you know, I was in charge of Afghanistan earlier and gave up in frustration in September '99 -- even then I had tried and tried and tried to bring these two countries together, and we had failed. I thought that this was an opportunity to bring them together.

Given the importance of getting the external countries to somehow get into some kind of reconciliation of position, what led you to agree that it would be best to get the Afghan factions to convene a conference, rather than the U.N. immediately proceeding to try and encourage a conference?

Look, having agreed that the U.N. had to bring them together, I did not agree with was just waking up in the morning and saying, "Come tomorrow to play swan song." What I was saying was that let's talk to the parties and see how ready they are, and when they are ready really talk business. And also let's make sure that we know what is happening, around Afghanistan and that all the players are going to go along. Because, you know, conferences between Afghan parties -- we had plenty. ...

So, you had to make sure that yes, ultimately you would have to call them there, but make sure that you've done the ground work, that when you call them in, you have a chance of getting somewhere. Not necessarily it's holding the whole issue in one go, but at least making progress.

As part of a process?

Yeah, because you see in these situations, you know, don't waste your opportunities if you can, because if you fail then how long is it going to be before you can try again? So, that is the point I always was making there. Go slow if you want to go fast. ...

There were calls for a U.N. peacekeeping force. I think the former King Mohammad Zaher Shah had raised that as an issue. What was your view on that?

... Very early on I started saying that traditional peacekeeping was not an option. I made this very clear in the report which I presented to the Security Council that at that early stage, and in the foreseeable future traditional peacekeeping shouldn't be looked at as an option. Multinational force, yes, but peacekeeping, no.

My argument was that, you see, no matter how much progress is made by this anti-terrorist drive in Afghanistan, nobody will be able to know how many hostile forces would be still there, and a hasty remark of U.N. force may not be in position to face up to such formative force. The second thing is that, a U.N. national force would take much too long to put together. ...

In early November, Nov. 9, the Taliban quit Mazar-e-Sharif. This meant that there was suddenly a new sense of progress on the military front, which until then had seemed rather slow. Did you have a particular conversation with the Americans, perhaps with Richard Haass [U.S. undersecretary of state for policy planning], about the effect this would have on the speed at which the political track had to move?

You see this is when the pressure started to increase on us. But look, the military front is moving very fast. Where are you on the political front? Not only Richard Haass but also the British. And the Americans in general, were really then putting the pressure, calling Kofi Annan and telling us to hurry up. ...

The six-plus-two group met in New York, and the secretary of state was there, and we heard a quotation [from Colin Powell] of "Speed, speed, speed."

That's true. ...

That happened the day before the fall of Kabul. The Taliban just left and so the Northern Alliance moved in. How did you hear that the Taliban had left Kabul and what was your response to the news?

As you know it was quite some days already, that the Northern Alliance was sitting at the door of Kabul as it were, and that the Taliban had already been very seriously weakened. So it didn't came as a shattering surprise, and I think the it is the "Speed, speed, speed" from Colin Powell, came from the fact that that event was expected at any time.

I think everybody would have liked for example the one meeting to have taken place, the agreement to have been signed, and the interim administration to have moved to Kabul before all that happened. I think what we all would have dreamed of, that the interior administration would have got to Kabul, before everybody else. But I don't think it was realistic to expect anything, you know, so.

Dr. Abdullah asked all the Afghan factions to come to negotiations in Kabul. What was your view of those negotiations and where they might lead? Did Dr. Abdullah talk to you about it at all?

You see the message we sent Dr. Abdullah then is, you know, please don't forget that a few weeks ago that is exactly what the Taliban have been saying. Kabul is the capital of Afghanistan, if anybody wants to negotiate, why don't they come here? So please don't, you know, because you are sitting in Kabul, don't start talking like them. You know very well that there is a lot of mistrust. There is a lot of, "It's not feasible, it's not realistic," and nobody will believe that you are sincere in wanting to negotiate if you keep on saying, "Please come to Kabul." I think you were telling us, you, the Northern Alliance, were telling us, this is the best evidence that the Taliban do not want to negotiate. So, that's what people have to say about you.

And I must say, to his credit, Dr. Abdullah personally, immediately saw, you know, the political importance in what we were saying. ... Some people with him, I think, took longer to agree to coming out of Kabul for negotiations.

Were there any particular conversations you recall in your involvement in trying to get the Afghans to come to the negotiating table, all parties of Afghanistan? Out of that sort of period of endless meetings and telephone calls and negotiations, was there anything that stands out in your mind, particularly a key conversation?

No, no, but I think there is perhaps one point which I would like to make. In fact to say that you know, we didn't have any something stroke of genius, or anything, and that our aim was really very modest. From my visit to Iran and Pakistan what I have seen is that there were a number of processes, groups that were talking about peace. Plus, the Northern Alliance, which now had 70 percent of the land. The Taliban had gone, and were not a possible partner.

So the idea we had is, let us, as a first step ... get these processes welded into one, and do away with these far-reached processes. So hence the Pashtun group, which had just been started with support from Pakistan, the Cyprus group, which was a small group of intellectuals from inside and outside -- inside meaning Iran and Pakistan mainly -- and also from the [Rome] group around the king, plus the Northern Alliance. That is when the idea started to take shape. But these are the people who are going to get together. It's not the perfect arrangement, but we looked all over the place, but on what criteria are you going to invite people, now that the Taliban have gone? So I think this is your question. I have no answer to your question, this is what comes to my mind.

Did the Americans understand that process, or was there only concern on their part that this seemed to be a rather inchoate process? What did they say?

I suspect it is the second, but you know they had no other card to play, so they had to stick with us.

So it was the only game in town really?

I think so, yes.

Hamid Karzai was eventually, as we now know to emerge, but to many people that was a surprise. I believe you had conversations from New York with Mr. Karzai. How did those conversations go? Were you just talking to him as another interested person who might have ideas or did you already see him as somebody who might carry the Pashtun flag?

... I think what is remarkable -- and I'm sure he would not object to me saying this -- the collapse of the Taliban meant also that the most important ethnic group in Afghanistan was going to be very difficult to represent. So I think, like everybody else, we were trying to find what kind of Pashtun leaders there may be in any arrangement that would be worked out. ...

I think that Hamid Karzai was the obvious choice. And the reason is the following: He was the only man that was mentioned as a possible leader by many Afghans, including Pashtuns, the Northern Alliance, the Pakistanis and the Iranians. And I'm absolutely certain they didn't consult one another. But his is the only name you see. Everybody had a list of a people, but the only name that you found on the list was Hamid Karzai. So that made him the obvious choice.

So already although Pakistan and Iran would still have, you know, different concerns, you already had a person who was--

Yes, they probably didn't know that they had -- each one having them on their list, but he was there, yes. And also on the Northern Alliance.

And did Hamid Karzai himself have any names to suggest?

You know again, in fairness to him, he has never put himself forward. He was one of the people who went in to try and do something about reorganizing the Pashtun areas. The other notable man was Abdul Haq, who was then captured and murdered by the Taliban.

Nov. 27, Bonn begins. Finally you're getting people round the table. How far did you think that particular conference might go?

Minimal. Welding together the three peace movements. What I was telling my colleagues there is that you see the various ones, we leave here, there would be only one peace movement, not three. That is the main maximum anything, you see, that is what I was telling everybody. That is my point I always make about navigation by sight. In these situations you don't have many instruments, just open your eyes and see where the wind will take you. After a few days, I think, we started to see that perhaps we can go very far. And, the presence of the various players and influential players around, in Bonn was extremely useful.

[In terms of the Bonn Conference] how does something that begins as, you know, a modest enterprise albeit with optimism on its side -- at what point and how did people come together in a way they were suddenly all talking about doing something more concrete?

You see, one of the things that I did very early on, after the opening of the conference, I said, "We're not going to have any formal meetings. And whenever any one of you needs to talk to somebody else privately, you know, we will stop these meetings." So for probably the first week, we had very, very, few formal meetings. We were encouraging people to get together to talk to one another, and to talk to us, privately, you know, separately, together, always informal. And we were listening.

And also we had all the other players, you know, the Americans, the Iranians, the British, the Pakistanis, they were all there. They were also talking to everybody and by the way they were very angry with me at the beginning because we didn't allow them in. And the reason was because a lot of people sitting in the room owed a lot to these neighbors and friends, and they wouldn't you know speak frankly in front of them, because they were probably telling them things they don't believe. So, we didn't allow them anywhere near our meeting, they continued to meet private.

I don't remember on which day, there were also a lot of other diplomats, including somebody from Moldova. Something like 25, 26 countries represented there. And somebody told me you see, "These diplomats are sitting here and why don't you brief them?" So, I want to brief them, and I said, "Look, I'm starting to be optimistic. Maybe we will get somewhere. But, you see, this is a very fragile process. Any grain of sand can stop our machine."

When we left there, one of the diplomats was there, came to see me, he said, "You said the grain of sand can stop the machine." I said, "Yes I did." "So what grain of sand?" I told him, "Look, this is Afghanistan. There is a sandstorm. There's a lot of sand flying around. I don't know which one is going to fall in the machine. I'm just praying that none of this sand will get into our machine." ...

The Northern Alliance, not unnaturally felt that you know admittedly with American assistance, but that they had won, as it were. There was a point where they were saying that there was no need for any form of international peacekeeping or policing. Was this an issue that you discussed perhaps with [Younus] Qanooni [the leader of the Northern Alliance delegation to Bonn]?

Oh, very much so.

And what were you saying to him? What was his line to you?

I think, you know, their first line was "We will manage" and also, you know, [conventional] wisdom has it that Afghanistan is a horrible place for foreigners, and that foreigners will be at risk there, and so on. I think they played on this very, very, much. But I think we told them that you see, an international presence will reassure their partners.

I'm not sure how much they controlled, but they were in 70, 80, 90 percent of the country. But still there were a lot of people who didn't trust them, and an international presence would help their compatriots work with them and trust them, more easily. I think this is the line we adopted with them, and you know, with a lot of encouragement from their friends who supported them, and helped them.

And what was Qanooni's response to you? How did he receive your arguments?

You know, Qanooni is a formidable political figure. He's immensely capable and intelligent, and he will see the implications and the benefits of making what ultimately were small concessions. So it was generally not very difficult to come to an agreement with him.

I think it was really only a couple of days in that the rival groups agreed to a power sharing government, the interim administration, followed by [a loya jirga]. Can you remember any key moments when you felt that that agreement was in hand? Because it seems to have come really quite quickly.

You know, we had started by saying that we are going to be here, three or four days, and then we said one week, and then when I sensed through the discussions I had with various parties that there was possibility of getting there, then I think we all started saying, "Now we cannot wait any longer." ...

The German chancellor told us that if we ended discussions, he might come. So I used that to very good effect. See, the Afghans are very hospitable people, and they know what hospitality means. And I told them, which was true, that the last day on which the German chancellor can come is on the 5th, because he was going I think to Ukraine. So, I mean the man who has been hosting, you are going to tell him, "We don't want you at the end of our meeting?" That helped a great deal. I mean we had of course started working the shape of the outcome; that helped a lot. Then of course we brought in everybody who would help. We had that last try.

I think Professor Rabbani had a view and you had a conversation with him about his idea for a council of leaders. Can you tell me how you received that view? What was your reaction to his proposal?

... [Rabbani] was saying, "Look, you know, forming an administration is not enough. You've got to have a council of elders," which I'm sure in his thinking he would preside. I think he was playing on an idea that was there, because we had been thinking of something of the sort but much wider. He was saying, you know, your idea is good, but you're thinking of 100 people. You don't need 100. You just take you know 15 or 20, as a kind of council of elders, and so on, where all the formal leaders of resistance against the Soviet Union would be present.

But then, you see, as we moved ahead, we realized that we didn't need that. You see, we wanted that wider body in order to accommodate everyone, but when we saw that we could have an agreement without that, then, why should we have, you know, another body of 100 people or 23 people there? ...

How was that overcome?

I think Qanooni and Dr. Abdullah from here wanted very much to have an agreement of all their leadership rather than do it against the wish of their leader. As I told you I spoke to Professor Rabbani ... but more importantly we had the Iranians, the Germans, the Russians and the British talk to Professor Rabbani more than once and tell him we were so close to an agreement that it would be a terrible responsibility to make it fail or delayed. Because if you delay it maybe it won't work. ...

Dec. 5, the Northern Alliance wanted 20 out of 28 ministries. What can you remember particularly from that time, or particular roles people played?

You see on that 4th when we started to I think we started really to work on the final version of the text. We agreed on the words then the names and who should do what. There I encouraged very much the Northern Alliance and the Rome Group to talk and they did talk more on that day than they ever did in the previous days. ...

I think that happened almost 5:00 in the morning when I got everybody in my suite: the Germans, the British, the Iranians, Indians, Americans, with Qanooni and I said, "Look, now the Germans are waiting for a signal from me. Does their chancellor come or doesn't he?" Well you know we have worked and everybody has worked in good faith, if we can finalize this let's go and do it, if we can't let's say honestly we'll have other occasions to try again. We have 23 years of problems in Afghanistan if we have another few months, so be it.

That is when I think a lot of friendly pressure was put on Qanooni to accept to go down from 20 to 17 and also on the road to accept the ideas of parity, to accept 17 to 30. But they finally accepted so we authorized the German chancellor to come to Bonn. ...

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