Global Policy Forum

Interview With UN Envoy Francesc Vendrell

November 24, 2000

Despite ongoing intensive clashes in the northeast of Afghanistan, the ruling Taliban Movement and opposition Northern Alliance have agreed to start peace talks. With shuttle diplomacy between the Afghan factions underway, Francesc Vendrell, the UN Secretary-General's Personal Representative for Afghanistan, gave IRIN his views on the renewed peace process.

QUESTION: On 3 November, the Taliban and the Northern Alliance signed an agreement that signalled the beginning of renewed peace talks. What is the current status?

ANSWER: Firstly, this is the first time the two warring sides have committed themselves in writing to a process of dialogue to achieve a political settlement. This suggests they do not believe that a military solution is possible. Secondly, it is also the first time that they have committed themselves not to abandon the negotiating process until all the items on the agenda have been exhausted. So this is an agreement to a process and not an agreement to a meeting. Most of the talks will have to be done through my shuttling between the two sides, either between their respective headquarters, or, in the same town or hotel.

This having been agreed, indirect talks - in terms of the discussion about the agenda before the [formal] talks - have begun. The discussion on an agenda is serious because it will dictate the subject of negotiation. I am in the process of doing this in talks with the two sides. We will have to see how much progress we make. I would like to make sufficient progress so that I can report on a positive note to the Security Council and to the 'Six-Plus-Two' by 1 February.

[The 'Six-Plus-Two' group was convened by the United Nations to help find a solution to the Afghan conflict. It comprises Afghanistan's six neighbours, China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and two others; the US and Russia.]

Q: This is going to be a lengthy process, what are your immediate objectives?

A: Apart from agreeing on a substantive agenda, what items we tackle first will depend on how I find the parties - in terms of the issues to be discussed. Obviously, it might be better to tackle some of the easier items first where I feel that there is some approximation between the parties. The more difficult items could be left for subsequent talks.

Q: Is this not very similar to the brokering the UN has tried to do in the past?

A: Not quite. Since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan the efforts have been geared to having a particular meeting in a particular town, in order to achieve an agreement. I am less ambitious and yet more ambitious. I am less ambitious because I don't believe we can reach a substantive agreement soon, certainly not with one or two meetings. I am more ambitious in that I consider the success of the negotiations would not be on the basis of one or two meetings. The success will be measured when all the items on the agenda have been mutually agreed by the parties.

Q: There is a lot of scepticism that the two sides usually agree to peace talks with the approach of winter, and that this is part of a traditional pattern of winter peace talks followed by summer fighting. What are the main reasons why you think it is going to be different this year?

A: Obviously winter is a good time to start talks. I would hope that the talks would not be limited to winter and that if necessary the talks would also take place during the summer. There is no commitment by either side as yet to a ceasefire. In theory, it is perfectly possible to continue negotiations without one, even if they are still fighting. But one should take advantage of a period of low intensity in terms of the conflict. I also hope that the parties can overcome their mutual mistrust slowly - it will take time - so that they can move forward through a mixture of incentives and disincentives, that I hope the international community may provide.

Q: What has been the role of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in this?

A: The OIC has made a useful contribution. They had two rounds of talks in Jeddah [Saudi Arabia], which I personally attended. The OIC can play a complementary role to the UN, which has the central role in bringing about a peaceful settlement to the Afghan issue, according to the Security Council, the UN General Assembly and the Six-Plus-Two group.

Q: Do you think there's been a shift in the position of some members in the Six-Plus-Two toward the Taliban movement? Uzbekistan for example announced two weeks ago that that it would be willing to engage with the Taliban whereas previously it had been making negative overtures?

A: There are always some shifts in the position of member states, including the Six-Plus-Two. I wouldn't say that there has been a shift in the Uzbek position. I would say there might have been some fine-tuning in their approach. As you know they are having talks at the ambassadorial level in Islamabad.

Q: Do you think there has been a change in the position of the Security Council with respect to dealings with the Taliban?

A: I don't think so. I think the Security Council continues to believe and to state that there must not be a military solution; and that military gains will not be a ticket to international recognition. There has to be progress on issues like terrorism, drug production, human rights and gender issues, before there is full engagement by the international community with the Taliban. I hope that if we can enter into a substantive process now and make progress on negotiations, then the international community and the Security Council will pay attention. Then there may be a change. If the talks prove that the two parties are negotiating in good faith and that they are flexible in their positions, that may have an impact on the Security Council's position.

Q: In other words, members of the Security Council are currently considering further sanctions, but you think that could change if some progress was made [with the peace talks]?

A: As you know two members of the Security Council support further sanctions. I think a lot of persuasion will still have to take place. Presumably what happens - or does not happen - in the process of dialogue may have relevance in the attitude taken by members of the Council.

Q: What is your view on the Loya Jirga [Grand Assembly] process?

A: I think the Loya Jirga has been a traditional Afghan institution that has credibility among many Afghans. The idea of calling a Loya Jirga makes sense. The question now is how do you organise this in the current conditions in Afghanistan? The fact that the former king is behind the initiative is a plus because he retains a lot of credibility with many sectors of the population in Afghanistan.

Q: Afghanistan is in the grip of a serious drought that could affect over 650,000 people. We have already seen movements of people to Herat and other urban areas. Do you think that this [drought crisis] will have an influence on how the Taliban movement approaches the peace process?

A: I would hope that the Taliban would be guided by the need to improve the situation of the Afghan people and that the welfare of Afghans is the main concern of the two sides, as it is indeed the concern of the UN.

Q: Do you think that humanitarian assistance, and this year's funding crisis, has had an impact or influence on the peace process?

A: I think humanitarian programmes do have an impact on the political process. Undoubtedly. I am very disappointed that there has been a lack of funds. All member states that I talk to tell me they do not want to harm the average Afghan and that they want to continue to support humanitarian programmes. I think that what we are seeing is an element of donor fatigue and a lack of sufficient focusing on Afghanistan. One of the big problems we have is that when members of the international community think of Afghanistan, they only think in isolated terms; they think of refugees only, they think of the drug problem, or they think of terrorism. But there is a lack of a comprehensive approach to resolving the issue. Leaving that aside I would very much hope that member states would revise their approach because humanitarian assistance is absolutely essential in order to keep Afghans, who live in a very precarious situation, alive.

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