During his visit to Pakistan in early March, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan met Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Mutawakkil in what was seen as an attempt to help persuade the Taliban to accept UN-brokered negotiations. The Taliban, ostensibly willing to enter talks with their opposition, refuse to do so under the auspices of the UN. The Northern Alliance, however, is willing to negotiate through the offices of the UN. Security Council President Jeremy Greenstock of the UK, speaking in New York on 26 April, said any resumption of fighting in Afghanistan would be "extremely bad news". He said Security Council members thought that a peacefully negotiated political settlement was the only way to a lasting solution to the Afghan conflict.
In an interview with IRIN, Vendrell gives an update on peace negotiations.
Question: What is the current status of the peace process?
Answer: I don't think we can say we are anywhere right now in the peace process. As you know, the only concrete step had been in November when we got the agreement of the two sides [Taliban and Northern Alliance] in writing to enter into a process of dialogue to achieve a political settlement, with a commitment not to withdraw from the dialogue until the agenda had been covered. As you know, the Taliban, after the imposition of the sanctions by the Security Council, said that the UN could no longer be an honest broker because [of] the sanctions [which] had been imposed against the Taliban.
Now the Secretary-General when he was here [in March], and I myself, are trying to persuade the Taliban to make them understand that the Secretary-General and the Security Council are two different things. The Secretary-General played no role, one way or the other, in the imposition of the sanctions. I am hopeful that the Taliban have not said their last word, that they are able to see the difference between the Secretary-General in his humanitarian incarnation, which they now acknowledge, as impartial and quite different from the Security Council. They should also be able to understand that the Secretary-General can act as an honest broker even with parties that are under sanctions, and can play a useful role, as he has done in the case of Libya, in the case of Angola and to some degree in the case of Iraq.
Q: During a recent interview IRIN conducted with US Ambassador to Pakistan William Milam, he stated that in his two and a half years in dealing with the Taliban, he had not seen a great deal of interest on the part of the Taliban in the peace process. Are you of the same opinion?
A: Let's say, at this very moment in time, is it likely that there could be meaningful negotiations between the two parties? - then my answer would be: probably not. The two sides are readying for battle. In their minds now, in the case of the Northern Alliance, [is the issue of] improving its military positions; in the case of the Taliban, [it is] driving the United Front out of Afghanistan, or at least encircling [Ahmad Shah] Masud [Northern Alliance commander] in the Panjshir Valley. Having said that, I very much hope that after this round of fighting has run its cycle, that this time there will be a renewed commitment to negotiations. In my view, if and when the parties are really interested in negotiations they will do it through the UN, because there is really no substitute in terms of the capacity of the UN to mediate a conflict as complex as the Afghan one.
Q: Japan and Kazakhstan have both offered to host peace talks aimed at ending the Afghan conflict. What is your perspective on these two proposals?
A: These are very helpful proposals. They are not separate initiatives as such. These are proposals made by these two governments - Japan and Kazakhstan - similar to the one that Uzbekistan made in January, offering their country for possible meetings between the two sides. These are useful, and I hope that the two sides will accept the Japanese invitation. In the case of the Kazakh invitation, it is a standing invitation - that I myself will advise the Kazakh government when I think an opportune time for meaningful talks can take place. They are not offering to mediate. The Japanese government is very interested in talking to the two sides and seeing if, in this context, it can succeed in getting them together.
Q: Is it time for a new strategy, or a new initiative for peace in Afghanistan?
A: It is not time for a new initiative on peace talks. But it is the time for carefully studying and developing a comprehensive strategy to find a solution to the Afghan conflict. Why do I say there is no need of a new initiative for talks? There is the UN process, and at the moment, apart from the fact that one of the parties has rejected to continue in this process through the UN, this is in my view not the best moment for negotiations. When the parties are ready they can resume the process and I don't think there is a better approach than that. But talks are only a mechanism, a means of achieving an end, which is a peace settlement.
I think we do need to develop a strategy - first of all we need to develop very clear objectives as to what kind of Afghanistan should emerge from this conflict. And we need a new strategy, because peace in Afghanistan is not possible only by having the two warring sides talk to each other. You need the support of those countries that are playing a role inside Afghanistan by encouraging or supporting one side or the other. Therefore you need to develop a more comprehensive strategy. You also need to get the international community - and I think this is beginning to happen - to realise that dealing with Afghanistan in isolated compartments, be it terrorism, narcotics, refugees, will not solve the issue. We will not get peace in Afghanistan, nor will we solve this compartmentalised issue. For example, can one believe for a moment that the refugee problem and the humanitarian problem inside Afghanistan can be resolved without a political settlement? Absolutely not. I am afraid within the coming months we will see an upsurge in the number of displaced persons and the number of refugees. Some of it is the drought, but a lot of it will be the conflict and the lack of peace. Do you believe for a moment that the refugees will voluntarily go back in large numbers? Certainly not. Will you get educated Afghans who live abroad whose skills are necessary for the running of the country - do you think they will come back in the current circumstances?
Q: You have been working to broker a peace agreement between the two Afghan warring factions for some time now. On a more personal level, where do you feel you are at this point in time?
A: I have been in the post for 14 months. I feel that I am coming to grips with understanding the situation and the conflict in Afghanistan and its various ramifications. I think I am beginning to be able to feel fairly confident in developing approaches that might move the process toward peace forward. First you need to feel you understand the conflict and the issues - that's not so easy - it's not the simplest conflict around the world. Two, I am getting to know the actors - both the Afghan actors and the non-Afghan actors and they are beginning to know me. I am talking to a very large number of governments and of Afghans, not just the Six-Plus-Two. As a result of all that, first of all I feel much more confident as to what I must do to move the political process forward. I cannot give you a time-frame, because it's not up to me, but in the course of this year I hope that we can develop, with the help of the Afghans, with the help of governments, a strategy that should make it easier to achieve the objectives.
I am realistic. I am sceptically optimistic. I believe very sincerely that the national interests of those countries that are involved in the Afghan conflict, and particularly the neighbouring countries, are not incompatible with each other. Two, they would best be served by the establishment of a unified government in Afghanistan that was in keeping with the aspirations and the wishes of the Afghan people, and was respectful, and took into account the views of all the ethnic groups. It is the best way for the national interest of these governments to have peace and a responsible government, the outcome of the wishes of the Afghan people. Look at what they are gaining now - refugees, drugs, terrorism, subversion - they are gaining nothing. So I think I am sceptically optimistic, because I do know that sometimes governments have difficulty realising where their real national interests are.
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