Envoy offers grim review of risks facing Afghanistan

GENEVA: Ex- EU envoy presses West to step up effort

One of the most experienced Western envoys in Afghanistan delivered a depressing review Sunday of the situation there, calling it the worst since 2001 and urging concerted American and foreign action even before a new U. S. administration takes office to avoid " a very hot winter for all of us."

Francesc Vendrell, who has just stepped down as European Union envoy in Afghanistan and has eight years of experience in the country, in particular criticized the growing number of civilian deaths in attacks by U. S. and international forces. These have created " a great deal of antipathy," and helped widen the growing distance between the Afghan government and its citizens, he said at a meeting of foreign and security policy experts organized by the London- based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

The U. S. military is currently engaged in an inquiry into an incident in Shindand District in western Afghanistan in which, villagers assert, about 90 people were killed in a missile attack on Aug. 22. American officers have given a far lower toll, saying 7 civilians were killed.

Vendrell warned that the situation was particularly dangerous among the Pashtun tribes that live mainly in southern Afghanistan, bordering Pakistan. However, he noted that the insurgency led by the Taliban had spread not only to the east, but close to Kabul, and in pockets to the hitherto relatively peaceful north and west of the country.

While only a minority of Pashtun actively support the Taliban, he added, most Pashtun " are sitting on the fence to see who is going to be the winner."

With inflation raising prices of food and fuel, deteriorating security and the failure to engage either the Taliban or regional powers such as Pakistan, Iran and India in searching for solutions, Vendrell said, Afghanistan could be facing " a very cold winter" that threatens to become " a very hot winter for all of us."

Bluntly, Vendrell traced what he called a long series of foreign mistakes in Afghanistan, and recommended action to ensure that the local Afghan authorities and foreign agencies followed up any military successes against the Taliban with concrete assistance to local citizens, to convince them that Westerners and the Kabul government can deliver security and some minimal well- being.

Vendrell, a Spanish diplomat who played a leading role in the conference in Bonn that set up the post- Taliban government, said the " first great mistake" in 2001 was to hold that conference after the United States had triumphed over the Taliban government that sheltered the Qaeda terrorists blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks. By the time the Bonn talks took place, he said, Northern Alliance warlords and their allies controlled some two- thirds of Afghanistan, making their control a " fait accompli."

In addition, too much faith was placed in President Hamid Karzai and too little was done to ensure that his government had a monopoly of force, strong police and other institutions, in part because of what Vendrell called " Secretary Rumsfeld' s abhorrence for nation building," referring to Donald Rumsfeld, the chief of the Pentagon at the time.

Vendrell' s audience included dozens of security and foreign policy experts, many of whom advise European governments, a smattering of U. S. military officers and some cabinet ministers, including the Iraqi foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari. The note of alarm sounded about Afghanistan, and Pakistan, was echoed in off- the- record conversations at the conference, an annual review of global strategy by the nongovernmental International Institute for Strategic Studies.

It was a mistake by the United Nations to limit the mandate of foreign soldiers to Kabul, and for the world to get distracted by the war in Iraq, Vendrell said.

Alluding to Karzai without naming him, Vendrell added: " We thought we had found a miracle man; miracle men do not exist."

" Too much responsibility without power was invested in this person," he said.

Another person " we should not have taken at his word" was the former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf, Vendrell said, citing what he called Pakistan' s history of supporting extremists in Afghanistan, its quarrels over the so- called Durand Line separating the two countries and the failure of the Pakistani military and politicians to formulate clearly how they would like events to unfold in Afghanistan.

Despite his depressing review, Vendrell said it was no time to abandon Afghanistan, but indeed to redouble efforts there, both militarily and in building up civilian institutions, ensuring elections are held next year and, for the United States in particular, developing clear policies and standards to govern the detention of hundreds of Afghans it holds without trial. Such detentions create a " bad precedent" for the future Afghan authorities, he said.

" This is not the time to leave. We are not destined to fail, but we are far from succeeding," he said. " We must continue to remember the sad experience of Sept. 11, when we had walked away from Afghanistan for 13 years."

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