Q:Why, after six years in Afghanistan, did you leave in May?
A: My wife and I left because we had a child and the children of UN employees in Afghanistan have to live elsewhere. Had that rule not existed, we might have stayed, because we felt it was a very welcoming environment for babies. In Kabul, life for families is relatively safe.
Q: Just after we went to press, six U.N. staff were killed in Kabul. Do you still think it’s a relatively safe place for young families?
A: Of course Kabul is far from entirely safe from terrorist attack, even though millions of people do live there with their young families. This attack was a cold-blooded attempt to prevent the UN from doing its job: supporting a fair and legitimate outcome from the second round of voting. It is sickening to think some in the Taliban leadership believe this sort of attack–the murder of innocent Afghan and international civilians–will help their cause. Its shows how radical and extreme they have become–and how dangerous. Until the sanctuaries housing the groups that train for and stage such attacks, especially North Waziristan, become subject to effective and sustained military operations, these dreadful incidents involving suicide attackers will continue. Everyone in Afghanistan and Pakistan is a potential target. My heart goes out to the UN family in Afghanistan: in spite of everything, they are showing fortitude. But they will need the support of the whole world at this difficult time.
Q: What do you miss about Afghanistan?
A: The electric atmosphere, particularly in Kabul. It’s very vivid, it’s something about the quality of the light but also the intensity of the community. People come together and work very productively, partly because this is a historic opportunity to break with the past of conflict, and because the direction of the future is very much in play. I miss that, and also the sounds and smells of the place.
Q: Were you a celebrity there?
A: That culture hasn’t really come to Afghanistan. Fortunately! But I was there for a long time, relatively speaking, and I think Afghans find that reassuring, to have stability. Perhaps it makes you a little more effective. Everyone at every level of Afghan society has the potential to play the game, to try to manipulate events by manoeuvring behind the scenes, and one of our main tasks was to avoid that. After six years, you make fewer mistakes.
Q: What do you mean, “play the game?”
A: For instance, look at the recent election scandal. Dr. Abdullah had been engaging in fraud as well, just not on as large a scale. But he tried to tell the story in his own way, and succeeded to a large degree, in that the international media focused primarily on President Karzai. When we allow ourselves to be drawn into these games, we fail.
Q: Two years ago you called Karzai “a visionary.” Is it how you’d describe him today?
A: He’s the country’s first democratically elected president. He brought the international community into partnership on an unprecedented level, and he championed a new constitution that is liberal, democratic and still very Afghan. All of that does reflect a vision. But he’s presided over a country that is still in conflict, and he hasn’t taken some of the difficult decisions his own government wanted him to take. On corruption, he hasn’t been as decisive as he should’ve been. There are legitimate questions about him.
Q: What kind of a leader is Abdullah?
A: He is very charismatic, and well-spoken in both languages. He’s respected by Afghans for being able to articulate what the challenges are, and for having remained in the country in its darkest hour to play an important political role, as de facto foreign minister during the resistance to the Taliban.
Q: Did you play any role in the August elections?
A: One of my responsibilities [as United Nations representative] was organizing these elections. We devoted a great deal of time to creating safeguards, such as the Electoral Complaints Commission, to protect the process. We made an effort to exclude from the ballot all candidates with proven links to militias, and literally scores of people were excluded. There were thousands of observers, so the upside was that we detected fraud much earlier and more comprehensively than in ’04. We don’t even know the scale of fraud in that election, because there weren’t the same safeguards, and there was no ECC then to investigate. But look, 5.6 million Afghans voted in August. Even if you subtract the fraudulent ballots, that’s a remarkable figure.
Q: Why, if Afghans don’t support the Taliban, has the Taliban come roaring back?
A: Because they have been funded, organized and supported, outside the borders of Afghanistan, to mount this insurgency. The story of Taliban recovery and resurgence begins in the places where they took refuge after 2001. And as long as those leadership structures and training structures operate outside of Afghanistan with relative impunity, the conflict will continue. But in 2007 and 2008, it was impossible to get American and British policy makers, or Pakistani politicians, to acknowledge that the Taliban leadership was in Pakistan. This is the great virtue of the early statements of the Obama administration, when Obama himself, Richard Holbrooke and others, said that the threat to both countries comes principally from western Pakistan, in Balujistan and Waziristan. So there has been some progress, but probably the hardest part is yet to come.
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