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Transcript by
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FREDERICK KEMPE:  Welcome to the Atlantic Council.  I’m Fred Kempe, president and CEO.  It’s a particular honor for me today to host a man who I think is one of the world’s most accomplished and talented international civil servants, Staffan de Mistura.  I was just in the back with Anna Eliasson Schamis and we were practicing how to pronounce it either as Italian or Swedish, but mine is sort of a rough, German-American in-between.

But Staffan is the United Nations’ special representative for Afghanistan since March of this year, appointed the job in January.  And it’s good that he has an unusual set of gifts because he certainly does have an unusual set of challenges up against one of the world’s most challenging situations.  Before taking on this assignment, he served as deputy executive director of the World Food Programme in Rome. 

Perhaps more pertinent for this current task, he previously served in Iraq as the secretary-general’s special representative, working there very closely with Ryan Crocker.  He and his team of 1,000 helped oversee successful elections there as well as reconstruction, development, humanitarian challenges.  If you look at his biography, you’ll see a long list of other challenging assignments and stops along the way that have included Ethiopia, the Balkans, Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Somalia, Albania, Chad, where he conducted the U.N.’s first airdrop operation back in 1973.

So Mr. de Mistura, I can’t wait to read your memoirs, but most particularly, how this Afghan chapter will read alongside the others.  You have already said it is a crucial year.  You’ve also said it is a situation for which there is no military solution.  I think the Atlantic Council is in violent agreement with you on those points.

You’ve spoken about the crucial importance of September parliamentary elections as the mother of all other issues and of the need for dialogue, and participated yourself in talks with Hezb-i-Islami.  Regional issues, aid coherence, there’s so much – so much to talk about.  It seems the prevailing view in town, even before the McChrystal situation, is that things haven’t been going very well – or not as well as they need to be going.  And so we’re looking forward to hearing from you about the road ahead. 

We’ve done much work on these issues at the South Asia Center.  Some of the work has been done by the man who’s now responsible for the Kabul Conference, our international advisory board member, Ashraf Ghani.  I also want to – we’ve also done a lot of work in our international security program on this issue.  So this has been an issue right at the center of our work.

I quickly want to tip my hat to Shuja Nawaz, the director of the South Asia Center and his deputy, Shikha Bhatnagar, who have made the center into a central point of contact and intellectual heft on these issues for policymakers, members of Congress, as well as European and regional leaders.

Shuja suggested in a recent commentary in Foreign Policy on Afghanistan that we should expand your remit to the entire region and not just Afghanistan as a sort of super-envoy.  Some wags around the office suggested that perhaps in coming in, we should give you a blue cape with a big red “S” on it and see if you can leap tall buildings and run faster than a speeding bullet because some of the challenges you’re up against really do require almost that kind of superhuman capability.

As the highest-ranked U.N. official overseeing the organization’s mission in Afghanistan, Special Rep. de Mistura is responsible for the critical task of leading international civilian efforts in Afghanistan, which, as many have noted, is crucial to achieving success in the military operations and sustained stability in the country.  To offer his insights into the current conflict and the future of Afghanistan from the perspective of the U.N., it’s my pleasure to now welcome to the podium, Special Rep. to the Secretary-Gen. Staffan de Mistura.  (Applause.)

STAFFAN DE MISTURA:  Thank you very much and very kind to – all your kind words, but let me start by saying you must have heard today, the Taliban have announced through the BBC that they seem to be unwilling to discuss and negotiate anything with anybody.  So the first question I would ask if I were you – and I am you because we have the same question – is, what does that mean?  Are we going anywhere then?  If it is true that there is no military solution to all this, then the next solution should be a political solution based on the dialogue.

Well, my answer to the BBC, which just recently – a few minutes ago – asked me this question, was there are moments when perceptions are more important than substance.  The conflict in which we are at the moment involved, all of us, in trying to find a solution is very much going to be played on perceptions.

So the Talibans are clearly trying to indicate that they are raising, what we call in our own terminology, hot negotiations.  You’re raising the profile; you’re raising your own position.  At the same time, not because of that you are not willing to talk.  Let me go one step back.  We have come to the conclusion that this is not going to be solved militarily.  So there must be a political solution. 

I believe – I may be wrong – that the Talibans believe exactly the same thing.  Why?  Do they know whether they are going to win?  They know they’re not going to win.  The Afghan people are very much aware what does it mean having the Talibans back in power.  The time when they arrived and believed that they could be trusted as a group of religious zealots who are bringing the anti-corruption environment is over. 

They were identified and the people in Afghanistan have learned a lot about that.  So they know they cannot win.  They know that the Afghan people will not be able to accept them.  They know that if they did try to win, there will be, god forbid, a civil war with the Northern Alliance.  So they are considering their option of a negotiation at what conditions, is the point and at what timing?

Now, let’s go back to a – now, the traditional environment.  The traditional environment is – and we just mentioned – there are going to be two parallel events probably taking place.  Are they taking place at the same time?  One before the other?  That, we will see together.  But they are parallel in a way. 

One is the military aspect.  There is no doubt, especially with the arrival of Gen. David Petraeus, who I know well and I respect a lot and I’ve seen him in action in Iraq when I saw how skillful he could combine military skills with diplomatic and political sensitivity and cultural sensitivity.  We are going to see a momentum on the military side.  Now, how violent, how evident will it be?  It will depend on the different ways of doing it, particularly in Kandahar. 

And at the same time, unfortunately, and we are seeing it now taking place already, verbally, but it can become the military – there will be an attempt by the Talibans – particularly by al-Qaida, in particular, perhaps, to start raising the same type of counter-message by having spectacular type of activities, hoping to give the perception, both internally in Afghanistan and externally to all of us and everyone who is part of the coalition that, in fact, they have the upper hand.

But at the same time, we have another area where there is a series of stepping stones taking place.  And those stepping stones are taking place all during this year.  That’s why this year, apart from the fact that everybody’s tired and therefore you have the feeling of the end of the game, but in fact, an end which is going to be painful before it gets better.

You have stepping stones.  One was the Kabul Conference – the London Conference.  London Conference was meant to send a message of support to the Afghan government and to renew the intention by the international community was starting having some doubts that it’s worse to try this extra mile during this special year.

Then, you had the peace jirga, which was not really the peace jirga, but as you know, was the preparatory position for a peace jirga.  What they call it is a consultative peace jirga.  In other words, people already were inside the white tent, so to speak, who needed to agree about how to actually put their hand out towards the rest of those who are not inside the tent and at what conditions.

Now, that was quite a success.  Think about all of us.  One thousand, six hundred people, of which 400 women, actually, 350 women, being able to not disagree on how to actually go that extra mile vis-à-vis a discussion and negotiation eventually with people who don’t want to discuss with you, but you know there is no other solution but at the end of the day; there will have to be a discussion. 

They came up with quite a clear line about red lines, constitution, and about some of the concession – confidence-building measures such as the special – the listing of the blacklist, as they call it informally in Afghanistan.  Then you have a next stepping stone, which is the Kabul Conference, meant in fact to be most likely, because it’s up to the Afghans – we are co-chairing with the secretary-general of the U.N., but the Afghans are in the lead on that, to be the possibility for a contract between –

MR.    :  (Inaudible.)

MR. DE MISTURA:  Between the Afghan government and the Afghan people and the message being, hopefully, from the Afghan government to the Afghan people, look, we have selected three or four development, socio-economic activities, improvements, which are going to improve your life.

And we commit ourselves to do so within a quite a quick time.  If you, international community, feel comfortable with that, then we don’t ask for more money.  We don’t want no more money.  We know there is not appetite for that in the international community and the current economic environment.  But please, then, if you feel convinced by this priority, realign your bilateral, civil and sometimes military – the two things combine very closely sometimes, as you know – huge funds into those priorities. 

If that takes place, then we already starting having one, some more accountability, more Afghan-ization.  We’ll have to monitor that all together.  And at the same time, some movement from military to civilian in terms of assistance, which is in the regions and the provinces, what is needed at the moment.  There is a need to empower more the local authorities with some type of more Afghan support that can be difficult to control in terms of corruption.  We’ll get to that one.  But meanwhile, that is the message.

If during that conference, we get this type of message, it becomes one additional incentive or message to those that want to enter the tent that if you do, respecting certain rules of the game such as the constitution, you’re going to also be benefiting from this type of commitment, apart from the reconciliation budget fund which is a huge one, which Ashraf Ghani is very familiar with.

Now, that will be followed in the Kabul Conference by what Ashraf Ghani, in particular, is working and is being identified with as the godfather of, which is the 100-day process.  In other words, within 100 days, seeing this type of promise is becoming more of a reality in Afghanistan.  And by the way, not coincidentally, may coincide not too far away when we will have, in this country, a sort of revision or a review of where we stand, or you stand, but we all are in the same boat, as you know, regarding the future development in Afghanistan. 

And then, the mother of issues – 18th of September, the elections.  Very important – well, why?  First, because the previous ones went very badly.  So they need to be better.  But they cannot and will not be Swiss elections.  They are going to be Afghan elections.  And Afghanistan did not used to have elections.  There were other types of forms of democracy, including the jirgas.  So it’s going to be a difficult election, but needs and will have to be better.

Now, if those elections take place as we believe will, then that will be the opportunity, first, for many people to start feeling that there is another opportunity beyond bullets, i.e., ballots, to get involved into the local environment in Afghanistan.  Is that going to be credible?  Well, the progress that 2675 candidates have come up, including more than 400 women and that we do have, now, two international commissioners who are part of the so-called electoral complaints commission.

The big danger?  Security.  The second biggest danger?  Security, because if areas will not be accessible for election, then they may be becoming disenfranchised in terms of the local community toward their own opportunity of voting, and therefore being part of it.  By that time, we are very close to the end of the year. 

By that time, we will have seen whether the so-called – let’s call it informally, surge, but in fact, momentum, reversal of the momentum – perception of the reversal of the momentum by the international coalition vis-à-vis the attempt of the perception of non-reversal of the momentum by the Talibans through spectacular attempts of attacks would have, in a way, produced what we all are expecting sooner or later, some type of discussion.  Between whom?  Among Afghans, helped by all of us, but it needs to be an Afghan solution.

What can we see, then, next year?  Well, if that moves in that direction – and you have to forgive me, but I tend to be frantically optimistic by nature; otherwise, I would not be doing this job.  So you will have to reduce, then, the expectations later on, based on reality.  But that’s how we actually got results in Iraq, by having a vision, having a certain type of strategic vision, which then coincided with the reality on the ground, more or less.

Iraq is not perfect, but it’s far from the 2006-’07, when I was there, David Petraeus was there and Ryan Crocker.  We had civil war.  Now, they are fighting politically among them and that’s how the elections took place.  And it won’t be perfect for a long time, but it’s very different.  Are we going to get in the same environment in Afghanistan?  I can’t tell you now.  But this could be a road along which we could at least have a mental strategy.  But there is one thing missing in the whole picture and that is the regional context. 

No formula, no solution will be and can be sustainable in Afghanistan unless the regional players and beyond, historical regional players apart from physical regional players will be, in a way, feeling comfortable with some type of vision of the future Afghanistan and realizing, as they are in my opinion, more and more, that the stability of Afghanistan is in their interest.  Otherwise, everybody will be a loser, particularly when the whole events are getting closer to a crunch.

If we get there, then we may have a different Afghanistan.  But we will have to have another meeting a little bit later in order to be reassessing that.  Now, where is the U.N. on this?  Well, the U.N. learned – and I think every one of you would agree with me – that the secret, especially the military, is in life to choose, when you have to have a objective, try to not choose 15 or 20, but focus on three hills, plus one if you really want to, and try to use all your capacities and all your energy and your added value, wherever you have it, in those.  And those are elections, facilitating internal dialogue and regional dialogue.

Plus, aid coordination or aid coherence, as we call.  In other words, some type of lack of confusion or overlapping, not much more than that.  The moment you are trying to control military, civilian, bilateral and multilateral aid in this current environment, you will probably have a lot of walls in front of you.

But having the Afghans to set up their priorities and helping the international community to moving the priorities to what the Afghans are and using that as an opportunity of accountability and moving from military into more and more civilian-type of activities, even in the PRTs is possible.  So that’s another area where we are going to focus and we are focusing on.

Are we going, ourselves, to be able to be done in view of the security situation?  Well, we are determined to do so.  We are, at the moment, 946,000 nationals and 914 internationals.  We are in 21 locations.  We are, by far, less rich in means than NATO and ISAF is, but everybody knows, the Afghans know, we know, NATO knows, that we are going to be there, if god will, and with the wish of the Afghans, for the next 60 years as we have been there for the last 62 years. 

That’s where the added value of the U.N. can be particularly visible apart from the current priorities on the three areas because there will be a moment when NATO and the ISAF will not be there.  And then is the time when we are supposed – if things don’t go in the wrongest (sic) possible scenario, be close to the Afghans in what will be a long trip.  Governance, corruption, changing some of the issues which are, at the moment, quite devastating in Afghanistan will not be done within 16 months.  Thank you.  (Applause.)

MR. KEMPE:  Thank you very much, Mr. de Mistura.  And thank you, also, you were sharp; you were focused; you were brief and have left us a lot of time to ask some questions.  I’ll start with one or two myself and then I’ll go to the audience very quickly.

Let’s, since the Taliban is in the news today, let’s stay on that first.  It’s interesting, your analysis of it, that it’s not that they won’t negotiate.  It’s just they’re setting the terms under which they might and perhaps you can elaborate on that a little bit.  But also, it’s clear to us the U.S. has been in disagreement with the Karzai administration on their removal of Taliban leaders, also, from the international terrorist blacklist. 

I think that’s Security Council Resolution 1267.  I don’t know what role this plays in this, but it would be interesting for me to get a feeling from you on whether you’re considering Karzai’s request of removing all the names.  I think there are 142 Taliban names.  And the U.S. view, of course, is to pursue this on a case-by-case basis.  So if you can go in a little bit more depth in how you think one deals with the Taliban right now and then on this specific issue, and whether your own talks with Hezb-i-Islami gives you some sort of feeling on these issues, or some guidance on these issues.

MR. DE MISTURA:  Okay.  Regarding the 1267 list, which in the common jargon would be the blacklist, there is 137 people, actually, who are the ones still on the list.  Some of them are dead – actually quite a few of them – but what is needed is that certificate in order to delist them, so to speak.  If I were President Karzai, I would have probably said what he said. 

In other words, in order to send a signal, and one of the confidence-building measure, let’s remember, when you start in a so-called pre-negotiation, or even worse, when you are in the so-called hot negotiation, which is the period when you are having violent attacks, military activities, building up on military activities and at the same time, sending signals that you are ready to discuss a certain, not pre-conditions, but certain rules of the game, then one of the confidence-building measure that would be necessary is the delisting. 

Why?  Because if you want to talk to them, they need to be able to travel to a location inside or outside and feel that that will not be penalize them, physically.  Now, so the message is there.  Now, on the U.N. Security Council side and therefore the U.S. being part of it, very much, there is a need for the following of certain rules which have been established, which is case-by-case. 

The two things are not contradictory.  You are aiming at coming up with the delisting, political message.  Remember, we are in the perception period, okay?  And at the same time, you are accelerating – you are seriously looking at and you’re working hard in starting, coming up, one-by-one, to see who is dead and who could be delisted. 

And I see the United States, like every other member of the Security Council, very interested in seeing this happening, provided it’s done seriously, which means hard work from the Afghan side to start providing the evidence of the certificate or about their own feeling that they have renounced – the people have renounced to do what they used to do in the past.

Bear in the mind that even in the past, there has been a lot of delisting, psychologically, historically, in Afghanistan.  Many people who have been identified as part of the rather horrific things in the past, have been in a way, become part of current parliament.  And that is not impossible when you’re aiming at finding national reconciliation.  But, I respect in the constitution, in other words, within certain rules of the game.  That’s the first point.  The second one was –

MR. KEMPE:  Was if you can go in a little bit more depth on what you think the Taliban strategy is right now and what you’ve learned from your own talks with Hezb-i-Islami, what the potential is for the –

MR. DE MISTURA:  Okay, well, what is the – what is the Taliban’s strategy at the moment?  I think we should ask them, one day, you will, I’m sure, be able to invite them to – if they get delisted, in particular – (laughter) – they will be able to sit here and talk to you about it.  But at the moment, I could guess a little bit. 

And the guess, I would say, is that they – and their aim is what they’ve been claiming, i.e., try to show that they are not at all losing and therefore, they don’t need to negotiate.  That’s a pre-negotiation position anyone would have.  The reality is that they know that they cannot sustain this, that even if they won, they will never win because there is no victory they can have.  And they will never be in charge of this country of Afghanistan.  So their own – their own attempt to maintain the stakes as high as possible in order to have the best possible discussion is probably what they are aiming at and they would be doing it even if they were on another side. 

Regarding the Hezb-i-Islami, it was a strong signal, I think, first of all, that the Taliban’s environment is not unified – like any other environment, that the Talibans are made of different groups.  Some divide them by foreigners and nationals, some about white, gray and black; there are so many forms about it.

The most important distinction is between Afghans and foreigners, al-Qaida.  The Afghans are very nationalistic and very proud of people.  And at the end of the day – and that’s what President Karzai was aiming at when he was saying toward his own compatriots to come back inside the tent while, of course, giving up on certain connections, in particular with al-Qaida.

And the Hezb-i-Islami, when they came, and we saw them because the U.N. is, first of all, this hand has shaken many hands in my life and it’s – not every one my mother would have approved of, you know – (laughter) – but we do discuss with those who can make a difference in terms of a better situation for civilian population or for peace.  With others, you don’t need to discuss; you have a good meal today.

So and we did see them and to send a message that whenever there is an intention to move from bullets to dialogue, there is a recognition by the international community of the fact that they’re willing and capable of having a dialogue.  And I think it was the first feeler of one of the groups about the fact that the solution can be the only political one and will never be just by having explosive or suicide bombers or attacks, as many as they will be able to do.

MR. KEMPE:  Thank you for that answer.  One more question from me and then I’ll turn to the audience.  Gen. Petraeus – really two questions rolling off this – you worked with Gen. Petraeus in Iraq.  The shakeup of command is certainly going to have some impact and I’m just wondering if you can talk about that in the context of the difficulty that we’ve been hearing there’s been anyway in civilian-military coordination in Afghanistan.

The second part of this, related, is that during his confirmation hearings this week, Gen. Petraeus left open the possibility of recommending to the administration to extend or delay its plans for withdrawing troops next summer.  Knowing what you know from on the ground right now, do you think the plans to start withdrawing in July, 2011, are realistic?  What sort of recommendation would you make just from the standpoint of wanting to achieve success?

MR. DE MISTURA:  Okay, regarding the first point, I did have the opportunity to working in Iraq when Gen. Petraeus was in charge of the military coalition and Ryan Crocker was the ambassador.  And I feel extremely comfortable with his own way of thinking and operating.

He showed, at least to all of us, and certainly to me, a remarkable capacity of combining military skills with diplomatic sensitivity, cultural sensitivity and political finesse, which is quite a rare combination, especially in readjusting to a different local environment which is, culturally, totally different.

So from that point of view, I won’t prejudge what will be his strategy in this approach.  That is up to him and the U.N. always has some distance so that we can keep our own independence and autonomy.  But I must say, I feel quite confident that he will make quite a difference within, of course, a difficult moment in a difficult timing.

Regarding timing, please, the question you asked me is really something that nobody can, at this stage, make a comment about and I am the last one to want.  But what we should be doing is perhaps having another meeting like this one, February, March next year.  By that time, you will have seen what has been the reversal of the momentum, what has been, or not, discussions and dialogue – i.e., some type of negotiations – results of the elections and the regional environment.  Then, I will be able to give you a little bit more a prognosis.  At this stage, I would just say no comment.

MR. KEMPE:  I understand completely and we will certainly have you back here then.  Just a detail question, I think, for people in the audience – most of the people in audience really know this sort of detail, but for others – the U.N. does act as an umbrella over the entire operation?

MR. DE MISTURA:  Correct, the international –

MR. KEMPE:  What does that make your relationship, then, with Gen. Petraeus and the U.S. military in a functional sort of way?

MR. DE MISTURA:  In the functional level, it does – he has got and he should have total autonomy in reporting to the secretary-general of NATO, not to the secretary-general of the U.N.

MR. KEMPE:  Which is operating under a U.N. –

MR. DE MISTURA:  That’s right.  The whole operation is based on a blessing, so to speak, of a U.N. Security Council resolution, but not under instructions and micromanagement or identification with – in other words, a blessing for the operation.

MR. KEMPE:  Thank you, please.  And if you could identify yourself as well, as you ask your question.  Wait for the microphone please.

Q:  Sir, Vice Marshal Mike Harwood.  As a military officer in the room, can I just first of all thank you for what you’re doing because you go in harm’s way, as we’ve already heard from Mr. Kempe.  Frankly, you could retire, write a book and we’d all buy it and you could do that and have an easy life and you don’t.  You choose to do what you’re doing and so all the other folk who are with you in civilian uniform, thank you very much.

Can I just pursue the point you made on corruption and that there won’t be magical solutions in 16 months, but can we see any movement on corruption?  How does Karzai feel about corruption?  How do the Afghan people feel about it?  I know how we feel because we have certain standards, we understand corruption the way we do in the West.  How do they feel about it?  How important it is it?  And can we get anywhere on that to satisfy our electorates and our congressmen and senators?

MR. KEMPE:  And may I add to that, if you don’t mind, sir, the question, not just on Afghan corruption, but one hears, also, from the Afghan side, complaints about corruption in some of the Western contractors as well and whether that plays a role that’s at all problematic?

MR. DE MISTURA:  First of all, how the Afghans feel about it and President Karzai feel about it – I’ve heard him saying that he’s very much, himself, against corruption.  So I’m quoting what I heard from him and I could see you all feeling strongly about it because it does lead a feeling that Afghanistan is corrupt.

The Afghans you meet in the street or the Afghans you talk to are also equally complaining about the corruption.  So there is no, in other words, paternalistic attitude or total acceptance of it.  Having said that, I must say that it is also, linked paradoxically to the intensity, quantity and short timeframe of the huge investments that are coming inside Afghanistan.

In other words, one Afghan told me, well, you know, when you get so much money, so intensely concentrated in such a short time and on top of it, you have the feeling that you may not be there next year, the temptation becomes quite irresistible.  And in that sense, please look at it from their point of view.

So that made me think and the alternative to that would be to actually, of course, invest very intensely on what is considered a critical period, but also, get, from the beginning, involved in development, longer term.  So there is no rush in trying to get what you have now because you won’t get it next year, but it will be much more by installments. 

Regarding the other way is that you control is more is what I think the U.S. administration is doing just in – while we are talking – having people qualified to actually examine all the contracts and examine them at the origin because much can be controlled by controlling this type of possible contracts which then go out.

And that will also avoid the possible misuse along the road.  I know what you are referring to and I can imagine that what has been reported by the press is possible when you are having containers traveling and they cost – they would cost probably $3,000 from Kandahar to Kabul and they end up costing $8,000.  Obviously, there is something wrong going on and someone is being paid in order not to attack them and that, perhaps, is what has been reported on the press.  We are seeing that happening, by the way, in other countries, too, when there is this type of conflict.

MR. KEMPE:  Please, Harlan. 

Q:  I’m Harlan Ullman at the Atlantic Council.  Thank you very much for your very incisive comments.  It strikes some of us that we appear to be in a state of suspended animation in Afghanistan.  Now, we’re just waiting.  David Petraeus will give us some slack, but it’s not going to be until December or beyond that we make an assessment.

On the other side of the coin, there are a number of us who believe that the overarching Obama strategy dating back to last year is profoundly and even fatally flawed for a number of reasons.  It’s called Af-Pak.  It maybe should be called Pak-Af because after the al-Qaida – most of the al-Qaida are gone, it tries to bring a Western, centralized system of government to a country that’s always been decentralized. 

It’s based on recruiting large numbers of security forces which we can’t pay for over the longer term.  To what degree do you really think we are in a state of suspended animation and what would you see being done differently when Gen. Petraeus gets out there to relieve what appear to be some of the real flaws in the overarching strategy?

MR. DE MISTURA:  I have to think because it’s not easy at this stage to, you know, put yourself and say what would be the best way to proceed?  Probably I would use one word and I think it’s a word which in America, you have proven in the past of your history many times.  I’m a European, as you know, and we owe a lot to all of you, I will not be here if it wasn’t for that type of determination that you used in the – during the Second World War – resilience. 

That’s the word, resilience.  Now is the time to show resilience because this is the critical year.  Regardless of whether we will see whether the strategy is going to work or not, now is the time.  That’s why I’m there.  That’s why 1,000 of my colleagues are there and we got five people killed on our own civilian, non-voluntary, non-military and five wounded.

And we are still there and we will be there because now is the time to show to the Afghans that we mean what we say, that we are with them while we are going through this critical period and this critical period has not yet, totally – (inaudible) – suspended animation, been able, still, to prove the two combinations. 

The momentum reversal, which is unavoidably military and on the other side – on the other side, the other momentum, which is giving the chance to the Afghans to accelerate their own Afghan solution. 

And probably, the best outcome will be that one, an Afghan solution, meanwhile, found by them, among them, which will lead to a non-perfect Afghanistan, at least from our eyes, but a very proud and you know, non-Swiss.  We are not aiming at making Afghanistan Switzerland.  But just Afghanistan with some type of internal formula that will take care of certain principles but at the same time, will be an Afghan formula.

So I would like to discuss the suspended animation a little bit later.  At this moment, I would push the suspended animation through one word, resilience.  We are applying it and I would be surprised if you don’t.

MR. KEMPE:  Can you pick up the comparison between what you saw as your challenge in Iraq versus what you see as your challenge here?  Which is harder?  And in what way?

MR. DE MISTURA:  Well, it is – (chuckles) – it’s the classical question when – what is the difficult mission?  It’s usually the last one, you know?  One, because you have not gone through it and second, because it does look so complex comparing to the previous one.  But there are parallels; there are some elements of combination between the two.

For instance, in 2007, when I was sent by the secretary-general there, the mood was very similar to the one we are hearing at the moment, both internationally and locally.  And the feeling was civil war, are we going anywhere, is it getting anywhere, can we actually stop this horror which was taking place which was much worse than the horror we are seeing in Afghanistan.

We had more than 300 people killed every day and you remember it was almost clear civil war between Shia and Sunni without taking to account the potential explosive environment of the Kurds with Kirkuk.  So you had all the ingredients for going completely in the wrong direction.  And then something took place, a combination of various factors and the situation changed.

Now, here, we are a little bit later in the game that I wish we would have been.  But you know, you never regret things that you cannot do, but I wish we had not forgotten Afghanistan for long.  And the Afghans are reminding us that.  And by the way, that’s an issue they are reminding us even today.

We have been abandoned many times, many times.  And every time, we then had to face with the reality.  That’s why they’re so keen – whatever the deadlines, maybe now our hearts or minds, that there is some type of continuity of support to them through training, through development aid, but not simply a goodbye and good luck.  And I think that’s a feeling they deserve to have.

MR. KEMPE:  Your fellow Swede –

(Cross talk.)

Q:  Well, you’ve gotten to know a few weeks ago, that there is a change of command in Afghanistan.  Gen. McChrystal replaced by Gen. Petraeus.  The wording was, this is change of command, not change of policy.  I’d like to hear your wording of it.  Secondly, when you change something crucial – person – isn’t that then a fear that you also lose momentum?  Not just for the American operation but also for the whole international community and how does it direct what we now see, what might happen in 2011, summer, thank you.

MR. DE MISTURA:  Good.  I think my answer will be relatively short according to good Scandinavian tradition.  And regarding the momentum, I forgive you for saying that because you don’t know David Petraeus.  I do.  He will just make a complete momentum moving forward, if I know him well enough – just the opposite of reducing momentum.

The second point is that regarding a change in policy, I think they are meaning what they say because at this stage, as we were talking about resilience, it refers also to trying to prove that whatever policy is being – or strategy been decided is consistent.  But the style – and you know very well the approach in the detail makes a hell of a difference.  And I think you will see a lot of that taking place, while not changing the policy, which is normal. 

I’m different from my successor – predecessor and so on.  We all have a different style, but the styles do make a difference, especially when you’re dealing with human beings and the Afghans are extremely sensitive to cultural, political finessing.  They are very sophisticated people, they are.  And David Petraeus is the person who would know that very well.  By the way, Gen. McChrystal was very good, very good and I can only speak well about him, but everyone has got a different style.

MR. KEMPE:  In political finesse, perhaps Gen. Petraeus – smoother.

MR. DE MISTURA:  Well, we will see what type of different style was – McChrystal was having excellent relation with President Karzai and with many Afghan leaders and so I – but the style is going to be different and David Petraeus has proven it in Iraq.  So the momentum will be, in my opinion, a good surprise – a good surprise, yeah.

MR. KEMPE:  Frank Kramer.

Q:  Thanks very much.  I wanted to go back to your perceptions point.


Q:  And part of the perception, I think, the reality is that the effects that Gen. McChrystal was trying to create around the south and the southeast – an important part of the country, but not the whole country.  And the Pashtuns themselves are not the entire population.  They’re about 40 or 45 percent. 

So one question I have is, would it be a sensible thing to think about enhancing activities outside that very difficult and complex area to create different metrics – that the solution does not have to come in Kandahar, but could come elsewhere by talking, as you did, about the realignment or the re-coordination of the civil effort, put it elsewhere and create some successes through the 100-day program or the various other things that Ashraf Ghani and others tried to support.

But not right where the bullets are flying the heaviest, but rather in areas where there’s some greater hope of having governance take place and then use the elections and the establishment of district activities as a metric of success rather than being metrics of success being whether or not Kandahar is successful.

MR. DE MISTURA:  Well, I think if you want to, in my opinion, a combination of the two elements would probably be the best.  First of all, the Kandahar is – and again – perception-wise, the symbol, the symbol of where the Talibans are sending the signal to the rest of the country, not only to the Pashtuns that this is, for them, iconic. 

And in that sense – and plus there is 1 million people there, almost, 900,000.  Therefore, choosing Kandahar as an iconic opportunity for reversing the momentum or the perception of the momentum is – has a logic.  But you’re totally right.  Forgetting and not paying attention to other areas of Afghanistan where, in fact, the situation is quite calm and where in fact, they have proven that there can be better governance needs to be done. 

And that’s what we are pushing for, too, from the U.N. side.  Otherwise, some people may be thinking that in order to get massive aid, you need to become a troublemaker.  That’s exactly what we don’t want them to believe.

MR. KEMPE:  Example of that – where you would do that?

MR. DE MISTURA:  I won’t do that so some people will start thinking that it’s time for doing that there.  (Laughter.)

MR. KEMPE:  Please.  Sorry, I’m trying to go to people in the – roughly the order I’ve seen them, so forgive me.

Q:  My name is Walter Jorosik (ph).  This is a super, super discussion.  You mentioned very important things, political solution.  Let’s say that I am the Taliban and how I can trust which side the West will take in order to have the political solution.  They will ask the question, you’re dealing too much with the West.  We don’t trust you. 

So where is this problem?  This problem exists, I don’t know for how long, because they have a historical background too.  They remember England.  They remember other Western European countries who went over there. 

And I speak to those people over there from Afghanistan and Pakistan and all the culture – they have a huge cultural difference and there’s also cultural war, not just political as well economical.  Do you have any other solutions than just say, okay, we help you but you have to have the solution your own?

MR. DE MISTURA:  Thank you.  Tell me – can I ask you a little question myself?

Q:  Yes.

MR. DE MISTURA:  Thank you.  I – you know, there’s no secret.  I’m Swedish-Italian, okay?  So my accent is a little bit Italian, a little bit Swedish, depending on the – where are you from?  You have a charming accent, too, so –

MR. KEMPE:  Go ahead, you can answer –

MR. DE MISTURA:  Yeah, you can say that.

Q:  I’m originally from Poland, although I am U.S. citizen.  But I consider myself universal.

MR. DE MISTURA:  Okay.  Yes.  Indeed.  (Laughter.)  Indeed.  We all are, yeah.  Very good.  No, I just want – have you been there?  Have you been to Afghanistan?

Q:  I was invited, but the situation with the – I did not.

MR. DE MISTURA:  Okay, okay.  I believe that everyone went to Afghanistan because everyone – we were all New Yorkers, 9/11 and that the purpose which drove every country, including Sweden, who have not been at war for centuries was we are all New Yorkers, 9/11.  Not to make Afghanistan Switzerland, not to change their culture, certainly to affect a major problem that was the horrible regime of the Talibans which was favoring the al-Qaida presence there, which then was linked to 9/11.

So it’s very important – and you’re right in touching that point, that the perception by the Afghan people who are proud, who are highly proud and they have proven it over thousands of years with a lot of interesting empires, including Alexander – (inaudible) – up to the Soviet time, by the British – big defeat they had, twice – three times, actually on that.

Yes, they are stubbornly proud about their own culture and their own religion.  So the message we need to give them and we are working on that and I think more and more and I think that is getting there, we are not there to change them.  We are there only because that and we will be leaving at a certain point and leave them with their own culture.

The U.N., in that sense, with all its flaws and its own difficulties and its own weaknesses, is very well positioned for reassuring on that because we are not a – you know, we are going to be there and we were there even during the Talibans time.  It was not fun – it was very difficult, but we were there and we don’t plan to actually change anything afterwards.

So in that sense, we can be a reassuring factor that there is no second agenda about their own natural resources or wanting to change them into a different religion or making governance a cover for becoming excessively Westernized when, after all, what we are only expecting is some honesty in dealing with their own people, what the Afghans themselves are asking.

Conclusion, you’re touching a very important point.  We need to constantly – especially during this crucial year, fine-tune our own narrative, our own message, about why we are there, how long we are and what we want to achieve with them.  But at the end of the day, it’s the Afghans who are going to decide and we should respect that, even if we will find the solution, they will find not perfect.  It’s not going to be perfect in our eyes, but it may be the best solution for stabilizing this country.

MR. KEMPE:  Thank you, please.

Q:  Michael –

MR. KEMPE:  Could you wait – I’m – sorry, we’ve got this on tape, so if you could wait for the – microphone, thank you.

Q:  Michael Lemmon from the Near East South Asia Center.  Could you elaborate your thinking on a regional approach to Afghanistan, specifically under whose auspices, who would be in the lead, inclusion, composition?  I would presume that would be all of the neighbors and other regionals, to include Iran.  And if does, how do you separate out Afghanistan from the concerns about the nuclear issue?

MR. KEMPE:  I’m so glad you asked that question because there’s been so much talk in this town about the regional solution.  But we’ve been looking around for elements of it being brought together by someone and we haven’t seen it yet, so his question – but also, is anything happening in that respect?

MR. DE MISTURA:  First of all, let me reframe it, if I may.  There is no regional solution.  There is an Afghan solution, okay.  The regional players, the regional stakeholders which go beyond the pure border regional players are going to be instrumental in making sure that whatever the Afghan solution is going to take place, is going to be sustainable without – and with, instead, constructive engagement and not the opposite.

To do so, they need to feel comfortable that the stability of Afghanistan and the formula which will be found among the Afghans is somehow taking into account their own concerns.  I don’t want to go into details at this stage about what are the concerns of each one of them, but I can tell you that U.N., in particular, but there are some leading countries like Turkey who is doing a lot on it by having trilateral meetings at the highest level between Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkey.  And other regional players are facilitating this type of dialogue.

We have established a format which is called the – very charming word and completely and military in that sense – the Silk Road Initiative.  It is a – Silk Road goes beyond just the borders, includes India, of course.  It goes all the way through Iran, up to Turkey and that was the Silk Road. 

Initially, in order to keep everyone, more or less, engaged with the U.N.  They’re all members of the U.N.  Not all of them – in fact, very few of them are members of NATO – hardly any and of EU, but they are members of the U.N. so that we can start working on possible areas of convergence. 

Example – drugs.  You know that almost 900,000 Afghans are affected by drugs and it’s a devastating issue.  Opium, as you know, is one of the major financial resources for the Talibans, worth $400 million every year.  At the same time, the drugs which are coming out from Afghanistan are affecting thousands of Iranians and more than 30,000 Russians are dying due to the drugs linked to those coming from Afghanistan.

You can already start seeing some type of regional cooperation with a common goal of trying to reduce the drug movement on it.  Just one small example.  Energy is another one – roads and transport is another one.  And of course, at the end of the day, a political one.  But you have to give the time, meanwhile, to the Afghan solution to take place through this parallel approach.

MR. KEMPE:  And within this, first of all, is this initiative a formal, informal initiative, keeping people informed, merely, or deeper than that?  And then secondarily, Iran, attitudes – clearly, Iran was a central figure in Iraq.  How do you see Iran’s role in Afghanistan compared to see what you saw in Iraq?

MR. DE MISTURA:  First of all, ours is an unofficial initiative, but led by the U.N. in Kabul has some type of particular charisma, so to speak.  All the ambassadors of those countries are part of it and they’re attending the meetings which are focused on concrete issues.  So that is the format. 

There are other much more formal structures such as Rekam (ph), the Shanghai Initiative, the Dubai Approach.  They are all helping to try to consolidate a little bit of a critical mass around the fact that at the end of the day, there is a lot to be gained by all the regional players out of a stable or more stable Afghanistan.

Iran has got 1,280 kilometers of borders with Afghanistan.  So you can’t be surprised if they do have a strong interest.  Iran was substantially affected by the Talibans because A, 14 of their diplomats were killed in Mazar-i-Sharif, you probably remember some time ago.  And therefore – and there is a community of Shia and there are communities which are being – crossing the border for trade with Iran for a long time.

Plus, they have a substantial number – 3 million – of refugees from Afghanistan.  So their interest in Afghanistan is there and naturally so.  What we need to make sure, like with every other neighbor, that their engagement is constructive.

MR. KEMPE:  Ambassador Kirk.

Q:  We were told a while ago on Marja that that was going to be the example, the test as to whether this military followed up by governance would work.  Since then, the news that we seem to be getting is that it hasn’t been working very well, the latter part of it.  And then I’m sorry – the discussion of the regional thing brought to my mind – some people say that one of the big problems in Afghanistan is the rivalry between Pakistan and India for influence in that country.  So if you wouldn’t mind commenting on that as well.

MR. DE MISTURA:  Well, I read – and I was aware of the same narrative regarding Marja is true.  And I think that Gen. McChrystal did readjust the expectations on Marja according to the realities on the ground.  There is no doubt the situation – the military situation in Afghanistan requires constant readjustments on what we want, you want, anyone wants to achieve.

If the current – the current narrative is not having an outright victory, okay, not putting a flag on Kandahar, the flag needs to be an Afghan flag and remain there.  But to change the perception of the momentum in Kandahar and around that between now and let’s say October, November, well, that is, in my modest opinion, something that can be done – can be done and may be helpful to a dialogue based on the concept of hot negotiations.

In other words, you have to – sometimes have pressure in order to be able to then sit.  So I will stop there and then we will see what readjustment on the ground will take place accordingly. 

Regarding the issue –

Q:  India part.

MR. DE MISTURA:  Issue about India and Pakistan, well, you are obviously good student and of a past history.  The – Afghanistan has been always, in a way, affected by this type of rivalry taking place on the side of Afghanistan.  But President Karzai is trying, and I think quite successfully, especially with the latest meetings he has been having with the Pakistani authorities, to maintain some type of balance for Afghanistan vis-à-vis India and Pakistan.

Both of them are countries that can and should be feeling that – the stability of Afghanistan is paradoxically in their interest, even in spite of this tension that exists.  So I will stop there on the moment on that because so far, there has been some movement in the right direction.  There have been visits by President Karzai to India and there’s been frequent visits by Pakistan authority to Kabul and vice versa.  I feel quite better about it than I did a few months ago.

MR. KEMPE:  We’re very focused, at the Atlantic Council right now, at finding Track 2, Track 1.5 with Pakistan –

MR. DE MISTURA:  One-point-five is interesting and –

MR. KEMPE:  Well, that means we’d invite you as well – (laughter) – but ways to engage Pakistan and India, just realizing that all the rest in the region really relies ultimately on that.  I’ll have one question here and then we’ll go toward the back.

Q:  I’m Egil Krogh from the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.  I was interested in your comments on narcotics.  You mentioned that in the context of regional cooperation.  My question is, does that really play a significant role in trying to achieve some positive outcome through negotiations this year?  Is that something that we read a lot about it and it seems like it’s a very deep systemic problem, but does it bear directly on trying to reach some kind of an understanding among the principal players?

MR. DE MISTURA:  Well, everything in Afghanistan, this year, make – can contribute to make a difference.  And certainly, the drug issue is a crucial one.  I’ll give you one example – I think already gave it to you, the substantial amount of money that the Talibans seems to be getting out of it.

Now, the affecting or changing that will have a bearing on their – how will I say – the more inclination to go to a dialogue if they had less resources.  It goes without saying, is part of it.  Second, if it was effectively touched, tackled, it would certainly make a country like Iran and Russian Federation much more relaxed about the stability of Afghanistan.

They are generally concerned – Russian Federation, particular, have, almost more than a million people – I was there and they were giving me very clear evidence – more than a million people directly affected by drugs due to the influx coming from there.  So it does.  Now, life is strange and I believe in God, like many of you, I presume. 

And I – for a moment, I was thanking God quite a lot for the fact that a strange disease had taken place in the southern part of Afghanistan.  There is a necrosis which has been cutting down the production of opium close to 50 percent.  So I said, gosh, this is not bad.  We don’t need too much of hard work here, perhaps a little bit more prayers.  (Laughter.)

But then, you know, there is always, you know, the counter aspect of it and we discovered the one, the prices have gone up, which then becomes an inducement for making more agricultural production in that direction.  Secondly, by going the price higher up, the Talibans were getting more or less the same amount because smaller quantity, but higher price.

And three, since they had been using this approach of offering money to farmers in advance in order to produce the opium and the money not being available anymore, then they could ask, instead of money, people to join them.  And that, certainly can, again, is a Catch-22.  But it’s still about opium.

Q:  I think it’s a good thing that God made you frantically optimistic.  (Laughter.)

MR. DE MISTURA:  Thank you, thank you.

MR. KEMPE:  Please.

Q:  Sir, indeed – Marvin Weinbaum –

MR. KEMPE:  If you could identify yourself –

Q:  Yes, Marvin Weinbaum, Middle East Institute.

MR. DE MISTURA:  I don’t see – oh, yeah, sorry hi.

Q:  Certainly, you are optimistic, but I find much of your commentary here to be Pollyanna-ish. 


Q:  Pollyanna-ish.

MR. DE MISTURA:  What does that mean in English?

MR. KEMPE:  Pollyanna-ish means you may be overly optimistic.

Q:  Overly optimistic.

(Cross talk.)

MR. DE MISTURA:  Easier for me, thank you.

Q:  The reason I say that, sir, is let me give you a few examples.  You’ve not differentiated at all amongst the Taliban.  Dealing with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar Hezb-i-Islami is one thing.  Certainly, the Haqqani group and the Shura and the others is quite something else.  You’ve made this negotiation seem, to me, to be a shortcut to ending things. 

But as we’ve known about negotiations, whether it’s leading to the Geneva Accords of the Vietnam War, getting Soviets out, took years.  So the idea that somehow, this is going to resolve things in any short of period of time just seems to be – not to be historically true.

You’ve not mentioned at all here what is one of the major obstacles to the Afghans finding a solution and by the way, they’ve had very little – few examples here of their ability.  When they met in Bonn, if it was not for one of your predecessors, there would have been, really, no solution.  And these were among people who were the victors after the conflict with the Taliban. 

But you’ve not mentioned the northerners, here, who see any kind of resolution with the Taliban, with good reason, as existentially dangerous to them.  Finally, let me say that – sir, I think you’re correct in arguing that the Taliban may not win as – in their ability – as long as there are forces in Kabul and elsewhere to certainly take the major cities. 

But I think it’s evident here, as was demonstrated in their successes in the ’90s, they don’t have to win if the other side loses.  And what we have – we’ve seen here is that they are – to the extent that they have any strength, it’s by default, but that can be enough.  That can be enough if there’s not a – I should say a military part of any political solution. 

I don’t think it’s either a military solution or a political solution.  I think you’ve hinted at this, but there must be a military component.  Otherwise, you are negotiating out of weakness and I hesitate to find many examples here where that leads to a permanent solution.  Thank you.

MR. KEMPE:  I mean I think you did touch on some of that with your talk about hot negotiations and differentiating between the Taliban groups earlier, but you still might want to address some of the –

Q:  (Inaudible) – is the word that’s missing here because that is part of a political solution.

MR. KEMPE:  Right.

Q:  It’s very different than striking a grand bargain.

MR. KEMPE:  Yeah, yeah.

MR. DE MISTURA:  I hear it.  I can’t disagree that – first of all, I can’t disagree with you that I may be a little bit naïve in being terribly optimistic.  But so far, it’s kept me alive and getting – (laughter) – and got me through 18 war zones with some type of solution, sometimes.  But I agree, there is an element.  But let’s – and let’s address one or two points on that.

First of all, the differentiation between the Talibans – of course, you’re right.  If you want, but then I would need another 15, 20 minutes to go into fine-tuning about all different shades of the different Taliban groups and the additional groups like the Haqqani group that you just mentioned, their loyalty, their own linkages.  They are not – and luckily for all of us – they, too, are not Switzerland, okay?  They really have quite a polyhydric environment. 

But the fact that Hekmatyar, who I happened to have met 22 years ago when he was – he was quite a challenge himself and the fact that he actually decided to send the delegation to start, indicating some conditionality for discussions, one, did show a division in the so-called – (inaudible) – or in the stardom of the different components of the Taliban’s alliance and secondly, was also in a way, sending a message he would not have been allowed to do unless some major players would have allowed them to do so.  So it was a good signal in the right direction, at least.

Second, regarding the loser, vis-à-vis winning, well, I was – on the occasion of the visit of the Security Council, visiting also the training at the center by the U.S. military and NATO and the Afghans on the military and the police.  And since the salaries have been increased and some of the training techniques have been increase, I must say, the retention level of the Afghan army and police has been quite substantially improved – and the numbers, too.

So I would not disregard that element about the capacity of the Afghan army to actually do something beyond just waiting for them to be ready.  I’ll give you another example.  First of all, the Afghans are fighters – born fighters.  The secret is how to have them doing it in a structured way, but not necessarily a Westernized way.

I’ll give you another example – we had, unfortunately, more than one attack in Kabul recently.  They were all managed – sometimes with a lot of shooting, I must say, a little bit longer than we would like to see in a normal environment, but were all managed by the Afghan police and – police and the Afghan army. 

It was not suddenly the, you know, Marines arriving or the Special Forces and helicopters.  It was all handled by them and it was handled in a very – determined way and not according to all the, you know, normal pattern you would see in terms of the military activities, but quite effectively.

Now, next point.  You’re right in saying that we are not talking about the Northern Alliance because we should do that.  The Northern Alliance is a crucial part of the existence of Afghanistan, particularly in the current Afghanistan, where much of the army is currently composed by people coming from the Tajik and ethnic and other northern backgrounds.

At the same time, the Northern Alliance, which today is not called the Northern Alliance, they are part of the establishment is also where – that there must be some type of formula, at what conditions, we know.  Constitution, yes.  Not the Talibans returning to Kabul and being in charge, but some type of Afghan solution needs to be found and they are aware of it too.

Some of them have been going to Pakistan recently about what?  Discussing about possible options of some type of Afghan.  We’ll see which one.  But I will not just make it black and white – black and white vis-à-vis the old way through which the Talibans took over.  I also said that I don’t believe the Talibans will ever be able to take over the country and I strongly believe that.

Based also on how the Afghans in general are now aware on how the Talibans behave.  And I think that Talibans know it too and that the alternative would have been a civil war where the northerns would be, by far, stronger, any way of the Talibans this time.  The Talibans don’t have the same type of equipment, have same type of capacity that they had in the past.

So that, again, produces this slightly naïve help that they will be understanding that the only formula, even for them, is actually some type of negotiation.  You had many other points, but I think I covered those three.

MR. KEMPE:  Yes.  I have one right here.  Thank you.

Q:  Stanley Kober with the Cato Institute.  Following up on Marvin’s question, and you just touched on this – in the ’90s, you had a confrontation between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance.


Q:  I don’t recall any effort at a negotiation.  When al-Qaida assassinated Ahmad Shah Massoud, I don’t recall the Taliban objecting, no, no, we wanted to negotiate with him.  You know, this was a military struggle.  So what would be different now?

MR. DE MISTURA:  Okay.  The difference now is that we are in a different period where there is 100-and-more thousand soldiers from the international community who are actually – and there is where I would agree with your point and although we, the U.N., is never in favor of war, that a reversal of the momentum which becomes a way to talk about a military, you know, is not done by poetry. 

It is done by military activities, is one element which will be a part of what, hopefully, will lead to a negotiation.  In other words, at that time, you didn’t have that.  You had just the Northern Alliance and a very heavily armed Taliban situation, strongly supported by perhaps some neighbors.  All that is changing and all that is much weaker on their side.  That’s all.  That’s the difference.

MR. KEMPE:  We still have time for one or two more questions.  Sorry – oh, I’m sorry, Arnaud.  You know, I’ve – how did I miss you, Arnaud?

Q:  Arnaud de Borchgrave, CSIS.  In February of 1968, the Viet Cong launched an offensive all over South Vietnam and it was perceived to be a victory for the Viet Cong.

MR. DE MISTURA:  The Tet Offensive you’re talking about?

Q:  The Tet Offensive.


Q:  Correct, sir.  They got into 27 cities.  It was a military defeat for them but it was perceived to be a victory by the media, world opinion.  In your judgment, is it possible today that the Taliban would have the capability of doing seven, eight or nine cities simultaneously even though they would, of course, be kicked out by the end of the day?

MR. DE MISTURA:  The – they did so in Nuristan about three weeks ago.  They did so and they were able to take over a small district area for 48 hours.  They did so by going where no one was expecting them to go and where the local resistance was the lowest.  But they were thrown out immediately afterwards.

And in all finesse, the Afghan police fought incredibly courageously.  They held the situation for about four days, which showed – and on the other side, there were more than 300 Talibans trying to overcome about 70 Afghans.  Finally, they did.  I can’t see them, at this moment, having the capacity of doing that in the way you described in the major centers.

MR. KEMPE:  Please, in the back.

MR. DE MISTURA:  That’s why they are using suicide bombers and aiming mostly at spectacular attacks or attempts of attacks on bases, military bases, or anything that has – draws a perception message rather than a takeover message.

MR. KEMPE:  So essentially, what you’re saying is yes, they’re going to – tried to do this and they are trying to do this but you don’t think they have the capacity.

MR. DE MISTURA:  That’s correct.

Q:  Midu al-Semini (ph) from Voice of America.  I heard that you mentioned Afghan solution to the conflicts.  However, I want to know your thought whether the Taliban are really independent.  They really can work without authorization of the ISI.  If that’s not true, last year, one of the Taliban leader, Mullah Baradar was captured by ISI and later reported that he was one of the Taliban leaders who are prone to negotiation with the Karzai government.  Thank you.

MR. DE MISTURA:  Well, the Talibans used to be very much dependent on Pakistan, in particular because they used to be having, as you know, their own safe haven there and they did use it, particularly after their own defeat, according to all evidence we have at the moment.  I may be wrong, but I’m having strong indications that the Pakistani authorities are genuinely – including ISI – generally concerned about the fact the Talibans cannot and should not take over Afghanistan.

They have, themselves, and the Pakistani colleagues I meet remind me about it – paying a very heavy price and we tend to forget it.  Of the Taliban, Pakistanis themselves, they came very close to Islamabad – 6,800 uniformed Pakistanis have been killed due to this type of violence.  And there is 1.8 million displaced people in the areas.  Conclusion, I think things are changing in that area too.  I would not go beyond that, at this stage.  Thank you very much.

MR. KEMPE:  Let me close with one question and then we’ll thank you because you did – you did touch on this.  You called the election coming up the mother of all issues and I think we’ve really come back to that.  And why, with all these other issues going on, is this one the mother?  And you’ve expressed disappointment with the vetting process for parliamentary candidates.  Can you – or what role will you play in ensuring this is fair and legitimate?  How are you going to make sure that the mother of all issues turns up to be –

MR. DE MISTURA:  It is the mother of all issues in my modest opinion because the previous ones went so badly that this one needs to go better, point one.  Everybody was a loser, including the U.N., and that, for me, becomes the mother of all issues.  But also, and by talking to the Afghans.

Three, because we are the moment when the Afghans themselves are looking for the opportunity of seeing whether they can stress their own voice.  Four, because if there were not elections, we would have the delegitimization of the constitution, which is one of the bedrocks of the current situation in Afghanistan.  If we start touching the constitution and start delegitimizing, then of course, we don’t have a bedrock for talking, even with the Talibans – that if not, we touch, which means human rights, which means women’s rights.

Four, because if that was the case and the parliament will be disbanded and the government will have to go by decrees and the Talibans will be able to say, look, democracy doesn’t work.  All that plus what the international community – our own congress, our own parliaments who are looking for some type of democratic process taking place while they are investing treasure and blood in Afghanistan.

For all those reasons, I would take the liberty of insisting it is the mother of all issues.  Now, having said that, we have to reduce the size of the mother a little bit by having not over-expectations and therefore, these elections are not going to be perfect.  That was a problem we had in the past, expecting too much about it.

They should be better.  They should be Afghan.  They will not be Swiss, but they will be better.  The fact that 2,635 people are being candidates and among them, 400 women, gives me the feeling they believe that this is worth trying.

MR. KEMPE:  Let me – I’m going to thank you, then, and let me say just a couple of –

MR. DE MISTURA:  Can I talk about vetting, you think?

MR. KEMPE:  Oh, absolutely.  I just didn’t want to overtax you, so – please do.

MR. DE MISTURA:  On the vetting, on the vetting, it’s true.  I express disappointment.  But that’s exactly what the U.N. should be doing – should be doing on your behalf and on behalf of all the Afghans, raise the flag, or yellow flag of moral authority when you see that it’s not going in the right direction.

And I did so on purpose and I informed the president about it and the Afghan authorities.  And the result has been quite encouraging because when I raised it, it was zero vetting.  The latest figure is 40 people are going to be excluded from the election.  Now, is this enough?  Well, there is a limit to what you consider now going on this vetting when the real issue is that – actually, having better elections.  And you know why?  Because the real vetters are the voters.  If these people are bad people, those who have been not vetted, people would know about it.

MR. KEMPE:  And of course, in the last elections, we didn’t keep our eye enough on the ball, so –

MR. DE MISTURA:  You’ve got it.

MR. KEMPE:  On behalf of the audience, I want thank you, but I want to say two quick things.  First of all, you talked about divine intervention on behalf of the opium crops.  We believe in that but we also believe strongly in human intervention and we’re awfully encouraged that you’ve taken on this assignment.

And although our British military colleague is not here, I do want to echo what he said.  My German friends – and I come from a German background – always talk about Americans as superficial optimists in a somewhat sneering manner.  And I always tell them, well, you can also superficially pessimistic as well.

And it’s nice to hear someone who’s been through 18 war zones and seen so much keep one’s optimism because I think in this situation, you, you know, it’s only having some sort of idea of the goal that’s going to give you any chance of getting there.  So on behalf of the audience, the questions were good, the answers were even better.  Thank you very much.  (Applause.)

MR. DE MISTURA:  Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.

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