Updated: 03-Nov-2006 NATO Speeches


2 Nov. 2006

UN in Afghanistan

Interview with the Deputy Special Representative of the
United Nations Secretary General, Ambassador Chris Alexander

NATO in Afghanistan
Audio file
Biography of Christopher Alexander, DSRSG (PA)
Key link
United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA)

INTERVIEWER: We're here today with Ambassador Christopher Alexander, Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary General for Afghanistan. Mr. Alexander thank you for being here with us.

AMBASSADOR CHRISTOPHER ALEXANDER (Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary General for Afghanistan): Thanks for having me.

Q: My first question relates to media reports in Afghanistan where it's often difficult to tell where the UN leaves off and NATO begins. Can you tell us exactly what the UN does in Afghanistan?

ALEXANDER: Well, obviously we are working very closely with NATO and the rest of the international community in Afghanistan towards common objectives. For five years we worked under the Bonn Agreement towards generating a new constitution for Afghanistan, a new government and ultimately the holding of elections. Now in the post-Bonn era, we have shared vision of the future of Afghanistan, which as you know, is called the Afghanistan Compact. The United Nations has a central and impartial role to co-ordinate the work of the international community under the compact and so obviously that's our primary mandate; to work with NATO to achieve the objectives in the fields of security, governance and development embodied in the Compact.

But UNAMA (the UN mission in Afghanistan) is a political mission and so the bulk of our centre of gravity if you wish, is in political work; good offices to prevent conflict, resolve conflict, to help support the Afghan government as it continues its transition towards full authority and extending its capability across the country. We also have a large human rights team in UNAMA in Afghanistan. We have development experts, governance experts, we co-ordinate humanitarian affairs. There are obviously still many vulnerable groups in Afghanistan that depend on food, basic medical services, and so forth.
And then there is the broader UN community in Afghanistan with dozens, literally, of agencies, funds and programs, all of whom have been strongly represented in Afghanistan or many of which have been strongly represented for decades. So bringing their work together in an integrated mission, but with a core political mandate is what our job is about and that brings us together with all of the donor community and obviously with NATO in very intimate ways.

Q: Thank you. You briefed the North Atlantic Council this afternoon. Can you tell us what your message was to them?

ALEXANDER: Well my principle message is the one UNAMA and the United Nations have been delivering for some time. We must continue and in some cases strengthen our commitment to supporting Afghanistan's transition. There have been important achievements over the past five years, but there are some outstanding challenges.

One of them is insurgency, where NATO now has the lead role in providing the military capability to meet the challenge very much in conjunction with strengthening Afghan security institutions. The Afghan National Army and Police and much stronger today than they were two or three years ago. But the insurgency this year is also stronger, so our key message to NATO is to have no illusions about the intensity of the insurgency that's underway and the complex nature, the multi-dimensionality of the conflict as we now know it.

It has a regional dimension; it has a military dimension obviously; but it also has important non-military dimensions that we all need to engage on. We will not defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan unless there is some serious improvements made to the quality of governance and the ability of President Karzai and his team to rely on representatives at provincial and district level who are literally serving the interests of the communities that they lead. That is one of our major areas of joint action this year.

Q: You spoke briefly about the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. There have been criticisms in the media recently about the pace of development of these two institutions. How would you respond to these criticisms?

ALEXANDER: Security sector reform is a work in progress in Afghanistan and the Afghan National Army already has an impressive reputation and some serious achievements behind it. But it also in transition; transition from being a brand new institution to being one that will sustain itself over the long term. Quite frankly a lot of those soldiers recruited into the Afghan National Army three years ago, when it started, have finished their three year contract. They've made a bit of money, but they want to get on with their lives. And the pace of combat, the combat rhythm of the Afghan National Army has been pretty intense, and not everyone wants to keep that up for a decade or fifteen years. So recruitment is a challenge. The quality of training will still be a challenge. But at the same time, the army is growing and becoming more and more capable and everyone in Afghanistan welcomes those developments on the qualitative side of the Afghan National Army that are now taking place; there is an air corps to support them; there are more and more sophisticated forms of firepower behind them. And that, quite frankly, will make everyone's job, including NATO's job, easier.

The police is a tougher challenge. Large-scale commitments to reforming the police only emerged really last year when the United States decided to join the lead nation, Germany, with a very large commitment to police training. We are starting to see the results. There have been competitions held for all the senior leadership of the Ministry of Interior. All the police chiefs across Afghanistan have changed this year, only this year, and that is paying benefits in terms of the quality of policing.

But at the same time, over the past five years, a police started to emerge that really wasn't reformed and that had a lot of factional influence in it and undoing that legacy of the past five years is going to take time. So from our perspective the Afghan National Police is probably the central focus for security sector reform this year and everyone needs to give it the attention it deserves.

Q: There have also been criticisms about the pace of reconstruction and development in Afghanistan. Can you tell us exactly what that term means and what conditions have to exist for it to take place?

ALEXANDER: Clearly reconstruction development, recovery, construction of infrastructure, in some cases brand new infrastructure, isn't going as quickly as anyone would like. Finding delivery mechanisms for the funding that is available is a constant challenge and those delivery mechanisms can't operate in conditions of insurgency where if you head off into a rural district you're more likely to run into the Taliban than into legitimate representatives of tribes or the government.

So we need to be innovative; to pick up the pace of reconstruction and development, particularly in Southern Afghanistan. The policy action group led by President Karzai and with strong support from the UN and from NATO on the ground, from NATO-ISAF on the ground, is doing just that. But the story that people forget - and here I think no one has definitive statistics - but the evidence shows that reconstruction and development in two-thirds of the country, even three-quarters of the country where the insurgency isn't so strong, is happening at a faster pace than in any previous year of Afghanistan's development.

Now people will say on a per capita basis this is much less than in Bosnia or Haiti or a variety of other post-conflict situations. That's true. But for Afghanistan it is unprecedented and we are starting to see national programs, government-led programs, that exist in every province and in more than half of the districts or even more than half of the villages. We are starting to see a network of highways emerge that never existed before in Afghanistan at this level. We are starting to see a network of clinics and hospitals emerge that is certainly unprecedented and that's having an impact on people's lives.
So the pace is not fast enough. We all need to do more. We need to be innovative about the delivery mechanisms. But there is quite a bit of momentum out there, especially in those areas where it is secure enough for humanitarian and development actors to operate.

Q: The issues of counter-narcotics and corruption have been recurrent in recent media reports. How is the UN tackling these problems and what progress has been made so far?

ALEXANDER: Well if 2006 has been a challenging year for Afghanistan it's above all for two reasons. One - the insurgency has hit with a ferocity this year that no one had expected to see and secondly, the opium crop has been... experienced explosive growth. And we all need to be deeply concerned about the scale of the drug industry in Afghanistan and its corrosive effect on governance, on security, on the alliance that has emerged in many places - the overlap that exists between drug networks and insurgent networks. It makes everything more difficult.

Now what can be done? Well, we need to keep this problem very much in perspective. In those countries that have emerged from dependence on opium cultivation, it took years and sometimes decades to build... to set the conditions for farmers to be able to put poppy to one side. You need a critical mass of interventions in the rural economy; micro-finance, rural development programs, roads, agriculture extensions projects to help farmers get their product to market. That takes time.

We have seen in some provinces of Afghanistan a level of development that really does permit farmers to say no to the traffickers and the organizers of the trade. Nangarhar province - a big province in the east which used to grow most of the poppy - no longer does so because farmers have moved on to more sustainable and more legal forms of cultivation. We need to replicate that experience in other places. It will take years. It's difficult with the Taliban in the field. It has proven very difficult, if not impossible, to deliver alternative livelihoods in Helmand province where most of the... which has produced more poppy than any other province this year. But we have to keep trying.

The game now is really about rural development across the country, but especially in those provinces that are producing poppy. And secondly about targeting the traffickers at a higher and higher... who play a prominent role in the trade and not just going after low and medium level traffickers. Those are the twin priorities for this year and our sense is that there is political will and indeed institutional capability to take on those challenges.

Q: There has been public debate in some countries about the international community's role in Afghanistan. What would your message be to those publics?

ALEXANDER: Debate is healthy. We certainly want people to engage on the whole range of issues that are playing out in Afghanistan. That, in the past year, has meant a lot of discussion about military engagement, about NATO's engagement, about the nature of the fight with the Taliban. But the international community must not lose sight of the fact that Afghanistan is about nation-building. It is about a post-conflict transition, not just since the fall of the Taliban, but after thirty years of war.

And we can't expect Afghanistan to look like the neighbouring countries or developed countries overnight. This is a long term project; it's one where a good start has been made; where we have real Afghanistan leaders to support. But it's going to take commitments across the board to carry this forward, commitments not just of troops and military support, but of reconstruction and development assistance delivered, we hope, in innovative ways; support for the counter-narcotics campaign, which above all means support for the rural economy in Afghanistan. And also forms of technical support for governance, for institution-building, for the emergence of a private sector in Afghanistan, that are probably the most effective things that we can all deliver.

Afghanistan after thirty years didn't have much of a private sector, but in only five years some companies have started to emerge, and an entrepreneurial class has started to emerge, that really do represent hope for the future of the country. They are the ones who will pay taxes, who will be loyal to the institutions, who will find ways of developing human capital and even exporting goods and services around the world. An Afghan company is already winning wireless telecommunications licenses in the neighbouring... not quite neighbouring, but nearby country of Kyrgyzstan. That sort of success in a sector as advanced as telecommunications would have been unthinkable five years ago. But with support from the international community, with understanding that this is a long term project, much more will be possible.

And above all the international community needs to keep in mind that Afghans want us there. We are not just welcome in Afghanistan, but celebrated for the level of engagement that's taking place. Yes, it's not enough for anyone, but the support that has come through is being absorbed and is highly appreciated. That should be the best inducement of all for the international community to continue the strong support that it has extended over the past five years.

Q: Has the international community, through the United Nations, been involved in a promoting a peace and reconciliation process with the Taliban?

ALEXANDER: The whole Bonn process was about reconciliation with as many of those factional groups that have been involved in... that have been part of Afghanistan's history over the last twenty-five or thirty years as possible. The Taliban didn't feature prominently in Bonn because they had just left power and were more or less out of the game and beyond the reach of those who put the Bonn process together. Some of the names of Taliban leaders continue to feature on the UN's Security Council Resolution 1267 list, the same list that has the top leadership of al-Qaeda on it. So we have to be careful about who we engage with on the Taliban front.

But over the past three years there has been a program in Afghanistan called the Strengthening Peace Program (PTS is its Afghan acronym) and the UN does support this program energetically as a way of bringing alienated groups or individuals, those who've been out of sympathy with the Karzai regime, back to Afghanistan to live under the constitution and live peacefully and to prevent them from falling under the sway of the militant and extremist Taliban.

There has been success. Well over two thousand people have come through that program, but we in the United Nations think that it could be much broader and stronger if more Afghans were involved and if more resources were dedicated above all to the political outreach that you need to undertake to really start a conversation with people who, for one reason or another, have stayed outside of Afghanistan or have remained out of sympathy with the government.

Many of these groups are still in Pakistan. There are three million refugees still there and the centre of gravity of the Taliban movement, of its ideology, is still to a very large extent in the refugee camps and communities where these people live. Most of them would listen if the government reached out to them and a strengthened PTS program should be able to do that. Now we're not going to be able to reconcile everyone. Obviously there are Taliban leaders who are fighting and who are in no mood to reconcile or to negotiate.

We also have to be very careful though about tarring everyone with the same brush. Taliban are religious students. There will always be Taliban in Afghanistan and we should welcome that. The ones who are the problem for NATO and indeed for Afghanistan are the militant ones, the extremist ones, the ones who are fighting and don't show any signs of stepping away from that agenda. But there are thousands, probably tens of thousands, who are willing to join this government to help rebuild their country if they are invited, welcomed, in the right way. And we all need to think about how that hand of co-operation can be extended and how the process of reconciliation in Afghanistan can be deepened.

After thirty years of war it's no surprising that reconciliation turns out to be a multi-year process, but it's a very, very important aspect of the counter-insurgency and peace-building that we are all engaged in.

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