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De Mistura: “How to help the Afghans, not when to leave. That’s the question we should be asking”

“Afghanistan is more than just the Taliban and the forces loyal to Hamid Karzai’s government. The country also has a ‘third force’ that needs to be given concrete support: I’m referring to the associations and non-governmental organisations (NGO)s of Afghan civil society. That’s why our firm support for the Karzai government must be increasingly tied to two fundamental caveats: the battle against corruption and respect for human rights, especially those of women”. These are the words of the second-in-command at the Italian Foreign Ministry, Staffan de Mistura, formerly the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Representative in Afghanistan.

The Taliban have launched their “spring campaign” in dramatic style. How do you interpret the recent attacks on Kabul and other parts of the country? And how should the international community be equipping itself?

“The first point is: the decision by the Afghan government and the international community engaged in the country to transfer responsibility for security from the latter to the Afghan authorities is both vital and increasingly clear. Point two: at this juncture, the international community must show that the Afghans will not be abandoned for a third time. On the contrary: they will be supported, both in financial terms and with support for civil society. But on two conditions, two caveats that are set in stone”.

What are they?

“The first is that the Afghans, starting with the government and the representative institutions, must show through their actions, and concrete measures, that they intend to fight corruption at all levels, wherever it lurks. The second is no less important and challenging than the first. They must show, once again through their actions and with concrete measures, that they intend to defend human rights and, most especially, women’s rights”.

I’d like to go back to “day one” of the spring offensive, especially the attacks unleashed by the Taliban in the heart of the capital city, Kabul.

“The attacks in Kabul can be read in many ways and assume different meanings depending on the observer’s standpoint. Let’s take things in order. Those attacks are an example of an attempt, which we’ll be seeing repeatedly from both the Taliban and the NATO forces, to mark out their positions just when the negotiations are starting. It’s called hot negotiation and it’s a constant, not just in the Afghan setting, in those crucial stages when parties are getting down to serious negotiations. Another point is that the attacks are open to a double interpretation, each of which contains a grain of truth”.

What is this double interpretation?

“Seen from the Taliban’s perspective, the attacks serve to show the Afghan population, and the international community, that they can strike where they want, they have control over the territory. As seen by the international community engaged on the ground, however, and by the Afghan authorities, they demonstrate that in spite of the Taliban’s worst efforts the attacks can be managed, controlled and contained by the Afghan security forces. With difficulty, but effectively. This double reading of events will be seen again in other situations in the future”.

In view of this fresh outbreak of military operations, the Taliban attacks and the tragic tally of blood paid in Afghanistan, here in Italy – and elsewhere – the debate on “staying, in spite of everything” and “getting out of the Afghan quagmire” is once again current. Are those the options we should be considering?

“Definitely not, is my answer. There’s a third way, and it’s called the Lisbon agreement. That agreement – and this will be made even clearer at the forthcoming NATO summit in Chicago – sets out precise dates and a clear timescale. The only variation possible, without changing the schedule for the military withdrawal, is to gradually reduce the military presence and step up our contribution to development aid for Afghanistan. Bearing in mind, however, the two binding caveats: respect for human rights, especially women’s rights, and rooting out corruption”.

In recent years, especially at the most dramatic junctures, people talk of Afghanistan as though the country only had two “parties”: the Taliban, or insurgents, and the forces loyal to the government. Is that really the case, or is there actually a third force?

“The third force does exist, it’s alive, and in many respects is the true investment in Afghanistan’s future. That third force is civil society, with its associations, its NGOs. A third force that really exists, which is why we need to insist on the two caveats I mentioned earlier.

It is because this organised civil society exists, and is seeking support and recognition, that we must increasingly tie the efforts of the international community, and Italy within that community, to the conditions that will define an Afghanistan that is democratic and plural, which respects human rights and which undertakes to fight corruption. That’s the direction we must follow, not least to provide an answer to the fundamental question we must all ask ourselves, a question which, with its answer, encompass the full meaning of 12 years of commitment and effort in Afghanistan”.

What is the question and what is the answer?

“We entered Afghanistan together, after 9/11, because, as we said so often in those tragic days, ‘we’re all New Yorkers’. Now Osama bin Laden has gone, and Al Qaeda almost has a greater presence elsewhere (Yemen, Somalia) than in Afghanistan. So the true benchmark will be whether – whenever and in what manner we leave – human rights in Afghanistan, and Afghan women, enjoy greater protection than when we arrived. That’s the acid test, the great change to which our future contributions must be tied”.