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20 October 1999

Press Briefing



While the United Nations would continue to work for peace in Afghanistan, the Secretary-General's Special Envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, would cease to be actively involved until the situation there changed, correspondents were told at today's noon briefing.

Mr. Brahimi, a guest at today's noon briefing, explained that after much discussion, the Secretary-General had decided that there was not much for his Envoy to do under current conditions. If the situation changed, he would be happy to return.

Afghanistan was a sad, sad country; it had suffered for 20 years from conflict that continued today, Mr. Brahimi said. Yesterday he had briefed the Security Council on the situation there. The United Nations had been trying to bring the parties to the negotiating table and to mobilize international support. It had thought that the best way to do this was through the group of neighbours of Afghanistan (China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) plus the Russian Federation and the United States (together referred to as the Group of Six plus Two), which had been created in New York and had been functioning for over two years.

In July, the Group had met at the Deputy Foreign Minister level in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and adopted a very solid declaration (the Tashkent Declaration on Fundamental Principles for a Peaceful Settlement of the Conflict in Afghanistan), he continued. After a great deal of effort, the two warring factions had agreed to attend and participate in the meeting. Gathered together in one room, a civilized discussion had been held between the Northern Alliance, the Taliban and the United Nations. Immediately after, Mr. Brahimi had traveled to Kabul and Islamabad.

This had taken place against the background of a major offensive being prepared by the Taliban, who hoped to take control of the rest of the country, he explained. He had pleaded with the Taliban, and with Pakistan, which had some influence on the Taliban, to stop the offensive from taking place. But those efforts had proven useless.

Another bitter disappointment pertained to the declaration adopted by the group of neighbours, the Russian Federation and the United States, he said. In the declaration, the text of which had been discussed for six months before the meeting, those States had expressed their determination to refrain from giving any help to the warring factions, and called on other countries to do the same. In spite of that, the fighting had occurred. The fighting had not significantly changed the situation on the ground. Rather, it had resulted in many deaths and the destruction of villages and the country's sparse infrastructure, in particular the irrigation system of the fertile plains. Further, it had sent on the road between one and two hundred thousand people, many of whom had gone to the Panjshir valley, which was already overcrowded and unable to feed its own people.

Imagine what the situation would be with another 100,000 coming to the area with winter closing in, he said. "You can imagine the kind of bitterness one feels in such a situation." The report of the Secretary-General of 21 September (document S/1999/994) summed up those frustrations, and expressed unhappiness with the situation there and with the United Nations inability to move forward.

Last week, meetings had been held in New York; the acting head of the United Nations Special Mission to Afghanistan (UNSMA) had come here for that purpose, Mr. Brahimi said. The United Nations had no alternative but to doggedly continue speaking to the parties and begging for peace. Also, it was going to see if it could move closer to the people of Afghanistan inside the country.

"But we all have agreed that at this stage, somebody like me has no role. I have tried everything I know and it has not been of much use. So we have agreed that I should -- the formula is that I would 'cease to be actively involved for the moment'. And we will see what happens."

The situation in Pakistan might have a bearing on Afghanistan, and should be watched closely, while the Council resolution 1267 (1999) on sanctions could also lead to a change, he said. It remained to be seen how matters would unfold during the next month.

Asked by a correspondent whether he was "freezing the situation" or personally leaving the job, Mr. Brahimi said the United Nations was continuing its work, and that UNSMA remained in operation. But in a way he had come "on top" of these efforts for the last few years. What he was saying now was that after two years, he did not see anything for him or anyone like him to do, today, tomorrow or in the near future. That was why his personal involvement was stopping, for the moment at least. If things changed next week, he would be happy to come back, but if they changed in 10 years, he would probably be dead by that time.

Could a special envoy of the Secretary-General decide on his own to discontinue his role? a correspondent asked. Mr. Brahimi explained that the matter had been discussed with the Secretary-General for weeks. It was the Secretary-General's decision that he was conveying. He was an advisor to the Secretary-General in his peacemaking efforts. In that capacity, he had been involved in a number of matters apart from Afghanistan. That role had not changed. He remained in that position on a "when working" basis. At this moment, all had agreed and the Secretary-General had decided that there was not much for Mr. Brahimi to do and that there was therefore no point in going tomorrow or next week to Afghanistan. If the situation changed, that would be a different matter.

The same correspondent asked whether Mr. Brahimi intended to "get into the action" regarding the new Government in Pakistan, and about the future of the Group of Six plus Two. Mr. Brahimi said that Pakistan was an important player, and what happened there was bound to affect Afghanistan. Events in Pakistan were being followed closely.

As for the Group, there had been doubt as to its continued usefulness, as expressed in the report of the Secretary-General, Mr. Brahimi said. The members themselves, however, had said they could still contribute. He had been delighted to hear that and, as he had told the Council yesterday, he looked forward to more activity from them.

A correspondent asked whether the United Nations agencies were back in Afghanistan. Mr. Brahimi said the agencies were coming back and working inside Afghanistan, but there were security concerns. Security advisers were positioned in practically every major city in Afghanistan, and were closely monitoring the situation. It should not be forgotten that the only man harmed "amongst us", Lieutenant-Colonel Carmine Calo (an Italian United Nations military observer killed in July 1998), had been the victim of violence by non-actors. The United Nations had told the Taliban several times that its perception was that it did not have much to fear from the people of Afghanistan, who realized that the United Nations was there to help. Rather, the United Nations did have problems with the people the Taliban called their "guests", who had agendas that were not the Taliban's. Thousands of young Pakistanis were there, as were people from other nationalities, and it was not clear that the Taliban had real control over them. When he had been in Kabul, he had expressed concern about these young Pakistanis running around and even exhibiting unfriendliness towards international aid workers.

A correspondent said Mr. Brahimi's gesture would be perceived by the tens of thousands of displaced persons as a sign of despair that there was any realistic chance for peace in the short term in Afghanistan. Mr. Brahimi said he had been told that he was painting a very bleak picture, but he felt it was a realistic one.

He said the strong party at any given moment thought it could win militarily and therefore they did not want to make concessions. Yesterday, that had been Ahmed Shah Massoud, the day before it was Golbuddin Hekmatyar, today it was the Taliban. The Taliban thought it could take over the country, so why should it give anything to its enemies? That was a big hurdle. Winning territory did not mean achieving peace. Even in the territory they controlled, there were small rebellions and pockets of resistance. Further, Afghanistan's neighbours, if not satisfied, would help whoever was willing to fight.

The United Nations had been stressing that a political settlement was needed to give satisfaction to the majority of the Afghan people and to reassure their neighbours, he continued. It had therefore been pleading for the Taliban and the Iranians, and the Pakistanis and Massoud to talk to one another. That had not yet taken place to the extent hoped for. The Pakistanis and Massoud had been talking to each other only recently. The Taliban and the Iranians had had some contact, but it was still timid and there was still the big hurdle of the Iranian diplomats who were killed (in August 1998).

A correspondent asked what Mr. Brahimi hoped to achieve through his decision. The Special Envoy responded that all the parties had been kind enough to approach him and ask him to stay, to which he had replied that when there was a role for him to play, he would come back with pleasure. He hoped his action would be seen as a plea to be serious.

A correspondent asked whether the United Nations had had contact with the new leaders in Pakistan, and what would be required to end the conflict if no political settlement was achieved. Mr. Brahimi said he had not had contact with the new leaders of Pakistan, although he could not speak for the Secretary- General.

There was no alternative to a political settlement -- either there was a political settlement or the conflict would continue, he said. Often, the United Nations was blamed for talking only to the warring factions and not to the people of Afghanistan, including civil society groups. But that was not true. Unfortunately, there were no institutions in Afghanistan outside the warring factions. The United Nations spoke to whoever was available, including many among the refugees and the diaspora. There were attempts by those people to influence the situation in their country. There was talk of convening a grand assembly, or loya jirga, which was a tradition in Afghanistan by which, when there were problems, elders and religious leaders were brought together to take decisions. At this time, there was some discussion about holding some event like this in November, centered around the former King (Mohammad Zahir Shah). If that meeting took place, and if it was reasonably represented and independent, perhaps the United Nations would attend.

A correspondent asked who was controlling the drug trade from Afghanistan. Mr. Brahimi said that Pino Arlacchi (Director-General of the United Nations Office at Vienna and Executive Director of the United Nations International Drug Control Programme) was a better reference on that matter. But it was no secret that some 70 per cent of the world's opium was produced in Afghanistan. Nor was it a secret that most of the drugs sold on the streets of western Europe came from Afghanistan. It was a major problem, but the Government of Iran and the Government of Pakistan had nothing to do with illicit drugs so far as he knew. Pakistan had successfully put an end to drug cultivation in its territory and Iran was spending a lot of money on the struggle. Hundreds of lives had been lost in Iran fighting the drug mafia.

The Taliban could not deny that most of the drugs were grown in their territory, he said. That, however, was because they controlled most of the territory -- they had not introduced drug cultivation. While it was clear that they had not done much to stop it, they insisted that they had not received enough support, and that was true. Crop substitution programmes and other initiatives of the international community were modest, to say the least.

Asked who the mafia were, Mr. Brahimi said he wish he knew.

Had the Taliban constructed anything resembling a government, with national operational abilities, or should the country be grouped with Somalia as one without a government? a correspondent asked. Mr. Brahimi said he did not know much about Somalia but there was a Taliban authority with a central authority, Mullah Mohammed Omar, and what they called their government, in Kabul. The Taliban exercised authority there; they had governors, they collected taxes. He was not sure whether that could be called a "government". Whether they had done enough to establish institutions was another question. He did not think much had been done.

Would the sanctions imposed by the Security Council have any impact? a correspondent asked. Mr. Brahimi said that it was clear that the Taliban was concerned. He hoped they understood that the matter was serious and would not go away, but it seemed, from their statements, that they would not be giving in easily.

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