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Richard Holbrooke: Creating a post-Taliban government in Afghanistan

Richard Holbrooke was the United States Ambassador to the United Nations from 1999-2001. He was Assistant Secretary of State for Europe from 1994-1996, and during that time brokered the 1995 Dayton peace agreement, ending the war in Bosnia. He was later President Clinton's Special Envoy to Bosnia and Kosovo during the conflict in that region. Currently a counselor at the Council on Foreign Relations, Ambassador Holbrooke is chairman of its Terrorism Task Force.

CNN: Welcome to Ambassador Holbrooke. Thank you for being with us today.

HOLBROOKE: Hi, I'm delighted to be with you on your chat!

CNN: How difficult is it going to be for the United Nations to set up an interim government in Afghanistan in this rapidly changing political and social climate?

HOLBROOKE: Short answer: Very difficult. Longer answer: But essential, and only the U.N. can do it. They are not moving as fast as I think they should, but they're the only ones that can do it. The longer they wait, the harder it will be. I need to be clear: A degree of imposed external guidance is required. It's not just a question of getting them to agree voluntarily, because the tribal warlords and local leaders, after 30 years of war, will not agree voluntarily. They need an external force backed by the full legitimacy of the United Nations Security Council. Furthermore, the outcome must be acceptable to all of Afghanistan's seven neighbors, as well as Russia, India, and the United States. So, it's going to be tough.

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CHAT PARTICIPANT: How can Pashtun alliances to the Taliban be reconciled with the North?

HOLBROOKE: It's important to remember that while the Taliban's strongholds were Pashtun, by no means were all Pashtun Taliban. The Taliban are finished as a governing force. They will remain a group of religious fanatics whose feet are firmly planted in the 8th century AD, but they are no longer as popular as they once were because of the extreme nature of their rule. They will not disappear, but they are not one of the most important elements in the equation for the future of Kabul.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Should the Taliban be included in a post-war Afghan government, as Pakistan has been suggesting?


CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you think the U.S. should be part of a UN peacekeeping force in a post-Taliban Afghanistan?

HOLBROOKE: No, I do not. Even though I have long favored American support of UN peacekeepers in other parts of the world. Why do I say that? Because a presence of American soldiers in significant numbers in fixed installations would be an inviting target for the next generation of suicide bombers. Remember Beirut and Saudi Arabia and the U.S.S. Cole. However, we should do two things at a minimum: First, we should be prepared to give logistics, airlifts, and communications support to an international peacekeeping force. Second, we must -- I stress, we must -- pay a substantial part of the costs of other countries, such as Turkey and Bangladesh, who will send their troops to Afghanistan. (We do not need to pay for the British or French.)

To underscore the point: If, after spending billions in the military campaign we do not pay for this portion of the effort -- as well as massive humanitarian support -- we will have won the war and lost the peace. This is exactly what happened in 1989, when we abandoned Afghanistan and it fell into a vacuum which was filled by the Taliban and Osama bin Laden.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr Holbrooke, should the UN split Afghanistan into two countries to avoid future conflicts?

HOLBROOKE: This is a very smart question, because Afghanistan boundaries today do not reflect ethnicality. However, the answer is no. While the boundaries are colonial-era boundaries negotiated by the British Empire and the Russian czar in the mid 19th century, they cannot be changed today without triggering more conflict. All of Afghanistan's neighbors would oppose new boundaries precisely because boundary changes could spill over in the neighborhood and start a chain reaction of disintegration and disarray. Incidentally, the same is true about colonial-era boundaries in Africa (the Congo, etc.) and the Balkans, as well as other parts of the world. Colonialism left a terrible legacy in this regard, and much of it is now coming home to roost in the post-Cold War era.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr. Ambassador, it would appear the "elephant in the room" is the reality of so-called "moderate" Arab states turning a blind eye to radical elements in their societies, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Can they be influenced to reject and suppress this radicalism in their midst?

HOLBROOKE: I don't know the answer to this important question, but simply by raising it, you have suggested a policy we must follow: to make the effort much more aggressively than we have in the past.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Should Russia pay for Afghanistan's reconstruction since they destroyed the country for 10 years?

HOLBROOKE: Whether they should or not, they won't. They don't have the money, the skills, and their return to Afghanistan in that capacity would not be welcome.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you think that after the last change of power in the '90s, the tribal leaders are ready for a peaceful power sharing?

HOLBROOKE: Only if it is imposed on them from the outside, and then security is maintained by an international force.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Has the U.S. involved the UN as much as it should have up to this point?

HOLBROOKE: The Bush administration came to office ambivalent about the UN. It is now discovering that the UN remains an indispensable organization despite its flaws. Secretary Powell has understood this from the beginning, and his close personal relationship with Kofi Annan is a big plus. My successor as ambassador to the UN, John Negroponte, is an outstanding professional who is superbly qualified for the job.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What are the more 'stellar' examples of the UN setting up a governmental infrastructure?

HOLBROOKE: In the last decade or so, roughly speaking, the UN has had three successes in this area: Cambodia, East Timor, and Kosovo. They have had three spectacular failures: Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia. The jury is still out on Sierra Leone, Burundi, and of course, the most daunting of all, the Congo. Given this mixed track record, what are we to conclude? First, that the UN gets the toughest problems, the ones that cannot be solved at the regional level.

Second, that they have the capacity to succeed, but only if they have great leadership (Bernard Kouchner in Kosovo, Sergio Viera de Mello in East Timor), adequate resources, the backing of the major powers, and a proper security force. (A footnote: Bosnia only succeeded, I should note, after the UN was in effect removed, and the United States took over the process that led to the Dayton peace agreement exactly six years ago next week, and a NATO peacekeeping force, which is still there, although in much reduced numbers.)

So, I conclude that the way to deal with the UN is to address its shortcomings and reduce them, to strengthen the organization and its Nobel Peace Prize-winning secretary general, but remember always that it has inherent limits because of its very nature.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke.

HOLBROOKE: Thank you, and I look forward to seeing you again.

Richard Holbrooke joined via telephone from New York. CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the interview, which took place on Friday, November 16, 2001.


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