Lack of Trust, A Challenge to Iran – EU Security Cooperation

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Interview with Franz Michael Millben
By: Sara Massoumi

Franz Michael Millben is a Danish professional foreign service officer and has been Ambassador of Denmark to Japan and Afghanistan. In June 2013 he was appointed Head of the European Union Delegation to Afghanistan and European Union Special Representative (EUSR) for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has been interviewed by Etemad Persian daily journalist, Sara Massoumi about Afghanistan developments and challenges since US-led coalition military intervention in the country until the establishment of the new national unity government. In this interview he emphasized that although Iran and EU are suffering from common security concerns in fighting against terrorism, but the present mutual distrust prevents them from any cooperation. Referring to Pakistan’s strategic mistakes in fighting against militancy and insurgency, Michael Millben underlined that as along as Islamabad does not enter in serious cooperation with Kabul and the process of negotiating with Taliban, there would be no success and hopeful future in this regard. The following is the full transcript of the interview which has been done in Kabul:

Q: In 2001, the U.S. and its European allies came to Afghanistan to fight terrorism and extremism. Do you see any visible results in these areas after thirteen years?

A: I think you have seen huge changes when it comes to the living standards for the Afghan people. We had tremendous progress in key areas, education and health for example. Also, the overall situation has improved a lot. Unfortunately, there are still a lot of challenges even if progress has been tremendous within the education section for example. We are still in a situation where 60 percents of Afghan girls do not go to school. There’s certainly a lot of work to be done even though a lot have been achieved in the past thirteen years. When it comes to security, unfortunately there is still active insurgency in the country, the situation on the security side is precarious and there needs to be a partial change there which unfortunately has not been able to be stabilized during all these years. That will be a challenge that the Afghan security forces now have to deal with after the withdrawal of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) forces.

Q: You know it was not the security of Afghanistan which made the U.S. and its allies to come to Afghanistan. They all came to Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks on the US’ soil. Do you think that the world is now safer? Recently, we had a terrorist attack in France and we have had so many terrorist attacks in the other European countries too.

A: Unfortunately I don’t think that the world has become a safer place in that time span, but is that then related to what happened in Afghanistan or not? I think other things happened that changed that situation, and one of the most important changes was that until the invasion of Iraq, it was actually a very low-profile military intervention here, and it wasn't only the U.S. and the European allies. I mean the ISAF was the broadest military coalition the world has ever seen, involving more than 80 countries. But other things happened meanwhile that changed the situation. If we now try to focus on Afghanistan as such, I think that the alternative would have been that if there would not have been a response to the terror attack on September 11, Al-Qaeda would have been able to continue to have a free haven in Afghanistan. If you look at that isolated context and then you ask the question: ‘was it a right thing to have a military intervention in Afghanistan or not?’, I am firmly convinced it would have been a massive mistake not to have that military intervention.

What people tend to forget is that following September 11th a lot of countries showed global solidarity with the U.S. because of this horrible, unprecedented global scale of terror attack, and a lot of countries, Sudan, Libya, Syria etc. really went out and stopped state-financing and state-supporting terrorism. The only country that did not do that was actually Afghanistan and the Taliban regime. The Taliban were asked several times, and had been asked for many years repeatedly before the attack, by countries like Russia and the US to intervene against Al-Qaeda and they didn’t do so.

After September 11th, the Taliban were again asked 'please do something about these people' and they said no. Then you had the military intervention to try to do something. What people have forgotten is that actually after the intervention started (and it was pretty obvious because of the military might of the US, with the Northern Alliance, that they would run over the Taliban) there was a pause in the American military actions for a few days, where they again asked the Taliban: 'now you see what’s happening. Are you now willing to hand over Al-Qaeda and cooperate on that?'; and again the Taliban refused. So I think that it was necessary for the global community. It had the backing of the United Nations unanimously. It was a wider coalition and it became the widest coalition ever that the world needed to run against what you would call global-scale terrorism. The world would have been a much more unsafe place if that correction had not been there. Unfortunately a lot of other things happened including the intervention in Iraq which changed the situation dramatically. It also changed the situation in Afghanistan dramatically as I mentioned in beginning. Until the invasion of Iraq, the situation in Afghanistan was quite stable and there was a very low foreign military footprint in Afghanistan, because it was a quite stable and peaceful country at that time. It wasn’t completely [peaceful], but it wasn’t insurgency at the scale and level we are seeing now. But after Iraq, there was resurgence in Taliban activity. Unfortunately, people were willing to sponsor Taliban inside Afghanistan and that led to strengthening of the insurgency. The Taliban actually started believing that they could come back because the Americans were distracted. So I think all these other events hindered what could have been a much better trajectory in Afghanistan.

Q: During these years, we have seen a huge focus on Afghanistan; but what about Pakistan? Pakistan is still a safe haven for all the terrorist groups which threaten Iran, India and Afghanistan and also all around the world. What do Europeans want to do with Pakistan? Are there any plans?

A: Well we certainly want Pakistan to change its policies. Unfortunately there's been too little focus on Pakistan and Pakistan’s role during all these time. But it's not as if people were unaware. There was really a lot of pressure put on Pakistan but I think that if you compare the enormous effort that was done in Afghanistan with the diplomatic effort and pressure put on Pakistan, there is no place for comparison. This was unfortunate because it was so clear that unless Pakistan became a cooperative partner, the insurgency would not end. It is obvious in my view that the Pakistani government had a long discussion about it. [But] Is there only one government: there are the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), the military; let's not go to that but just conclude what is obvious is that Pakistan saw an interest in keeping the Taliban as an option to gain influence again in imposing an Islamabad-friendly government in Kabul after the foreign troops withdraw. It is obvious that this is not going to happen. So what Pakistan has kept the Taliban alive for more than a decade is not going to happen. It has failed and the problem now is that do they have any other strategy and can they change their ways? Are they willing to revisit their strategy and find something that is conducive to peace and stability in this country? I do hope so because there has been a dramatic change also in Pakistan, a very negative one over the last decade: lots of increased problems with Swat [Valley] and FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] and terrorist groups inside Pakistan. They should realize that they support terror groups and having terrorism as an extension of your foreign policy is simply not an acceptable policy. It does not lead to any positive result for Pakistan itself.

Q: What’s your evaluation of the lengthy and challenging election that Afghanistan had last year?

A: Regarding the elections, you can criticize all kinds of things but I’d like to say these points: first, millions of Afghans came out to vote and they clearly voted for peace and democracy. It was a very very strong popular feeling. So the two candidates that they unquestionably wanted to see lead the country, Dr. Abdullah and Dr. Ghani, are now leading the country. Discussion on who was actually supposed to be president is deceptive. But there is no doubt the two people who Afghans went to vote for democracy, they wanted to see them lead the country; and the third thing is that in a country which we have to admit has a very colorful political landscape with a lot of people who quite frankly we would rather not see in power, both Dr. Ghani and Dr. Abdullah are people whom I truly believe want to work in the interest of the Afghan nation and Afghan people.

If we forget all this messy process and difficult negotiations, the fraud that took place, the chaos surrounding the electoral situation, the end result is actually pretty good and I am a strong believer that the national unity government is the best solution to Afghanistan's political challenges. I know a lot of Afghans feel why wasn't it the one or the other, or ‘this is somehow cheating’, the coalition government, you need a winner or whatever; but I don't agree because I think if we imagine what would the political situation have been if either was now dominating the political scene, I believe there would be an unstable situation. You would have a big part, almost half of the country, feeling disenfranchised and out of the power structures and because of the nature of elections and political landscape, nobody would have been comfortable with that situation. I think the process was horrible, it was painful, it took too long, but the end result was probably a very positive one.

Q: In these years Afghanistan has held two elections and in both of them we had strong fraud allegations. What proposals has the EU have put forward for the betterment of the election process in this country?

A: We had independent election observation mission here that issued quite a lengthy report on the election with a lot of specific recommendations. But the key issues as I see are two things: one was fraud during the elections and the other was how you tried to solve this by recount. Nobody has ever tried to do this before. I think it was very difficult, it was done on very difficult circumstances and we simply needed to allow it. A lot of mistakes were made, but who else would have been able to do it better?

What I am very critical was on preparatory work. I think there were a lot of decisions made by the independent electoral commission which unfortunately made it easier to commit fraud which could have been avoided. I think there are some obvious safeguards needed to be taken into consideration next time. When I say that, I also have to point to the two candidates themselves. I do think that they were not able to mobilize enough qualified observers and party agents, also to ensure that they were well-represented around the country. I only had the chance to go to Kabul, but we were in five provinces, with the EAT [Election Assessment Team] election observer and it was quite striking how in many places there were only observers for one party, or maybe there were two observers, but then it was from a candidate which didn't carry a lot of weight. Candidates also could have done more. The arrow points a little everywhere: people could have been well prepared.

Q: Is there any sign that the Afghan government is going to welcome your proposal for the next election?

A: I think that there are strong forces that would like to make sure the elections are much better next time and I think a lot of these will be on the table, I expect them to be.

Q: What’s you assessment of the national unity government and its future. Do you think it's going to stand long?

A: One of the basics in the national unity government construction was to have a review of the electoral system. This would probably be a tough task because when you talk about electoral system you know there is not one way to do this: you can do it in twenty ways and of course people would tend to look for the way without fraud. I am not talking about fraud, I'm just talking about the way you organize and the size of constituencies and the voting that can create a lot of potential tension. So I think that the unity government will live well until we have the next parliamentary election. At that time, there is a risk that there may be a new political crisis surrounding the regulation and rules of how to conduct. They also have to agree on the tough issue on the constitutional reform. This is when I see that there may be a political disagreement which can make it difficult for the unity government, but until then I am much more optimistic than many other are because when you talk to officials there is not a lot of disagreement or friction when it comes to policies. When I talk to these people the discussion is not 'they want to introduce VAT that is really bad idea'. That's not the kind of deductions you get so I think that actually what we will hopefully see is that once the cabinet candidates are there, the government will start functioning and the contentious focus would be on this other issue what will happen during the next parliamentary elections

Q: What did EU do for the improvement of women's right in Afghanistan and what's its plan for future?

A: It has been a key issue for us all along and it remains a key issue. What we have done that mattered the most: you can work on two levels, you can work on the rights level (that's more of the nominal part of it); and what changes the lives of Afghans has made, which is really different. Two things that really made a difference for Afghan women were access to education and access to health. It actually transformed their lives. When you go back, I don't know if you had a chance to visit Afghanistan at that time, there was virtually zero health services outside the bigger cities and there were not very accessible to women at all. I mean it was unimaginably horrible and it was virtually zero educational opportunity at the time, which was a very sad part of Taliban reality. Now Afghan women have had the chance to be educated. They have a very very wide access to basic healthcare now and this of course transformed their lives in a very positive way. You know this from Iran. You also have a certain issue there: this is very surprising and I double-checked this several times because it’s very interesting: there are more women than men starting at university now. That’s quite something, I mean a remarkable shift. I understand that is the case also in Iran.

I am not saying a negative thing. It’s an interesting thing in a country where the girls really come from behind. You know they quickly grabbed the opportunity. So this was transformative and the EU has been a major player in with the health sector. If you ask me what we did that actually mattered the most to Afghans, it was our long-standing effort in the health sector. When it comes to rights issues and the nominal part of that, we are constantly pressing. We have a consistent dialogue with the Afghan government on this; we react when we feel the special needs when they need to do that. For the EU group and the EU countries it's very high on the agenda. Every time when we visit European countries and we have dialogue with directors, they always ask me about women's issue. So it really goes through everything. We do give a lot of money to the Afghan security sector, that is, the police sector. EU does not give money to the military, but we do to the police. We are very active when it comes to female policing, when it comes to making it possible for women to access the justice system, to have female police officers so they can feel safe to go to police officer because of traditional and cultural reasons. There are lots of problem with that in this country you know, the gender balances. So there is still a lot of work to be done, but we are an active player. We try to make our voice heard, we press the government when we feel that it's not doing enough. I personally feel that there is a positive shift with the new government already. We can sense that the new government is willing to do more than it used to than the previous government would do. Karzai government was good at saying the right things, but he was not ready to use presidential authority in improving women's rights and affairs. A good example of that is the ministry for women. I don’t know if you have that in Iran. There is a ministry for women in this country. I imagine if you have a ministry for women it has to be a progressive voice for women's rights, for advancing women's position in society, and it was not, it was the opposite. It was just unhelpful. You know as if they thought, the ministry thought, that ‘my role is somehow traditional conservative or whatever’ in a misguided sense in my view even. The thing is that the Taliban regime did not reflect what Afghanistan was before. I mean we saw huge slide into something which was not very Afghan at all during the Taliban years. It would be much better if we had the Afghanistan of the 60s but we don't.

Q: How much do you see the possibility of beginning of the negotiation between Taliban and Afghan government?

A: It’s going to be difficult. I think the Taliban realize that they will need to make a call during this year: whether they want to negotiate or not. It's very difficult for them to enter into negotiations. We like to say that the Taliban is one thing, but you know it's fractured and multi-dimensional. I don't even know if we can call it a movement, I don’t call it an organization but a movement. You have hard-liners who are not interested at all, you have some people who are more political, who are tired of conflict. I am not optimistic that you have what I would call full-scale peace negotiations going on. What I hope is that it would be possible to have negotiations with parts of the insurgence so that the level of violence and confrontation can be reduced this is what I am hoping for.

Q: Do you think any country like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia can mediate or play more positive role in bringing Taliban to the negotiation table?

A: I think a lot of people can be helpful here. There is no doubt that Pakistan has tremendous opportunity for influence. There is clearly a safe haven for Taliban in Pakistan. They are allowed to receive weapons, they are allowed to receive money, there is no secret about the shauras there. There are so many things that Pakistan can do which do not necessarily involve going to war against the Afghan Taliban. Now I don’t have any sympathy with the policies that Pakistan has been pursuing. I think they were wrong and misguided and I also feel they caused lots of suffer in Afghanistan; but we also have to be realistic about how the world works, and of course one of the things that Pakistan is worried about is that if we go directly against the Afghan Taliban what will happen is that there is a risk Afghan Taliban will link up to the Pakistani Taliban. They don’t need that problem, so they can put a lot of pressure, they can change things that will make insurgency less efficient. That's actually what they should be doing and they can put pressure on the Afghan Taliban to start talk. This is what I want them to do, and if China can be helpful here or Saudi Arabia -both countries strategic partners of Pakistan- they could also put pressure on Pakistan to put pressure on the Taliban. It could make achievements. As I said before, I think that the Taliban already are feeling that things are changing. China certainly has started putting pressure. I’m unsure and do not have enough information to what extent Saudis have done the same. I get different reports. Saudis may be putting pressure, but I don't have that confirmed. I hope that is true, but having that pressure would be significant. Because Pakistan also needs to be motivated to rethink its policies.

Q: Has any country in Europe tried in these years to act as a mediator between Kabul and Islamabad? I was talking to Mr. Karzai and he said that he did whatever he could to just get the positive reaction of Pakistan but he couldn’t in all these years.

A: Yes, I think of that a lot. But Pakistanis were so fixated on this idea that they would be able to impose a pro-Islamabad government in Kabul that they simply had no interest. Certainly a lot of European countries really tried to get them to be considerate and they just refused. You can still ask whether we did enough. I mean, I think when I look back -and I’m not criticizing anybody- we should probably have done more at an early stage to get Pakistan to change its policies and may be clear on that they were unacceptable to us.

Q: Step by step, American soldiers and also Europeans soldiers are going to leave Afghanistan. Do you think the Afghan army has the ability to cope with its challenges?

A: I think they do. I think they looked good last year. I think they were good this year. I also think they would also probably look good in 2016. The big question is ‘are the efforts sustainable?’ With the current level of intensity continuing in 2017 and 2018, that is a more open question. There was a tough fight going on, there was a lot of pressure, they are clearly overstretched. Clearly these things need to be addressed and I have consistently been encouraging the government to work on creating a new strategy; because one of the strange facts actually is that Afghanistan has never had its own security strategy -I’m talking about the last decade. It had the ISAF strategy which was more or less formulated by the Americans, so it was always relying on powerful guns and rockets and drones and lots of very powerful assets. The Afghan government doesn’t just have that, so they have to create a new strategy and they need that fast. How can we manage with what we have? They have quite good resources. I mean they're not without arms or logistics or something like that, but it's still an Afghan army and it cannot work like an ISAF arm. That transformation has not happened yet. That needs to happen; otherwise, they would be worn down by the way it's working now.

Q: There are common interests for EU and Iran in fighting in so many areas; but especially in fighting against terrorism but we don't see any practical cooperation between these two especially in Afghanistan or Iraq. What is the reason for that?

A: First of all, I agree that there is a strong shared interest and I think some of it is because of trust deficit which makes cooperation difficult. Personally, I am actually trying to work for that and I have for a long time wanted to go to Tehran to have that discussion with your government. I have global mandates, so I visit Beijing, Delhi, Islamabad and I had to go to Tehran also. I’m very happy that recently I was invited to go there; so I’m looking forward to that. We should have that discussion because we have a common interest and there is no doubt that Iran has a huge influence as a close neighbor to Afghanistan. The country has a lever the rest of us do not, because we come from Europe and you know the region and a lot of Afghans. You have millions of refugees living there. Cooperation could be extremely valuable too and I want to develop that certainly. I think you're right that it’s unfortunate that hasn't been done.

Q: There are some reports about the presence of ISIS in some areas of Afghanistan. Do you have any plans for fighting these? Don’t you think it’s going to be a new threat in Afghanistan?

A: First of all, we need to monitor this closely and we are doing that. Actually I have a discussion with UN officials the other day and we are stepping up our monitoring on this. I think that there are some pros and cons here: first of all, there is no homegrown basis in Afghanistan for ISIS, it's not going to spring up from Afghan religious or something like. That is not going to happen, but that doesn’t mean it can’t establish itself here. Unfortunately, I think as so many other good things there is a high risk that it will come from Pakistan and I’m not talking about Pakistani government, but just because of all the Islamist fundamentalist fervor which seems to exist in that country that some of that lends itself to ISIS. The ones who are right now raising the ISIS flag and saying we are ISIS are people who either used to belong to the Taliban or the opposition to Taliban. What they’re doing is saying ‘I’m ISIS, please send some money’. That is what they do. So they are hoping that since they are an opposition to Taliban and to the government, if they say ‘we are ISIS’ then they can attract recruits and maybe some money; and may be get ISIS to recognize them so they can get some sponsorship. This is actually what is happening. So it is more opportunistic. In this sense I don't think ISIS is establishing itself as an indigenous Afghan thing, but I do believe that there is high risk that we will see some groups here operating under the ISIS banner. I always think it's inevitable. I don't think it will be a big factor in this country, but it's another signal to all of us on a global scale that if Afghanistan breaks down, then all that is off the table. Anything can happen and doesn't have to be Taliban or ISIS or Al-Qaeda. Call them whatever they call themselves. There are lots of people out there who want to make serious trouble for all of us and they would use such a situation as we have seen in Iraq. A weak states break down, state rupture, and that just attracts all these troops and you get all these things. What I think we should be looking for and looking out for is if ISIS at some points in time starts investing in these kinds of splinter groups. ISIS clearly has an expansionist thinking and I understand from reports that one of their ideas is to declare a Caliphate from the Arabian Peninsula to China. Then it starts growing up some of these misguided people who unfortunately are around in this world and they have money. This is something people tend to forget: a big difference between ISIS and other terrorist groups is that they have money. Taliban lives from various sources of income, but they don't have any money themselves, they spend money. ISIS has money. What if the situation allows them to start? The falling of the oil crisis in that sense maybe a good thing because some expenses have less to go around.

Q: EU has supported the U.S. acts in Afghanistan and Iraq. But nowadays you see terrorist groups in Syria, and also in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. Do you think the military option is the best option for fighting these groups after experiencing Afghanistan and Iraq cases?

A: As I said before, I firmly believe it was right in terms of military invention in Afghanistan. I think the world would be a better place because it was done, and it would have been a monumental mistake not to do that. I have to underline the EU has not followed the U.S. to Iraq. There are important EU countries that followed and there were important countries that did not, such as Germany. So EU both as a group and as an institution did not follow the U.S. military. The UK did for example, but there were also important parts of EU that did not. That's a quite important point. So is the military option always the best one? I mean the EU as an institution is a civilian institution, but I think the answer is that we are not certain, because that's why we didn't intervene in Syria. Clearly people were uncertain about what would the intervention in Syria lead to. I think everybody can see that intervention in Libya removed a dreadful regime, but the situation now isn't great. So there has been a reconsideration: if we used military option what kind of end state do we imagine there would be? So if I look again isolated at Afghanistan, the military intervention here was a right one, but that doesn’t mean it would be right every time. You can conversely also speculate there is also a cost of inaction. We have seen part of that cost, because even if we did not intervene in Syria you have to say the situation in Syria is quite desperate. It is just a country completely fallen apart; atrocities, Syrian refugees etc. You know what action been better there? I don’t know. I am not an expert in Syria, but I’m just saying that we also have to remember that there is a cost for inaction.

Currently you are EU representative in an Islamic country. You know the U.S. always says that we invaded Afghanistan and also Iraq to first fight terrorism and then promote democracy. But when we come to democracy, it has a different definition in Islamic countries from western cultures. Do you think people are satisfied with the results of these fights? So many innocent have been people killed, and so many people in Afghanistan still don’t want the western values.

A: Let’s discuss the invasion as it is quite important. There is no European country that will say that we ‘invaded’ Afghanistan. We don't see it as an invasion. That was also not what the UN Security Council decided when it gave a mandate. In the Security Council it is called a ‘military intervention’. I just have to say that. Since the European countries and the U.S. and a lot of other countries did not recognize Taliban government, it wasn’t an invasion. When it comes to democracy, I don’t agree with your assumption that there is a difference between democratic feelings of the Afghan people and what we believe of Afghan people's democratic aspirations. I think that we did see during the elections a very very strong backing from the Afghan people towards democracy, a strong wish to have elections decide who would run the country. We saw Afghan politicians go out in a manner which has never happened in the history of this country; having large-scale political rallies all over the country and having millions and millions of Afghans participate. I’m not talking about the vote, but just political rallies. It was peaceful, which is amazing; maybe almost a hundred large scale political rallies in this country [were held] which is otherwise plagued by insurgency, and some of them were really thousands of thousands of people. So I don’t agree with your primary saying there was a difference in democratic feeling here and in our countries. We also ask the Afghans about this and consistently they would like to have democracy. So what they would be disappointed about and we saw after the elections, were that there was fraud. They were disappointed that the elections were not able to give a clear result and of course many people and I think, we all need to remind ourselves, be disappointed with democracy if it is not seen as delivering results. A lot of countries have tried democracy and it just works best if people believe the institution is fair, which is very important and also deliver some kind of result. Otherwise people may think there are better solutions elsewhere, which I actually don’t subscribe to; but that is another question. So, what is very important now is that the next elections are successful and this is really really important. I think if we have just as difficult situation after the parliamentary elections as we had after these presidential elections, it would be a big blow to democracy because people will came out for democracy but there is a skepticism here now. And the Afghan politicians need to make sure that next time the elections have a quality that people regain trust in elections

Key Words: Afghanistan, Developments, Challenges, Military Intervention, US, EU, National Unity Government, Common Security Concerns, Fighting against Terrorism, Mutual Distrust, Pakistan, Strategic Mistakes, Militancy and Insurgency, Islamabad, Taliban, ISIS, Serious Cooperation, Iran, Women, Millben

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