Interview with Staffan de Mistura, Special Representative for Afghanistan

Staffan de Mistura, Special Representative for Afghanistan and head of the UN Assistance Mission in the country

22 March 2011 – Staffan de Mistura took up his current assignment as the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in the country (UNAMA) in January 2010. Some of his previous UN appointments include stints as the Deputy Director of the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Secretary-General’s Special Representative in Iraq.

One of the UN’s most seasoned diplomats, he has for the past four decades served on numerous missions and been involved in efforts to resolve many of the world’s conflicts.

Speaking with the UN News Centre, Mr. de Mistura discusses the key challenges facing Afghanistan in the months and years to come and reflects on his career, the reasons for his commitment to the UN and the difficulty of his assignment.

UN News Centre: In your last report to the Security Council, you explained that 2011 would be “the year of transition.” Successful transition requires stable institutions. Is this the case today?

Staffan de Mistura: Not yet, admittedly. But we can begin the transition and will start next July with the District of Lashkar Gah in Helmand province. This transition will be gradual. There is time for it to go well, since it will not be finished until 2014. So transition to what? Transition to Afghan forces, able to manage security and stability, but also transition to economic security. And it is in this area that the UN can play – and has to play – a role. Afghans also know they need a foreign presence in order to not go back to the bad experience of the past. The challenge is finding the balance between respect for their sovereignty and a presence to help them

UN News Centre: On security, the Afghan forces are still in training. Are we close to creating sufficient operational forces to take over from international forces?

Staffan de Mistura: Yes, but the real proof will be in facts on the ground. We will really see if Afghan forces are able to manage things once the first territories are transferred, next July. From my point of view, there is a great chance that they will be able to do the job very well. Why? Because if there is one thing that the Afghans know how to do, it is to fight. They have done this for the last 4000 years. The only important thing is to give them motivation and tools, training and materials that they need to succeed. And since they are so proud of this, they should be able to manage.

UN News Centre: You talk about the motivation of Afghan forces. Afghanistan is a major producer of opium, poppies, heroin. This also affects the Afghan forces. Does this worry you? Doesn’t it threaten stability and the long-term success of the transition?

Staffan de Mistura speaks with Afghan women leaders in June 2010 to mark the 10th anniversary of the Global Open Day for Women and Peace.

Staffan de Mistura: It's true. Even within the security forces, consumption of drugs is high, and it is a serious concern. We are well aware that Afghanistan produces 80 per cent of the world’s opium. Russia pays a high price, with 30,000 deaths related to heroin use. Iran is also obliged to deal with profound damage because of this. Europe is also exposed.

Unfortunately, it seems that the Taliban are benefiting greatly from it. We estimate that they earn about $300 million annually through drug traffic, despite the fact that of course Islam strictly forbids any support to or consumption and trade of drugs as well as alcohol. The conclusion is that we absolutely need to help them change this situation because the Afghans themselves are now becoming consumers, which was not the case until recently. Some 800,000 people are affected.

The problem is that you cannot act too radically because people are making their living from it. Some farmers are poor and need this to survive. If you attack the problem with too much violence, you create the risk of creating more poverty and more resentment. So it must be done rationally. But it is clearly a problem which exists and must be addressed.

UN News Centre: For the UN to fulfil its mission, it must win the confidence of the Afghan people. Isn’t it more difficult to build this trust when there have been so many civilian casualties? 2010 was the deadliest year, with 2,777 deaths, 15 per cent more than 2009.

Staffan de Mistura: It's true. But Afghans also know they need a foreign presence in order to not go back to the bad experience of the past. The challenge is finding the balance between respect for their sovereignty and a presence to help them – apart from the military one – and to show them they are not abandoned. This is the formula that we maintained successfully until now. And the secret of this formula is to show that we really respect their sovereignty, and that the final goal is to leave the country and let them take charge of their future. There is one thing that all Afghans – even the Taliban, I think – share: national pride. It was built over the course of 4000 years and you have to use this to work together.

UN News Centre: Regarding the transition: for it to happen, you need security as well as strong and independent executive, legislative and judicial powers. Is this the case?

Special Representative Staffan de Mistura visits a polling centre at Amani High School in Kabul in September 2010.

Staffan de Mistura: No. Afghanistan is not Switzerland. And it will not be Switzerland for a long time. They have their traditions, their culture, their past, which weighs heavily. So do not expect miracles. But don’t forget, two elections have been organized already. Not perfect, certainly, but two elections, and the second was much better than the first. And during these elections, there were two institutions, both electoral commissions, which showed their strength and resisted all pressure. The result is an elected President and an elected Parliament. And frankly, I think the Parliament is quite independent. The problem is the judiciary. It does not feel independent, strong and focused on what it is supposed to do.

UN News Centre: What are the problems with the judiciary? Corruption?

Staffan de Mistura: Yes, but not only that. The judiciary was trying to focus more on changing the results of the election than on fighting corruption, which is not the best proof of independence of course. But the other authorities, legislative and executive, as well as officials working at the Ministry of Justice, judges, prosecutors, police, etc., all of them know as much as the international and national communities that there is a problem and things have to change.

UN News Centre: In this elected Parliament there are about 60 women. Is that a success? A source of satisfaction for you, UNAMA and the UN?

Staffan de Mistura: Success is first that women openly campaigned and won parliamentary seats, often against men for that matter. It also means that Afghan women are ready to play their role. There is a saying in Afghanistan, “If you educate a man, you build a man. If you educate a woman, you build a woman, a family and much more.” In the case of the parliamentarians, “you build a movement that goes in the right direction.” So yes, it is a real success to see these women represented in the Afghan Parliament.

UN News Centre: In the past, tribal or ethnic affiliations often prevented the building of a stable, strong and inclusive state. Today could this again be an obstacle to reconstruction?

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (left) and Staffan de Mistura are greeted by Afghan children as they make their way to the Foreign Ministry in Kabul.

Staffan de Mistura: Tribal and ethnic loyalties are strong in Afghanistan. But ultimately, it is an Afghan of Uzbek ethnicity who was elected President of Parliament. And there was a real political game, with two main rivals of the two factions. But at the end, neither won; someone from an ethnic minority was elected. It’s really a good sign.

UN News Centre: After 41 years in the service of the UN, you have an extraordinary wealth of experience. What are the similarities and differences between your current mission in Afghanistan and previous assignments?

Staffan de Mistura: I did 19 missions in war zones and four in “quiet” zones. I have been confronted with almost all the wars on the planet over the past four decades, except the Congo and Timor. There is one thing in common to all these missions: there are civilian casualties. And that’s why I've been doing this for 41 years. I was in Cyprus in the ’70s and I saw a young boy shot dead by a sniper on a terrace in front of me. I decided to join the UN. This is the reality of all missions.

Now, every mission is different, every time it’s a new challenge. It’s special. Somalia is not Kosovo, which is not Lebanon, which is not Sudan, which is not Iraq. And my last mission in Iraq was not the same as the first one or the second one.

UN News Centre: What made you so interested in Afghanistan and in this mission?

Staffan de Mistura: It’s a country that has some terribly compelling aspects. The Afghans are a proud people, people with dignity. They are a people who have never been conquered by anyone in 4000 years because the country has always been able to break free. But it is also a country where all of them have passed by: Alexander the Great, the Mongols, Indians, Chinese, Arabs, English, Russians, and now 46 countries. Conclusion: it is a country that has absorbed all these cultures, and at the same time very fiercely maintained its own culture. It’s fascinating, but it would be even more if it was at peace.

UN News Centre: For security reasons, the working conditions and living on-site for UN employees are difficult, with a lot of constraints. Does it affect your work?

Staffan de Mistura speaks to the press in Herat following a visit to the province.

Staffan de Mistura: Undoubtedly. Especially because it has become even more dangerous. We lost five people last year and there was a recent attempt to attack with four suicide bombers against the UN premises in Herat, fortunately without consequences. The dilemma is that of the UN in all war zones. If we are neutral and we have a mission, we must be close to the population, in contact with it, and therefore visible. But if we are visible, then we are also exposed. So we must find a balance between security and the presence, proximity and protection. That's why it is important that we are all volunteers to work in this country.

UN News Centre: Do the Afghan people differentiate between the UN on the one hand, and international forces on the other?

Staffan de Mistura: Of course. And they even see the difference within the UN, for example between the Secretariat, the Security Council and UN agencies. They know who is in charge of immunization campaigns, who is in charge of schools, who is focused on food aid. It is a sign that they know us more than we sometimes imagine. Which is normal in a certain way, because the UN has been active in Afghanistan for 60 years.


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