YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Hopping on U.N. Special Envoy's Bandwagon

Diplomacy: Back in the job he had quit in frustration, Lakhdar Brahimi is leading global effort for post-Taliban Afghan government.


UNITED NATIONS — The last time Lakhdar Brahimi had the job of special envoy to Afghanistan, he quit in disgust.

Nobody cared enough about Afghanistan, despite his steady stream of reports about Taliban massacres of Shiite villagers, the point-blank killings by state gunmen of foreign diplomats and U.N. emissaries, and the rising danger to relief efforts posed by Osama bin Laden's network.

And all those problems were set against a dire and volatile backdrop of draconian civil liberties restrictions, raging guerrilla warfare, famine and earthquakes.

The Security Council had authorized him to promote dialogue among rebel factions and between the opposition and the Taliban, but all sides brazenly broke pledges to cease fighting during their initial discussions. And there were no guarantees that wealthy nations would deliver the huge humanitarian aid package needed to undergird reconciliation and reconstruction in Afghanistan. The Taliban was openly rebuffing U.N. demands that it surrender Bin Laden, under pain of sanctions--proof to many that the world body was wielding neither a sufficiently enticing carrot nor a convincingly threatening stick.

So on Oct. 20, 1999, after two years of dead-end diplomacy, the famously calm and cautious Algerian diplomat shocked his U.N. associates by announcing his resignation as Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special envoy.

Afghanistan is "a sad, sad country," Brahimi said with uncharacteristic emotion. Its biggest neighbors--Iran and Pakistan--were making a dangerous situation worse, he said. But if neither the warring factions there nor the world community was committed to confronting the crisis, he was wasting his time, he said.

"It was a stunning moment," said a close U.N. colleague here, requesting anonymity. "You don't hear U.N. diplomats at that level speaking like that."

Now everybody cares intensely about Afghanistan, and Brahimi has no problem getting the world's attention.

Coaxed back into the job last month, the reappointed envoy almost immediately became the driving strategist in the global effort to replace the Taliban regime with a broad-based government and rebuild the devastated country with massive foreign aid. His blueprint for a governing coalition was quickly and unanimously endorsed by the Security Council, a show of support that one U.S. diplomat termed "extraordinary," considering the stakes involved.

On Tuesday near Bonn, Brahimi will chair the first gathering of major Afghan political forces since the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif. He alone will represent the interests of the United Nations and the West, while striving to act as an impartial intermediary among rival Afghan factions.

At the urging of U.S. Ambassador John D. Negroponte, the Security Council has given him unusually broad latitude. Brahimi has not been ordered to push for Afghan backing for a multilateral peace force, for example, despite requests from some council members. Nor has he been asked to follow any specific ethnic or political formula for the composition of a viable new Afghan regime.

Afghans 'Must Have Ownership'

From the beginning, the U.N.'s post-Taliban plan bore Brahimi's personal stamp, drawing on the lessons associates say he has learned not just from his Afghanistan experience but also from U.N. assignments in Haiti and elsewhere--and from the bloody ethnic and religious strife of his own Algeria. He has insisted that the U.N. avoid the kind of caretaker role it assumed in Cambodia and East Timor. The Afghans "must have ownership" of the rebuilding process, he has repeated like a mantra.

Many close observers of Afghanistan were surprised that Brahimi was persuaded to take his old job back.

"He gave up in total frustration before, with basically the same players we have now, though in a different political context," said Sidney Jones, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, which also had been sounding early warnings about the violent and volatile situation in Afghanistan. "At least he doesn't have any illusions about everything moving smoothly."

Brahimi answers skeptics by portraying his patrons in the Security Council--the United States very much included--as chastened by the realization that they are reaping the whirlwind of past policy failures.

"What makes us more optimistic now than in the past," he said recently, "is the fact that there is a very strong international political will that was not there in the past. The international community, the biggest countries in the world, recognize publicly that they failed Afghanistan in the past, that they left the Afghan people to themselves, and they are saying--and I think we should give them the benefit of the doubt--that they want to now help the people of Afghanistan."

Los Angeles Times Articles