Afghan leaders should raise their game: EU ambassador

KABUL Tue May 1, 2012 5:59am EDT

Vygaudas Usackas, the European Union's special represenative and ambassador to Kabul speaks during an interview in Kabul April 30, 2012. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

Vygaudas Usackas, the European Union's special represenative and ambassador to Kabul speaks during an interview in Kabul April 30, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Mohammad Ismail

KABUL (Reuters) - Just after news broke that U.S. special forces had killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, the top EU diplomat in neighboring Afghanistan received a flood of emails from jubilant Afghans.

The death of the al Qaeda leader a year ago raised hopes in Kabul, Brussels, Washington and elsewhere that a devastating blow had been dealt to Islamist militancy in one of the most unstable regions in the world.

On the eve of the first anniversary of Bin Laden's killing, Vygaudas Usackas, the European Union's ambassador to Kabul, reflected on how that optimism had faded.

The Afghan Taliban, whom Washington accused of sheltering bin Laden before U.S. troops helped Afghan forces remove the group from power, have suspended reconciliation talks with the United States. And discussions with the Afghan government are limited.

"Immediately I got dozens, if not hundreds, of emails from different ordinary Afghans in a very celebratory mood, expressing their satisfaction that it may provide a game-changer in terms of the future reconciliation," Usackas told Reuters in an interview.

"Unfortunately, as we all know, the peace process is not as easy as one may have expected a year ago after bin Laden's death. That will require long-term commitment from both sides."

Two years into his posting, lack of commitment in Afghanistan seems to be the most troubling issue for Usackas.

Western nations have poured billions of dollars into aid and reconstruction yet, he says, President Hamid Karzai's administration has not kept up its end of the bargain -- to improve governance and transparency.

While the European Union has no intention of abandoning Afghanistan after most foreign troops withdraw in 2014, some countries will have to justify further heavy spending. Taxpayers squeezed by hard economic times may ask tougher questions if there are no tangible signs of improvement, said Usackas, a former Lithuanian diplomat.

SHARING THE BLAME

"President Karzai personally, and the political establishment of Afghanistan, are fully aware that the future development aid for the country will certainly be influenced by greater and genuine steps to improve governance, dealing with corruption and moving towards elections which will be credible for Afghan people," he said.

The international community must shoulder a large part of the blame for failing to ensure proper accountability and oversight of aid spending, Usackas acknowledged.

The end result is economic and political stability are elusive despite the presence of 130,000 NATO-led foreign troops and over $57 billion already spent in aid.

Karzai's unpopular government remains fragile, struggling to deliver basic services to most of the 30 million population outside major cities -- support that is vital to preventing Afghans from joining militant groups.

And with Karzai considering bringing 2014 presidential elections forward by a year to avoid overloading the country with security challenges as most foreign combat troops exit, the world should not expect a perfect election process, Usackas said.

"There will still be shortfalls," he said. "But it's important that they are being organized in a way that people would perceive them in Afghanistan as credible."

Karzai is barred by Afghanistan's constitution from seeking a third five-year term, although Kabul is rife with rumor that he could seek to extend his term through political maneuvering, or look to install an ally and rule by proxy.

Usackas said that while it was up to Afghans to decide on the timing of the vote, any hint of political manipulation could demolish already shaky voter confidence in the government.

"I think it's very important that 2014 produces a peaceful transfer of power in a way which is organized in more inclusive, transparent and credible free and fair elections," said Usackas in the garden of his Kabul residence.

With NATO leaders gathering in Chicago in late May for a meeting on future backing for the 352,000-strong Afghan security forces, expected to cost around $4.1 billion a year to sustain, Usackas said the gravest error the world could make would be to turn its back on Kabul after 2014.

"I'm afraid this country may turn not only to internal war, but also a source of regional conflict," he said.

Afghanistan's stability may ultimately hinge on policy decisions in Pakistan, which critics accuse of backing insurgent groups fighting NATO and Afghan forces.

Islamabad denies the allegations.

Usackas said Pakistan seemed genuinely interested in helping bring peace to Afghanistan, and he said there were signs other regional powers would work for stability.

But the same militant groups that bin Laden inspired are still dug in along Pakistan's porous border with Afghanistan, and pose a major security threat to both countries.

Afghanistan's government doesn't seem to grasp the magnitude of major challenges just two years ahead of the pullout, said Usackas, admitting it keeps him awake at night sometimes.

"The Afghans have to be in the driving seat...," he said.

"Probably we made them complacent."

(Editing by Nick Macfie)