TRIESTE, Italy (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama’s special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan spoke in an interview about an overhaul in U.S. counternarcotics strategy in Afghanistan, aid to Pakistan and other key issues.
Here are highlights of Richard Holbrooke’s comments to Reuters on the sidelines of a conference on stabilizing Afghanistan, held in the northern Italian city of Trieste.
The Western policies against the opium crop, the poppy crop, have been a failure. They did not result in any damage to the Taliban, but they put farmers out of work and they alienated people and drove people into the arms of the Taliban.
So I need to stress this: the poppy farmer is not our enemy. The Taliban are. And to destroy the crops is not an effective policy and the U.S. has wasted hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars on this program, and that is going to end.
We are not going to support crop eradication. We’re going to phase it out and allow for very limited areas, where on a specific, case-by-case basis, it may be valid.
What are we going to do? We’re going to emphasize interdiction, precursor chemicals, and other things — going after drug lords. So we’re not downgrading our effort to fight the dreadful cancer which is the opium trade. But we are going to stop making the farmers the victims.
Many people including senior members of our government call the Afghan elections the most important event of the year. Their outcome will determine who leads Afghanistan for the next five years. The fairness of those elections will determine the credibility and legitimacy of the government. We have just seen a spectacularly bad example just next door in Iran, and there have been many others in recent years, Zimbabwe for example.
And in these situations, governance becomes more difficult. So at the end of the process we would like to see a government elected by its people in a way that is credible and viewed as legitimate by the people and the international community.
A government that loses its legitimacy through an election which people think was compromised by widespread voter fraud registration, for example, is a process which will undermine support.
I want to be very clear on this, the U.S., and the U.N., and the international community support no candidate and oppose no candidate. We have no position on that.
But we have a very legitimate role to play in the process. We have troops on the ground, the international community is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to support this election. And when people say we are interfering in it, let them understand that the interference comes from the very fact that the Afghan government wants the international community led by the U.N. there.
And the interference is ... not interference, it’s support. This is a really important point. We’re only 55 days or less from the election and everyone has to understand that it is important and the international community is going to continue to be involved, but only in the process not in the outcome.
IRAN - AFGHAN BORDER INSTABILITY?
I don’t know what the outcome is going to be in Iran right now. But everyone is watching it closely in the region and it is not a good model for other countries’ elections. So the first thing to do is to make sure that it doesn’t cause instability in neighboring Afghanistan. I don’t see any great danger of that right now, but you gotta be vigilant.
We’re very gratified that the army led the charge back into Swat and that they’ve driven the militants out of the Swat valley.
But we have a long way to go before we know the end of the story. The true test is when the refugees go back to Swat. Will they have security? Will they be protected? Will the army be able to keep the Taliban from coming back down over the hills. And the bill for reconstruction in Swat is going to be enormous — over a billion dollars, maybe over two billion.
So there is a lot left in this saga.
I don’t know if the increased troops will lead to increase casualties. It happens often, but I’m not going to concede that. We have a new commander, a brilliant new commander, Gen. (Stanley) McChrystal, and he is devising new strategies and tactics.
The Taliban are going to be put under pressure like they’ve never seen before. And coupled with our elimination of things like crop eradication so we don’t alienate the people, coupled with Gen. McChrystal’s new rules over the use of airpower in an attempt to reduce civilian casualties, we may find that things go much better than expected.
Don’t kid yourself. This kind of additional effort by the U.S. and other NATO allies is not going to go without notice. I think you’ll see an improvement.
The U.S. is by far the largest contributor to the refugee relief crisis in Pakistan. I don’t mind that. The U.S. should lead the world. But other countries are not doing the right amount in my view. Some of them anyway.
In recent years, the United States got a reputation for not consulting its allies enough. That’s a very key point that we want to reverse. So I’m here on behalf of Sec. Clinton to consult and listen to our allies, to build a consensus around common problems and policies.
For example, agriculture, we’re putting a huge emphasis on agriculture. Other countries are doing the same. Now as everyone increases agriculture we have to start coordinating it, the U.N. as the umbrella organization we’re working under here.
The same on counter-narcotics. The United States is going to downgrade crop eradication and upgrade interdiction and we wanted to share the reasons for that policy change — and it’s an important policy change — with our allies. We got a very good response.
Police, corruption, the Afghan elections and of course the Pakistani refugee crisis have all been discussed with the same level of openness and collaboration.
Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Charles Dick