Holbrooke On Negotiating Peace In Afghanistan

Ambassador Richard Holbrooke — the Obama administration's special representative in Afghanistan and Pakistan — speaks with Renee Montagne about the possibility of peace talks between Taliban groups and the Afghan government. With negotiation experience in earlier conflicts in Vietnam and Bosnia, Holbrooke stresses the importance of broad-based local participation.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Afghanistan, there's much talk about reconciliation with the Taliban, though the prospect for a deal anytime soon depends on whom you ask. We reached America's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan yesterday. Richard Holbrooke has just come back from Kabul. He says the talk of serious negotiations is just that - talk.

Ambassador RICHARD HOLBROOKE (Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan): First of all, the word negotiations - and I know something about negotiations -doesn't remotely apply. What you have here is individual Taliban commanders and units, under immense pressure from the ferocity and effectiveness of General Petraeus's military offensive, reaching out informally through intermediaries and saying we want out of this thing.

This does not constitute a negotiation in any way, shape, or form, between the leadership of the Taliban and the Karzai government.

MONTAGNE: And most definitely no talks or anything remotely like that with the biggest name in the Taliban, Mullah Omar.

Amb. HOLBROOKE: No, he has not been heard from.

MONTAGNE: You know, I want to speak to something you just mentioned when you said you know about negotiations. And, Ambassador Holbrooke, the reason you know about negotiations is you are the man who brokered the peace agreement, known as the Dayton Accords, that ended the war in Bosnia back in the '90s.

Are there any lessons that can be applied to the situation in Afghanistan?

(Soundbite of chuckling)

MONTAGNE: Or is it just too, too different?

(Soundbite of chuckling)

Ambassador HOLBROOKE: Well, I've thought about that a lot. And, of course, I also was the junior member of the negotiating team with the North Vietnamese in Paris, way back in 1968. And I've done a lot of other negotiations. Each negotiation has its own dynamic, Renee, and this one is unique. It's not going to end at a place like Dayton, Ohio where you get all the combatants behind a high barbed-wire fence and don't let them out until you have an agreement - for the simplest of reasons.

There's no single address for the people we're fighting. There's no Ho Chi Minh, as there was in Vietnam. There's no Slobodan Milosevic, as there was in the Balkans. You have a wide variety of people grouped under a loosely jihadist, loosely anti-American banner. Perhaps the best way to do it is to look for ways to separate and fragment it, piece by piece.

And above all, Renee, I want to emphasize this point. Whatever happens in Afghanistan, in terms of reconciliation, has to be Afghan-led.

MONTAGNE: Although that brings us to a neighbor of Afghanistan, Pakistan. It harbors key leaders of the Taliban. It has also said, flat out, that no peace can be brokered without its involvement. And it has not been happy, in recent days, about news of face-to-face meetings. Is it being bypassed and can it be bypassed?

Ambassador HOLBROOKE: It is absolutely critical for everyone to understand that Afghanistan has to be - and Pakistan have to work together to end this war. Week before last, the Pakistani leadership was in Washington, and what the Pakistanis said to us was we have a strategic interest in what happens in Afghanistan. At no time did I hear the Pakistanis issue the kind of blunt threats which have been reported in the press. I'm not denying that they may have deliberately put these stories out to send a public signal, but in private, the Pakistanis have had measured, reasonable conversations with us.

MONTAGNE: Is, though, this government that you speak to, fully in control of the elements in its government - particularly in its intelligence service, who have, in the past and reportedly still support the Taliban?

Ambassador HOLBROOKE: This question is among the most hotly debated in American intelligence circles, for many, many years now - long before I came to the government. All that I can tell you is that we worked very closely with the Pakistanis. There's a lot of cooperation between us. We hope there'll be more.

MONTAGNE: Let's add another country to the mix, and that would be Iran, on the western border of Afghanistan. Earlier this month, for the first time, a high-ranking Iranian diplomat, your counterpart, attended a conference in Rome on the way forward in Afghanistan. Is there a concern that Iran will exercise influence in Afghanistan that would be problematic? There's concern, certainly, in Iraq. What about Afghanistan?

Ambassador HOLBROOKE: The Iranians have influence in Afghanistan. Everybody knows that, it's no secret. There's nothing we can do about it. Geography can't be changed, no matter how much one wishes it away. The important thing is to find stability for Afghanistan. It's no accident that the phrase, The Great Game, was coined to describe the struggles of the 19th century around Afghanistan. But this is not a game. It's a matter of life and death to the American and allied forces fighting there, and it's a matter of critical importance to our national security.

MONTAGNE: Ambassador Richard Holbrooke is the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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