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UK Diplomat Assesses Afghanistan Reconstruction

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UK Diplomat Assesses Afghanistan Reconstruction


UK Diplomat Assesses Afghanistan Reconstruction

UK Diplomat Assesses Afghanistan Reconstruction

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Scott Simon speaks with British diplomat Paddy Ashdown about the future of the international reconstruction mission in Afghanistan. Ashdown was initially tapped to lead the UN's "super-envoy" to the war-torn country, but his appointment was recently rejected by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.


The international community's efforts to rebuild Afghanistan remain in limbo. Earlier this year, President Hamid Karzai signed off a deal to appoint British political leader Paddy Ashdown to lead the U.N.'s reconstruction mission in Afghanistan. But in late January, President Karzai changed his mind and withdrew his support.

We're joined now, from London, by Lord Paddy Ashdown. For four years, he served as the U.N. High representative and the European special representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, he's currently a member of the British House of Lords.

Lord Ashdown, thanks so much for being with us.

Lord PADDY ASHDOWN (British Diplomat): My privilege, Scott.

SIMON: Do you have any idea why the appointment fell through?

Lord ASHDOWN: I mean, you could at least speculate, Scott, about that. I mean, my guess is that it's more to do with internal Afghan politics.President Karzai's a Pashtun. He needs to come on the Pashtun votes amongst whom there is a certain natural reserve about foreigners and especially, if I may say so, the British for that - because of the colonial inheritance. So I suspect it did him no harm internally if he comes up to elections to be seen to say no to A, Brits; and B, the nominee of the United States

Some of them has said to me, Scott, that this may have been something to do with the fact that I had a certain reputation in Bosnia, the tackling corruption and organized crime and there may be some in Afghanistan who wouldn't have welcomed an energetic approach on those in Afghanistan, but I think that's speculation. I think it's mostly to do with internal politics.

SIMON: You've met President Karzai as I recall.

Lord ASHDOWN: Yeah, I met him, gone over it with him, wished him well. He has a very tough and difficult job to do. I admire him for his tenacity and I recognize just how difficult and delicate that job is. So he expressed what he believed to be in the best interest of his people, and I have no complaint about that.

SIMON: How difficult is it to make an appointment of the kind that you were on the verge of holding? Is it - as a politician, can you help us appreciate all the different things that have to be balanced?

Lord ASHDOWN: Well, it ought not to be difficult, Scott, but it is. I mean, it is because there's no fall process of this. I mean, you know, as you'd imagine a job that important would have some sort of formalized mechanism of appointment where people would think about who'd be the right person and - that's not the way it happens at all. It's a sort of back-room deal, who knows who in the corridors of power, and then there's a sort of you take this one, and I'll take that, what we call in Britain or Ireland, where I come from, Buggin's turn.

So it's a pretty chaotic system, and by the way, very, very frequently ends up with the wrong person in the wrong job. We tend to choose people who are diplomats, whereas this is quintessentially a political kind of operation. I cannot imagine a more chaotic, silly, disorganized and unhelpful way of choosing important people for important jobs.

SIMON: Is the world paying enough attention to Afghanistan?

Lord ASHDOWN: I think the world is, but it - there's a difference between paying attention and taking it seriously. I think that a number of nations do take this seriously because they understand the consequences of Afghanistan going wrong, which by the way I think are far worse than the consequences of Iraq going wrong.

I mean, I think this will have a very, very serious impact if Afghanistan goes wrong, on Pakistan and therefore on the internal security of many of the European state, and I think it would be very destabilizing indeed, could even end up in a widening Sunni-Shiite regional conflict, which would engulf the whole region.

So it's very serious. I think the United States takes it seriously. I think Britain takes it seriously. I think a number of other nations take it seriously, but judging by the lack of contribution and sometimes the lack of ability to get your troops to do difficult things, which some countries involved in Afghanistan have shown, I'm not sure they take it seriously, even if they know it's important.

SIMON: Let me get just your thoughts on something very specific. As you know, and you alluded to it, there's a debate going on in Canada, where some people in Canada want their troops to remain just as long as they don't have to, you know, fight anybody. They want them to be in a non-combat role. Is that practical?

Lord ASHDOWN: No. Look, soldiers have a very tough job to do, and this is the toughest job of all. I've been a soldier; I know that. It's very, very difficult to be able to be a soldier risking his life in a very hot war with the bullets flying one minute, and the next to be a sort of aid-worker and social worker. It's a very difficult job to do.

I understand how some people think that this - it would be much better if only soldiers would deal with the soft power elements of this and not risk their lives, but that can't be done. They have to be prepared to do both of those jobs, and it takes the most-skilled soldiers to do it. By the way, those include Canadian soldiers, who are extremely good at this. I think they include the British. I think - I'm certain they include the United States, and I think there are other nations, as well, who are good. The Dutch are very good. But some are considerably less good at doing this very difficult job.

SIMON: One last question as we close, Lord Ashdown, having been the special representative in charge of Bosnia, are you pleased about Kosovo independence?

Lord ASHDOWN: Yeah, I just wish this happened earlier. I mean, it should've happened in 1999. Senator Joe Biden and I both wrote a joint report in 1999, at the end of the Kosovo war, saying for God's sake, recognize now what everybody knows to be the truth: Kosovo can't be governed by Belgrade again.

Now, that happens once in a while. Nations sometimes govern a minority area of theirs so badly that they lose the practical and moral right to govern. This was the last price that had to be paid for the blood and terror of the Milosevic years.

If it'd happened earlier, there'd have been less mischief made from it. It is the only solution that could've happened. I think there will be some bumpy times ahead, but in my view they will not be seriously bumpy, and they probably won't last very long. It should've happened earlier, Scott. That's the big thing.

SIMON: Paddy, thanks so much.

Lord ASHDOWN: Pleasure, nice to be with you.

SIMON: Lord Paddy Ashdown speaking from London.

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