From the Archives: An Interview with Lakhdar Brahimi

Lakhdar Brahimi is the Special Adviser to the Secretary-General and served as the UN Special Envoy in Iraq. Ambassador Brahimi led the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and was entrusted with overall authority for the UN’s reconstruction activities there. Mr. Brahimi also served as Special Representative to Haiti and South Africa and directed special missions to a number of countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Yemen, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sudan. Mr. Brahimi was Minister for Foreign Affairs of Algeria and served as the Under-Secretary-General of the League of Arab States. The Journal of International Affairs spoke with Ambassador Brahimi on October 15, 2004 at the UN headquarters in New York.

These are the personal views of Ambassador Brahimi and do not reflect the position of the United Nations. The UN now has a new Special Representative for the Secretary-General in Iraq [Ashraf Qazi] who speaks for the UN on Iraq. 

Editor's note:

This interview first appeared in the Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 58, No. 1, in the Fall of 2004.

Mary Sack
Cyrus Samii
October 23, 2018

Journal of International Affairs: There is much optimism following the elections in Afghanistan. Will the elected president enjoy legitimacy among ordinary Afghans?

Lakhdar Brahimi: There is real reason to be optimistic about this election. It has been much better than anybody had any right to expect. And probably the main message is that the people will do anything, they will go anywhere if they think that this will bring peace and stability and security to them. So I think what they have understood from this election is that this is going to take them one step further towards this goal. There’s absolutely no doubt that the president is going to enjoy much better capability and legitimacy than he had before. But as always, it depends what he does with it. He has to show that this is indeed taking the country one step ahead, one step forward in the quest for stability that the people want.

Journal: Does this bode well for Parliamentary elections in the spring?

Brahimi: Sure, very much so. But let’s go a little bit back. We—the United Nations and Afghanistan—had been under very, very strong pressure to organize the elections in June. The people who knew what they were talking about, who knew where Afghanistan was, all said that it is not a really big problem if it is delayed for two or three months. Because this is really the last stage in the Bonn Agreement. The first one was the creation of the commission for the preparation of the Loya Jirga. The names of the members of the commission were supposed to be announced on January 22, 2002 [in Kabul] but we were at a donor conference for Afghanistan in Japan. When it didn’t happen immediately people started asking, why? They were wondering, is this real, why has it been delayed, is it going to work? Is this Bonn process holding? So we came back [to Kabul] I think on the 24th, the Secretary General was there, it was announced in his presence, and people calmed down.

Journal: In a recent speech in front of the German United Nations Federation, you said that from the perspective of the international community, the people who were facilitating the process, the most important decisions end up having to be taken early on, before we are knowledgeable enough to anticipate what their implications might be. It’s interesting that you seem to be suggesting that there is a lack of information on the side of the Interveners, but there’s also a lack of information on the side of the parties on the ground about whether the commitment is really strong?

Brahimi: That’s a different point…. We go into the situation in general when things are really bad. And we go into situations where we had no previous knowledge. And when you are asked to go in you are asked to put together a conception of a mission and…. to plan for three years…. In Afghanistan, when we went in 2001, I had already done two years and resigned in 1999, so I had some familiarity. When I went to Iraq, it was a place I had known for fifty years. But even in Afghanistan, where I had worked for two years, and in Iraq that I had known for fifty years, I am now finding out how little I knew when I had to make very important decisions. You have something, you count on your gut feeling, you are guessing half of the time. And this is not good enough.

Journal: How do you mitigate that problem? If you don’t make the right decisions early on, then you could really be setting yourself up for failure. How do you go about it?

Brahimi: But this is what we do all the time. I raised this problem in the speech in Germany after putting it to my young colleagues here in the UN. I said to them, this is a problem we have got to think about. I had partial answers to it before now so I’m not discovering it for the first time. But I’m just now seeing that it is terribly important and you need to think a little bit more about it. What you do is—at least my answer until now has been—don’t set yourself into too much of a strait jacket. Give yourself a little bit of room for movement, to adapt while you discover… That doesn’t mean that you don’t have a map to navigate with. But if your map says there is no stone here, and your eyes tell you there is one, please change course to avoid that rock.

Journal: Do you see that happening in Iraq, the ability to be agile, to renegotiate decisions as necessary?

Brahimi: You know, I don’t really know what they are doing in Iraq now. We formed this government in a hurry, a great hurry. So we said that it was the best government that was possible to get. But we also said... that one of the problems is that the people of Iraq and the rest of the world are skeptical. They are saying, are the Americans really handing sovereignty back? And is this government really now the depository of the Iraqi sovereignty? It is up to them, the Americans, and to this government to demonstrate to the skeptics that yes, it is true. I am afraid they are not doing this enough.

Journal: How would the elections in Iraq, the postponement of elections, play into that? Do you think that the elections should be sooner or later, and how does that effect the security situation?

Brahimi: I think that for the moment everything is being done to hold these elections in January. And certainly, until last week, the little that has been done is enough to remain on track. But as we move forward we need to do more and more…. every time you miss a deadline you can still catch up, but there is a limit to how much you can catch up.... If you lose one week, maybe you can catch up. If you lose three months, it will be difficult. So this is what you to need to watch out for now, in the timetable that has been set, how well we are meeting these deadlines to remain on track for the end of January.

Journal: When creating a constitution and forming a system of governance, you have to make important bargains with groups in the country. How do you get the powerful groups to commit to these bargains? In Iraq of course, the issue arises with respect to the Shia majority vis-à-vis the Kurds and the Shiites. How do you get minority groups to feel comfortable or to have assurance that their interests will be taken care of in the new system? The situation in Iraq right now seems to be at a stalemate, to some degree. Are there steps that can be taken to help them?

Brahimi: Again, your academics will tell you how to do it. I can tell you only how we try to do it. Let’s speak about Afghanistan. There, again with hindsight, I think it is legitimate to ask whether it is at all necessary to have a new constitution in Afghanistan now. The 1964 Constitution, cleaned of its monarchy, was progressive enough. And I think a lot of people, at the worst moments of the constitutional process, when there was real fear of failure, were saying, “Why did we put ourselves in this situation?” We could have kept the 1964 Constitution. In the end it worked.  The constitution we have now probably is not very well written, but I think it is more progressive than the 1964 Constitution, especially for women. Because it’s a success, we are happy. But you don't think of this problem with what has already happened in mind. You have to think of it with the problems that are ahead of you. And I think if I found myself in the same situation that we had in Bonn, knowing what I know now and with all the difficulty endured, I’m not sure I would have applied for us to go forward with the new constitution. We took a lot of risks.

Understandably, in a post-conflict situation people have been fighting one another very recently on issues that the constitution has got to provide answers for, unless you have had very, very long negotiations between the parties, where all these issues have been ironed out and agreed upon—that happened in South Africa for example…. It took five years of negotiations and they discussed all these issues. So when the elections, and even the drafting of the constitution came up it was practically a formality, it had already been ironed out…. In Afghanistan you didn’t  have that. So when you bring 500 people, each one coming with entrenched positions, it’s very difficult for them to agree…. What made the difference was that they had confidence in us. One day, when it was really bad, some of them got up and said, we don’t want to see our leader, we want to see the UN.

Journal: Was it the UN’s legitimacy that was crucial?

Brahimi: I suppose so. I think it is the UN and what the UN does, and how it is represented and how it projects itself. The UN starts always, well not always, most of the time, with a favorable attitude from the people. Because they are neutral, because they are not selling anything, they are not buying anything. Although in Iraq it’s a little bit different because of sanctions.

Journal: One further question on Afghanistan and working with different factions and groups. In looking forward to the spring and the parliamentary elections, what do you see as the UN’s role and the role of President Hamid Karzai in bringing in the different groups, including the Taliban?

Brahimi: We resisted very strongly the push to have these two elections at the same time. Because, we said, you have no agreement between the Afghans. Bonn was a quickly concocted system; Afghanistan is a very fractured country, very divided. They can take, as a first medicine, a Presidential election because you are talking about three, four, five, ten candidates. And the division will be between two or three. But if you’re talking about Parliamentary elections, every village is going to be divided. The country cannot take it in one go, it cannot. Plus, there’s the issue of security. We had some- thing like 20 people killed to make this election possible. If you had 3,000 candidates, you’d have had much more. With intimidation, the intimidation now from the candidates is: vote for me, or else. But the intimidation when you go to Parliamentary elections is withdraw your candidacy, or else. And if you have even ten percent of the country that’s withdrawing because of intimidation, then you are in trouble. So we insisted that we have a presidential election and try to make sure it was a success. Then, you can build on that first success…. In a situation like this an election is meant to be one important step forwards towards stability and peace.  If it would take you back into war, then you could afford to not vote, you don’t need this. In Angola they organized a very successful election in 1992 and what came after was ten years of civil war…. There is a sequence of events in the building up of these political processes.  The election has to be at the right place and that’s it.

Journal: How do you know when you’re at—?

Brahimi: Ah, that is very hard. You have got to work it out. In Iraq also, we are telling every- body, elections are not a band-aid. It is part of a process. You are rebuilding a country that has been destroyed, first by Saddam then by the war in 1991 and the invasion in 2003…. You cannot just say, let’s go for elections.

Journal: Can the elections be part of the process of stabilizing the country, like some are arguing?

Brahimi: It must be.

There are two takes on this. When you were appointed to serve in Iraq on behalf of the US, you argued at the time that there was no way that elections could take place, that the security situation was too unpredictable. Some will argue that elections should come as soon as possible in Iraq because it will be an element to help secure the country. Even if it doesn’t happen in the entire country, the places where are held will help to create some sort of legitimate government structure that will help stabilize the country and change people’s minds about—

Yes, this is the kind of nonsense that one hears. It’s not Iraq. Iraq is composed of men, women, people. So how are you going to organize an election in one part and not in another if the part you are organizing the election in represents a whole group of people, you see. Then you are not excluding one city or ten percent of the population, you are excluding one group. For example, if you are not capable of organizing the elections in Kurdistan, then because it is just 15 percent of the population it’s all right? …. If that 15 percent happened to be all the Kurds you have a serious problem. If that 20 percent where you could not organize elections happened to be all the Sunni of the country, you have a problem. So it’s not just “organize an election and that’s great.” You’ve got to see what that election is going to bring and when it is going to bring that benefit that you want from it. And in particular what you absolutely must remember is that it doesn’t start a war. So going back to Afghanistan, I think that now, as I told you, the president will have immense legitimacy, but it depends what he does with it. It’s like any government, you have one hundred days of a honeymoon period, and it’s up to you to make the best of it so that that the honeymoon is extended.

Journal: Can you speak to specific things that the president can do to bring in the disparate groups. How do you organize that?

Brahimi: I think he needs to have a better government than he had before. They have already started doing this. They have put aside the minister of defense, who is one of the big faction people. They have already dismissed the governor of Herat.  I think they have got to continue to do that, and have people know that the new governor of Herat is somebody who was an ambassador, and therefore will behave more like a civil servant and regional leader…. You also need to have…. a more consistent, substantive, long-term, national reconciliation process. For example, all the Taliban should have been in Bonn. I call it the original sin. The absence of the Taliban was a big, big hole in the process. But it was not possible to have, because of September 11, because of the behavior of the factions…. But there are a lot of people who are working with the Taliban or whoever, in Pakistan, who think a credible, national reconciliation process must be put together. You bring in anybody who is willing to accept the new dispensation, the new peace, the new democracy—that is what I hope comes out of it.

Journal: We’re going to move on to what you’d been talking about, specifically, the involvement of the UN and the international community in state building.  The issue of failing states, or states in conflict in the next decades—how do you see the UN capability now and how it could change to better deal with these issues? Was the decision to go in as a light footprint in Afghanistan a strategic decision or one based on limited resources?

Brahimi: One of the arguments that had been circulating was that the Afghans have no tradition of elections. Because they have no experience the assumption would be to do everything. We didn’t do it that way. We enlisted Afghans who took control, and they have done very well. And in the end, you saw 120,000 people involved in this election, one way or another. There were about 300 foreigners. As far as I’m concerned this is too many. You could have done it with less. So a light footprint should be the objective that we should work for, we should improve our tools to do business, to identify partners in the country as early as possible. When I hear people saying that you need advisors to Iraq to write a constitution, it makes me mad. They have more lawyers than they need to write a constitution. They don’t need anybody, not one, absolutely nothing. Afghans, however, maybe they need about three people to help write [the constitution.]

Journal: What exactly is the role, of these three people?

Brahimi: I think what you need is a catalyst, because they have been divided, and also because you have been providing resources, so you need people to accompany your resources. You don’t need people to spend the resources on themselves.

Journal: Does this make you think about Kosovo and Bosnia?

Brahimi: These are two very, very—

Journal: Different situations?

Brahimi: That’s right. You know a lot of people told us that we should do in Afghanistan what was done in Kosovo…. and it’s crazy. You are talking about a lot less people, you are talking about 700,000 in each country. And in Kosovo you had the political problem with Serbia. So it is an exception, it can't be the rule, it can’t be repeated. It is one thing to take people from the United Nations who can work out a budget for the nation, it is something else to run a ministry of finance when you have no people to guard the jail, and you have no judges. So if you are going into that business, maybe you revive the Trusteeship Council or something.  But I am dead against this…. neo-colonial approach, the UN becoming a colonial power.

Journal: In an article in The Atlantic Monthly you were described in the following way: “He does not see it as his business to engineer new democracies or to impose outside visions on society. He is a tough-minded realist who respects and understands power, whose approach in vexed situations has been to figure out which players are in charge on the ground end how to meet their minimum requirements.” And on this topic, I’d like to ask about the question of women’s rights in Afghanistan. The UN has supported the inclusion of women in the Afghan government, which has met with considerable opposition on the local level. How do you negotiate this and how does this effect the local credibility of the UN? Arid also, do you feel that this is a fair description of yourself?

Brahimi: Not entirely, but it’s not totally false. There isn’t something like instant democracy like you have instant coffee. It doesn’t work that way. It’s a long and patient process. And every country has got to find its own way towards democracy. You preach democracy, you don’t impose it….

Women, the same thing. We had women who came to Afghanistan to speak about the rights of lesbians and gays. Had I known they were coming I would have asked the government not to give them visas. It’s much too early for Afghanistan to talk about this…. you destabilize the whole thing. You are not going to reproduce Sweden in Afghanistan in one day…. And please, you have Afghan women who have been fighting for their rights for a long time. Why don’t you talk to them and see what they need?  They know how fast they can go, and when to stop, because if you go beyond a certain point you will break the machine. There was a group of women who came to see me and there was a young one, she spoke beautiful English, and she said women are 50 percent of the population, even more, because men were killed and so on, and she asked, “How come we don’t have 50 percent?” I asked her where she lived. She said in Washington. I said, “Okay, can I hear any of the other women?” So the other women told me, “Look”—we were talking about the composition of the commission [for the preparation of the Loya Jirga] — “we would like to have one or two women in there. If it is not possible then there are some men who are in favor of women’s rights. Try to find men who are in favor of women’s rights. We don’t want 50 percent.” So you don’t want 50 percent women in anything in Afghanistan now. As a matter of fact, you have pushed and got in the constitution 25 percent. I thinly it’s too much.  It’s more than the American parliament, by the way.

Journal: How do you feel that will play out, if it’s mandated in the constitution?

Brahimi: Well, if it’s in the constitution it will probably not be fully respected. But, you see, we have had from the very first day two women in the government. We now have three in Afghanistan, six in Iraq, which is huge, too much, but I think we have got to be lucky, we’ve got very good women. In Afghanistan there are two or three women, one in particular is doing very well…. But the point is don’t run before you can walk. Don’t try.

Journal: Another question about the US legitimacy. Kofi Annan, in a recent interview with the BBC, declared the invasion of Iraq essentially illegal.

Brahimi: It’s right, isn’t it?

Journal: If that’s the case, should the UN nonetheless offer its legitimacy by participating in what comes after? And if so, should they be willing to accept all the risks?

Brahimi: Sure, sure. I think that the view expressed by Kofi Annan, extracted from Kofi Annan, he didn’t volunteer that, is shared by almost everybody in the United Nations membership. And I think the only two countries in the world where there was a majority of the population in favor of this war were the United States and Israel. Even the members of the coalition who fought the war, like Britain, they never had the sup- port of their people. So Kofi Annan did not say anything outrageously outlandish.  The United Nations is going to have to support the people of Iraq in regaining control of their destiny and in building their future, no matter what our views may have been on the war. They are not there to legitimize what has happened. They are there to try and create something new. . .. I have gone out of my way to emphasize that we have only one agenda there, and that is the interests of the people of Iraq.

Journal: We want to talk now a little bit about your own personal experiences that you bring to your work. What did the Algerian independence movement teach the world? How has that influenced you? Could this help us to understand the insurgency in Iraq?

Brahimi: If you can learn anything from the Algerian War, you can learn the wrong lessons. The Battle of Algiers, have you seen the film? Yes, well, I think that some people were looking there at what the French did…., but I think you should see the bigger picture. The Battle of Algiers was just part of the struggle for independence. So I hope that nobody is going to look only at what the French did there.  Apart from that, I really don’t know. Yes, Algeria and Vietnam were the two big liberation struggles that have inspired a little bit of the Third World, but it is forgotten now. You how, I am a diplo- mat really, although I come from that background.

Journal: Does your own country’s history influence at all the way you view the situation…?

Brahimi: Sure, yes, absolutely. If I speak with so much feeling against the “heavy footprint” and against direct administration, well, I am sure that must have something to do with where I come from…. And also this insistence on having confidence in the people of the country where you are, that must have something to do with my background.

Journal: Drawing from more recent experience in Algeria and also in application to the state building processes in Iraq and Afghanistan, what kind of challenges does Islamism raise in the way the UN and the international community are attending to war?

Brahimi: We had a horrible civil war in Algeria that cost us maybe 100,000 dead. There are two points I make generally when I speak about this. One is just a story I tell very often. When our security people used to come and tell me that we were making progress, we had killed so many people, we had arrested so many, I used to ask them, “Are there any young people still joining the ranks of the rebellion or not?” If they are, then we haven’t solved anything because you kill or arrest ten, and 100 will join in their place. That is not a very good bargain….

The second thing is when people say, “These people are being influenced by Afghanistan and they are coming into Algeria.” I used to tell everybody there [in Algeria], these kids went to school with my children, they are my children’s age, one of my sons could very well have been one of them. We should ask ourselves, why? Aren’t we responsible for this in some manner or other? I mean, is it just because they are stupid, crazy? Where did they get the disease from? They got it in our houses, in our schools. So aren’t we a bit responsible for that? So, again, if you want to cure it, you have got to understand what is happening in the minds of these young people. I say the same thing now to the people who say we are fighting international terrorism.  I say, are there still young people joining them? This is what I said when we went to Bonn. I said, you have thrown out the Taliban of Kabul, but that is all you have done. You don’t know where they have gone, you don’t know how many they are, you don't know what they are going to do. So when you say that you have won a victory it’s really only when the people who you are trying to defeat are sitting in front of you saying, “Yes, we have been defeated.”