Putting a bleak picture of Afghanistan, European Union’s special envoy Tomas Niklasson has said that the “situation will only get worse” in the country even as he called on the “Taliban to think carefully about the consequences their decision is having on the people of Afghanistan”.
His comments come even as reports emerged of foreign embassies in Kabul removing their diplomats from the country amid security concerns.
Speaking to our diplomatic correspondent Sidhant Sibal in Delhi, Niklasson explained, “already harbour quite a number of Jihadis or militant organisations. That is also clear from my conversations here in India, that remains the primary concern of India and many of its Neighbours”.
He acknowledged India’s positive impact on the country over the decades and the strong links between the two nations. When asked about the West betraying the people of Afghanistan, the EU special envoy on Afghanistan pointed out how Afghan national defence forces were built but “foreign intervention trying to build a country from outside is not sustainable” and what “we can do is to help create conditions for Afghans to take part and to push for change inside the country through peaceful ways.”
The envoy also spoke about ongoing Taliban-Islamabad issues over terror attacks in Pakistan, the role of Russia, China etc.
WION: What do you make of the situation right now in Afghanistan?
Tomas Niklasson: Happy to be back in Delhi, the situation is grave, for Afghans inside the country and also for Neighbours further afield. First of all, there is no government in a place recognised by the people, recognised by the international community. We have seen systematic violations of human rights under the de facto government, under the Taliban issuing various decrees, restricting the freedom of movement, and the rights of girls and women. Clamping down on journalists, and ethnic, and religious minorities being under threat. There is no constitution in place, the economy has declined rapidly since the Taliban took over and the security situation is deeply concerning both inside the country, with growing threats from organisations such as ISIS K. Neighbours are gravely concerned by the security situation. We are now in the middle of the winter with 28 million in Afghanistan depending on humanitarian assistance and at that precise moment the Taliban decided to ban women from working for NGOs. But doing so, de facto restricting women and children’s access to humanitarian assistance, delivered by Europe, the US, India and others.
WION: How do you see India’s role in Afghanistan, its stake? India does not recognise the Taliban regime but where do you see India’s role?
Tomas Niklasson: It is clear that India has played a very positive role in Afghanistan over decades and even longer. There are strong links between the people of Afghanistan and India. India invested generously and provided development assistance. It was the biggest regional provider of assistance, and Afghanistan was the biggest recipient of assistance from India. So, there is a lot of goodwill, a lot of history to build on. A lot of that changed when the Taliban took over and India decided to pull out, pull out its embassy staff, and close down its development cooperation. I think India is now looking and trying to decide as to how to look at Afghanistan. Is it still a country they can engage with? Will it build on the solid foundation laid, will it look for ways to provide assistance or will it look at Afghanistan primarily as a security concern or prism and try to contain the negative impact, what is happening inside the country.
WION: Reports indicate many gulf countries have closed their embassies or withdrawn diplomats. What is the reason behind it?
Tomas Niklasson: We have seen since last summer, a number of attacks against diplomatic missions in Kabul, against Russian diplomatic missions, Pakistani diplomatic missions, and Chinese interests, against the ministry of interior affairs and the ministry of foreign affairs. So, it is clear that there is a serious security threat inside Kabul. This is deeply worrying for those who have a presence inside the country. India has its technical mission inside the country, and others as well. I have been fully occupied by my mission in the last few days here and seem to understand indeed that Saudi diplomats have temporarily left the embassy, not sure for what reason. There has been a lot of speculation of others leaving, which I understand is pure speculation at this time. Cannot comment on the precise situation at this time, but I underline overall there is a worrying security situation in Kabul and the Taliban try to do their best to protect diplomatic missions, but it is also clear that ISIS K’s capacity seems to be building up in 6 months or so.
WION: Do you think that foreign missions should go out of Kabul, and when it comes to western diplomats, who might be present in Kabul, they should also consider their presence in Kabul?
Tomas Niklasson: I think those of us present in Kabul find very good reasons to be there, we want to maintain contact with the people of Afghanistan. We want to convey messages, we want to understand the situation, we want to facilitate the delivery of assistance, and those of us provide humanitarian assistance and other forms of assistance. So going out will be a difficult decision to make. You have to weigh in on politics and security issues. Each country has to decide on its own.
WION: Has the west and the EU left Afghanistan on their own, given you are already preoccupied by the situation in Ukraine? It’s just lip service coming from Europe when it comes to Afghanistan.
Tomas Niklasson: NATO and allied troops left Afghanistan, we the EU has a diplomatic presence in Kabul. We have a humanitarian office in Kabul and committed more than Euro 400 million of assistance to Afghanistan which is far more than most regional countries have contributed. If you refer to the west more broadly, the US has contributed and continues to provide very significant amounts of humanitarian assistance. We stay engaged both with the Taliban and other Afghans. So I think, the perception you allude to, the west or Europe leaving Afghanistan is very far from the reality. We are present and intend to stay, we intend to continue to provide humanitarian assistance and are deeply saddened and shocked by the decision by the de facto authority to try to limit the access to most in need of such assistance.
WION: We are essentially seeing what the Taliban did in 1996. It was warned to the west that the Taliban will go against its commitments. When we talk about the west, the current situation in Afghanistan is because the western troops left, the American troops left. Don’t you think it is the west that betrayed the Afghan people?
Tomas Niklasson: It is obviously in terms of time frame, the sequence of things, yes, the Taliban took over after, or immediately or shortly before the western troops left Afghanistan. Neighbours of Afghanistan have for years, sometimes decades have called on western troops to leave Afghanistan. We have tried together, beyond humanitarian assistance, beyond the development assistance to build and prepare the Afghan national defence forces to build the country, to stand up for the Islamic republic. The President of the Islamic republic left the country, I think we have to look back at the 20 years of support for Afghanistan. We have to look back, further back in history and look at who did what, who said what, and what situation we are in today. But I think it will be far too easy to blame a group of countries, one specific country as we sometimes hear. My focus will be on the situation we are in today, there will be time to talk about history but right now we have to focus on what we can do to provide assistance and support to 40 million Afghans who desperately need support.
WION: Taliban has taken away women’s rights in many ways, including the right to work. The EU and other countries have objects, what can the EU do so that the Taliban reverse its decision?
Tomas Niklasson: I think change inside Afghanistan has to come primarily from within the country. The EU and other partners of Afghanistan and the Afghan people can make clear our expectations. We remind the Taliban of their obligations under international law. We can call on them to reverse the decision but right now we are more in a situation where exceptions can be made. For example, when we talk about a ban on women working in humanitarian assistance in NGOs, we point out the consequences if women cannot deliver and receive assistance, which can also have an impact on the type and amount of assistance Europe can give. But again, change within the system will have to be driven from inside the country. There is a long history starting back with the soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and some would argue with later foreign intervention were trying to build a country from outside is not sustainable and what we can do is to help create conditions for Afghans to take part and to push for change inside the country through peaceful ways.
WION: Do you share concerns, including of India, that Afghanistan might become a safe haven for terror groups? For India, it is the worry over Pak-based terror groups moving to Afghanistan.
Tomas Niklasson: I think we can look at some of the facts and not speculate much about the future, we saw the presence in Kabul of the leader of Al Qaeda, we see ISIS K building capacity and carrying out attacks. We see TTP carrying out attacks inside Pakistan. We have seen cross-border incidents impacting other Neighbours. So, it’s not much Afghanistan can become, but more if it has the capacity to change the current situation in which they already harbour quite a number of Jihadis or militant organisations. That is also clear from my conversations here in India, which remains the primary concern of India and many of its neighbours.
WION: So what were the conversations here in India?
Tomas Niklasson: The purpose of our visit is mainly that we are in regular contact with the Indian counterparts, try to understand a bit better and compare notes, like what has changed since the last time we met, how India sees Afghanistan and its role in Afghanistan. Last time we were here in New Delhi, there was no presence of India in Kabul but there is now a small presence in Kabul. As we understand India has provided assistance, we share severe concerns on the direction the country is going, and in terms of human rights, any process leading to an inclusive govt.
WION: India is the President of G20, do you think that India should be focusing on Afghanistan as well, We saw a special session on Afghanistan under the Italian presidency of the grouping, but that year we saw regime change in Kabul
Tomas Niklasson: This was not brought up in our discussion. I am sure that the G20 agenda will be very full, and I understand that not everything circulates around Afghanistan, although personally, I think that what happens is hugely important. From my conversations with my Indian counterpart confirms that for India, Afghanistan is a major issue and how the agenda is being set, and if G20 is the right forum that is for the chair to decide, and I am sure they will make good choices.
WION: The Afghanistan and Pakistan issue, both countries have been blaming each other. We saw the Peshawar attack and comments from the Taliban. So how do you see the situation between Kabul and Islamabad? What solution do you see?
Tomas Niklasson: I think it’s fair to assume that Pakistan is deeply concerned by the security threat coming from Afghanistan. That was a tragic attack, horrible in terms of the victims in Peshawar and we have seen a number of other attacks inside the country claimed by TTP. Pakistan is very much there were other Neighbours of Afghanistan are, in terms of security as a primary concern. There have been attempts, as you know, to negotiate a ceasefire between Pakistan and TTP, the Pakistani Taliban. Members of the de facto govt played a role, notably the Haqqani network. The attack in Peshawar is likely to make the Pakistani establishment less willing to pursue that type of approach. They may be looking for alternatives. The may, as others are concerned about the security and other from the Pakistani side working together with neighbors if and when possible, in trying to prevent this type of attack and change the situation. Afghanistan has become a safe haven for many organisations.
WION: What is the role you see for Russia and China in Afghanistan?
Tomas Niklasson: Russia, from what I can see, has not played a very constructive role. I don’t see it contributing in terms of assistance, contributing to try to find political solutions. At the same time, they organised a number of regional format meetings in a rather exclusive circle, where they pursued their own agenda. Russia has a history in Afghanistan and there is some understanding of the country. It’s not a Neighbour of the country but also sees threats coming out of Afghanistan and perhaps can also play a role in trying to address some of those. China, you referred to a number of deals, commercial contracts regarding minerals. We will see how that will work out, it is a situation where there is no legal framework inside the country, the security situation is challenging and I would assume, China’s investment is seen in long term perspective and at least for short time very little is going to come out of it, neither for China nor for the Taliban in terms of income of job creation. Perhaps, a little bit you saw that in Baluchistan were Chinese workers, you did not see any significant number and where jobs created are for the Chinese workers coming in.
WION: Do you have any hope for Afghanistan and Afghans?
Tomas Niklasson: Talking about hope when 28 million people depended on humanitarian support, talking about hope when there is no responsible govt in place, talking about hope when terrorism is building up, talking about hope when Neighbours are concerned, then talking about hope probably seems naive. In the medium to long term, yes, I am hopeful. The hope I have is in the people of Afghanistan, the enormous resilience, the capacity, the fantastic people, there is a chance Afterall for them to take control of their country. I am not talking about armed resistance, not talking about a new civil war, but in the long term I am talking about that there will absolutely be a new future for Afghanistan. But I can’t be optimistic about the near future where, situation will only get worse. I can only call on the Taliban to think carefully about the consequences their decision is having on the people of Afghanistan and I can call on India and others to do whatever they can, also to put the interest of people of Afghanistan first and continue where possible to provide assistance needed to get through the winter.
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