Interview with Rangin Dadfar Spanta

"Elections are a Milestone for the Afghan Democracy"

In an interview with Loay Mudhoon, the Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta calls for intensified reconstruction efforts, consideration of Pakistan's role in the problems facing his country – and the inclusion of Afghans in all military activities

Rangin Dadfar Spanta (photo: AP)
Rangin Dadfar Spanta: "Afghanistan is a very young democracy, and that is why the continuation and the support of the process of democratization is crucial"

​​Presidential elections are due to take place on August 20. In view of the resurgence of the Taliban, will security be adequate?

Rangin Dadfar Spanta: The terror network Al Qaida and its supporters are determined not to accept the elections. However, Afghan security forces and the international community have taken considerable precautions. We are resolved to conduct these elections.

I accept that we must reckon with some security challenges in the south of the country in particular. But these elections are an important milestone in the advancement of Afghanistan's young democracy, and we will not allow ourselves to be scared off by terrorists.

The German armed forces recently began supporting Afghan troops in an offensive against the radical Islamic Taliban. It is the first time in seven-and-a-half years that German soldiers have been so heavily involved in the conflict. How do you appraise the efforts of the German army in your country?

Spanta: The strategy of the Bundeswehr in Afghanistan, which regards civilian reconstruction efforts with a military presence as aspects of an integrated strategy, is the right way forward. We cannot allow the Taliban and their fighters to destroy our achievements.

ISAF soldier of the German Armed Forces in Afghanistan (photo: AP)
Germany is one of the countries providing the 64,000 troops for NATO's ISAF protection force for Afghanistan

​​ I am aware of the sensitivity of German public opinion on this issue. We are however confronted with an opponent that has chosen brutality as a principle. The only logic that this opponent understands is the logic of force. And this leaves us with no option but to fight. We regard the cooperation between Afghan and German security forces as positive; from our point of view it is very important and at the moment, irreplaceable.

More than seven years ago, at the international Petersberg conference near Bonn, participants planned the future of Afghanistan following the elimination of the Taliban. How would you describe developments in your country since then?

Spanta: I deeply regret the fact that Afghanistan's image is often defined by negative headlines. We have achieved significant successes over the past seven years, above all when you consider the ruined country we inherited from Al Qaida and the Taliban.

Conference of 2001 which was held near Bonn (photo: AP)
ISAF has a UN mandate to support the Afghan government in the provision of security and the reconstruction of the country. The mandate stems from the decisions of the Petersberg Conference of 2001, which was held near Bonn after the fall of the Taliban, and in which representatives of the most important Afghan ethnic groups took part

​​ For example, we have built more than 5,500 km of asphalt roads, and more than 75% of Afghan villages now have access to our "National Solidarity Program". Whereas just 9% of the population were able to benefit from the first health service provisions in 2002, now that number has grown to more than 85%.

From 2002 until today, Afghanistan has experienced annual growth of between 11% and 13%, more than seven million of our children go to school – and whereas in the year 2001 not a single woman was allowed to attend school, today girls make up 38% of the student population.

Of course we have serious shortcomings and problems that we must overcome. For that we need patience and commitment. It would be very naïve to think that the legacy of three decades of systematic devastation can be put to rights in seven years, while the terrorists still receive massive military, financial and other kinds of support.

Very early on you argued in favor of toppling the Taliban regime so that basic human rights could be enforced in Afghanistan, primarily for women in the country. How would you describe the human rights situation now, and what has changed for women?

Spanta: As I mentioned earlier, we have made great progress in this respect. Today 28% of our parliamentarians are women; in the new Afghanistan, women work as ministers, governors and ambassadors.

Regionally speaking, Afghanistan's media enjoy the greatest freedoms. More than 400 newspapers and periodicals are published in my country. In the year 2001 we only had one radio station and no television station at all; today our country has 19 television stations, and more than 100 radio stations. The media landscape is flourishing.

Ballot in the afghan House of Parliament (photo: dpa)
Progress for Afghan women: " Today 28% of our parliamentarians are women; in the new Afghanistan, women work as ministers, governors and ambassadors," says Spanta

​​ Of course there is resistance from the forces of the past and Islamists. There are sometimes over-reactions. But it must not be forgotten that Afghanistan is a very young democracy, and that is why the continuation and the support of the process of democratization is crucial.

Now President Obama wants to negotiate with the Taliban. President Karzai also says that members of the Taliban who were not involved with Al Qaida should be included in the political process. What does the term "Taliban" mean to you, and what is your view of this discussion generally?

Spanta: The Taliban is not a homogenous group, it is a conglomerate of factions with distinct aims. Afghan Taliban, Pakistani Taliban, factions of Al Qaida, terrorists from central Asia as well as drug gangs, gangs of robbers and kidnappers etc. They are all going about their murderous business.

Many Afghans complain about what they say is the disrespectful and arrogant behavior of western soldiers, and about the fear that is spreading among the civilian population, primarily due to high numbers of unarmed civilian casualties. What errors is the West making in your country?

Spanta: The number of civilian victims was especially shocking last year, and in some cases the deaths were avoidable. We are not on the same moral level as our opponents. We are obliged to do everything we can to safeguard civilian lives in the course of our military operations.

US President Obama, Afghan Presidnent Hamid Karsai and Pakistan's President Asif Zardari during their three-way summit in Washington (photo: AP)
Afghanistan is part of a regional problem in which Pakistan also plays a role: US President Obama, Afghan Presidnent Hamid Karsai and Pakistan's President Asif Zardari during their three-way summit in Washington

​​ The only realistic way of reducing civilian casualties is to include Afghans in all phases of any military operation. Without doubt, intercultural competence and an appreciation of the special nature of Afghanistan are particularly relevant in this context.

On the other hand, Europe and the US increasingly complain about the worsening situation in your country, and about incompetence and nepotism in the government. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton even referred to your country as a "narco state". How do you assess statements like these?

Spanta: Afghanistan is a country making the transition to a constitutional state. We are compelled to eradicate the legacy of three decades of invasion and destruction. Three decades of war have left their mark. There is corruption, nepotism and contempt for the law in Afghanistan. No one can deny that.

But we need time and patience if we are going to abolish these social injustices. Furthermore, I would like to point out the fact that Afghanistan is a very poor country. Development aid does come from abroad, but we only receive 20% of it. It would be morally and politically correct to hold us responsible for only 20% of the country's problems; as for the rest of the money, where does it go, how is it spent – all these questions are a matter of concern to us.

For Barack Obama's administration, Afghanistan is the most pressing problem on the foreign policy agenda. In your opinion, what should a coherent strategy for the establishment of peace in Afghanistan look like?

Spanta: We support President Obama's comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan. In our view, two elements of the strategy are especially important: intensified reconstruction efforts, and treating the problem as a regional issue taking into consideration the role of Pakistan.

How do you see your political future after August 20, 2009?

Spanta: I was politically active as a schoolboy. Without doubt, the life of an Afghan politician is always under threat, but on the other hand my work means commitment to a better, more peaceful life conducted in freedom – and the preservation of human dignity.

The forces of the past, not just the Taliban, but many others as well, are trying to dismantle the new social order of this country, and restrict the rights and freedoms of its citizens.

That is the reason why I will definitely be staying here in Afghanistan. I think I still have an important role to play in the political life of Afghanistan – in whatever function that might be. I am 55 years old, and I think it's still too early to stop.

Interview: Loay Mudhoon

© 2009

The German-Afghan political scientist Rangin Dadfar Spanta has been Foreign Minister of Afghanistan since March 22, 2006. Previously, he worked as a lecturer in political science at the RWTH Aachen University, and was active in local politics for the Green Party. President Karzai brought him into the cabinet as a foreign policy adviser in 2004. His appointment as foreign minister was controversial within the Afghan parliament, where many saw Spanta as too moderate, too western and not religious enough. Internationally, his election was welcomed.

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