The head of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan said Thursday that it's "high time" a political solution is found with the Taliban to resolve the more than 8-year-old conflict.
"It's time to talk," Kai Eide said.
During his last news conference as the U.N. representative, Eide said he hoped a spring peace jirga — or conference — that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is organizing would result in a national consensus for peace that the entire nation could rally around.
In a wide-ranging news conference at the heavily secured U.N. compound, Eide said he has always been behind a policy of engagement, but has no allusions about the complexities of negotiating peace with Taliban leaders.
He also said he would continue his push for electoral reform following Karzai's decree last week giving the Afghan the authority to appoint members of a formerly independent Electoral Complaints Commission.
The panel, which monitors election fraud, was previously dominated by U.N. appointees, who uncovered massive fraud in last year's presidential election. Eide said he met with Karzai Thursday morning to ensure a fairer ballot during parliamentary elections this fall.
"We have made some progress, for instance with regard to international participation in the Electoral Complaints Commission," Eide said. He sounded optimistic about the ongoing negotiations but did not provide further details.
Eide, a Norwegian diplomat, is stepping down after a two-year tenure marked by a deadly Taliban attack that killed five U.N. workers at a small hotel in the Afghan capital, Kabul. His stewardship also was tarnished by allegations from his American deputy, Peter Galbraith, that he was not bullish enough in curbing the fraud in the August presidential election. Karzai was declared the winner three months later after his last remaining challenger dropped out of a scheduled runoff.
Eide has denied that the election controversy was linked to his decision not to renew his two-year contract.
Eide acknowledged that he fell short of what he had hoped to achieve during his tenure but stressed that all parties working in Afghanistan face the same problem, including military forces that are driving a massive offensive to oust the Taliban from the southern town of Marjah.
"We all have to admit that we could have achieved more," Eide said.
He said "decisive success" within a year or two in a nation marred in conflict was "unachievable," but that progress was needed this year to show the Afghan people and the international community that a solution to the conflict is within reach.
He said the London conference on Afghanistan in January marked the start of a transition phase — one that's dependent on a change of mindset by both the Afghan government and donor nations.
"Afghanistan is sometimes, I must say, seen as and treated as a no man's land, and not as a sovereign state," he said. "That has to come to an end because it has fueled suspicion of unacceptable foreign interference, a sense of humiliation and a feeling that Afghans do not have control of their future."
On the Afghan side, the government must do more to assume responsibility for cleaning up corruption, respond to its people's needs and take responsibility for its future. "There is today, still a tendency to push responsibility for difficult decisions on the international community and avoid the main political challenges that faces the society," he said. "That also has to come to an end."
Eide reiterated his fear that the flood of more than 30,000 U.S. troops and thousands more NATO forces into Afghanistan will increase pressure for quick results from civilian aid projects — just to satisfy taxpayers abroad. He has repeatedly criticized the military for getting too involved in the disbursement of humanitarian aid and not doing enough to prevent civilian deaths.
He said, however, that he was encouraged by NATO's recent efforts to better protect Afghan civilians, who continue to die in the crossfire, especially in the south.
Two service members with the international force died Thursday in southern Afghanistan — one in a roadside bombing and one in a vehicle accident, NATO said. Also Thursday, five Pakistani road construction workers were shot dead Thursday in the southern city of Kandahar. Two gunmen on a motorbike opened fire on their minivan, said Kandahar's deputy police chief, Mohammad Shah Faroqi. The Pakistanis worked for Saita Construction Co., a Japanese joint-venture that had a contract to repair the road from Kandahar to Punjwai district, Faroqi said.
An offensive planned later this year in Kandahar province will follow the Marjah operation to secure the country's Taliban-dominated south. Afghan Ministry of Defense spokesman Mohammad Zahir Azimi said it will take a series of offensives over the next 18 months to secure major population centers where the Taliban have been operating freely.
Roads into Marjah are now open and many residents who fled before the offensive, now its third week, are starting to return. Bazaars have opened, and the fledgling local government is beginning to arrange compensation for people whose homes were damaged.
"We need to build the trust of the people," Azimi said.
NATO spokesman Brig. Gen. Eric Tremblay warned it will take "many more weeks" before the new Afghan administration in Marjah is fully functional. He said troops need to keep the area secure to give the civilian officials room to maneuver. Tremblay said buried explosives left behind by the Taliban continue to be the biggest threat, with four to six explosions a day and another six to eight makeshift mines discovered and detonated.
"Patience will be required," he said.
In an effort to show the progress that Afghan police have made generally, officers in Kabul burned about 16 tons of drugs and drug-making chemicals Thursday that they seized in central and eastern Afghanistan over the past six months. The drugs included hashish, heroine, morphine and opium, said Lt. Gen. Mohammad Daoud Daoud, the deputy interior minister for counter-narcotics.
"We have shown our commitment to the international community," Daoud said. "We have had great achievements this year, especially with the eradication operation of hundreds of tons of narcotics from different provinces." He said 468 drug smugglers have been arrested so far this year.
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