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Former EU Envoy Calls for Review of Goals and Strategy in Afghanistan

The European Union's former top diplomat to Afghanistan says the international community should review its aims and activities to stave off possible disaster there. Francesc Vendrell, who recently stepped down as the EU's Special Envoy to Afghanistan, talked with VOA correspondent Gary Thomas, who has this report.

In an exclusive VOA interview, Francesc Vendrell called for a comprehensive review of international strategy and objectives in Afghanistan.

"We need to sit down, look at the strategy which we followed, decide whether this strategy is going to achieve the objectives we set for ourselves - and the answer probably would be 'no' - and then either review the strategy or perhaps also we need to review some of the objectives we were trying to pursue there," he said.

Vendrell says the mood in Afghanistan is gloomy. He says a sharp rise in activity by Taliban insurgents, rampant corruption and extensive shortages of government services have contributed to what he says has been the worst year for the country since 2001.

"The perception of the Afghans in particular is that the situation is much worse," he said. "So there is a tremendous feeling of pessimism and skepticism about the future."

But he adds that the situation is salvageable.

"We are not destined to fail," said Vendrell. "The Taliban are not going to be able, as long as the international forces are there, to, let's say, take over Kabul or seriously threaten Kabul or take over a major regional capital. But still, we need to review the policy we've been following."

Vendrell says the international community made several missteps in crafting a post-Taliban Afghanistan in 2001. In particular, he says reshaping the political system may have been a mistake.

"It is questionable in my mind whether a highly centralized presidential system is suitable for a country that is multi-ethnic, has two main languages, bilingual, and has two main sects, the Sunni and the Shia, and which has a history of decentralization, at least de facto centralization," he said.

Vendrell adds that the allies placed far too much faith in President Hamid Karzai, but gave him too few powers to efficiently do his job, particularly in checking independent warlords and their private militias.

"I think the Afghan people are feeling disheartened and very critical of his rule, partly because they feel he has lost the ability to set strategic objectives for himself, but also, I think, because we put too much of a burden on him without giving him - I mean the president - without giving him the means," Vendrell said.

The Taliban insurgency was thought to have been mortally crippled in 2001. But the militants have regrouped in new safe havens in Pakistan's tribal areas, from where they frequently attack U.S. and NATO troops.

The violence has also led to a 40 percent rise in civilian casualties in Afghanistan during the past year. President Karzai raised the issue in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday.

"The continuation of civilian casualties can severely undermine the legitimacy of fighting terrorism and the credibility of the Afghan people's partnership with the international community," Mr. Karzai said.

The U.S. plans to send more troops to Afghanistan, as does France. Francesc Vendrell says the increased forces could help the situation, but he adds that they should be handled delicately.

"This ought to happen, if it happens at all, as part of an overall review of the political strategy we are following. And maybe, as part and parcel of a new approach, we may need more forces," he said. "But I have to say that Afghans are not clamoring for more foreign forces. They do, of course, want more Afghan forces, and I think that that's where we should concentrate."

Vendrell says sending additional troops into Afghanistan will be a sensitive issue for Afghans.

"But we have to be careful in adding military forces, foreign military forces, because the mistakes that keep happening - whether it is in terms of civilian casualties or in terms of breaking into peoples' homes or detentions, taking people into detention to detention centers like the one at Bagram [air base] - are very unhelpful and create a lot of animosity amongst the population," said Vendrell.

Due to commitments in Iraq, the United States will not have additional troops available to send to Afghanistan until next year.