By Alison Smale
GENEVA - One of the most experienced Western envoys in Afghanistan said Sunday that conditions there had become the worst since 2001. He urged a concerted American and foreign response, even before a new American administration took office, to avoid “a very hot winter for all of us.”
The envoy, Francesc Vendrell, a Spanish diplomat with eight years’ experience in Afghanistan, especially criticized the growing number of civilian deaths in attacks by American and international forces.
Those deaths have created “a great deal of antipathy” and widened the distance between the Afghan government and citizens, he said here at an annual review of global strategy organized by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. Mr. Vendrell recently stepped down as the European Union envoy in Kabul.
The United States military is investigating an assertion by villagers in western Afghanistan that some 90 men, women and children died in a missile attack on Aug. 22. The Afghan government and a United Nations investigation have backed that assertion, but American officers have said that only seven civilians were killed.
Mr. Vendrell warned that the situation was precarious among the Pashtun tribes who live mainly in southern Afghanistan, bordering Pakistan. He also said that the Taliban-led insurgency had spread not only to the east but also close to Kabul and, in pockets, to the north and west, hitherto relatively peaceful.
While only a minority of Pashtuns actively support the Taliban, he said, most Pashtuns “are sitting on the fence to see who is going to be the winner.”
Because the country faces a number of problems — the rising cost of food and fuel, the deterioration in security and what Mr. Vendrell called the international community’s failure to engage either the Taliban or regional powers like Pakistan, Iran and India in the search for solutions — Afghanistan could be facing “a very cold winter” that threatened to become “a very hot winter for all of us,” he said.
He urged that Afghan authorities and foreign agencies follow up any military successes against the Taliban with concrete assistance to convince local citizens that Westerners and the Kabul government can deliver security and at least some well-being.
Mr. Vendrell bluntly recited what he called a long series of foreign mistakes in Afghanistan. While he played a leading role in the conference in Bonn, Germany, that set up the post-Taliban government, he said Sunday that the “first great mistake” made in 2001 was holding that conference. By the time the Bonn talks took place, he said, Northern Alliance warlords and their allies already controlled two-thirds of Afghanistan, making their rule a “fait accompli.”
In addition, he said, the United States and its allies placed too much faith in President Hamid Karzai and did too little to ensure that his government had a monopoly of force, with a strong police force and other institutions.
“We thought we had found a miracle man,” Mr. Vendrell said, alluding to Mr. Karzai without naming him.
“Miracle men do not exist. Too much responsibility without power was invested in this person,” he said.
Mr. Vendrell’s audience included dozens of security and foreign policy specialists, as well as a smattering of American military officers and some government ministers, including Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi foreign minister. His alarm about Afghanistan and Pakistan was echoed in conversations at the conference.
Mr. Vendrell said that nevertheless it was time not to abandon Afghanistan but to redouble efforts there, both military efforts and those to build up civilian institutions and ensure that elections are held next year. In particular, he said, the United States must develop clear standards to govern the detention of hundreds of Afghans it holds without trial.
“This is not the time to leave; we are not destined to fail, but we are far from succeeding,” he concluded.