Joint UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi holds press conference in Geneva. Photo: Violaine Martin

Inside “The Mediator’s Studio” With Legendary Diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi

In many parts of the world war is a growing threat – or a harsh reality. But who are the peacemakers working to change this?

This week, we are featuring an episode of The Mediator’s Studio podcast, which offers a glimpse into the normally hidden world of peace diplomacy. In this episode, one of the world’s most distinguished conflict mediators, Lakhdar Brahimi, reflects on the hopes and failures of peacemaking in Afghanistan and his search for a peaceful solution to the war in Syria.

If you are a regular listener to Global Dispatches you will no doubt benefit from subscribing to The Mediator’s Studio on any major podcast platform.  I’ve posted a link to the Mediator’s Studio in the show notes of this episode. And this absolutely fascinating conversation with a legendary diplomat will no doubt inspire you to subscribe to that podcast. So here is an episode of the Mediator’s Studio featuring Lakhdar Brahimi.

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Transcript lightly edited for clarity 

What Did Diplomacy and Peacemaking in Afghanistan Look Like During the 1990’s? 

Lakhdar Brahimi [00:01:41] Recognition or not, you have got to keep talking to the Taliban. For God’s sake, they are the only force that exists now in the country. Whether you want to vaccinate kids or give food or shelter or water, how can you do it if you don’t talk to the Taliban?

Adam Cooper [00:02:06] From the Oslo Forum, welcome to The Mediator Studio, a podcast about peacemakers bringing you stories from behind the scenes. I’m your host, Adam Cooper. With me today is the veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, who, after half a century of peacemaking, has earned a formidable reputation as one of the preeminent mediators of his generation, working in conflicts from Afghanistan to Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, South Africa, Haiti and many more. Lakhdar Brahimi, welcome to The Mediator Studio.

Lakhdar Brahimi [00:02:39] Thank you very much. Glad to be here!

Adam Cooper [00:02:42] This is a defining moment in Afghanistan’s troubled history, but I’d like to begin in 1997, when you were appointed the UN Secretary-General’s envoy to Afghanistan. Kabul had fallen to the Taliban the previous year, and the group had established an Islamic Emirate that was only recognized by a handful of states. And by the time you arrived, the Northern Alliance formed to resist the Taliban was suffering heavy defeats. Take me back to the moment when you took on the job as U.N. envoy. What were your expectations?

Lakhdar Brahimi [00:03:14] Very low indeed. As you said, Taliban were already controlling well over half of the country, and the Northern Alliance was not an alliance at all. You know, the members of the alliance were bickering and sometimes even fighting with one another. So, expectations were extremely low to keep the conflict as low as possible and allow the humanitarians and the U.N. agencies to work.

Adam Cooper [00:03:48] You describe quite a fractured conflict landscape with the Northern Alliance, but also with regard to the Taliban. Did you feel that you had an impossible mandate of sorts because the US and other major powers refused to recognize them? And despite the fact that by the end of your term in 1999, they were in control of the government, most of the country, what were you saying to the Security Council and the US about the Taliban?

Lakhdar Brahimi [00:04:14] It was a learning period for me at the very beginning but by the end of those two years, what I saw, and I told the Security Council was that you are not really interested in Afghanistan. We were still in that great illusion that the end of the Cold War had created a new situation, that the world was alright, that everything was all right. And in this small, far away, poor country? If people want to kill one another, why not let them do it? I actually said words to this effect, perhaps in these terms to the Security Council, and I ended my speech by saying, ‘That’s why I’m resigning.’ Even in this small country, poor, faraway, it will blow in your faces, and it did two years later, exactly two years later, because that was September 1999.

What methods are used to promote peace in Afghanistan?

Adam Cooper [00:05:15] And during your time there you were trying to engage all of the conflict parties, I assume and despite the difficulties in reaching the Taliban, you did meet three times with Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban. As a mediator what did you hope to achieve from those meetings with them?

Lakhdar Brahimi [00:05:32] One is something that I have been repeating throughout my career. If you want to make peace somewhere, you have got to talk to everybody. You cannot choose your interlocutors. Your interlocutors are the people who are making war and therefore may one day want to make peace. So, you’ve got to talk to them.

Adam Cooper [00:05:59] You mentioned September 2001 before. When that day happened and you saw the Twin Towers fall and you heard the drumbeat of war afterwards, what was going through your mind?

Lakhdar Brahimi [00:06:12] That it would probably be difficult to find a peaceful solution. You know, I think now it has been documented very, very much that there were possibilities of finding a solution but the United States, understandably, their people were extremely angry, the government even more angry. You know, it would have been extremely difficult to stop them from going to war.

Adam Cooper [00:06:45] So the US invades Afghanistan, joins forces with the Northern Alliance, marches on Kabul, overthrows the Taliban and by then, despite, as you said, there being limited chances of a peaceful outcome, you take on that job of U.N. Secretary General’s Special Representative to Afghanistan, and an interim administration is formed as a result of the Bonn agreement in 2001 and a loya jirga the year afterwards involving prominent Afghans, both of which you facilitated. Later on in 2003, you ask the question, where are the Taliban in a non-paper that you wrote? And should we not find out what they’re thinking? Did anyone answer those questions?

Why was the Taliban excluded from the Bonn agreement?

Lakhdar Brahimi [00:07:29] I’m afraid not among the internationals or the Northern Alliance. People have to remember that the Northern Alliance was actually revived by the United States and their allies. They were outside of the country. They were completely defeated, wiped out. They were revived, armed given money, given tanks, given weapons. I think that point is important to remember. But in Bonn, there were the strong party, not the only party, but the really strong party. Peace had to be made with them. By the way, people are saying today that the Taliban should have been invited to Bonn. No, that’s nonsense. Taliban had been defeated, ousted, killed, thrown out of power in Afghanistan. They wouldn’t have come to Bonn a few days later. That’s not the question. The question is, once you have had Bonn, you had a project, you had a plan for making peace, then you should have asked, ‘OK, who is who in Afghanistan?’ And if you ask who is who? You’ve got to ask, ‘How about the Taliban?’ But we were told by everybody unanimously the Northern Alliance, Americans, the Russians, the Indians, the Iranians, unanimous, forget about the Taliban. Taliban don’t exist anymore, so don’t waste your time wondering where they are. That is, I think, a big mistake that we made.

Adam Cooper [00:09:08] Can you recall any of the conversations you had with American officials and others? You know, they clearly were sending this message that this is impossible, they should be excluded. Do you regret not pushing harder on some of those subjects given what’s happened?

Lakhdar Brahimi [00:09:23] I regret that I didn’t push harder for myself as it were because I don’t think anybody would have listened. Now, the American point man for Afghanistan all these years, who is of Afghan origin himself, tells me that he is now, as I do, that the Taliban actually had sent a letter to President Karzai and that Karzai never told him about that letter. He definitely did not tell me about it, either. What I think is that Karzai spoke about this letter to Rumsfeld, who was the defense secretary of the United States, and Rumsfeld must have told him, ‘Forget about the Taliban, they are gone and finished, don’t waste your time with that.’ I heard that what they were saying is that ‘we want guarantees that we will not be interfered with, and we just want to go back to our villages.’ I also heard that they were offering to negotiate, if not a surrender, at least some kind of peace, which would allow them or some of them perhaps to participate in the new dispensation.

What resulted from the 2018 negotiations between the Taliban and the United States government?

Adam Cooper [00:10:38] So if we contrast that time then and we fast forward to 2018, when they were in a much stronger position in control of large sections of the country and the U.S. sits down to negotiate directly with the Taliban in Doha without the Afghan government. They eventually signed an agreement in February 2020, paving the way for a U.S. withdrawal and then the intra-Afghan talks between the government and the Taliban. Although you weren’t formally involved in that process, I imagine you must have taken a keen interest given your history there. How did you perceive those negotiations?

Lakhdar Brahimi [00:11:14] Of course, you know, they have […] governments and practically everybody who is not close to the Taliban in Afghanistan were very disturbed by the fact that the Americans were discussing with the Taliban alone. Nobody else on the Afghan side was associated with those negotiations. So that was, if you like, the seeds of the problems people of Afghanistan are living through these days. The agreement really says, ‘we Americans are leaving and we are leaving on the 1st of May next year and now please negotiate with others in Afghanistan.’ That was not the best the beginning of the negotiation.

Adam Cooper [00:12:02] Because they had given away their leverage or?

Lakhdar Brahimi [00:12:05] They had given away the leverage the government had, a huge part of the leverage the government had.

What might happen if the Taliban does not negotiate with Afghans who disagree with their leadership?

Adam Cooper [00:12:14] And if we look at the situation now and the Taliban takeover of the country, the events of early August and September 2021, some of our listeners, I think, will have been disheartened to say the least of the images of women living in fear as the Taliban marched into the major cities. You know, what’s the lesson of this episode in Afghan history about the inclusion of women?

Lakhdar Brahimi [00:12:37] Of course now that they have won, they’re saying we’re governing on behalf of the entire Afghan people, but I’m sure they know that this is not true. That there are a lot of Afghans who do not support them, who do not share their views, but these people are Afghans. They have got to have a say. They have got to listen to them. If they don’t, I think they and the region, and the rest of the world are in for a lot of bad surprises and not a very long way from now.

Adam Cooper [00:13:14] So it seems that your message to the Taliban is one of inclusion.

Lakhdar Brahimi [00:13:18] Absolutely. Without inclusion, then it is instability and conflict. The message also goes to their neighbors because again, tradition and past and so on shows that for peace to take root in Afghanistan, it has to be supported at the same time by all its neighbors. And I will venture to name the principal countries: Pakistan, Iran, and India. These three countries have got to understand and accept together at the same time that peace in Afghanistan is better for each one of them than war.

Adam Cooper [00:14:03] In terms of your message to the international community and having worked in Afghanistan over 20 years ago when the world refused to recognize the Taliban, what do you make of the debate today on the conditions that some governments are insisting need to be fulfilled before they recognize the Taliban?

Lakhdar Brahimi [00:14:22] Recognition or not you have got to keep talking to the Taliban. Anybody who wants to do something in or about Afghanistan wouldn’t be serious if they didn’t talk to the Taliban. For God’s sake, they are the only force that exists now in the country. Whether you want to vaccinate kids or give food or shelter or water, how can you do it if you don’t talk to the Taliban?

Adam Cooper [00:14:56] Let’s move from Afghanistan to Syria. I want to take you back to 2012, when Kofi Annan resigns as U.N. envoy in utter frustration, and you accept the post of U.N. and Arab League representative. You’ve called this mission nearly impossible.

Lakhdar Brahimi [00:15:14] Yeah.

Adam Cooper [00:15:14] Why did you take it on?

Lakhdar Brahimi [00:15:17] When the job was offered to Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the United Nations, by his successor, Ban Ki-moon, Kofi was great at consulting very widely. I was one of the people he called and asked, ‘You know, I have been offered this job. What do you think should I do?’ And I told Kofi, ‘You should accept.’ And he said, ‘Do you think that we can really get somewhere in this situation?’ I told him, ‘I don’t think you will be able to get, but you can’t say no. You know, these are jobs that people like you cannot say no to.’ So, it’s difficult having given that advice, then to say, ‘No, no, not for me.’ Let me put it this way. The United Nations cannot not be there, it has to be there. I believe in the United Nations. I respect the United Nations. I think I have a fair idea of their shortcomings, but still, they are the best organization we have. We have no other. So that’s why I went with my eyes open, knowing that it is extremely difficult. I knew a little bit of what kind of regime existed in Syria, and I knew how difficult it was going to be.

What affect have Western states had on peace in Syria?

Adam Cooper [00:16:35] In the context of the time, in November 2012, the opposition Syrian National Coalition is formed, the following January President Assad proposes a new constitution which is rejected, and there’s also reports of chemical weapons attacks on several Damascus suburbs. At that time, many Western states were convinced that Assad had to go in order for there to be a possible resolution to the conflict in Syria. And of course, in the long run, this hasn’t happened. Do you think that the positions of these Western states were a hindrance to the mediation process?

Lakhdar Brahimi [00:17:13] Let me put it in in a much simpler way. Foreign intervention is always, always problematic, but at times it is clearly negative. And in Syria, in those days, the countries that were interfering in one way or another, supporting the government like the Russians and the Iranians were doing or supporting the opposition, like a lot of other countries, were doing. All of them had little time for the Syrian people. They were not interested in Syria. Syria all of a sudden became a playground for these countries, big and small, to further their national narrow interests. And you cannot possibly really pursue national interests of 20 countries at the same time in the same place. So, the ingredients to help the Syrian people find peace again were not there. I stayed on that job two years. As a matter of fact, I had given up after one year. After one year the only thing I was telling Ban Ki-moon and everybody else is, ‘please let me go.’ After one year, it was clear that the ingredients for making peace that would be beneficial to the Syrian people was not there. And it hasn’t been there all the years after.

Adam Cooper [00:18:50] Why did you feel that at that point in your tenure in Syria that there was essentially nothing to be done? Talk me through your efforts as a mediator at that time to try to bridge those differences.

Why was there no resolution to the 2013 Syrian peace talks in Switzerland?

Lakhdar Brahimi [00:19:02] The means of the mediator himself or herself are very limited, and you need a lot of help from every side to really move forward. So let me give you an example of circumstances that make it practically impossible for you to get anywhere. We managed to get the Russians and the Americans to sit down with us, the United Nations, in Geneva, and we had several meetings and Kerry went at some stage in 2013.

Adam Cooper [00:19:34] This was John Kerry, the US secretary of state, at the time.

Lakhdar Brahimi [00:19:36] He went to Moscow and had full-fledged communication between Russia and the United States, saying that they were going to cooperate to help the peace in Syria. So, with a lot of difficulties, we’re ended up having at the end of 2013 in Switzerland, a big conference on Syria. The idea was for it to be the beginning of negotiations between the Syrian parties. Now when you get a conference of that sort and after a lot, a lot, a lot of toing and froing, at the last minute, you decide to withdraw the invitation from Iran. You don’t need to love Iran or support their policy, but if you have an international conference about Syria, Iran has to be there. That’s why we had two sets of meetings in Geneva between the Syrian opposition and the Syrian government, with myself presiding and it got us absolutely nowhere and I stopped them, the Russians mainly, but also the Americans, were begging me to continue. I said, ‘No, you cannot continue. It’s ridiculous.’ That’s really insulting the United Nations continuing a kind of shadow boxing that’s totally useless. And what I told them is that ‘please go back and the UN is here when you think that you are ready to discuss seriously. Just let us know and we can start.’

Adam Cooper [00:21:12] Was that the moment when you decided, you know, this is it for me?

Lakhdar Brahimi [00:21:15] Absolutely. Absolutely.

Adam Cooper [00:21:18] I’d like to ask you about your interactions with the Syrians themselves. You know, you had the emergence of the Syrian National Coalition at the time, and of course, the government led by President Assad, whose father you knew.

Lakhdar Brahimi [00:21:31] Very well.

Adam Cooper [00:21:32] So how did that help you or not in your meetings with him?

Lakhdar Brahimi [00:21:38] I don’t think it helped me very much.

Adam Cooper [00:21:41] Why do you say that?

Lakhdar Brahimi [00:21:42] Because these are power plays, so the fact that you have known them or had some nice recollections of the past doesn’t really make much of a difference. I think if you want to speak about Syria, then a very, very important point to remember is for the opposition, don’t forget that this was not a movement that decided one day to start a revolution or liberation war or something. These spontaneous movements when people really take to the streets without any organization behind them, it’s very beautiful to watch and very refreshing. And the slogans are beautiful and so on. The problem with the spontaneous movement is that it is extremely difficult to organize themselves to win and even more difficult after they win if they do win. And that is what Syria faced.

Adam Cooper [00:22:50] So what was your strategy then say in your first meeting with President Assad? You know, what were you telling him at the time witnessing what was happening on the streets?

Lakhdar Brahimi [00:23:00] ‘The country is in trouble, and you need to talk to your people, to everybody. You have got to also take into consideration what is happening around you in the region. You’ve got to talk to your neighbors.’ That’s just what I was saying to him and to his neighbors.

Adam Cooper [00:23:19] And how did he react when you said those things?

Lakhdar Brahimi [00:23:22] Extremely politely. I think we had perhaps one difficult meeting, but otherwise it was civilized. But at no moment did I feel that we were getting anywhere close to the beginning of a process. And let me say that President Bashar al-Assad has absolute power in Syria. I don’t think he would object to me saying that and as such he is more used to giving orders than discussing what decisions he may or may not take. And you see, I think this is a big problem for the mediator.

Adam Cooper [00:24:03] Did you wish you had levers that you could pull to change the kind of power dynamic?

Lakhdar Brahimi [00:24:09] No, no. I think what you need really is to convince people that you are not talking on behalf of their enemies, and you are not trying to take away from them something that they had refused to give to anybody else. This is why you need to build confidence, and people have got to understand that they have something to gain. If they think that they are winning without you, why should they even listen to you? So, mediators work in situations like this have possibilities when there is a stalemate, and the parties understand that so they will be looking for what can they get that is not the maximum. I think Bashar al-Assad never stopped thinking that he can have the entire cake.

Adam Cooper [00:25:03] I’d like to end with some concluding thoughts, starting with Iraq. In a way you assumed your post as the Secretary General Special Representative following a grave attack on the U.N. in 2003, when a truck bomb crashed into the mission’s headquarters, killing 22 people, including your predecessor, Sergio Vieira de Mello. You know, there were a lot of sensitivities surrounding the mission from the start. Should the U.N. even have gone into Iraq?

Lakhdar Brahimi [00:25:32] In hindsight probably not. Kofi Annan when he was asked, what was the decision he regretted most he said it was sending Sergio to Iraq in 2003. It’s extremely clear that the U.N. had no business in 2003 in Iraq. The United States had gone in with Britain and invaded the country against the wish of the United Nations so why a few months later, they want the UN there? But in January 2004, when they came and asked and I went, it was a different situation. Then the Americans had come to the United Nations in January with the Iraqi government they had put together in place and said the following ‘We now want to restore Iraqi sovereignty, and we cannot do it without the U.N. help.’ Again, I thought that if the question is to try, even if you don’t succeed, having a country regain its sovereignty, the United Nations cannot say no. And myself, I cannot say no. That’s why I accepted to go.

Adam Cooper [00:26:52] You know, we’ve talked a lot today about failure more than success. But I want to also ask about those rare successes. Can you tell me about a moment when you felt hope and optimism in your work?

Lakhdar Brahimi [00:27:04] In Afghanistan, in September 1998, the Taliban swept over the north and conquered most of the country, and then, in Mazar-i-Sharif, killed nine diplomats in the Iranian consulate and arrested about 120 Iranians, mostly truck drivers. Iran mussed 200,000 soldiers and was threatening to invade Afghanistan and the president of Iran came to Kofi Annan and told him, ‘Please help us avoid war.’ And then we negotiated and got all the Iranians out and the bodies of their people who were slain back to Iran. And we avoided a war. So, feeling of having participated a little bit in avoiding a war is a lot of satisfaction. Now, a sequel to that, that much later I learned that actually the interpreter had a lot to do with that success.

Adam Cooper [00:28:13] Really?

Lakhdar Brahimi [00:28:13] Yeah. A young Afghan was translating for Mullah Mohammad Omar. I learned later that he had changed some of the things I had said.

Adam Cooper [00:28:24] Really?

Lakhdar Brahimi [00:28:24] Yeah. So, you know, he probably is more responsible for that success than I was. This is why humility is terribly important to have when you are mediating.

Adam Cooper [00:28:38] You know, what advice would you give to younger mediators who might feel daunted by wars that feel impossible to end?

Lakhdar Brahimi [00:28:46] One, no matter how much you think you know you actually don’t know enough. And no matter how much more you learn; it is still not enough. It is never enough. Therefore, you need to keep your eyes and ears open and accept correction to what you think are simple truths or complicated truths. So, you don’t know enough, that is one thing. The other thing is, respect the people you deal with. You don’t need to love them or agree with them, but you have got to genuinely respect them and make them feel that you are respecting them. You will not avoid all mistakes. You will make mistakes, but you will avoid a few traps, that are avoidable.

Adam Cooper [00:29:42] Well, on that note, there we must end. Lakhdar Brahimi, thank you so much for being my guest in The Mediator Studio.

Lakhdar Brahimi [00:29:49] Thank you very much indeed for having me.

Adam Cooper [00:29:51] It was a pleasure. And there we end this edition of The Mediator Studio. To get new episodes as soon as they’re released make sure you subscribe. The Mediator Studio team loves hearing your feedback and suggestions. If you have a moment, please fill in our short survey. You can find a link on our website. You can also get in touch with me on Twitter @AdamTalksPeace. The Mediator Studios and Oslo Forum podcast brought to you by the Center for Humanitarian Dialog and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Our managing editor is Christina Buchwald, and the show is produced by Christopher Gunness. Research for this episode was done by Evie Krasner and Jason Nemirovsky. Neither peacemaking nor podcast happen without lots of work behind the scenes. My thanks go to our whole production team in Geneva and Oslo. I do hope that you’ll join us for the next episode of The Mediator Studio. Until then, that’s all from me, Adam Cooper, thank you for listening.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:30:52] All right, thank you all for listening, and thank you to the good folks at The Mediator Studio for advertising with the podcast. And again, if you are a subscriber to the Global Dispatches podcast, you will no doubt appreciate The Mediator Studio. So do subscribe to that show wherever you find podcasts. Thanks, and we’ll see you next time. Bye!