In July, Lakhdar Brahimi, the former Algerian foreign minister and U.N. trouble-shooter in Afghanistan and Iraq, returned for the first time in several years to Kabul, where nearly a decade earlier he had helped establish a government after the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban. This time, Brahimi was part of a private, high-level delegation, which ...
In July, Lakhdar Brahimi, the former Algerian foreign minister and U.N. trouble-shooter in Afghanistan and Iraq, returned for the first time in several years to Kabul, where nearly a decade earlier he had helped establish a government after the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban.
This time, Brahimi was part of a private, high-level delegation, which included Thomas Pickering, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Jean-Marie Guehenno, the French former chief of the U.N. peacekeeping department, that is preparing a weighty study for the Century Foundation on the end-game to the current conflict in Afghanistan. They also visited other key countries, including India and Pakistan.
Brahimi’s return to the scene comes as the United States, Afghanistan and some factions of the Taliban have discussed commencing talks that might eventually strike a peace deal. The timing has fueled speculation that Brahimi, who lives in Paris, might be pulled from retirement to again become a U.N. envoy to Afghanistan to help mediate a political settlement between Karzai’s government and the Taliban, a pact that would set the stage for a U.S. military withdrawal from the country.
One U.N.-based official said that Brahimi had been approached by the Americans and asked whether he might consider a U.N. role in Afghanistan. He responded that he would only entertain the prospect of a mediation role if he was confident he had the full backing of the U.S. government — something he apparently doesn’t have, the official said.
In fact, U.S officials have never really stopped seeking Brahimi’s counsel on Afghanistan. Bob Woodward, in his book Obama’s Wars, wrote that top U.S. officials were mulling the possible need for a prominent foreigner — a “philosopher king,” in Woodward’s words — to help mediate a political deal. “One possible candidate was Lakhdar Brahimi, the elderly United Nations diplomat who had helped engineer Karzai’s rise to power after the U.S. invasion in 2001,” Woodward wrote. “Could he deliver this? Brahimi was 76, perhaps too old for the monumental diplomatic mission.”
But some seemed to take the prospect very seriously. Staffan di Mistura, the Italian-Swedish diplomat who currently heads up the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, traveled to New York during the U.N. General Assembly debate in September to kill off any idea of appointing an independent envoy to Afghanistan to lead the U.N. mediation efforts, according to three sources familiar with the visit.
Di Mistura said that he didn’t oppose the appointment of a U.N. mediator, the three sources said, but he wanted it to be someone who served under his own instructions.
“Staffan is naturally concerned about a unified line of command as long as he is SRSG [the Secretary General’s special representative],” according to a U.N. official. He also raised concerns that the Taliban would not accept Brahimi as an interlocutor, according to one of the U.N.-based sources.
Sources close to Brahimi said that the aging diplomat has no ambitions to return to Afghanistan, but that he might serve if he felt his services were needed, and he felt confident about the prospects of a deal. They said that his work on behalf of the Century Foundation is not aimed at positioning him to play a role in Afghanistan.
For the time being, Di Mistura seems to have prevailed — in part because Richard C. Holbrooke, President Obama’s envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Gen. David Petraeus, who has worked closely with Di Mistura in both Iraq and Afghanistan, are not keen on relinquishing control of political talks to Brahimi, according to U.N. officials.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch
More from Foreign Policy
Saudi-Iranian Détente Is a Wake-Up Call for America
The peace plan is a big deal—and it’s no accident that China brokered it.
The U.S.-Israel Relationship No Longer Makes Sense
If Israel and its supporters want the country to continue receiving U.S. largesse, they will need to come up with a new narrative.
Putin Is Trapped in the Sunk-Cost Fallacy of War
Moscow is grasping for meaning in a meaningless invasion.
How China’s Saudi-Iran Deal Can Serve U.S. Interests
And why there’s less to Beijing’s diplomatic breakthrough than meets the eye.