Bernard Kouchner on Afghanistan, Russia and Iraq

With France currently presiding over the European Union and no shortage of foreign policy mayhem, French diplomacy has been center stage. Foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, alongside President Nicolas Sarkozy, negotiated a controversial six-point ceasefire plan days after the Russo-Georgian War began. They're now leading the effort to keep Moscow honest. Meanwhile, the French government is weathering public criticism over Afghanistan, where 10 of its soldiers were killed Aug. 18, the French army's worst one-day death toll in 25 years. Kouchner, 68, began a career of humanitarian activism as a physician in Biafra in 1968, later co-founding Médécins Sans Frontières and Médécins du Monde. Now his office is the situation room. In these excerpts from his interview with Newsweek's Tracy McNicoll, which don't appear in the magazine version, Kouchner discusses how to handle Moscow and Afghanistan, and why he is optimistic about Iraq:

On Afghanistan:
Should Afghanistan and the West seek an accommodation with the Taliban, or negotiate with them?
No, we aren't there. That's up to President Karzai to say. We must first consider that there won't be a military solution in Afghanistan. There will be an element of making the country more secure and a political aspect.

When we were reinforcing our military contingent in Afghanistan earlier this year, we held this Paris Conference with 80 countries attending. We collected a lot of money. We'd held, 15 days earlier, an Afghan civil society conference with international NGOs and the UN agencies that accepted participating in civil-military activities. And we had Afghan human rights groups talk at the conference. The Americans disagreed with that at first. But our relations with the Americans are such that they have confidence in us and we in them. They accepted the word "Afghanisation" -- handing power to the Afghans - which wasn't the word our friends accepted at first. Well, now, the Americans have accepted it.

[At the conference], we spoke very clearly about political solutions, about Afghanisation, civil-military activities, fighting corruption - it's not Taliban corruption, it's Afghan administration corruption--and about drugs. And we decided to establish a new strategy taking all that into account and not only aim for a military victory.

So the strategy has already been changed?
Yes, we did it at the Paris Conference in June. It's underway. It's not finished, ooh la la. A first sign: On Aug. 29, the French forces responsible for Kabul's security handed off that security to [the Afghans].  And the central region, administered by France, Italy and Turkey, will give all responsibility to the Afghan army before June. The Afghan army is already 55,000 men, and will be 75,000 before the end of the year. We'll need 100-to-120,000 and we're doing it. That's Afghanisation, giving them responsibilities little by little. And not targeting a victory against the Taliban, because the Taliban is Afghanistan. The families are alternatively on one side or the other. They have family, clan, village, and regional links. I know -- I was in Afghanistan eight years, with the hospitals, etc. That country has never, ever been subjugated or conquered. The English army was destroyed; 160,000 Russians were defeated. Let us not aim for military victory. Let's aim to help our Afghan friends assume power. That's the new civil-military strategy. I'm not saying we should withdraw our troops, since we increased our troops. But we'll succeed by convincing the Afghans they are better off working with us and assuming power themselves, in NGO projects, the police or army, than working with the Taliban.

On Iraq:
How and when do you think the Iraq War will end?

When the Iraqis are in power. It's the same [as in Afghanistan]. There's a good theorist on that, an excellent American general named [David] Petraeus, with whom I've spoken at length. The end of a war like that is when the diverse Iraqis in all their different communities can be given full responsibility--on their scale, with their own notions of human rights, culture, society, democracy. They aren't the same as ours, but still acceptable. And that's starting to happen.

The last time I went to Iraq I discovered the south was truly held by the Iraqis. There are already refugees returning to Iraq. Prime Minister [Nouri al-]Maliki told me the Sunnis have returned to the government. These are at least good signs. I'm not at all saying it's finished. But frankly the situation is better. And what I've heard from General Petraeus is really encouraging. He's understood that the army should come off as something other than an army of occupation: an army that helps the Iraqis take power and assume their responsibilities. That's capital. It won't be tomorrow, or the day after. There will be a few more years. But it's going better.

On Georgia:
What's the best way to handle Russia?

What do you think was more effective: Sending US warships [carrying humanitarian cargo] to the Black Sea, or stopping the tanks like we did, Sarkozy and I? What we did was more effective. While there are missiles on the boats, there are missiles set up nearby in Russia, too. That doesn't seem to me the right solution for the moment.

You were criticized for not addressing Georgia's territorial integrity in the six-point ceasefire plan Sarkozy brokered with Moscow and Tbilisi on August 12.
No, the first document had "territorial integrity." That document was amended by Medvedev. It was announced at the press conference that the security and stability of Abkhazia and Ossetia would be the object of a separate letter, which Sarkozy wrote and sent. In the document Condoleeza Rice had Saaskashvili sign, there wasn't "integrity," but the term "final status" wasn't there, either. It had been in Medvedev's document before I withdrew it. So one balanced out the other. Because we had to obtain an accord! Otherwise, they took Tbilisi. It's simple. We had to stop that war.

Some Western policymakers want to punish Russia by cutting ties.
We must absolutely maintain the dialogue with Russia, particularly as far as Iran is concerned, where it's fully necessary there be all six: the three Europeans, the US, China, and Russia. That's very important. That's a great danger.

Was promoting Georgian and Ukrainian NATO membership a mistake, particularly on the part of the United States?
No. What would it have changed had we accepted today? Nothing. Do you think the United States of America would have declared war on the Russian army? Can you see that?

What about Russia?
I don't believe a policy of confrontation is the right one. We said Georgia and Ukraine could join NATO. But it seems premature to us for them to join now. If one day we must accept them, very well. We'll do it. We all signed a document in Bucharest saying they could, like all countries, join NATO. But we mustn't throw oil on the fire, at least not now. Wait to see what this gentler method yields.

Join the Discussion