Interview with Ambassador Tadamichi Yamamoto

Former UN Secretary-General Special Representative for Afghanistan and former head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA)

October 27, 2021
11 Min. Read
In August 2021, the Asia Peace Initiatives Department of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation (SPF) co-organized an urgent seminar entitled “2021 Political Change in Afghanistan and International Society,” which welcomed a panel of experts to discuss the historical context and profound implications of the events unfolding in Afghanistan. Ambassador Tadamichi Yamamoto, former UN Secretary-General Special Representative for Afghanistan and former head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), was one of the panelists from this seminar. As the weeks passed and the Taliban government began to take shape, Ambassador Yamamoto returned to SPF for an interview to elaborate on the outlook for UN operations in Afghanistan, his expectations for international cooperation with the Taliban, and the role to be played by Japan.
The world was transfixed by the rapid speed at which the Taliban were able to return to power across the country in mid-August, and now more than a month has passed since the U.S. military presence ended in Afghanistan. What is your assessment of the current situation in Afghanistan? 
The fall of the Ghani government was so rapid and unexpected that everyone was thrown into confusion, including the Taliban and the Afghan people. Even the Taliban were not expecting such a rapid change of government and they were not ready. Now the effort is underway to try to come out of that confusion. That is not really going very well, and that is something we should focus on.
The problem is that this confusion is only a symptom of the real issue. There are two things that I think are of immediate concern. One is the humanitarian needs of Afghanistan, and the other is the macroeconomic management of the country to stabilize the society; and without a stable Afghanistan, the risk of terrorists utilizing the country could become real.
The humanitarian need is dire. Of the 34 million people in Afghanistan, more than 50% or around 18 million or more, are living under the poverty line, which means that they subsist on less than a dollar a day, or barely having one meal per day. Winter is coming, and the temperature will go below freezing; there has been one of the worst droughts for years, and many people have been displaced due to conflict, so need for humanitarian assistance, including medical supplies, is one thing which has to be dealt with immediately.
The other is the macroeconomic management. When the Taliban went into Kabul, the ministries stopped functioning and the officials left; and the total governance structure went down. Now, the Taliban has to manage the country as a whole, not just security but also the economy.
Some of the key Taliban members are currently under sanctions and also a group called the Haqqani network, which is part of the Taliban, is under sanctions. Because of this, the U.S. government has frozen the bank assets of the Afghanistan government in the United States. The IMF and World Bank have stopped assistance because the recipient government does not exist. This means that there’s no inflow of cash. They cannot make the necessary payments, nor provide salaries.
This situation, if left alone, could lead to the collapse of their economy. The collapse of their economy, particularly coming at the time of winter with the freezing environment, could lead to a tragic situation and possible civil unrest. This is going to be an extremely difficult situation, and this has to be dealt with immediately.
The worst thing would be to have the destabilization of the country. Afghanistan is a huge country. The land area is 1.7 times that of Japan, more than double that of the United Kingdom, and it’s not easy to control the whole territory. There are more than 20 terrorist organizations in the region. If the security situation deteriorates, they might make use of that confusion. Stabilizing the country is going to be critical.

What is status of and outlook for UN personnel and UN operations in the country?  
The UN had about 5,000 people working in the country, but about 70-80% of them were Afghan people. The Afghan staff are the core of the UN efforts to reach out to the Afghan people, The Taliban takeover’s problem was that people were not quite sure whether these Afghan staff would be allowed to work. Only recently, Foreign Minister Muttaqi informed the United Nations system in Afghanistan that everyone can work to help and deal with the humanitarian situation. That is a good step forward, but the Taliban needs to really enable this.

We really hope that the Taliban can help the work of the UN staff, including – and I stress – important Afghan staff who can actually reach the people on the ground.

The other good thing is that Secretary General Guterres immediately recognized that the humanitarian situation is the most immediate and pressing issue, and he organized an international conference on humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan on the 13th of September. There has been a large amount of pledge, over a billion dollars.
At the same time, the Taliban accepted the visits of the heads of leading UN agencies, including the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). All of these people have been assured of full cooperation and full security for the work of the United Nations.
It sounds good, but the issue is whether they can deliver on their words. With the confusion and difficult security situation, we really hope that the Taliban can help the work of the UN staff, including – and I stress – important Afghan staff who can actually reach the people on the ground.

On August 31, you were a panelist for an urgent seminar co-organized by SPF. During your remarks, you noted that the Taliban’s statements at the time were encouraging, but urged the Taliban show that their actions match their words so that they can gain the trust of the people. Since then, we’ve seen the formation of a caretaker government where the promises of inclusivity and diversity have not been seen through and seem to be setting the tone for what Taliban control may mean for Afghanistan. What are your expectations for the UN and international community to approach working with the Taliban government? 

The performance is mixed. There have been some positive signs, but there have been some disappointing signs, and sometimes worrying signs. I think the important thing is for us to make sure that the Taliban leaders who have made statements of commitment to be inclusive and to reach out to different groups of people, including women, can actually deliver.

The Taliban is a large organization, and it includes people who have different thinking and ideas. There may be people who have very traditional ideas and who may not understand the international implications or long-term implications to society of what they’re doing.

We, the international community, need to help them with two things. One is to clearly send a message continuously so that they are constantly reminded of our message that they have to be inclusive, and that they have to reach out to all groups, including women.

The other thing is that we should not be punishing Taliban for their victory. We should try to help the leadership who wish to change the country into something respectable, something acceptable to the people. One way to strengthen those Taliban members, who are thinking in the right direction, is by helping them, not by punishing them.
The most important thing is to have a serious, cool-headed, calm dialogue to communicate both ways. I think the United Nations has started that effort. Martin Griffiths, the head of OCHA, had a good discussion with the Taliban about allowing humanitarian workers to work in the country. I also understand that Filippo Grandi, who is the head of UNHCR, similarly had a good discussion.
However, I have not yet heard that many of the former donors, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, the EU, or Japan, have had such good talks with the Taliban. They have communicated and made some arrangements which should allow them to, for instance, bring some of the Afghan staff out of the country, but there has not really been serious dialogue with the Taliban and the key countries in the international community, although complex issue of the recognition of the government should be carefully be addressed lest the contacts are interpreted as the de facto recognition.

In the SPF event, you also mentioned that “we need to rethink about peacebuilding and nation building seriously and sincerely." What are some lessons to be learned, and how can those be applied moving forward? 

I worked on Afghanistan for five and a half years, first as a deputy and four years as the head of UNAMA, the UN Mission to Afghanistan. I felt many things while helping the Afghan government take on its effort to build their own country. I felt that the most important thing that we should remember, not just in words, but really with heart, is that a country has to be built by their own people, that the ownership of efforts to build a country is probably the most fundamental thing that we have to respect.
I’m not saying that our efforts in Afghanistan were bad or that we didn’t think of the Afghan ownership. That’s not true. We always thought of Afghan ownership as the primary consideration. But, if we look at our efforts with the vantage point of hindsight with cool-headedness, and look at our efforts to help the creation of a centralized governance structure or administrative structure, we must ask if the system, which we were trying to create really worked with a country like Afghanistan, where the local independence or the ethnic groups in localities had their own way of governing the political and social situation. If you sent a governor, who had no roots in that region, to a locality saying that he is the most capable, and his presence there disrupted the existing political and social power structure, what would happen?

When you see that more than half the population is living under the poverty line even after so much money [was] invested, you would want to know how to improve the impact of international assistance.

I think that these are the kinds of issues that one needs to look at. We may need to reassess what we’re doing globally, particularly in countries where conflict has affected the fundamental structure of the society or where there is an attempt to transition a traditional system into something new.

The other issue that we need to consider is the absorption capacity of the country. In 2002 when the international community went into help Afghanistan, we poured in lots of money, cash, into the society, not just through official development assistance (ODA), but also through money spent for community relationship by many militaries.

When I first went to Kabul, I was stunned with the contrast. On the one hand, you saw really poor districts where the buildings were unable to keep out the cold, and then on the other you saw a row of palaces being built. I wondered, who owned these palaces? These were the people who had made fortune through working with international community.
When you see that more than half the population is living under the poverty line even after so much money had been invested, you would want to know how to improve the impact of international assistance to help the most vulnerable.

What are your expectations or hopes for Japan’s role in Afghanistan as well as the broader region?

I think Japan has a very important role because of Japan's idiosyncrasy or Japan’s own comparative advantage. Japan has good relationships with all the countries in the region including Iran, Pakistan, Central Asian countries, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, India, and China on Afghanistan. Japan is in a position to be able to work with all the parties impartially, and that is a very unique position.
Many of the countries that have large influences in Afghanistan, have some baggage from the past or complex relationships of neighbours. Japan is unique because of its impartiality. Its actions are not politically oriented. This gives relief to the Afghan people, including the Taliban, and boosts their confidence that what Japan does is intended purely for Afghanistan and for the Afghan people.
Japan also has a long track record of assisting Afghanistan. For the first years of assistance after 2002, Japan was the second largest donor for many years, and even now they’re the third or fourth largest cumulatively.
Japan can also take initiative in garnering support for economic and developmental assistance as they have done in the past in 2002 and 2012 when they hosted ministerial conferences to assist Afghanistan. I think it would be good for Japan to make a decision to work on this.
The first thing that has to be done is humanitarian assistance in collaboration with the United Nations. The second thing, which I think could be unique to Japan, is for Japan to talk to the countries in the region, and also to talk to key donors like the U.S. and the U.K. who have had difficult experiences in Afghanistan, and then bring them together. Japan can do this in collaboration with the United Nations or EU, who are also well placed to do similar things.

SPF has an extensive network of projects across Southeast Asia and also has experience working in peace mediation efforts including in Southern Thailand. What is the role for private organizations like SPF in supporting peace and stability in Afghanistan and across the region? 
I think we have to look at the comparative advantage of organizations like the Sasakawa Peace Foundation or NGOs. First of all, they can be very informal, they can work on the ground and have access to the people, and they’re nimble.

Large-scale things have to be done by organizations like the United Nations to help the people, but in order to supplement those activities and in collaboration with them, NGOs can for example help resolve local conflicts. I’m sure that integrating the Taliban into the community and the Taliban accepting and working with former Afghan officials and soldiers are not going to be easy, and in some cases it may lead to conflicts. I believe that some impartial mediator or facilitator could help regarding this issue, which requires delicate handling.

The other thing private organizations can do is to help the vulnerable. Even with the United Nations, it’s not always possible to reach out to every community. So, where there are specific needs, NGOs can really promote their own concept which defines their work and reach out to those communities or to a group of people.

I often cite the example of women’s education. It takes much effort, and women’s education is critical in any society. Governments, although they try to help, may not be able to do things in the community as much as they would like. That’s where the nongovernmental organizations can help, because they are much more flexible, nimbler, and they can reach out.

For more from the Asia Peace Initiatives Department, visit the program page.

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