Obituary for Francesc Vendrell (1940-2022)

Thomas Ruttig

Afghanistan Analysts Network

 28 Nov 2022

An outspoken diplomat who cared about people, principles and peace.

The Afghanistan Analysts Network mourns for the chair of our Advisory Board, Ambassador Francesc Vendrell, who died on the morning of 27 November 2022 in London of severe illness, aged 82. Francesc was a passionate diplomat, a seeker of peace and defender of human rights, not just with lip service but with a drive and ideas for action. As the United Nations Secretary General’s Personal Representative (2000-2001) and then the European Union’s Special Representative (2002-2008) for Afghanistan, he was far-sighted, principled and honest. As Thomas Ruttig writes (with input from Kate Clark), Francesc was also an opera aficionado, a tireless traveller – and rider of trams worldwide – an Anglophile and a proud Catalan.

When Francesc started his mission to Afghanistan in 1999 – AAN’s Kate Clark, then with the BBC, interviewed him in the VIP lounge of Kabul airport on his first official trip in February 2000 – he came with unique experience. His career with the UN had already spanned 31 years and many conflicts, in some of which he contributed to political settlements ending civil wars. Equipped with a BA degree in law from Barcelona University, an LLB from King’s College in London and a MA in modern history from Cambridge University (he had to leave Spain as a member of an anti-Franco students movement), he started his UN work on the Melanesian island of Bougainville, where he ventured after a teaching engagement at the University of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby. His next duty stations were El Salvador and Nicaragua, Guatemala, Nagorno-Karabakh, Haiti, Cambodia, again Papua-New Guinea and Myanmar. As deputy head of mission, Francesc played a crucial role in leading Timor-Leste (then Eastern Timor) toward independence. Between 1993 and 1999, he served as the UN’s Director for Asia and the Pacific in New York. By the time Francesc encountered Afghanistan, he had lived many lives. He was also a particular breed of diplomat: principled, engaged and empathic.

As an avid reader and equipped with an outstanding memory, he dived into Afghanistan’s complicated present and past with a passion. He was the seventh envoy in 11 years. His predecessor, Lakhdar Brahimi had resigned in bitter disappointment at what he felt was the negative attitude of the warring factions and neighbouring countries. Francesc had taken on a mission that would have disheartened a lesser man, but he was energised by the intractable nature of the conflict and his mission to bring peace.

He brought together experts on Afghan matters into his team and in consultative meetings before setting out on his mandate to bring the warring Afghan factions of those days to the negotiating table. At that time, the Taleban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan had captured most of the country from the Northern Alliance (aka United Front). However, the Northern Alliance, as the Islamic State of Afghanistan, still held the country’s seat at the UN. Francesc went untiringly from meeting to meeting in in Afghanistan and Pakistan with Afghans from all walks of life and political persuasions. In a contemporary interview (Azadi Afghan Radio, 4 March 2000), he said:

The first thing I learned was the extent of the misery of the Afghan people. My first task will be to help the Afghan people. Above all, that means trying to achieve peace.… So you have to try to bring about a situation where the two main Afghan sides, other Afghans who are fighting for freedom and peace, as well as the regional countries and outside powers cooperate in bringing about a peaceful solution to the Afghan misery.

After eight months of shuttle diplomacy between the Taleban’s power centres in Kabul and Kandahar and the Northern Alliance’s in Faizabad in northern Afghanistan and the Tajikistan capital Dushanbe, between regional and other capitals, he succeeded in taking a big first step. In November 2000, he secured the signatures of Taleban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar (died 2013) and the Northern Alliance/Islamic State of Afghanistan leaders Ahmad Shah Massud and Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani (assassinated in 2001 and 2013, respectively) to enter into a process of dialogue to achieve a political settlement. The agreement included a commitment not to withdraw from the dialogue until the agenda had been ‘exhausted’. That agenda included an exchange of prisoners, the formation of joint Afghan armed forces and other government institutions.

Simultaneously, the UN Special Mission to Afghanistan (UNSMA), with Francesc at its helm, started working on the two parties to accept the involvement of the Afghan diaspora, including supporters of the former King, Muhammad Zaher (toppled and abdicated in 1973, died 2007), in future Afghan government structures.

This attempt was derailed by the Taleban’s refusal to extradite al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden after al-Qaeda’s attack on a United States navy ship in Aden harbour in October 2000. In December 2000, the UN Security Council adopted unilateral sanctions against the Taleban, because it was hosting al-Qaeda. The Taleban believed this was unjustified and withdrew from the UNSMA-facilitated talks.

Over the following year, 2001, Francesc and his mission began a new series of consultations with various Afghan factions and exile groups at the UN in Geneva to probe ways of restarting peace talks. In the face of US demands for the Taleban to expel Bin Laden so that he could stand trial for al-Qaeda’s August 1998 embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es-Salaam, UNSMA suggested a compromise of trying him in front of a court of Western and Muslim judges, a proposal both sides rejected. Vendrell was also involved in trying to rescue the Buddha statues of Bamyan from destruction.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 put a final end to all these initiatives. A new phase in Afghanistan’s long conflict had begun. However, the idea of a peaceful solution involving more than the armed factions became a leading feature in the UN-facilitated Afghanistan conference in Bonn in December 2001 and of the resulting Agreement on Provisional Arrangements in Afghanistan Pending the Re-establishment of Permanent Government Institutions. This made Francesc Vendrell, in practice, the actual architect of the Bonn Agreement – as it was called in short. It set out a series of steps that aimed to put Afghanistan on the path to becoming a democratic nation based on legitimate Afghan institutions.

Weeks earlier, on 14 October 2001, seven days after the US had begun bombing Taleban frontlines, he told the BBC in an interview:

 [A]ny role that we play in Afghanistan must have the full consent of the Afghans. (…) The Afghans must see what the allies are trying to do now as a chance for their liberation. They must not see this as an occupation.

Following meetings in Geneva and Rome where he had lobbied for a political strategy for Afghanistan, Francesc returned to his base in Islamabad, saying the UN Security Council must have clear political objectives. [1] He refused to rule out a political role for any Afghan in the coming weeks, including the armed opposition groups and the Taleban, among whom he said were some decent people, but also stressed that no Afghan could claim sole legitimacy to rule. Rather, a loya jirga should be held to usher in a broad-based government. The US efforts to overthrow the Taleban by force had, instead, been launched with little thought as to what would come next. Washington had in effect already determined the course of regime change when it chose to arm and finance the Northern Alliance and other commanders to fight the Taleban. They were to become the new rulers of Afghanistan.

Francesc’s diplomatic efforts might have been too much for Washington – at least, this was the feeling among Francesc’s friends and colleagues when he was sidelined shortly before the Bonn conference. He had not always kept his critical view of US policies hidden. His predecessor as UN envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, the Algerian diplomat who had served as foreign minister in his country’s military government that took power following a coup in 1992, was asked to return as a Special Representative, making him Francesc’s superior. (In the UN hierarchy, an SRSG ranked higher than a PRSG.) Brahimi had been working more ‘hand-in-glove’ with the US in earlier UN positions. Francesc resigned, or was eased out – it was never entirely clear. He did continue teaching at the UN University and advising the UN on topics such as Timor Leste and Myanmar, but in effect, this marked the end of Francesc’s diplomatic UN career.

Given the ultimate failure of the US mission in Afghanistan, one could argue that had Francesc stayed in charge at the UN in the decisive ‘golden hours’ after Bonn, crucial political mistakes could have been avoided. As early as December 2003, he said in an interview with Berlin daily Tageszeitung (author’s translation):

We misjudged the behaviour of the international community in Bonn…. Therefore, the warlords‘ militias were not demobilised, which would have been essential for the establishment of a representative government.

In a 28 September 2009 interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty he said:

The most crucial mistake was to continue to consort with the warlords and commanders who had brought ruin to Afghanistan in the 1990s and to continue to favour them…

And in 2007:

[F]irst the Americans and then also all others collaborated with those warlords.

Read his December 2011 AAN article, From Bonn 1 to Bonn 2: Afghanistan’s missed opportunities and quotes and statements in a 2010 collection to mark his 70th birthday, Congratulations, Francesc!

Post-2001, Francesc as the EU’s Envoy to Afghanistan

As the European Union’s Special Representative to Afghanistan, a role he took on in July 2002, Francesc worked to keep alive the hopes for a pluralist Afghanistan ruled by a government that served its people. Most European and EU member countries were keen to avoid any criticism of their US allies and never attempted to design an Afghanistan policy of their own that could have focused on the diplomatic-political and made a genuine effort to help build institutions. Even so, as the EU’s envoy in Kabul, Francesc pushed the Bonn agreement’s agenda on human rights, transitional justice and disarmament. He worked closely with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. He supported their mapping of war crimes in the Afghan conflict (never published, it was suppressed by Hamed Karzai, after which, Ashraf Ghani went back on a promise to publish it, made ahead of the 2014 election). He also supported a UN mapping report (published briefly in 2005, and then taken down at the urging of the US and Karzai governments as it mentioned quite a few members of the government or their allies – it can be read here). Francesc earned the respect of many Afghans advocating democracy and human rights, but lacked the practical support of influential member countries to push forward real progress. He increasingly grew frustrated with what had become of Bonn. In 2011, he wrote:

[B]y mid-2002 the course was largely set. Bad governance, large-scale corruption and impunity became the order of the day.… By 2005, the window of opportunity was closing. Western attention had been diverted to Iraq, and fears of a debacle there fed a correspondingly growing appetite for good news from Afghanistan, something that many diplomats, not to mention the military, were only too ready to supply.

By then, he added, the disarmament process had become “a tragic-comic affair in which the Northern Alliance forces handed their oldest weapon to the Ministry of Defense, at the time headed by none other than Marshal Fahim, the most powerful of the [Northern Alliance] warlords.”

In his 2008 valedictory report as EU envoy, he said:

Relying largely on a handful of individuals, we paid too little attention to the building of institutions and have done nothing to foster the growth of political groups with a reformist and pluralistic agenda.

He also said that a UN decision in 2001, driven by Brahimi, “to adopt a ‘light foot-print’” had “deprived the organisation of the tools to undertake the kind of reforms the Afghans desired.”

Finally, criticising the naiveté of the often unprepared diplomats and politicians working in or visiting Afghanistan who easily fell for the charm and hospitality of the soft-spoken warlords, he coined a sentence that has always stuck in the author’s mind: “Yes, Afghanistan has by far the most sympathetic war criminals I have encountered in my career.”

For most of us who worked for Francesc, he was never just ‘the ambassador’. Whether at the UN or EU, or both, he was the boss first, and not always an easy one. Yet, over years of intensive daily cooperation and discussion, living on the same compound, he became a valued colleague, a friend and a mentor for many of us. He was always well-turned out, a sharp dresser, whether in Kabul or London, who loved entertaining and good food. He could be searching and thoughtful, but also irreverent and a lot of fun.

AAN’s Kate Clark, who interviewed Francesc on many occasions, remembers him as easily the most clear-sighted and practically-minded ambassador in Kabul. Journalists like interviewees who tell it as it is and Francesc stuck out as a diplomat who spoke honestly about the problems of the Kabul government and the US-led intervention and who also had workable proposals. Most diplomats favoured policies seemingly based on fantasy assessments of Afghanistan.

Francesc worked almost up to the end. After leaving Afghanistan, he taught as Visiting Professor at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University and Adjunct Professor at the School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS), John Hopkins University, Bologna campus. He travelled widely. Apart from advising AAN, he was also active informally, speaking to diplomats and others working in Afghanistan. He remained engaged in thinking about how life for Afghans could be improved.

Que descansi en pau, Francesc. Rest in peace, Francesc.

Francesc Vendrell, born Barcelona 1940, died London 2022.

Edited by Kate Clark

Obituary for Francesc Vendrell (1940-2022)