Presidential outcast turned EU envoy shows basketball tricks on Afghan soil

  • 2010-09-02
  • Interview by Linas Jegelevicius

A bit over two years ago, Vygaudas Usackas, the then-Lithuanian ambassador to Great Britain, was considered to be able to equally square up with the then-EU commissioner Dalia Grybauskaite for the Lithuanian presidency. Having withdrawn his presidential bid (actually, he never entered the race) without an explanation, after Seimas (the Lithuanian parliament) election in 2008, in the Homeland Union and Christian Democrats–led government, he became the head of Lithuania’s diplomacy  - the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Being an outspoken, eloquent and self-determined Western-style leader, a bright standout in the government, though rebuked by some for his arrogance, he has angered the no less presuming President Grybauskaite on several occasions. Being publicly blamed for “heading independent foreign policy and its lack of coordination with the president,” he had to step down. With this politician’s bright star fading, supported by the EU foreign ministers, in February 2010, he was appointed EU envoy in war-ravaged Afghanistan. The Baltic Times spotted Usackas in the resort town of Palanga and sat down for this interview.

Are you able, mentally, to distance yourself from Afghanistan while being on vacation?
(Grins) Once you relax, swimming in the unusually warm Baltic Sea, you are able to do that. I am a frequent vacationer in Palanga, as I can assume here my favorite leisure activities, which are playing tennis and basketball. I do perceive the implication of your question. Believe me, I can relax a bit, even though I cling to the Internet every day, catching the news from Afghanistan.

Is it not an exile for you, after the starry ascension up the ladder of Lithuanian diplomacy?
I do not see it that way. I have been working in different diplomatic missions over the years, so when I was proposed to head the Foreign Ministry, I took it as the biggest trust that I have ever received. It was a big honor to be the head of Lithuanian diplomacy; however, politics sometimes can be unpredictable – unforeseen, unexpected things do happen in it. I do not feel now like discussing what has happened and why, though. Nonetheless, I hope I have left my small traces in Lithuanian foreign policy. In no sense could I call my appointment to Afghanistan as an exile. Do have in mind that I have been appointed by the foreign ministers of the European Union, but not by Lithuania. Frankly speaking, Afghanistan to me is a new leg in my life, quite a new and challenging experience.

With the ISAF heading the military operations, what is your involvement like in Afghanistan?
The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is a NATO-led, 44-nation military coalition dedicated to helping Afghan authorities provide security and stability and creating the conditions for reconstruction and development. The European Union’s mission in the country is clearly defined as the implementation of numerous civic projects. As EU envoy to Afghanistan, I am responsible for the 200 million euro budget, allocated to Afghanistan annually. The resources are to develop and expand projects in such different fields as agriculture, health care, police and administrative governing. My mission is not only to coordinate the assistance, but also to stimulate the peace dialogue and to support the collaboration among the regional states.

The Netherlands is about to withdraw its military contingent from Afghanistan, while other countries, including Great Britain, are to follow it soon. How will the withdrawal affect your mission? Who will ensure the security of the civic missions after the troops are gone?
I have no doubt that after the troop withdrawal, the civic projects’ scope, and demand for them, will only grow. It is thought that with the ISAF decrease in Afghanistan, the international involvement in the country will change. I mean that the significance of the civic projects as well as European Union will increase. Speaking about the security of the civic, the EU-led projects, it is likely that the NATO troops will be replaced by Afghan police and military in the near future.

Do you assume that they are ready to take over the security in the war-ravaged country?
No, not yet, however, NATO and EU are working a lot on that. The EU has sent its police resources, EUPOL, to Afghanistan. It helps Afghans to get completely ready in ensuring the country’s security. By the end of 2011, it is expected there will be 120,000 Afghan police officers and approximately 164,000 soldiers. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is convinced that his country will be able to take full control of the situation by the end of 2014. By then, only minimal international troops should remain on the ground. However, bearing in mind the country’s violent history, tribal, bloody clashes, wide-spread illiteracy and other challenges, it is likely that some foreign military forces will remain in Afghanistan thereafter. However, the involvement will switch from being exceptionally military to training of the Afghan troops.

Nevertheless, it is obvious that the military developments in the conflict-torn Afghanistan are not going the way NATO and Pentagon top commanders expected. With the U.S. President Barrack Obama-initiated bringing in of 35,000 additional troops, followed by the swift pledge to start withdrawing them starting July 2011, and considering the highest ever tolls of killed British and American soldiers and the record-high number of civilians slain by the coalition forces – all this speaks only of a deteriorating situation in the country. Are your forecasts not too optimistic?
Well, first of all, the Americans have not yet deployed all the extra troops which Obama spoke of in Afghanistan. Certainly, the increasing toll in the country does raise a concern. However, war experts maintain that the bigger troop and civilian casualties are directly related to the higher foreign troop concentration and the intense military actions in the most sensitive Taliban areas. The majority of military experts agree on one notion – 2010 is crucial to Afghanistan, militarily and economy-wise. I think we all should wait for the end of the year and the beginning of the next year in order to draw conclusive estimates on the war dynamics.

However, to be blunt, is the currently deteriorating war not a signal for the Taliban that the U.S.-led troops and their military chiefs are tired of the war?
I do not think that way. President Obama did not speak about the unconditional withdrawal of the foreign troops. By setting the date at July of 2011, he meant a gradual decreasing of the forces, depending on the security situation in the country. Moreover, I see the aforementioned date as a positive sign for the Afghan people to get ready to take control of the country in their own hands. In order to succeed, Afghans do have to act on their own, not to solely rely on foreign help. Secondly, the date sends an important signal to the Taliban that the foreign military will not stay in the country forever. It does prove to the Taliban that the coalition came in not as invaders, but as a military that wants to let Afghans develop their state independently.

Speaking of invaders, the military mission in Afghanistan, regardless of the way we see it, must be quite repulsive to most Lithuanians, remembering the Soviet occupation. Do Afghans accept us as liberators or invaders?
Occupation, in terms of jurisdiction and politics, is clearly defined. From that point, the Lithuanian troops are on a peace mission in Afghanistan, as we assist the NATO forces in providing stability and security in the country, as well we guarantee the stability of the locals. As I mentioned before, the foreign troops have been sent there in order not to invade the country, but to free it from the monstrous Taliban regime. It is worth mentioning its cruelties done against [their] compatriots. There are over one million handless and legless people in Afghanistan, an aftermath of the Taliban’s body-mutilating punishments. Moreover, most importantly, it has carried out the most heinous terrorist acts in modern history.

Do you see any signs of the Lithuanian troops withdrawing, together with the EU’s Western troops in the near future? Alternatively, more likely, will Lithuania remain the committed ally of the U.S. and retreat from Afghanistan with its contingent? As the mission is a big financial commitment (nearly 63 million litas in 2010) for us, should it not be another reason to abandon it in the crisis-hit economy?
It is hard to foresee the political decisions to come. However, I want to emphasize that the Lithuanian input in restoring the Gore province and guaranteeing its stability and security is extremely high. Afghans themselves do appreciate the efforts a lot. The Lithuanian troops have been on a very noble mission there, which does pay off strengthening Lithuania’s security guarantees in the framework of EU and NATO.

Your beliefs are hard to shake. How would you describe the Afghan war – is it nearly won, winnable, possible to win or nearly impossible to win?
(Laughs) Once you look at the modern history of Afghanistan, you will see it has been shaken by numerous civic clashes, squabbles and wars. The international community has done a lot in order to build up a political, economic and security core, on which Afghans themselves could successfully develop their statehood. When the task is completed, it will make sense to withdraw the Lithuanian troops back home.

You answered diplomatically; however, you wandered off the question. Can the war be won without the region’s leaders, Pakistan and India, not substantially engaged in the developments in Afghanistan?
Indeed, Afghanistan lies within the sphere of the regional interests and conflicts of the countries. As EU envoy, I am there to encourage and promote a different approach of the neighboring countries towards Afghanistan. The approach that would create, quality-wise, quite a new foundation for the mutual collaboration, the approach that would change the military politics to beneficial economic transit and economic relations.

How do you see the near future of Afghanistan?
We cannot cheat ourselves, convincing ourselves that, in a few months or years from now, we will create a democracy the way we understand it. Nevertheless, Afghanistan is improving in that facet a lot. Afghanistan has its parliament that sizzles with discussions. It might be surprising to many to find out that many different, extreme view newspapers are being published in Afghanistan, as well as many diverse TV stations are on air, promulgating the extreme views. It is a big achievement for Afghanistan, which is the second poorest country in the world. I do believe that, in three of four years from now, with the international assistance, the fundamental core of statehood will be laid, and Afghanistan will be able to take it from there on its own. It will happen if Afghans will have their own functioning police and military forces, if they will be able to decrease the wide-spread corruption, if the region’s other influential countries like Pakistan, India, China, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and some others will get involved in the process.

However, when it comes to the war outlook, the issues of mentality and mindset should be taken into consideration. Is it possible to win the war when 95 percent of the Afghan countryside population lives in the conditions of the medieval ages?
I do think that NATO and the EU are striving to change somehow Afghans’ mentality or mindset. As I mentioned before, we are there with the help mission, not to impose our lifestyles and views.

Are you not concerned over your own safety there? How do you move around there? Do you live in a heavily guarded compound?
A Lithuanian proverb says that if you are afraid of the wolf, do not go to the forest. We have an intelligence service which provides us information about possible risks, explosions, clashes and the appearance of suicide bombers. When being there, everyone has to put up with the thought of being in an endangered area. Despite the heightened security measures, I am trying to live as normal a life as I can under the circumstances there. Thus, every Thursday night, the EU staff plays football, volleyball and basketball with the Afghans. We have already erected a basketball court and started teaching locals the secrets of the game. However, I have to admit, it does not go very well so far. On Friday morning, I usually play tennis with Indian, UK and Russian ambassadors. I come back to Lithuania every other month.