Interview With BBC World

James F. Dobbins
Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan 
Washington, DC
July 8, 2014

BBC: How are you reading what’s happening in Afghanistan at the moment?

Ambassador Dobbins: We’re concerned about the trend in events. We have been concerned for some time that the electoral process hasn’t been moving forward smoothly. We believe that there needs to be a robust and transparent audit of potentially fraudulent ballots and we’re sorry that hasn’t moved forward quickly and substantially enough. We regret the preliminary announcement of results that was made yesterday. We think that was premature given that there are still a number of ballots that need to be examined and there’s not yet a clear agreement on how best to do so. We do believe that --

BBC: Forgive me for interrupting, Ambassador. Can I ask you why you think that announcement was made yesterday?

Ambassador Dobbins: I think it was made because the electoral institutions had previously set that date and they held to it despite advice to the contrary from the UN, from the United States, and from other voices within Afghanistan, and we think that was unfortunate.

BBC: Is there another reason that could be slightly more benign which is that they wanted to prepare the ground because if they just came out with one final result at the end of all this then it can be pretty predictable that the loser, whoever it was going to be, was going to cry foul?

Ambassador Dobbins: I think it’s our view that they didn’t have a basis for preparing the ground because there’s such a large number of votes that still need to be examined and that therefore any preliminary result might be more misleading than preparing the ground.

BBC: In terms now of where this goes, we’ve already heard some very strong, very emotional language from the camp of the man who appears to be on the losing side of all this, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. What have you been saying to him in order to try and calm those feelings?

Ambassador Dobbins: Well, we have heard talk about establishing a parallel presidency. We made clear that the United States and its partners are not in a position to support a divided Afghanistan. That any effort to establish a parallel presidency would make it impossible for the United States and its partners to continue their financial, economic and military support, and that the consequences for the country would be potentially quite dire.

Clearly, this is not something the Afghan population wants. It’s not something they were voting for. And it’s not something that they expect to happen, but it could be the consequences of ill-considered action.

BBC: Let me turn it on to the man who may end up the winner, Mr. Ashraf Ghani. What pressure, if any, are you trying to bring on him to ensure that whatever happens he tried to include Abdullah Abdullah, or Abdullah Abdullah’s people in any future government?

Ambassador Dobbins: We’re not making any presumptions about who might be the winner or who might be the loser, and we think it’s premature for anybody to be doing so. We’ve made clear to both candidates that two things need to happen. First of all there needs to be a robust and transparent process for determining the winner; and there’s still a good deal of work to be done there. And secondly, we believe that both candidates need to begin discussing the formation of a government that would have the support of all important components and elements within the country, a government of national unity that would ensure that all of the significant sectors of Afghan society feel included.

BBC: You’re saying it’s all a bit presumptuous to say whether one side or the other has won or lost. It is difficult, is it not, to see this result being overturned? This is a [flat] margin of victory at the moment -- 56 percent to 44 percent. It would be extraordinary to see that overturned in the space of a couple of weeks.

Ambassador Dobbins: I think both candidates have agreed that there was extensive fraud. Both candidates have agreed that the suspect ballots need to be audited. They haven’t agreed on exactly how to go about that.

We believe it’s the responsibility of the electoral institutions to go ahead and conduct that kind of broad audit, whether or not the candidates have agreed on every precise element of the process, and we believe until they’ve done so it’s premature to be coming to any judgments.

BBC: It is worrying though, isn’t it? I suppose it was all too predictable that democracy is an imperfect thing in Afghanistan and that undoubtedly there has been fraud, we’ve heard all sorts of reports that project there have been a measure of fraud, and whoever was going to lose in this election was going to say it’s been by unfair means.

Ambassador Dobbins: I agree with you that Afghanistan is a relatively new democracy. That countries at this stage of democratic development often have difficulties of this sort. That there’s not a tradition of good losers in societies at this level of political development. And in that sense, the problem we face is not unparalleled. There are other countries who have gone through similar difficulties. Nevertheless, the fact is that millions of Afghans went out and voted in the expectation that their vote would count. That numerous polls indicate that most Afghans are prepared to support either candidate as the victor. That is that most Afghans have said that they could accept the person they didn’t vote for winning the election if that was the result.

So while the problems we face are not unparalleled, the Afghan voters expect something better.

BBC: Can I ask you a brief question about you, sir? There were reports last week that you’re stepping down. Have you actually stepped down from your position as the U.S. Special Envoy for Afghanistan?

Ambassador Dobbins: No, I expect to step down sometime in the next few weeks and my successor’s already been named.

BBC: I guess there will be some people out there who will think it’s quite a time to be stepping down, at a moment when Afghanistan is going through such a critical and potentially dangerous transition.

Ambassador Dobbins: Afghanistan is always on the brink of progress and potentially reversals. It’s a never-ending process. My successor has been the Deputy in this office since the office was created, at the very beginning of the Obama administration and is well placed to take up the mantle.

BBC: Just as far as you’re concerned, I know you’re a veteran of all sorts of difficult places around the world. I don’t know if you’ve got your next assignment lined up yet, but do you -- I’m sure most diplomats say they leave a place with a measure of fondness, but is it also a measure of relief as far as you’re concerned, that you’re not having to deal with probably one of the most difficult diplomatic assignments on planet earth?

Ambassador Dobbins: When I took this job, and I had already been retired for almost 11 years from a full career. I was asked to stay for a year. I’ve stayed for a year and several months beyond that. I am eager to go back to the life of relative freedom and lack of responsibility of a policy analyst and commentator and look forward to doing that and look forward to continuing to reflect on and comment on developments in Afghanistan as in other similar places around the world. But it is with some sense of relief that I’ll be turning actual responsibility over to a well-equipped and well-prepared successor.

BBC: Ambassador, I’m so grateful to you, and forgive me for asking the sort of syrupy personal question, but it was mainly personal for information. I hugely appreciate you answering it and answering all the other questions as well.

Ambassador Dobbins: Good. Thanks a lot. I appreciate it.