Kabul, Afghanistan – Hours before boarding a flight out of Kabul, Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide delivered a final warning Saturday as he wrapped up his two-year tenure as the top United Nations diplomat in Afghanistan.
“This year can become a year when negative trends are reversed, but it will require a tremendous effort and mobilization of political energy,” Eide told a small women’s conference. “So far, I do not see that mobilization of political energy . . . . If this does not happen, then I believe the negative trends .”
In his final weeks, Eide stepped up his push for political talks with the Taliban as the best way to end the eight-year-old war, and in his final press conference, he expressed concern that President Barack Obama’s decision to send 30,000-35,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan is coming without a concurrent political surge.
“I believe that the focus is too much on the military side and too little on the civilian side,” Eide said. “And that our strategy has unfortunately been too much military-driven with a political agenda as an appendix to military strategy, instead of a political strategy being the basis for the military operations.”
The State Department inspector general warned Friday that the Obama administration’s political efforts in Afghanistan are hampered by a shortage of qualified personnel, a lack of housing and other problems that could disrupt its timetable for turning over full control of the country to the Afghan government.
As part of his effort to promote negotiations with the Taliban, UN officials said, Eide held private talks in the Persian Gulf emirate of Dubai with a low-ranking Taliban commander that appeared to gain little political traction.
After two exhausting years, Eide leaves behind a disheartened United Nations mission that’s facing a difficult battle to repair its tattered reputation in Afghanistan, where Eide is likely to be best remembered for his role in the fraud-tainted 2009 presidential election that undermined the political credibility of President Hamid Karzai.
After the Aug. 20 election, Eide’s top deputy, American Peter Galbraith, publicly accused his boss of trying to help Karzai by helping to cover up widespread voter fraud. Galbraith was fired, but the political and personal dispute mushroomed.
The U.S. and its allies eventually forced a reluctant Karzai into a runoff that was scuttled when challenger Abdullah Abdullah withdrew amid concerns that the Afghan president had done nothing to curtail fraud in the second vote.
Amid the political controversy, Taliban insurgents attacked a United Nations guesthouse in Kabul, killing five UN workers and three Afghans. The demoralizing October attack prompted the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan to send hundreds of workers to safety in Dubai and to impose new security restrictions on those who stayed behind.
In a recent memo, UNAMA’s chief of staff warned that the organization was facing a recruitment drought and might not be able to carry out its mission unless more staff came on board quickly.
“There are a lot of hard working people who sacrificed a great deal personally and, to some degree, professionally to be here, and their leadership really failed them,” said Candace Rondeaux, a senior analyst in Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group, which called for Eide to step down. “I think a lot of people who worked for UNAMA were really discouraged — and the elections were the nail in the coffin.”
As he was preparing to depart this month, a new controversy erupted over Karzai’s attempt to strip the UN of its ability to appoint members of Afghanistan’s election oversight body, which documented widespread voter fraud in the August election. In his final public events, however, Eide offered no criticism of Karzai’s move to sideline the UN-dominated body.
While some critics considered Eide too cozy with Karzai, others saw their relationship as an asset that gave the UN leader private clout with the Afghan president.
“The organization he inherited didn’t have access and didn’t have a lot of clout, and those are two things he worked hard to achieve,” said Ann Pforzheimer, political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. “I think his real contribution was making the UN a real player.”
Eide will be succeeded by Staffan de Mistura, who’s described as an unassuming Swedish career diplomat who’ll face significant challenges in ensuring that the United Nations remains a central player in Afghanistan as the U.S. pushes forward with its military surge.
“The United Nations has lost a lot of what would make it an honest broker in Afghanistan,” said Thomas Ruttig, the co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. “I think we are in the process of Americanization here in Afghanistan, and this absolutely undermines the role of the UN in the country.”