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Plumbing the Depths of the Afghan Paradox


Eide in Afghanistan
Kai Eide, left, a Norwegian diplomat who was a special envoy and chief of the UN mission in Afghanistan, stopping at a Kabul polling station in 2009. FARDIN WAEZI/UNAMA

The Norwegian diplomat, Kai Eide, left Afghanistan for the final time in March 2010, as the United Nations special representative and head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for two years. With former postings as a UN special envoy in Kosovo and in Bosnia-Herzegovina, as well as a Norwegian ambassador to NATO and to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Eide brought real depth to his role in Kabul.

Yet there are few places as challenging as Afghanistan – ethnically and geographically diverse, with the highest global infant and maternal mortality rates in the world – and the country presented Eide and the international community with entrenched and complex security, governmental and humanitarian problems. Unfortunately, the challenges seem even more intractable with the pending withdrawal of NATO forces by the end of 2014.

Afghanistan has a history of being “conquered” by outside invaders, who failed to hang on to the territory for long. In modern-day Afghanistan, the problems are just as unyielding: maintaining security while improving the country’s governance, building up its infrastructure and developing national and local institutions. The paradox of the Afghanistan situation, as Eide intimates in his recent book, “Power Struggle Over Afghanistan: An Inside Look at What Went Wrong – and What We Can Do to Repair the Damage,” is that although international money has poured in, it is often the donor governments’ lack of understanding of the country that has led to enormous inefficiencies and flaws in these good intentions.

“As a result of our inability to understand the country and therefore formulate workable strategies, support for our engagement in Afghanistan has declined,” Eide writes in the book. “We are trapped between an impatient public and a growing insurgency in a country where quick fixes do not exist.”

Eide, who left the UN posts in Afghanistan amid controversy over his role in the presidential election in 2009, continues to describe a further paradox in the country’s security conundrum – increasingly supporting the efforts of the administration of President Hamid Karzai to take on the country’s security mantle while trying to keep security from deteriorating further.

During Eide’s time in Afghanistan, high levels of international money poured into the country, but it was also a period of an increase in what Eide calls “donor-generated fragmentation.” That is, funds were increasingly tied to the provinces and locales where a donor country concentrated its military assets. Eide feared a knock-on effect that “when the countries’ contributing troops started to withdraw their forces, they would also reduce their economic investment if their military and development engagements were too intertwined.” The full extent of the manifestations of this fear will not be known until 2015 and well beyond.

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Applauded and criticized in equal measures for taking a lead on engaging with the Taliban, Eide reiterates throughout the book that a lasting peace in Afghanistan can be countenanced only after talking, engaging and negotiating with the Taliban hierarchy. He also repeatedly warns of the gross oversimplification in certain international quarters of the Taliban being simply “bad guys.” Saying that many Taliban members joined the insurgency for economic reasons, Eide discusses the frustration of having $500 million pledged at the 2010 London Conference (primarily by Japan and the United States) to finance the reintegration of Taliban leaders and fighters, but that “one year after it was established, very few Taliban had come forward to make use of the fund and little money had been dispersed.”

Indeed, Eide says “there were even rumours of Taliban fighters who had tried to be integrated, but found that nobody was ready to receive them and provide support that had been promised.”

Kai Eide memoir
"Power Struggle Over Afghanistan," by Kai Eide.

Fundamentally, Eide cites an abject failure by the international community – citing the US and European powers specifically – to comprehend the importance of tradition, religion and culture to the variety of groups in the country. With most international administrators and officials working exclusively from Kabul, while most of the Afghan population lives and works outside the capital by farming, he could well have a point.

Short-termism on the part of the international community, however, could be the overwhelming reason for failure, Eide suggests. By targeting funds, he says, the right kind of infrastructure could be built up to provide a foundation for future economic growth and long-term stability; Afghanistan’s potential mineral wealth alone has been estimated at $1 trillion.

NATO intelligence failures, lack of Western sensitivity regarding Afghan culture and failures on coordination of UN resources are all mentioned frequently in the book as continuing weaknesses in the international strategy toward Afghanistan. Yet perhaps even less time is devoted to corruption and disorganization within the country, Eide says. Although he was lambasted by some for his closeness at times to the Afghan president, and one of his most vociferous critics was his own deputy, Peter Galbraith, an American, Eide retains a remarkable respect for Karzai that is evident throughout the book as he perceives Karzai as crucial to Afghanistan’s future.

Eide writes: “A solution to Afghanistan’s conflict will … have to be found before the end of Karzai’s second term [in 2014]. He knows Afghanistan better than any other Afghan politician I have met. And he has a profound sense of duty toward his country. A successful exit strategy will depend on our ability to see him as a partner, to work with him, and not against him.”

Whether Eide is correct remains to be seen. Yet in this remarkably frank account of his time in the country, he paints a picture of a complex, divided place with players inside and out seeking to build a nation, escape a mire or maintain instability. Eide leaves us, however, with a semblance of hope, albeit with a caveat: “It is easy to despair and believe that the conflict in Afghanistan is a lost war and that Afghanistan itself is a failed state that cannot be repaired. I do not agree … but if the international community leaves prematurely, then many of those who can modernise Afghanistan will decide to leave as well.”

 Additional resources

Easing Afghan Women’s Burdens With a Hotline

A New Envoy, Slovakian, Heads to Afghanistan


James Kearney, who is from Northern Ireland, is the peace and security programs coordinator for the United Nations Association-UK, concentrating on nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation, the Responsibility to Protect doctrine and peacekeeping and emerging threats. He has worked in the peace and security sectors for the Africa Educational Trust in London, Nairobi and Rumbek, South Sudan; and in the Office of the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict. Kearney has an undergraduate degree in history from Oxford, a master’s degree in international relations from Cambridge University and did his doctoral studies at Edinburgh University examining peace and solidarity camps in Rwanda. He published an essay in the book “Education and Reconciliation: Exploring Conflict and Post-Conflict Situations” and has written articles on ethnic conflict published by the UK Department for International Development and Education for Peace International.

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