Reflections from the far reaches of the American empire

President Barack Obama began his presidency with a pledge to listen even to the most despised foreign despots. But within weeks, the Obama administration made it clear it had heard enough of one foreign leader. Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai, a key ally in the U.S.-led effort to bring peace to that nation, was to have ...

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MEHDI FEDOUACH/AFP/Getty Images
MEHDI FEDOUACH/AFP/Getty Images
MEHDI FEDOUACH/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama began his presidency with a pledge to listen even to the most despised foreign despots.

But within weeks, the Obama administration made it clear it had heard enough of one foreign leader. Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai, a key ally in the U.S.-led effort to bring peace to that nation, was to have his direct line to the American presidency severed.

Obama halted his predecessor's practice of conducting regular video conferencing sessions with his most important wartime client. The president's envoy, Richard Holbrooke, meanwhile, mounted a stealth campaign to drive Karzai from office, according to the newly published memoirs of the former U.N. envoy to Afghanistan, Norway's Kai Eide.

President Barack Obama began his presidency with a pledge to listen even to the most despised foreign despots.

But within weeks, the Obama administration made it clear it had heard enough of one foreign leader. Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai, a key ally in the U.S.-led effort to bring peace to that nation, was to have his direct line to the American presidency severed.

Obama halted his predecessor’s practice of conducting regular video conferencing sessions with his most important wartime client. The president’s envoy, Richard Holbrooke, meanwhile, mounted a stealth campaign to drive Karzai from office, according to the newly published memoirs of the former U.N. envoy to Afghanistan, Norway’s Kai Eide.

In a variety of other ways, Eide writes, top American civilians and military officials made it clear they had no intention of seriously consulting key U.N. or Afghan leaders on the international strategy in Afghanistan. Summing up the attitude towards the new administration in Kabul, one embittered senior Afghan minister text messaged Eide a one-word assessment of his first visit to Washington, D.C. "Neocolonialism."

Eide’s book, Power Struggle Over Afghanistan: An Inside Look at What Went Wrong — And What We Can Do To Repair The Damage, revisits his two year stint from February 2008 to March 2010 as the U.N. envoy to Afghanistan. It offers up a defense of Eide’s own record, which was marred after his American deputy, Peter Galbraith, accused him of covering up electoral fraud by Karzai’s followers in the 2009 presidential election. "The most bitter and dramatic I had experienced in my professional life," Eide writes.

Eide’s Afghan assignment — which came with a mandate from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to "build a close relationship with President Karzai as soon as you can" — coincided with a period of dwindling American faith in Karzai’s commitment to confront the rampant corruption that plagued his government and allegedly reached into the pockets of his wealthy half brother, then an Afghan power broker accused of involvement in the Afghan opium trade, a charge he denied. Eide presents a detailed set of prescriptions for addressing the current Afghan crisis, including a more vigorous effort to pursue peace with the Taliban, less reliance on a military accomplishments, demonstrating a greater understanding and respect for Afghan’s religious and cultural sensitivities, as well as personal portrait of Afghanistan’s erratic leader.

Eide shared America’s doubts about Karzai’s leadership — at one point personally nudging him to consider stepping down at the end of his first term. But he provides a lengthy, sympathetic portrait of Karzai as a flawed, misunderstood, essentially patriotic leader — whose views towards his Western backers were hardened by the humiliating treatment he had received at the hands of the Obama administration in its first months in office, and by the initial dismissal by top military brass of his concerns about the civilian casualties of NATO bombing campaigns.

"The most important reason for my bitterness [in Afghanistan] was my ever growing disagreement with Washington’s strategy in Afghanistan," he writes. "It had become increasingly dominated by military strategies, forces and offensives…. The UN had never been really involved or consulted by Washington on critical-strategy-related questions, nor had even the closest NATO partners. More importantly, Afghan authorities had mostly been spectators to the formation of a strategy aimed at solving the conflict in their own country."

("The attitude changed dramatically," Eide notes, under the leadership of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and the rate of NATO-inflicted casualties declined precipitously, ultimately representing of a fraction of civilian deaths inflicted by the Taliban.)

The book underscores the challenges a U.N. envoy faces in carving out an independent role under the shadow of the world’s remaining military superpower, describing the intensive pressure applied by American and other Western allies to compel him to conform to their political and military objectives. (At one stage, a top Western official presses Eide to install an intelligence agent in his private office. He declined.)

In his first weeks, Eide recalls that he "received a warning that surprised me in its directness." Victoria Nuland, then President George W. Bush‘s ambassador to NATO, took Eide aside to deliver a stern message about American expectations for the new U.N. envoy. Nuland, who now serves as the State Department spokeswoman, "made it clear that the United States would not tolerate any surprises, in particular with regard to civilian casualties." Eide interpreted the U.S. diplomat’s comment as a warning to keep his mouth shut.

As Norway’s NATO ambassador, Eide had joined other European representatives in raising concerns about civilian casualties in NATO attacks. But in his first major test on the job, Eide yielded to American pressure.

After initial reports emerged suggesting ISAF forces had attacked a wedding party in Nangahar, killing 40 people, including the bride, in July 2008, Eide held off issuing a statement to allow for discussions with the United States. "But the consultations dragged out, making the United Nations appear weak and indecisive. That could not be allowed to happen again."

The following month, fresh reports surfaced indicating that scores of civilians might have been killed in a U.S. and Afghan strike in Azizabad. This time, Eide brushed off American assurances that no civilians had been killed, and issued a statement condemning the attack and noting that as many as 90 villagers may had been killed. The response was sharp.

The U.S. military leadership of the U.S. embassy forcefully denied the allegation. Then, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice upbraided him for not consulting the United States before making his figures public. "You are serving the Taliban," protested another Western diplomat.

"Authorities in Washington as well as in Kabul were doing their best to undermine the credibility of our information," Eide recalled. "The powerful opposition from the U.S. military and political authorities was intimidating."

Eide said that the experience reflected a pattern that was to play itself out again and again in Afghanistan, with the U.S. military or ISAF denying "civilians had been killed in an incident" only to be reluctantly forced to admit that they had been wrong. "There was so much spin and sometimes deception that the trust between us suffered a serious blow," writes Eide.

Still, the experienced prompted him to pull his punches when the U.N. withheld a public statement on a subsequent May 2009 attack by U.S. warplanes on suspected Taliban targets in the village of Gerani. An initial U.N. investigation determined that about 64 women and children had been killed, but Eide held back at the request of the U.S. military. "We had been right in our assessment and I felt bitter about not having publicized our findings."

Eide’s relationship with the Obama administration’s civilian leadership was no easier.

Shortly after his appointment, Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s new envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, made clear his contempt for Eide.

At the annual Munich conference on international security in February 2009, Holbrooke publicly lamented that Paddy Ashdown, who was previously considered for Eide post, had been turned down for the job. The first time they met for breakfast in Kabul, Holbrooke bluntly asked Eide: "When does your contract expire?"

Holbrooke then applied pressure on the U.N. leadership to appoint Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador to Croatia and a longtime Holbrooke ally from their days in the Balkans, as Eide’s deputy. Holbrooke then broached what would become a politically explosive topic.

"Who would be the best candidate to replace Karzai?" he blithely asked Eide at a breakfast meeting in Kabul..

"In the days and week that followed, rumors circulated about politicians that had been encouraged by Holbrooke to challenge Karzai [in the country’s 2009 presidential election]," Eide wrote. "The rumors included ministers as well as prominent politicians in the opposition." Around that time, Karzai’s first Vice President Ahmad Zia Massoud joked to Eide: "I must be the only person in Kabul whom Holbrooke has not invited to challenge Karzai for the presidency."

Meanwhile, relations with Galbraith, Holbrooke’s appointee in the U.N. mission, began to sour as the country’s approached the election.

While Eide had opposed Galbraith’s U.N. appointment, he offered praise for Galbraith’s energy and leadership qualities during his initial weeks, when he assembled a new team to help deal with the election. But the two quickly clashed.

While Eide was away on vacation in Europe, Galbraith called together top Western ambassadors, Afghan security ministers, and national electoral officials to outline a proposal to cut the number of polling stations from 7,000 to about 5,800. Galbraith argued that the shuttered "ghost centers," many in Taliban-controlled areas could not be secured, making them highly vulnerable to fraud.

But the stations were largely in ethnic Pashtun areas that were expected to vote in favor Karzai, a Pashtun. The decision to eliminate the polling stations would cut away at Karzai’s electoral advantage and Galbraith hadn’t informed Eide of his plans. "More than a million voters — perhaps more — would have been excluded from the very outset. It could easily have provoked riots," Eide writes.

In the end, about 6,200 polling centers were opened, and early reports showed evidence of extensive fraud, which primarily benefited Karzai. Following the discarding of suspicious ballots, Karzai still outperformed his chief rival, Abdullah Abdullah, by about 17 percentage points, yet failed to gain the 50 percent required to avoid a run off. But Karzai was declared president when Abdullah dropped out of the race.

Eide claims — though Galbraith denied it in an interview with me at the time — that his deputy tried to engineer a deal that would have ended with Karzai and Abdullah stepping down, instead setting up a transitional government headed by technocrats. But the proposal led to a dispute between Eide and his deputy that could not be overcome, and Galbraith was subsequently fired.

While Galbraith had his defenders within the U.N.’s rank-and-file, the international community rallied behind Eide, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton assured him that the United States would not take Galbraith’s side.

"She reassured me that the confrontation with Galbraith had not affected my relationship with her or the United States, and that she understood what a burden it had been to me," Eide writes.

But the relationship with Galbraith, who claimed Eide was too close to Karzai, worsened, breaking out into one of the U.N.’s most bitter public fights. Eide recalled a final conversation at U.N. headquarters: "Our conversation was short and not particularly friendly. When we parted, Galbraith said that he had lost his round — but the battle was not over yet."

Shortly after, a copy of Galbraith’s letter of resignation was leaked to the press. He charged Eide with denying "significant fraud had taken place" in Afghanistan and said that Eide had "blocked [him] and other UNAMA [the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan] professional staff from taking effective action that might have limited the fraud."

In the end, the Afghan electoral commission ruled that President Karzai had won 48.7 percent of the vote, a significant edge over Abdullah with 31.5 percent, but just shy of the 50 percent required to avoid a runoff for the presidency.

Karzai rejected the count, insisting that he had been robbed of victory, prompting Eide to threaten to offer his resignation. But a major constitutional crisis was averted after Senator John Kerry (D-MA), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, touched down in Kabul for an intensive round of negotiations with Karzai.

After three days of talks, a compromise had been struck: the electoral commission would count 43 ballot boxes that had not been set aside as suspicious. They boosted Karzai’s final count to 49.67 percent, close to the magical number that Karzai felt he needed to have a mandate. In exchange, Karzai agreed to the run off, though Abdullah ultimately withdrew from the race, clearing the way for Karzai to claim his second presidential term.

"I admired Kerry’s performance. He had handled the president with respect. For the Afghan president, this was a very different behavior from what he had become accustomed to from Holbrooke and some other U.S. visitors. If this had been the Obama administration’s approach from the outset, then much of the tension and suspicion between Kabul and Washington could have been avoided, I thought," Eide writes.

President Obama, meanwhile, revived the video link conference during the spring and summer of 2011, Eide wrote. "Perhaps Washington had come to realize that the initial strategy toward Karzai had failed."

But while Obama’s relationship with Karzai improved, it would remain "shaky and vulnerable," Eide noted. "One serious incident of civilian casualty caused by U.S. troops or one careless remark could trigger new confrontations." And nothing, he added, was as volatile as the West’s misunderstanding of the depths of Afghans’ religious piety.

Eide recalled a visit to a school in the center of Kabul, where he met with a group of urban girls attending a conference on education. Eide asked them their favorite subject. They all said history. "Because then we learn about the life of the prophet," they explained.

"There is little that can cause such a sense of humiliation and disrespect as caricatures of the prophet," Eide recalled. "And there is little that can cause such indignation and anger as a rumor — even worse, the sight — of a Koran being burnt."

That lesson, presumably, was not heeded as revelations that U.S. military personnel incinerated Korans in Kabul this month sparked riots throughout Afghanistan and threatened to disrupt the plans for the American withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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