Interview with Kai Eide, UN Special Representative for Afghanistan

Interview with Kai Eide, UN Special Representative for Afghanistan

3 August 2009 – Kai Eide has been Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Special Representative for Afghanistan since March 2008. The UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA), which he leads, has been helping Afghan election officials prepare for the presidential and provincial polls slated for 20 August, along with supporting national development strategies and facilitating Afghanistan’s partnership with the international community. He has also served the UN as the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to Kosovo in 2005 and as the Secretary-General’s Special Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1997 to 1998, and has been a member of the Norwegian Foreign Service since 1975.

UN News Centre: What led you to embark on a diplomatic career?

Kai Eide: I worked in youth politics since I was 18 years old and my big interest was in international affairs. I was campaigning for Norwegian membership to the European Union, and after having failed miserably, I applied for the Norwegian Foreign Service.

I don’t know really what triggered my interest in foreign affairs. It’s hard to say. I was always interested in politics and political life and I wanted at the time to become a politician. My family were army officers for three generations and I couldn’t be the fourth generation.

It was really the people arounI’m repeating over and over again that it is an illusion to believe that it is primarily military forces that can bring that conflict to an end.d me. Many of them were politicians who played prominent roles in our country and in shaping the country’s foreign policy. These were friends of mine who I met through my activities in youth politics.

One person who became my friend when I was about 22 years old was Sweden’s Prime Minister Carl Bildt [from 1991 to 1994 and who later served as UN Special Envoy for the Balkans.]

UN News Centre: You’ve been in your post as head of UNAMA for over a year. How do you view the job now compared to when you first began?

Kai Eide: I came into the job knowing it would be difficult but it was much more difficult than I had expected. I knew that it was going to be the most challenging assignment I’d ever had, but I must say that it was more challenging than I thought.

That’s not so unnatural because it is only when you have your feet on the ground that the realities hit you. It’s been a hard year and a half and it continues to be a hard place to be.

UN News Centre: What were some of the realities that you found on arrival in Kabul?

I realized that we were facing a very fragmented Afghan Government, with extremely weak institutions; a country dominated by great poverty [and] high illiteracy rates; and a country that is increasingly engulfed in armed conflict.

That was one part. The other was that it was a country where the international community’s efforts were equally fragmented and unfocused.

And I came to a UN mission which was much weaker than I had expected. I came in enthusiastic about an ambitious mandate and a strong mandate, but that mandate was not matched by the resources on the ground. That’s not uncommon, but I felt that the distance between the ambitious mandate and the limited resources was quite dramatic.

UN News Centre: What is your biggest frustration as you lead UN efforts in Afghanistan?

Kai Eide: My biggest frustration has been to build up the mission and acquire the resources that we need to do the job.

That’s not only a question of numbers. It’s a question of getting the right people and when we are faced with challenges in very specific areas, you need people with specific skills and they are hard to find and hard to recruit.

We had an historic event last year when we managed to double the budget of the mission [from $76 million to $163 million for 2009] and that enabled us to recruit a significant number of new people.

There have been a surprising number of people who want to come to or come back to Afghanistan, but the big problem is to have people with specific qualifications that can enable us to play the role that is expected of us.

The international community today also wants us to be present in every one of the country’s 34 provinces. So far we’re in around 20. We’re expanding gradually. I want to accelerate that process, of course, to the extent that security conditions permit.

UN News Centre: You’ve been quite outspoken on the issue of civilian casualties. Do you think the international military forces are doing enough to limit the number of civilian deaths resulting from their operations, and what more can they do?

Kai Eide: I think when we spoke out very, very clearly in late August, early September last year following the event in Shindand district in the west [where UNAMA reported that 90 civilians were killed during a military counterinsurgency operation] – that was really a turning point.

There was great disagreement between us and ISAF [the International Security Assistance Force, which is the coalition of military forces present in Afghanistan] over the first few weeks. We claimed that 90 civilian lives had been lost. The military, at the beginning, stated that five or seven non-combatants had been killed and then increased the figure to 35 or 37.

So, there was a big gap between our assessment and their final analysis, but it’s clear to me that was a turning point in several respects. I think that the UN mission had never spoken out so clearly on an important human rights issue. It gave us great respect in the people and strengthened our relationship with the Government.

We had a number of tactical directives issued under the former ISAF Commander [General David] McKiernan, but I’ve seen also now under the new Commander, [Lieutenant] General [Stanley] McCrystal, that this is also at the top of his agenda. So, I think, there has been a significant change in attitude on the military side and I believe that we have played an important role in that respect.

UN News Centre: You’ve also served with the UN in Kosovo, and in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Are there lessons learned from those experiences that can also apply to your role in Afghanistan?

Kai Eide: I always warn those that come from other missions not to rely too much on the experience they had on former missions. It is useful to have been in the field, no doubt, but it is very limited what you can draw of specific lessons from the Balkans or even from Iraq.

There are some general lessons and I’ve seen for instance from other missions that we have been too late in developing, reforming and strengthening the police force. That’s happened here also.

And even more so, we have been much too late in addressing the critical issues of an efficient justice system. That happened in the Balkans and it’s a dramatic shortcoming here in Afghanistan. It’s one of the main failures that I see repeated in one mission after the other.

UN News Centre: How far along do you think UNAMA are in building that respect?

Kai Eide: I think we do enjoy respect in the Afghan leadership and also we enjoy respect from the Afghan people. That stems from the fact that the UN system has been here for more than 50 years, and our tradition has always been to serve the most vulnerable groups of Afghan society, which continues to be an important element in our efforts and that is remembered.

To maintain that respect in all circles requires a difficult balancing act between us and the other international players. For instance, it is important that we have a good working relationship with the military, but we must also insist on the independence and on the integrity of our own UN mandate. We must work together but not be seen as an add-on to the military operation. That is tremendously important and that is constantly on my mind.

Let me also mention one other element that I think is important and that is doesn’t help to come into a mission and operate as a bulldozer. The most important task when you arrive at the mission is to build the confidence of the people and the leaders. That requires time and you have to invest in building that confidence and in respecting the culture, the history and the religion of the country you are in.

In general, there is a positive assessment of the UN and UNAMA contributions. We should remember that it is a relatively small mission in a country of almost 30 million people and the country is much larger than France at 650,000 square-kilometres. That’s huge.

UN News Centre: What is the biggest challenge facing Afghanistan today?

Kai Eide: The biggest challenge, of course, is the ongoing armed conflict and to bring that to an end. And I’m repeating over and over again that it is an illusion to believe that it is primarily military forces that can bring that conflict to an end.

It is political efforts that have to be at the top of our agenda. I’m pleased to see that it is gradually being understood more broadly in the international community but there is still some way to go in order to understand that what we do has to be based on a political strategy and not on a military strategy.

That, I believe, is the biggest challenge, but then there are also other challenges that the UN mission, as such, faces more than any other, where we are making significant progress.

Much has been talked about insufficient donor coordination and insufficient effectiveness in aid efforts. Over the last few months, we have seen very significant progress in this respect.

This stems from several elements. We’ve seen an increased level of confidence inside the Government. We’ve seen a less fragmented Afghan Government that is more able to develop its own national programme with support from UNAMA. This has also led to increased efforts by the international community to get behind this Government which has made our efforts for donor coordination easier than they were four or five months ago.

UN News Centre: What can be done on the political front to tackle the armed conflict?

Kai Eide: As soon as the elections are over, we need to get a reconciliation process going. It’s a peace process that needs to be based on a political strategy. It can never be based on a military strategy. I believe this is increasingly understood, although when I see prominent politicians speaking about reconciliation it is still to a large extent built on a military strategy.

A genuine peace process has to get under way as soon as the elections are over and the new Government has been formed. As we are entering a calmer season on the battleground, we have half a year in order to get that peace process under way.

UN News Centre: The country will hold presidential elections on 20 August. How are preparations shaping up?

With regard to election security, a preliminary list of polling centres was drawn up by the Independent Election Commission (IEC) a few weeks ago. We are now reviewing that list in order to see how we can open as many polling stations as possible. The security organizations – the Afghan army, the Afghan police and ISAF – are doing their utmost with the Election Commission to identify and try to open as many as possible.

It is tremendously important that we are able to open as many centres as possible, so that the elections are open to all Afghans. That is quite a challenge but it’s our ambition in order to have credible elections that are accepted by the people. We will know in a couple of weeks how far we have been able to advance in that respect.

Seventeen million ballot papers have arrived in Kabul and will be dispatched to nearly 29,000 polling stations in Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. (22 July '09)

The authorities and UNAMA are in contact with local communities to make sure that they mobilize their own citizens to create a secure environment in their villages enabling us to open as many polling centres as possible. It is a difficult job and it is a job that requires a lot of energy at this moment.

UN News Centre: There was an attack on an aide of the main opposition candidate Abdullah Abdullah recently. Does this affect preparations?

Kai Eide: There have been a number of attacks. The one you mention and there was an attack on President Karzai’s vice-presidential candidate two days ago. These are the most serious kinds of threats to the election process. We have strongly condemned them, of course, but we also believe that it has been a dignified election campaign, and it’s been an intensive political debate. There have been flaws, but my overall impression is that the election campaigns, so far, have been good.

UN News Centre: What type of leader does Afghanistan need at this moment in its history?

Kai Eide: What Afghanistan needs are more forward-looking, reform-oriented politicians who can bring about economic development and strengthen the institutions of this country, be it on the security side or on the civilian side.

It’s important to understand the difficult circumstances that need to be confronted, both in regards to the election and in Afghanistan in general. If you look at the institutions for instance, they are extremely weak. Today, of the around 360 districts, only half have offices for the district governor. That illustrates how weak the institutions are on the ground.

When you look at the elections, the Afghan parties are now employing 165,000 staff to work at the polling centres in order to get the election material out. More than 3,000 donkeys had to be used to get the material to the most remote areas of the country.

That illustrates to me how complicated this election process is. This is by far the most complex and difficult election I have seen in my life. Therefore, also our ambition with regards to the election should be realistic.

UN News Centre: Should the Government open direct talks with the Taliban and bring them into the political fold?

Kai Eide: The first and most important challenge that we face after the election is to maintain the stability of the country and see that all candidates accept the results, that those who do not win the election accept the results also so that we can have a calm and stable environment after the election.

We could be in a situation where it would take almost four weeks before the counting and complaints process is over and the final results have been certified. It is very important that we all take our share in ensuring there is stability in the country in that period of time.

When the new Government has been formed, a political process should be opened with all parts of the population as soon as possible and that would have to include insurgents.

UN News Centre: Afghanistan has been besieged by military intervention and drug trafficking for decades. What are some of the investments the international community can make to influence how these two destabilizing phenomena are addressed for the long term?

Kai Eide: First of all we need to set our priorities better. We’re trying to do everything at the same time. That does not lead us to long-term results.

Our priorities now from the UN point of view are the following:

First, reforming and strengthening of the agricultural sector, where we have worked very closely with the Afghan Government and a new national programme has been developed. It has the support of the international community and it will lead us away from the situation concentrating purely on security. It will create employment and perhaps even lead Afghanistan to export food products.

Second is infrastructure. This country is in dire need of better infrastructure. We often boast about how many kilometres of road we are constructing. The question is where we build these roads and the railways. We should focus our infrastructure efforts on the impact these projects would have in allowing us to help develop Afghanistan’s own economic assets.

For instance, within minerals, Afghanistan has the largest iron-ore reserves in Asia. That offers tremendous potential for economic growth. So I would like to see us concentrate on infrastructure that could be the economic engines and growth centres of this country.

But these are projects that do not have the kind of short-term impact that many donors seek. They’re long-term projects with long-term investments required and that’s where the potential lies for enabling Afghanistan to develop its own economy and depend less on international assistance.

Then there is a fourth priority, which is institution-building. I have urged the international community to develop a massive institution-building programme because institutions are tremendously weak. It’s not only a question of developing human resources but also the infrastructure on the ground at the provincial and district level is very weak.

UN News Centre: Would that alone help eradicate drug trafficking and the production of opiates?

Kai Eide: I think that all of us realize that eradication is not the way to go. We have to invest more in alternative livelihoods. It is an important part of the current agricultural programme that was launched a couple of months ago.

Last year there was a reduction in poppy production of 6 per cent and there was an increase in the number of poppy-free provinces. We’ve gone from 16 to 18 poppy-free provinces. I hope that this year we’ll be able to move to above 20 poppy-free provinces – that means that poppy production is no longer an Afghan-wide problem. It’s a problem that is related to a few provinces in the south. I do also hope that we will see a significant reduction in Helmand, which is by far the biggest producer of opium today.

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