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Power Struggle over Afghanistan: An Inside Look at What Went Wrong—And What We Can Do to Repair the Damage

Power Struggle over Afghanistan: An Inside Look at What Went Wrong—And What We Can Do to Repair the Damage by Kai Eide. Skyhorse Publishing, 2012, 320 pp., $24.95.

Kai Eide has an impressive resume. He joined the Norwegian Foreign Service in 1975, serving as the special representative of the secretary-general in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1997 and 1998, the special envoy to the secretary-general in Kosovo in 2005, and Norway’s ambassador to NATO 2002–06. From March 2008 to March 2010, he served as Ban Ki-Moon’s special representative to Afghanistan. In Power Struggle over Afghanistan, Eide explores why little progress has taken place in post-Taliban Afghanistan. He identifies Washington’s growing willingness to use military force in response to the unending state of insecurity as one reason why reconstruction failed. For Eide, Washington’s actions, which often took place without consultation, also alienated a highly suspicious and volatile Afghan political elite. He also highlights Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s suspicious nature and determination to hold onto power at all costs, which only exacerbated a turbulent situation. Nonetheless, to place responsibility solely on the shoulders of Washington and Karzai, while suggesting that greater UN involvement would have helped, is disingenuous and underlines a failure to recognize that the UN’s track record in state-building is tenuous.

Power Struggle over Afghanistan reads as an attempt by Kai Eide to counter his critics and suggest a way forward in Afghanistan. His writing is interspersed with personal anecdotes that do more to elucidate how hard the special representative’s job was than to add any real value. As such, he often seems to be interested in conveying an image of his own sense of self-importance and his anger at being ignored by the main players. In this way, Eide berates the various stakeholders. Sadly, the narrative underlines that Eide in many ways was no different from the political elites he criticizes, as he too lived in an ivory tower known as Palace 7, his residency in Afghanistan. Moreover, there is nothing in his book to suggest that he understood what was possible in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

Eide’s narrative portrays him as someone who saw his job as that of a benevolent, forward-looking headmaster trying to get unruly children to see that they would benefit from working together rather than fighting (the UN only has persuasive power). This may explain why Eide, like the UN, often failed to appreciate the limited role the organization was to have in the rebuilding of Afghanistan. Simply, the UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) was a political mission, as opposed to a peacekeeping mission, whose mandate remains as unclear today as it did when it was formulated: “lead and coordinate international civilian efforts in assisting Afghanistan transition from conflict to peace” (SC Res. 1401, 28 March 2002). With such a nebulous framework, it is no surprise that Eide and the UN were very much at a loss regarding the Afghan rebuilding process.

Power Struggle over Afghanistan adds much to the literature on Afghanistan and why—despite enormous contributions—the country remains insecure and turbulent. To his credit, Eide provides an honest assessment of the UN, recognizing that it is sometimes its own worst enemy. This is particularly apparent in “Struggle in the UN Family,” a chapter in which he recounts the challenges that he faced in recruiting appropriate people to UNAMA. His analysis of his turbulent relationship with his deputy, Peter Galbraith, is also important. It highlights how UN missions often become a series of comprises between external stakeholders, with little regard as to what is actually needed. Thus, Eide emphasizes that what often prevents the organization from being “an effective instrument” (p. 40) are internal bureaucratic and political obstacles. Other general lessons offered by Power Struggle over Afghanistan include emphasizing that sustainable peace parties need external support. This can be in the shape of reassurance to resources, although what is key is consistency, as nothing creates uncertainty—and, by extension, insecurity—more than a confused message. Thus, a remarkable and important chapter is Eide’s review of his talks with the Taliban, which stemmed from a belief that only reconciliation could help Afghans move forward.

Second, the presence of so many stakeholders, each with its own agenda and reading of what was taking place in Afghanistan, undermined the peacebuilding efforts. One could argue that at Bonn the parties made the peace, but they never engaged in peacebuilding. A third important lesson: Eide was not a traditional special representative, as he was not entrusted with mediating an end to a conflict in Afghanistan but with building a peace. This ultimately proved quite impossible, as special representatives are “often conflicting, with overlapping mandates and duties without resources, and the context contingencies rarely allow for consistent action,” as noted in Timothy D. Sisk’s “Introduction: The SRSGs and the Management of Civil War” in a 2010 issue of Global Governance.

In sum, Eide’s Power Struggle over Afghanistan serves to further underline the limitation of the United Nations and, by extension, the powerful states that encourage the organization to become involved in state-building. That is, far too often, missions become lost in conflicting narratives and interests, necessitating an honest conversation as to whether such operations are possible.

Isaac Kfir

Maxwell School, Syracuse University

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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