Presentation by H.E. Dr. Zahir Tanin  Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Afghanistan to the UN

Presentation by H.E. Dr. Zahir Tanin Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Afghanistan to the UN

“Power Struggle Over Afghanistan: A Debate at Columbia University”

Presentation by H.E. Dr. Zahir Tanin

Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Afghanistan to the UN

24 January 2012


It is my honour to be here with Jean-Marie Guehenno and Kai Eide, two distinguished friends with whom I share a history of great efforts for building a better Afghanistan: Kai Eide, as Special Representative for the United Nations from 2008 until 2010, and Jean-Marie Guehenno who was central in the shaping UNAMA’s work in Afghanistan as Under Secretary-General for Peace Keeping Operations from 2000 until 2008. I also would like to thank my good friend, Scott Smith, who spent an important part of his life in Afghanistan and for Afghanistan, including many years as DPKO’s Political Affairs Officer.


 What has brought us all here is Kai’s book, “Power Struggle Over Afghanistan,” a subject that could also be used to define the history of the last three decades. While much remains to be debated about the subject, Kai’s book is offering most importantly a striking insight into the role of the UN and the SRSG in relation with both the government of Afghanistan and the international community in a critical time.

Kai took a bold step with this book; he’s inviting us to know mainly what is relevant to the present day rather than the past. In fact, instead of a purely historical analysis, he is trying to suggest an alternative strategy that is based on understanding the perceptions and respecting the views of a national partner that the international community should work with. While Afghanistan has been a graveyard of political solutions, at least in 1980s and 1990s, a lesson that we should have in mind; Kai still sees the way out of the crisis in an inclusive political solution.

I am not here to add to Kai’s story; he was an “insider” and played an important role, being in the centre of happenings, in a very crucial moment before and after the second presidential elections in 2009 in Afghanistan. Let me enter from a different door, and focus on where the UN is and where its envoys can be or have been.


The UN has long been involved in Afghanistan: initially, in a distinct post-World War II peace time, as an agent of development and humanitarian assistance, but later – since 1982 – using its good offices for finding a “political solution” after the Soviet occupation, as the country began to gradually turn into the most important and ultimately the last battlefield of the Cold War. For about 20 years, the UN’s good offices and negotiating mantle in different phases of the Afghan conflict embodied the primary diplomatic channel for ending the bloodshed and securing a peaceful future. As a result, in 1980s the UN negotiated the Geneva Accords between Afghanistan and Pakistan that was signed in 1988. It was counted as a huge diplomatic success for the UN, offering the prospect of peace and stability for Afghanistan. However, it did not help stop the country from dragging deeper into profound crisis and new waves of violence. With the failure of the UN envoy Benon Sevan in 1991-1992 to bring the main war factions around a political settlement, the heavy factional infighting after the fall of Kabul in April 1992 particularly in 1993 and1994 resulted in the killing of about 50 to 60 thousand civilians and the exodus of hundreds of thousands from the city.


 In 2001, soon after the US-led military intervention and the breaking of the Taliban command in Afghanistan, the UN became essential for hammering out a new internal arrangement, which informed the Bonn process. Lakhder Brahimi, the UN SG’s new envoy for Afghanistan effectively managed to secure the collaboration of different Afghan factions around a five year road map for stability after two long decades of war and political turmoil.  It was a great success for the UN and the international community. The Bonn agreement was a remarkable display of the UN’s noble side as the guardian of international peace and security, in spite of the fact that it was the only moment that all main foreign players were united in asking the UN to pick up the pieces and forge an agreement. In the last decade, the UN remained the lead international body standing in the centre of a widely celebrated platform of great idealism for a brilliant democratic future of the country. The UN was mandated to support democratization, institution building and reform efforts and promote human rights including women’s rights.


 UNAMA in the last ten years played an enormous role: in actuality, in the first half the last decade, it practically filled a vacuum created by the steady disintegration of state. It worked not only on behalf of the international community but also on behalf of the state that it was sanctioned to support.

Over time, in a growingly complicated security and political situation and the multitudes of international and national actors, all post-Brahimi SRSGs, in each step and every moment, appeared to be in a more delicate position of balancing numerous and often contradictory interests and views. Moreover, at least three paradoxes that the UN faced in Afghanistan added to the complexity of the role of UNAMA and the SRSG in the country:

1-     The objectives of democratic peace-building vs. the aims and consequences of the war on terror, and later NATO’s stabilization operation.

2-     The perception of UNAMA as leading international force vs. the view that powerful international actors are laying down the rules of the game.

3-    Its commitment to democratic noble ideals inspiring millions of Afghans by offering a different future vs. the pragmatic recognition of power politics including  through putting justice on hold for “the sake of peace”.

Furthermore, from almost the end of 2006, a deteriorating security situation in the south and south east, a Taliban comeback with extensive trans-border support, began to pose serious challenges to the efforts of the national and international actors and gradually triggered not only the beginning of a blame game but undertaking new thinking on all fronts. It included a re-defined status for the UN and the SRSG.


 Before the end of SRSG Tom Koenigs’s tenure in December 2007, a new paradigm emerged among some international players, emphasizing a strong role for the SRSG, inspired by the heavy-handed experiences of some international envoy during the Balkan wars in the 1990s.

Paddy Ashdown, a British politician and a former old hand in the Balkans, was seen as a potential perfect international strongman for such a position in Kabul.

The search for a Herculean role was justified, by the “need” for compensating the perceived “weakness” of the government and to restore an orderly action of the international players.

In Kabul, people slowly had started to interpret the suggestion as the coming of a new colonial “Viceroy”. President Karzai, open to a commonly acceptable candidate including Mr. Ashdown, opposed the suggestion.

The UN Secretary General decided then promptly to look into the other names on the short list. At the end as we know Kai was appointed as the new SRSG. As the Permanent Representative of Afghanistan, I was kindly advised and informed in all steps of decisions by the Secretary General. The response I received immediately after informing Kabul about the SG’s decision on Kai’s appointment was a welcoming one.

I met Kai in the UN old building just after his appointment. His two colleagues, Scott Smith and Tom Gregg accompanied him. I was candid with my advice to him:  it’s essential to understand the Government of Afghanistan and work with it, it is important to balance relationships with all actors, and it’s necessary to bring order to the UN house.


 Kai Eide arrived in Afghanistan during a difficult time. He described it unambiguously in his book: the insecurity and violence had spread to many more parts of the country, the Taliban insurgency became a serious threat to state building efforts, people who supported the government and the international community came increasingly under attack, civilian casualties rose, the difference in approach put the government of Afghanistan and international community at odds, all involved advocated for a new strategy; and the negative discourse further developed as the country was moving towards the second presidential election in summer of 2009.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s main international supporter, the United States was in an election year, and a democratic leadership was waiting in the wings.

As he detailed in his book, Kai felt, more and more, the burden of accumulating complexities on his shoulders. He provides an honest witness account as the main international figure at that time in Afghanistan, about the increasing threatening trends, the troubling lack of understanding of the local particularities by Afghanistan’s allies, and the increased civilian deaths and its devastating impacts the perception of Afghan people.

Kai tries to understand the reasons behind growing frustrations among Afghans about a number of troubling aspects of the activities of the international community in Afghanistan. This is why he insists, “the international community should respect the Afghan Government”, “not to ignore legitimate concerns of Afghans,” and “should not treat the country as a no-man’s land.”


The book has a unique focus on the second election in Afghanistan, where the strategies of the new US administration and the ambition of its special envoy, late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, were tested.  During this election, with the irregularities that were widely debated, the UN was pushed into a difficult situation when Kai’s deputy, another old hand of the Balkan wars and an ally of Richard Holbrooke, publicly embarked on a crusade to “enlist the White House in a plan to force the President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, to resign,” as the UN authorities later revealed.

Kai advocates an alternative attitude by foreign envoys, particularly when he writes about the former US special envoy and Peter Galbraith (Kai’s deputy), a view that reminds us about how more than 170 years ago,  Henry Mortimer Durand, the Foreign Secretary of British India of the time, described William Hay Macnaghten, the civilian envoy in Afghanistan during first Anglo-Afghan war (1839-1841), who was killed in 1841 in Kabul.  Durand called the selection of Macnagthen, as an envoy in Afghanistan, an ‘unhappy one,’ “for Macnaghten… ignorant of the country and people of Afghanistan, was, though an erudite Arabic scholar, neither practised in the field of Asiatic intrigue nor a man of action. His ambition was, however, great, and the expedition, holding out the promise of distinction and honours, had met with his strenuous advocacy…the outcome of which was to darken his reputation, consign him to a sudden cruel death, bring awful ruin on the enterprise he had fostered, and inflict incalculable damage on British prestige in India.”

Anyway, any true understanding of the debate about the 2009 elections and what went wrong, with all the consequences for the prospect of stability and the relations between Afghanistan and its international partners, would be incomplete if Kai’s book has not been read.

In fact, Mr. Eide’s book, “Power Struggle Over Afghanistan”, is a source of understanding many un-speaks. There are no better warnings than the accounts and assessments that Kai offers us in this book, if we don’t want to lose this struggle or the necessary support of the Afghan people.




You May Also Like

Fixing Failed States: From Theory to Practice