The Power And The Inglory

Somehow I missed it. Maybe because it wasn’t from the biggest press on the planet? Or because the cover wasn’t flashy or highly stylized? Or maybe the author’s Norwegian reserve had the effect of cloaking the book in an air of inconspicuousness? I just don’t know.

Whatever the reason, I failed to hear advance word of Kai Eide’sPower Struggle over Afghanistan. Only after a close friend and longtime Afghan hand told me she had read the book and it was not to be missed did I get hold of a copy. As usual, she was right.
One day, when the first big, retrospective history of the US war in Afghanistan is being written, that author is going to need to profile Afghan President Hamid Karzai. There will be distinct pressure to conform to the vision of Karzai we’ve been spoon-fed by the Western press for years on end: that Karzai is erratic, isolated from reality, or out of control. That future author may eventually decide to paint that portrait, but it will mean dismissing the word of the foreign official who has probably spent the most time with Karzai in recent years – the United Nations special representative for Afghanistan from 2008 to 2010, Kai Eide.

The fact that a man who worked in Afghanistan for just two years of a decade-plus-long war may hold such a title is telling in itself. It’s also a neon sign pointing toward what’s most important about Eide’s book – his pulling back the curtain on the war at the highest levels.

Norwegian reserve is, indeed, present on the page, and sometimes one needs to read between the lines, but at its core Power Struggle over Afghanistan is still a very candid account of the crumbling – before Eide’s very eyes – of the relationship between the US and Karzai and between the international community and Afghanistan more broadly; a detailed chronicle of repeated foreign missteps, from killing civilians to insulting Afghanistan’s president, that occurred regularly during Eide’s tenure (not to mention before it and since).

It’s hard to imagine anyone looking back on George W Bush’s war as the halcyon days of America’s most recent engagement with Afghanistan, but Eide makes a compelling case. When the Barack Obama administration came to power in 2009, regular videoconferences between the Afghan and US presidents were discontinued. Diplomacy would instead be conducted at a lower level and Karzai kept at arm’s length. Out went friendly relations and in came tough talk and bullying tactics under the direction of Vice-President Joe Biden and special envoy Richard Holbrooke.

“If the Obama administration believed Karzai would listen more to Washington by talking less to him, then the new team was making a serious mistake,” Eide observes.

Humiliated by ample press coverage of the new US attitude, the Afghan president underwent, he writes, a transformation from calm and thoughtful to confrontational and prone to explosive outbursts. The Americans had done what years of struggle against the Soviets and the Taliban hadn’t. They had literally broken Hamid Karzai.

“The international community had made Karzai the target of such criticism and demonstrated such a lack of respect that I had never witnessed anything similar,” Eide recalls.

He had experienced a kind of pressure we would find hard to understand. Civilian casualties worried and humiliated him. When he raised such incidents, he was told by international partners to keep the disagreements behind closed doors. Prominent international politicians could say that the problem was not the insurgents, but bad government. However, the same international politicians had never lifted a finger to marginalize old warlords and power brokers who had no interest in reforms and good governance. They criticized Karzai for corruption but continued to make contracts with well-known corrupt Afghans. There was a level of hypocrisy that made him bitter and angry; his irritation seemed to grow by the day.

Bitterness and humiliation, of course, didn’t end at the presidential palace, nor did they begin there. For years, few in the international community have paid much attention to the civilian casualties and suffering in Afghanistan. This has been especially true of Americans.

The invisibility of the Afghan people and the larger numbers of civilians killed by the Taliban have contributed to a perception that any complaints by Karzai about casualties caused by the Americans or their coalition partners marks the Afghan president as an ingrate.

In the US, the notion of security has, since September 11, 2001, come to trump all, even basic rights and civil liberties. And if a US president, say, launches multiple wars in response to an attack on US civilians, he’s apt to be re-elected. But there’s a disconnect when it comes to Afghanistan. If Karzai complains when civilians in his country are killed in air strike after air strike, it’s sour grapes or incomprehensible emotionality.

Eide, however, offers a revealing anecdote that helps explain the situation the Afghan president has frequently found himself in. He relates the story of an elderly man from a rural central province who was arrested by coalition forces, handcuffed and forced to march over difficult terrain. After he was transferred to a prison in Kabul, Karzai somehow heard about his story and invited him to the presidential palace.

The Norwegian diplomat writes, “At the end of his story, the old man said, ‘I don’t think I’ll live long enough to see this country become our own again.’ To Karzai it was as if a knife had been sunk into his back. The old man was humiliated by what he had experienced, and the president was humiliated by what he had heard.”

In the end, Power Struggle over Afghanistan is, however, no paean to Karzai. It concludes in just the way you would expect a story from a ruined country that has been at war for more than three decades and repeatedly occupied by foreign forces to end – in disappointment. In this particular case, it’s Eide disappointed in Karzai for continued reliance on warlords; with Karzai disappointed in Eide for not standing up to the United States more forcefully; with the United States groping around for solutions after recognizing its strong-arm tactics weren’t working with Karzai; and with the Afghan people continuing to suffer without an end to it in sight.

Still, Power Struggle over Afghanistan is more than simply a catalogue of crises and controversies. Eide offers an inside view and trenchant analysis of the inner politics of the United Nations and the tightrope an envoy in his position, balancing multiple Afghan and international political interests, needs to walk in a political minefield like Afghanistan.

He takes us inside his UN compound and into high-level diplomatic meetings, shares his darkest days and doesn’t shy from repeated self-criticism. Present too are revealing insights into the minds of the many key international players with whom he interacted, especially the Americans, from US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to top generals David McKiernan and Stanley McChrystal, ambassador Karl Eikenberry and defense secretary Robert Gates as well as Holbrooke.

If readers already know something of Eide’s story, they probably have a memory of the very public war waged against him in the press by his own deputy (and Holbrooke intimate) Peter Galbraith – it’s all in the text, too.

Power Struggle over Afghanistan is a uniquely candid, thoroughly researched and important book on the war and an indispensable resource for understanding how we arrived at the present moment in Afghanistan. It ought to be required reading for foreign diplomats and military officers heading to Afghanistan, especially Americans – with special emphasis on this passage in which Eide reflects on his tour in the war zone:
The most important reason for my bitterness was my ever-growing disagreement with Washington’s strategy in Afghanistan. It had become increasingly dominated by military strategies, forces, and offensives. Urgent civilian and political requirements were treated as appendices to the military tasks. 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.
Eide ends his book on a positive note, claiming that while it’s “easy to despair and believe that the conflict in Afghanistan is a lost war and that Afghanistan is a failed state that cannot be repaired”, it just isn’t so.

While he rejects the notion that the war is already lost, one comes away believing that Eide might protest too much. Indeed, while the subtitle of his book is “An Inside Look at What Went Wrong and What We Can Do to Repair the Damage”, after reading his account, repairing the damage seems downright impossible.

To his credit, Eide offers reasons for hope instead of prescriptions for repairs in the book’s final pages. For the career diplomatic envoy, Afghanistan’s mammoth untapped mineral wealth, increasingly educated youth and the rise of new technologies offer a possible road from ruin. But the lost war and a better future seem to have little to do with each other.

If the conflict in Afghanistan isn’t already lost, then it follows that somehow it can be won. Just how to win it has been beyond the means of two superpowers, all regional powers, and multiple Afghan governments as well as ordinary Afghans for three decades now.

But Eide is, of course, right that the ultimate solution for Afghanistan will reside with Afghans, and his book goes a long way toward explaining why it can be only thus. Those reasons are summed up simply and eloquently in a text message Eide received from one of several Afghan ministers who was visiting Washington in the early days of the Obama administration. That Afghan diplomat reduced the experience to just one word, recalls Eide: “neocolonialism”.

Nick Turse is the associate editor of An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, in The Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch.

Power Struggle over Afghanistan (2012) by Karl Eide. Skyhorse Publishing, January 2012. ISBN 10: 1616084642; US$24.95, 320 pages.