U.S. Struggles to Find Envoy, Hindering Effort to Stabilize Afghanistan

By Michael Abramowitz and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The White House has been pushing since early fall to install a powerful new foreign envoy to oversee international reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. Last month it looked as though it had finally found its man: After a meeting in Kuwait, Hamid Karzai indicated he was ready to accept prominent British politician Paddy Ashdown for the assignment.

Less than two weeks later, the appointment collapsed after Karzai changed his mind -- the latest sign of tensions between the courtly Afghan president and the Western powers that have been seeking for nearly seven years to stabilize a country that was the breeding ground for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

U.S. officials have done little to disguise their displeasure with the recent turn of events, which has not only left them without a candidate but also imperiled their strategy of giving a single international envoy a robust mandate for Afghanistan. Over weeks of negotiations, the job has been whittled down from a statesman of stature who would influence decisions by NATO, the European Union and the United Nations to a more traditional role as envoy of the U.N. secretary general, according to officials familiar with the discussions.

"There's no ready, obvious replacement," said one senior U.S. official who is not authorized to speak publicly. "We thought [Ashdown] was best qualified, given his credentials and his experience and his ability to command attention, especially in European capitals."

Talking with reporters last week, Richard Boucher, assistant secretary of state for South Asia, disputed the suggestion that the rejection of Ashdown meant that Karzai was obstructing progress.

"That is our partner and that's who we will work with, because that's who the people of Afghanistan chose," he said. "I think it's very clear that from our discussions with the Afghan government, even since Paddy Ashdown felt he had to withdraw his candidacy, that they, too, want to see better coordination, want to see strong international coordination."

U.S. and U.N. officials said they are still looking for an envoy. Among those said to be under consideration are Kai Eide, a senior Norwegian official with experience in the U.N. bureaucracy; Jan Kubis, the Slovak foreign minister; Hikmat Chetin, a senior Turkish diplomat with experience in Afghanistan; and Joschka Fischer, a former German foreign minister. President Bush discussed the search recently with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who will make the final appointment.

Still, Bush administration officials acknowledge that the episode has highlighted the inability of the United States and its allies to organize civilian reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, the focus of recent criticism by diplomats and a flurry of new reports.

Since the Taliban fell in 2001, the international community has provided about $15 billion to rebuild Afghanistan. But U.S. officials and outside experts say that there has been little coordination among the dozens of countries and international organizations helping to build roads and bridges, create a new police and justice system, and deal with narcotics production.

"There is a very clear need for a joining of the international military strategy with the international civilian strategy," said Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns, who helped recruit Ashdown. "Countries that are extending assistance to Afghanistan are not extending assistance in a central, organized way right now."

The troubles with reconstruction are a companion to the more publicized military difficulties NATO is having in Afghanistan, where U.S. officials -- most prominently Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates -- have complained that some allies are unwilling to participate in the most violent fight against the Taliban. But many officials regard the civilian effort as perhaps even more critical to controlling Afghanistan's insurgency.

Asked recently to assess U.S. progress, a top U.S. official handling Afghanistan said: "Tactically on the security front, I would say we are winning."

"The challenge with Afghanistan is that's not good enough," added the official, who insisted on anonymity to speak more freely. "And it is on some of the other dimensions of the mission where we are not doing as well as we need to be. And mostly those have to do with the non-military . . . having to do with governance, economic development, reconstruction."

Norway first suggested a super-envoy in the fall of 2006, but it was not until last summer, as reports mounted of problems in Afghanistan, that U.S. officials began warming to the idea.

U.S. officials focused on Ashdown, a former leader of the Liberal Democrats in Britain who impressed them with his service as the U.N. high representative in Bosnia from 2002 to 2006. The British quickly agreed.

But early on, U.N., U.S. and Afghan officials argued about how powerful the job should be. Sources said Zalmay Khalilzad, who is the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and is close to Karzai, detected reservations among Afghan senior officials -- but those reservations appeared to dissipate after the Afghan president met with Ashdown in Kuwait in January.

Ban then met with Ashdown in Madrid to seal the deal. But when Karzai returned to Kabul, he received criticism from members of his cabinet, while the media portrayed Ashdown as a potential pro-consul, akin to past British colonial rulers. Karzai, meanwhile, believed that Ashdown had planted newspaper stories in Britain suggesting that Karzai was a weak Pashtun leader atop a Tajik government, a remark Karzai viewed as "fanning ethnic tensions," said a senior U.S. official.

Said T. Jawad, Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States, suggested that there were worries about the powerful role Ashdown had played in the Balkans. "Based on his past experience in the Balkans, the Afghan cabinet and other officials raised some concerns," Jawad said. "President Karzai decided his role wouldn't be constructive."

By the time Karzai met with Ban and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in late January, the Afghan leader had soured on the choice. Ban had gone into the meeting expecting to announce Ashdown's appointment; instead, Ashdown soon issued a statement withdrawing from consideration.

It was not the first time in recent months that Karzai has clashed with his Western patrons. He has battled the United States over opium-reduction strategies, and in December he expelled two senior European officials for holding unauthorized talks with the Taliban.

Some analysts saw the Bush administration's inability to secure Ashdown's appointment as a serious setback. "The rejection of Ashdown by Karzai undermines the ability of the Afghan government to be moving more forcefully in the right direction," said Mark Schneider, senior vice president of the International Crisis Group, which has been critical of the reconstruction efforts. "When Karzai said he didn't want it, the U.S. didn't stick to its guns."

Senior administration officials say that there is no major rift and that Karzai, who has a monthly videoconference with Bush, is entitled to veto power over a position that could vastly influence his country.

Seth Jones, an Afghanistan expert with the Rand Corp., said Karzai, who is up for reelection next year, is reluctant to be identified too closely with the United States. "I don't think over the long term it's a significant blow," he said. But the failure to install Ashdown, he added, shows Karzai's sensitivity "to not be seen as being pushed around by the international community."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company