15 OCTOBER 2009


An increasing number of diplomats are wondering: Who advises Secretary General Ban Ki-moon? There have been so many "unforced errors" lately which could have been avoided or at least presented better.

A widely publicized feud between two senior envoys of the Secretary General -- his own staff under his own official authority -- has unduly eroded the credibility of the Secretary General and the obviously marginal role of the U.N. in Afghanistan.

Two clashing egos, two formerly close friends turned political adversaries, two politically connected individuals confident of strong backing (from outside the U.N., of course), were driving the U.N. name into political quicksand. Each of them, opinionated as always, was confident that he was reflecting a predominant viewpoint; each of them determined -- and able -- to go the whole way regardless of U.N. position or interest.

The Secretary General -- Mr. Ban Ki-moon in this instance -- had the authority and the right to call them both in, clip their wings, and keep them (and the situation) under reasonable control. Better yet, he could have demonstrated courageous leadership by firing them BOTH -- announce a serious re-evaluation, and place a high-level heavyweight to lead a refreshed mission.

Instead, he first looked uncertain, then partial to one side, perhaps in the belief that it was the same as that of the U.S. Administration. However, a mere reading of U.S. media would have indicated that the U.S. Administration had not yet made a definite determination. Ban Ki-moon was thus unnecessarily caught, not only between his two dueling envoys, but unduly trapped within competing spheres of influence within the U.S. His predicament was compounded by his own statements or those attributed to him at crucial moments.

On Tuesday, 29 September, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the press publicly that Peter Galbraith, U.N. Deputy Representative in Afghanistan, had his confidence. The following day, Wednesday, 30 September, it was officially announced that he was fired.

On Monday, 28 September, it was mentioned that Mr. Galbraith will be attending the Security Council meeting the following day on the role of U.N. Mission in Afghanistan. The following day, Tuesday, the U.S./U.N. diplomat did not show up.

Either our esteemed Secretary General was not aware of what was going on, or he was putting up a (trembling) stiff upper lip.

Anyone following the tension within the U.N. Mission in Kabul would -- and should -- have informed the Secretary General that his two main envoys in a very sensitive -- and visible -- area were at each other's throat. Not that it mattered much in the great scheme of events. Neither of them is seriously relevant to the main strategy of any party. They were mainly part of the general decor. But when the conduct of Presidential elections became an issue, decor -- and decorum -- mattered.

Speedie (Kai) Eide swiftly sided with Karzai, taking a cue from an initial statement in Washington. But Galbraith, taking another clue from a more cautious approach at the U.S. Capitol, took a contrary tack. The first sign of open dispute was signaled when the number Two abruptly disappeared from Kabul and reappeared in Boston. He comes from a prominent Democratic family; his father, Professor John Kenneth Galbraith, was Kennedy's ambassador to India and once an intellectual guru of the Eastern Establishment. Peter does not quite measure up to his father's stature, but is reported to have a big ego problem. While his visit to the Harvard base was to muster support, the number One, Kai Eide, made his way to U.N. Headquarters in New York, where senior American officials, as well as European and other key figures handling Afghanistan were making their annual pilgrimage. Kai Eide is no pushover. A tough experienced diplomat, he has an idea about where some of the bodies are buried. That means he knows that with due deference to the Galbraith name, some influential Democrats totally dismiss him as a persistent nuisance. Besides, Eide, who had made his choice with Karzai, is an outspoken insider within the Norwegian diplomatic establishment, which carries weight not just with the European Community, but also with Washington. As a reassessment was being made in favour of a clipped-winged "President Karzai" (with a deal on who will be the next Prime Minister), the Boston Brahman was dropped in favour of the Norwegian street fighter. But as Eide got the politicians on his side, Galbraith had the media -- helped by the helplessness of U.N. "Communications" officials.

Ironically, the two have been very close friends for years. Kai introduced Peter to his Norwegian wife and the two couples went on sailing trips in the Adriatic. They may continue their feud or make up and sail together again. But the harm is already done.

The U.N. came out looking like a free wrestling ring. The Secretary General, whose reputation we all wish to preserve, appeared out of real control, swaying with the latest telephone call. More important, Afghanistan was badly served by having two openly conflicting views within the U.N. -- the only comprehensive international organization of which it has been an independent member since its inception.

Perhaps the Secretary General would have been well-advised to fire BOTH and put in place a fresh credible team. A credible United Nations would at least offer a glimpse of hope to the Afghan people. But such an open ego feud only compounded the irrelevance of their work with clueless confusion.