15 FEBRUARY 2010


It was a "U.N. source" in London that revealed in December to Reuters News Agency secret talks held in Dubai between outgoing U.N. Special Envoy Kai Edie and Taliban representative on January 8. There was no secret about mediations between the Karzai government and Mullah Omar. Saudi Arabia fixed a meeting over a year ago. At the time, New York Times correspondents in Afghanistan was holding forth in New York -- in one of those "Times Talk" about his overwhelming experiences there but, in answer to a question, had no clue what was going on. "I wouldn't know how a contact could be established with Taliban" the young reporter retorted. Dubai has always been a conduit of backchannel talk. Remember Zalmay Khalilzad preliminary talks there with Ali Zardari that surprised an enraged -- and uninformed -- U.S. State Department Spokesman? Mullah Omar is not unused to such contacts and deals even before the Taliban took over Afghanistan. Check with the emissaries of UNOCAL. UNO (who?), UNO what I mean: that oil company that hoped to ensure the safety of pipelines through southern Afghanistan. (We'll stop there. Too many, too much involved!)

A basic requirement for secret talks is -- as the name indicates -- that they stay secret. Kai Edie -- to his credit -- managed to hold one meeting. He had two more months to go in his Kabul assignment. He was in London with Secretary General Ban for the Afghan talks. That is, he was there when the news of the meeting was leaked. Reuters was a natural recipient: London was the host to a summit meeting on Afghanistan; the new Secretary General's Spokesman had worked for it, then headed the communications office in a London-based European bank; it has an effective worldwide network, including a formidable office at U.N. Headquarters in New York. But whose decision was it to leak the story? The Secretary General? Kai Edie? Kim Too-Soon?

Whoever made the decision, it was an error of judgment. If it aimed to display some U.N. role to those gathered in London, it backfired. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton openly dismissed the story -- during a stopover in Paris: "Let him speak for himself" she scoffed in her vintage reprimanding tone, adding "he will not be part of our continued efforts." Certainly not when his replacement had built an amenable relationship decades ago in Rome. Kai Edie is too experienced to throw away even the slightest chance of advancing a negotiated process. When even U.S. General McChrystal is talking about persuading some factions of the Taliban and President Karzai is urging Saudi Arabia to help in reaching out to its main leadership, it was short-sighted to rush for a media show as a new political game was about to start. Events may show that if the U.N. kept its role discreet and intact, it could have been a valuable player, particularly that time will tell that both Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, which -- together with Pakistan -- were the only governments to recognize the Taliban, now have a different connection with much less influence on that group than before. Prince Turki's team is no more the main contact, Sheikh Zayed is replaced by his son, and Taliban fugitive leaders are too suspicious of potential "plots" by former allies. A rush to leak reflected a short-sighted urgency of an experienced team with no institutional memory. (We were told Mr. Kim doesn't like institutional memory; he thinks he could just replace it with a flick of an Internet button.)

More to the point, it was the CREDIBILITY of the U.N. as an honest broker that was at stake. As former U.N. Under-Secretary Dr. Ralphe Bunche -- a proven mediator and Nobel Laureate -- used to instruct his colleagues: "Confidential roles are confidential. If you expose what political players tell you in confidence, they will never trust you again." But then, those were the golden days. Now we have an instant culture. Let's see where it will lead.