I next went to see the Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary General, the former German Ambassador to Iraq, Martin Kobler. His immediate superior, Steaffan de Mistura, a friend of my good friend and neighbor, Samir Basta, who was his boss had told me that he is an excellent man and here, I found he is said to be one of the best informed men in town Unfortunately, he was away on leave, so Ambassador Kobler filled in.
Ambassador Kobler’s headquarters, UNAMA, was understandably under massive protection. No UN person could forget the killing of the UN team in Baghdad, including my dear friend, Nadia Younes, who had just been appointed Assistant Secretary General for the UN General Assembly. How and why this tragedy happened is a story I will tell at another time, but here it is memorialized in concrete, steel and a small army of guards.
Ambassador Kobler launched into our talk by emphasizing how the UN people moved out around Afghanistan. He did not say it, but almost everyone else I spoke to did: the Americans stay huddled in their compounds. Even when they are in “the field,” they don’t get out and around very much. It is mainly to move its workers around that the UN maintains the “airline” I saw when I landed in Kabul. Kobler himself, he said, tries to make at least one trip a week, often two, outside of Kabul to one or more of the 40 some odd project headquarters the UN maintains.
As most of the officials I met were to do, Kobler started rather sanguine about the current situation, but slowly retreated into major worry about how to reconcile the two and contradictory objects of the essentially American policy -- the thrust to build up a central authority (which, as he said, violates the national genius of the Afghans) while working with the manifestations of local autonomy (which is the Afghan tradition). The Americans, he commented, are trying to swim against the tide of Afghan history by their emphasis on central authority. Afghanistan always had a weak central authority that allowed the provinces much freedom of action.
But the Americans are even carrying out their own policy ineffectively, he said. About 80% of all aid funds flow outside the control of the central government so effectively the American program (as in Vietnam) substitutes itself for the central government and so in the eyes of the public diminishes it. Later I was to hear from the director of our AID program, Earl Gast, that actually 92% of aid money bypassed the central government. It was now down to 80% and his, Gast’s, objective was to reduce it to 25%. It is cleaner that way, of course, but it shows Afghans that they do not have a government other than us.
Kobler continued: since the American military has virtually all the disposable money, and the Afghans regard America as intending to dominate the country into the future, they regard all foreign aid efforts as a tactic of the war -- as General Petraeus is endlessly quoted as saying, “money is my main ammunition.” These thoughts led us into the issue of our Afghan traditions versus ours. To work here in any capacity, he said, we must be sensitive to Afghan traditions, which we often are not. Every time our soldiers bang on a door, or break it down, and enter a house to search for an insurgent, going into the women’s quarters and even checking on, or otherwise manhandling, the women and children and opening up their private closets etc., which they feel they must do as an insurgent who might kill an American the next day, may be hiding there, the soldiers (or more likely the Special Forces) inevitably lose that family to the Taliban or at least make them hate the Americans.
But, at the same time, he went on, we must stand up for the values we hold. We do and must absolutely oppose such awful acts as stoning to death people who violate Sharia laws. There can be no give on this issue.
Perhaps the most interesting piece of information Kobler gave me was on the Taliban reaction to last week’s UN Report on Taliban killing or injuring Afghan civilians. Although the Taliban denounced the report, and the UN for making it, their press release contained what Kobler thought was a major new development: they called for the creation of an international tribunal including the Taliban to investigate the charge. Kobler rightly saw this as a ploy to give the Taliban a sort of recognition as a quasi governmental “player,” but admitted that it may have lifted the veil slightly on a form of cooperation. He said, of course, the Americans and the UN would not agree.
I objected, wondering if there were not a way to use this demarche. Perhaps we should remember, I said, a precedent of the Algerian war. I laughed and said that of course no one remembered any precedents from previous wars. He (and later others including the Russian ambassador ) agreed. Everyone said that at the start of each new year we throw away all our memories of the actions and reactions of the past year and start all over again.
But what did I have in mind? He asked.
It was not a complete analogy but some adaptation from the Algerian war might be useful to consider. Toward the end of the Algerian war of independence, America had a crippling diplomatic problem: .we were closely allied to France which was fighting the Algerians, but we were emotionally on the Algerian side and thought that, in any case, they would prevail. The State Department was torn apart: the European Bureau wanted to have nothing to do with the Algerians while the African Bureau was keen to recognize them. President Kennedy hit on a typical Kennedy solution: use the family. He sent Jackie Kennedy’s half brother, Hugh Auchincloss, up to New York to hang out at the UN. He had no official title, but he was to be there as a friendly presence. Identified as he was with JFK, his job was to make representatives of the Provisional Algerian Government, which had observer status at the UN, feel welcome. I wondered if some sort of adaptation might open up contacts with the Insurgents. Was there no way that at least the beginnings of foundations for future bridges might be laid? He said he doubted it.