Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — The departing U.N. envoy to Afghanistan said Thursday that the nation's leaders must "clean up their own house" and warned that U.S.-led military operations must not jeopardize political efforts toward reconciliation with the Taliban.
At a news conference marking the end of his 18-month term, Kai Eide said there was hope for the nation but the world needed more resolve from President Hamid Karzai's government. He criticized Afghanistan for a lack of reform and the international community for "fast-ticking clocks" and unrealistic demands.
His overall assessment: "This year, of course, will be the most challenging that Afghanistan has faced since the fall of the Taliban. . . . It's a year where negative trends have to be reversed, or they will become irreversible."
Eide said he was encouraged by Karzai's invitation to the Taliban to attend a peace conference this year. That proposal comes as the militant group has been weakened by the arrests of leaders and the recent U.S.-led military sweep that pushed its fighters from a stronghold in the southern province of Helmand.
"I think it's high time that we get into this kind of a political process" of trying to negotiate with the Taliban, said Eide, a Norwegian diplomat. "It is now time to talk. I believe the reconciliation and peace process, whatever shape it takes, should get underway as soon as possible." He said the international strategy "has unfortunately been too much militarily driven."
Eide is leaving his post at a time when the international community is frustrated over Karzai's power plays, including a decree that in effect would allow the president to pick members of the Electoral Complaints Commission. In the August presidential election, the United Nations-backed oversight board comprising three foreigners and two Afghans found widespread fraud and stripped Karzai of nearly 1 million votes.
The U.N. chief had been criticized by his American deputy, Peter Galbraith, and some other Western officials, who said he was not vigilant enough in stemming corruption and voting violations that have undermined the credibility of Karzai's government. Galbraith was fired in September after their clashes.
Eide was stung by the criticism but did not elaborate Thursday on why he was departing. He said he will seek a compromise with Karzai on the electoral commission decree.
There has been "some progress" in recent talks with the president on the board's future, he said, but offered no other details.
Eide cited cultural and political distinctions between Afghanistan and international powers that have hampered progress and raised tensions. He criticized donor nations for showing impatience and shaping goals "without adequate Afghan involvement . . . that Afghans consider disrespectful and sometimes humiliating."
"Afghanistan is sometimes seen as and treated as a 'no man's land' and not as a sovereign state, and that has to come to an end," he said.
His words were equally blunt concerning the Karzai government, saying "authorities must demonstrate greater determination to assume responsibility."
"There is today still a tendency to push responsibility for difficult decisions on the international community and to avoid the main political challenges that face this society."
Eide's tenure has been marked by increasing skepticism among Afghans about the government's ability to fix the country's many problems, including poverty, malnutrition and substandard education. It has also been marred by startling violence, such as Friday's suicide bomb attacks that killed 16 people, mostly foreigners, in downtown Kabul, the capital, and an assault last year that killed five U.N. workers at a guesthouse.
"We all have to admit that we should have and could have all achieved more," Eide said. "I do hope that 2010 will be the turning point."