Why Karzai was right to reject Ashdown

He relished his role as colonial overlord in Bosnia, so it's not surprising the Afghans don’t want Paternalistic Paddy anywhere near their country.

David Chandler

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On Saturday, Lord Paddy Ashdown was forced to pull out of becoming the United Nations ‘super envoy’ for Afghanistan.

Ashdown’s appointment had the support of the US State Department and the UN Security Council; it was seen as a done deal. But then Afghan president Hamid Karzai, in a series of meetings with international leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, made it clear that he intended to block Ashdown’s appointment. Karzai said he was suspicious of Ashdown wielding too much power, and was generally unhappy with the policies that Britain is pursing in his country (1).

The appointment of Ashdown as UN envoy, tasked with pulling together the work of international agencies under a common agenda, would have been a feather in the cap for both Ashdown and the British government, and thus Karzai’s move caused great embarrassment to both. Yet he was right to keep Ashdown out of Afghanistan.

Ashdown had been lobbying for the creation of a coordinating job in Afghanistan. And, assured of international backing, he is said to have spent the past few months haggling over the exact terms of his mission (2). The UK government has made its commitment to assisting the Afghan government in its fight against the insurgency a key foreign policy objective, especially following Britain’s humiliating withdrawal from the frontline in Iraq. Ashdown’s bid for the Afghan post had the full support of UK prime minister Gordon Brown, who had previously offered Ashdown, a former Liberal Democrat leader, a post in Labour’s ‘government of all the talents’.

Despite the impact of this high-profile snub to the British government, it would be wrong to see Karzai’s stand as an assertion of the strength of the Afghan government, or of a newfound independent-mindedness. On the contrary, Karzai’s decision to block Ashdown reflects the weakness of his own position at the political helm in Afghanistan.

The authority of the central government in Kabul has increasingly been undermined by international agencies seeking to establish direct relations with the provinces. The more international policy has shifted away from the governing institutions in Kabul, the more exposed Karzai has become. In the provinces, any influence that Karzai’s government still has is largely due to its ability to mediate in the allocation of international aid and resources. With international actors taking a more engaged approach in the regions, and seeking to mediate between the regions and the centre, they are, inevitably, undermining and eroding the standing of the central authorities.

This clash of interests – between the Afghan government, keen to demonstrate its links to the provinces on paper at least, and international forces wishing to stabilise their own relations with regional and tribal leaders – has been highlighted by disagreements over British policy in Helmand (see Britain’s key weapon in Afghanistan: the bribe, by David Chandler). Karzai again raised the issue of Helmand at the Davos summit, where he delivered a major attack on British government policy; he accused the UK and the European Union of undermining the Afghan government’s authority over the province:

‘There was one part of the country where we suffered after the arrival of the British forces. Before that we were fully in charge of Helmand. When our governor was there, we were fully in charge. They came and said “Your governor in no good”… they guaranteed to me they knew what they were doing and I made the mistake of listening to them. And when they came in, the Taliban came.’ (3)

Karzai exaggerates the control that his government had prior to the British takeover. But he undoubtedly has a point when he says that international policy has not helped to establish the central government’s authority over the provinces (4). His criticisms, particularly over British policies in Helmand, echo international divisions over policy in Afghanistan. British tactics of buying the support of regional leaders have been publicly criticised by US commanders, who have argued that their NATO allies do not know how to fight insurgencies and have highlighted that the British tactics of supporting local militias have aided the growing insurgency (5).

In an already unstable situation, Karzai’s decision to reject Ashdown’s appointment as the chief interlocutor for international policymaking in Afghanistan is perfectly understandable. From May 2002 to January 2006, Ashdown was the ‘viceroy’ of Bosnia, playing a similar ‘super envoy’ role. He headed up both the European Union Mission and the Office of the High Representative. He had extraordinary executive powers in Bosnia – and he used them to dismiss elected politicians and civil servants and to impose legislation against the will of elected representatives (6). Karzai is justified in being deeply wary of Ashdown, who relished his role as colonial overlord in Bosnia and used his powers in an increasingly destabilising and ad hoc way: he encouraged international institutions such as NATO and the EU to step beyond their mandates in an attempt to force through legislative reforms without first securing support either within Bosnia or from other international actors (7).

On the advice of visiting foreign ministers, and from reading reports on Ashdown’s authoritarian actions in Bosnia, it is not surprising that the Afghan government got cold feet about his appointment in Afghanistan. Rather than taking this failed British politician turned international player well known for his disdain for incumbent political authorities, the Afghans have expressed a preference for a lower-profile appointment. Zahir Tanin, the Afghan ambassador to the UN, said Ashdown was rejected because the government was thinking about ‘who is going to be more helpful and who is going to be more able to work with the Afghan government and with different elements of the international community in Afghanistan’ (8).

Despite the fears expressed by the Afghan authorities, it would be wrong to see the decision to beef-up the post of UN envoy as a fundamental change in international policy towards Afghanistan. Some media commentators and analysts have argued that the appointment of an international bureaucrat, tasked with coordinating the work of the UN’s 25 different provincial reconstruction teams with that of the UN, EU and other international institutions, could somehow transform the situation in Afghanistan (9). This misunderstands the real reason for the lack of policy coherence. There are not simply technical problems in Afghanistan, a practical failure to coordinate strategy towards already agreed ends. If that were the case, then surely there would be much less difficulty in clarifying the military or diplomatic approach towards the Taliban, the regulation of the production of opium poppies, or the framework of law and its application.

No, the real issue is that both the Afghan government and the international institutions engaged in its affairs lack any clear strategic goals. The weakness of the central government has allowed external actors to use Afghanistan to express their commitment to a variety of political ends, from fighting the ‘war on terror’ and the war against drugs to promoting women’s rights and building civil society. Afghanistan has been turned into a theatre in which external actors stage their morality plays, with little consideration of the long-term consequences for those on the ground.

In this context, the appointment of a UN ‘super envoy’ is less an attempt to give strategic policy coherence to international intervention than it is an adaptation to the ad hoc and contradictory policy environment. By establishing a big enough policy-umbrella, with multiple ends from poverty reduction to peace-building, it is hoped that the UN can play a role in presenting international meddling as part of a more coherent set of policies linking development and security concerns (10). This shift to understanding Afghanistan as a ‘security-development complex’ enables contradictory policies to be packaged more coherently. For example, UK and EU policies of buying the support of the Taliban can be seen as ‘development aid’, closely linked to, rather than opposing, military counterinsurgency goals.

Regardless of who fills the UN ‘super envoy’ post, it appears that the new institutional engagement, like so many others in Afghanistan, will be driven more by external concerns than by the needs and desires of the Afghan government or the Afghan people.

David Chandler is professor of international relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. His most recent book is Empire in Denial: The Politics of State-Building (Pluto, 2006) (buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

Previously on spiked

David Chandler argued that Britain’s key weapon in Afghanistan was the bribe and described the war against the Taliban as purelytheatrical. Philip Cunliffe reviewed David Chandler’s book Empire in Denial, and looked at the atrophy of foreign policy today. Frank Furedi said politics without sovereignty is not politics at all. Or read more at
spiked issue Asia.

(1) President Hamid Karzai moves to block Lord Paddy Ashdown as UN super-envoy in Afghanistan, The Times (London), 26 January 2008

(2) Political briefing: Afghan Action Man, Guardian, 17 January 2008; Ashdown accepts job as UN’s Afghan envoy, Guardian, 16 January 2008

(3) Brown hits back at Afghan president’s claim that UK’s to blame for Taliban return, Daily Mail, 25 January 2008; Britain defends its troops against criticism by Afghan president, Guardian, 26 January 2008

(4) President Hamid Karzai moves to block Lord Paddy Ashdown as UN super-envoy in Afghanistan, The Times (London), 26 January 2008

(5) US allies do not know how to fight insurgents, says Gates, Guardian, 17 January 2008

(6) See David Chandler and Christopher Bickerton, JISB Interview: Lord Paddy Ashdown: The European Union and Statebuilding in the Western Balkans, Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, Vol.1, No.1, (March 2007), pp.107-118

(7) See, for example, the articles by Matthew T. Parish, Kristoph Bender and Gerald Knaus, and Thomas Muehlmann, in Inside the Bosnian Crisis: Documents and Analysis, special online issue of the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, December 2007

(8) Kabul against Ashdown envoy role, BBC News, 26 January 2008

(9) Afghanistan: What Paddy did next, Guardian, 17 January 2008

(10) See further, David Chandler, The Security-Development Nexus and the Rise of ‘Anti-Foreign Policy’, Journal of International Relations and Development, Vol.10, No.4, (2007), pp.362-386

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