Issue 121 - January 29 - Staffan de Mistura to Replace Kai Eide in Afghanistan

New York, January 29, 2010 - UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has selected Staffan de Mistura of Sweden as his new Special Representative (SRSG) to Afghanistan. The appointment was announced on January 27, following uncertainty as to whether de Mistura would accept the position.

De Mistura is the Deputy Executive Director of the World Food Programme and recently served as the head of the UN mission in Baghdad.

Kai Eide of Norway, the current SRSG and head of the UN's Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), announced on December 11 that he would not seek another year in office when his contract ends in March 2010.

The appointment of de Mistura was reported on January 8, but last week reports said that he would turn down the position for family reasons. By January 24 those concerns had been resolved, and he would take the position, it was reported.

The appointment was announced this week before a high-level strategy conference in London on Afghanistan, where de Mistura was in attendance (along with President Hamid Karzai, Secretary-General Ban, Kai Eide the Secretary-General of NATO, U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and several foreign ministers).

De Mistura reportedly was supported strongly for the role by the U.S. government. The incoming SRSG will play a large part in supporting the U.S.-led military surge of troops to the country, as well as a "civilian surge" of several hundred civilian staff.

Also amid the transition in UNAMA leadership are reports of escalated conflict in Afghanistan.

SRSG to Afghanistan

The SRSG in Afghanistan, appointed by the Secretary-General, is the head of UNAMA and responsible for all of the UN's activities in the country. Directly under SRSG are two deputy Special Representatives (DSRSGs) overseeing development and political matters, who report to the SRSG.

The position of SRSG in Afghanistan is regarded as very challenging and sensitive. A number of requirements have been described as essential. A New York Times editorial on December 31 suggested that Eide's successor must be able to work well with the NATO commander, as well as the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, as the role will include supporting the new U.S. policy in the country consisting of "more U.S. and NATO troops to fight the Taliban insurgency and a ‘civilian surge'," said Reuters this week. The SRSG also must have strong and versatile diplomatic abilities, possess an "independent mind and enough international stature to challenge [the UN] if they're going wrong,...[while being] strong enough to stand up to President Karzai when necessary - and diplomatic enough to work with him." Finally, the Times suggested, Eide's replacement must not be afraid to challenge UN and especially Security Council members to make good on their resolutions and pledges for peacekeeping and development aid.

The Times editorial proposed France's Jean-Marie Guéhenno (former Under-Secretary-General for UN peacekeeping operations) as the best person for the job, while others, including the Financial Times, supposed that de Mistura was likely to receive the post. 

(Ban Ki-moon reportedly also considered Ian Martin of the United Kingdom (former UN Special Representative in Nepal), and Hikmet Cetin of Turkey (NATO envoy to Afghanistan, 2003-2006).)

In the position of Deputy Special Representative (DSRSG) for Relief, Recovery and Reconstruction (RRR) is Robert Watkins, a Canadian and British national, who in addition to his appointment in Afghanistan is the UN Development Programme's Resident Representative and the Resident Coordinator for Humanitarian Coordination in Afghanistan. 

Serving as the temporary DSRSG for Political Affairs is Wolfgang Weisbrod-Weber, current Director of the Asia and Middle East Division in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO). 

Eide's Departure

On December 11, UNAMA stated that Eide's intention to leave UNAMA was unrelated to his difficult tenure, which has included allegations of corruption in the Afghan presidential election in August 2009, and a falling out with his Deputy, Peter Galbraith of the U.S., who accused Eide of mishandling and concealing fraud in the election in favor of Afghan President Hamid Karzai (See Monitor, Issue 112 - Ban Ki-moon Recalls Deputy SRSG from Afghanistan).

UNAMA said that Eide had decided to leave after two years "when he took the job in March 2008," and in a December 12, 2009 interview with Norwegian news agency N.T.B., Eide denied any "drama attached [to his decision].

Selection Process

On January 8, Foreign Policy's blog, "The Cable," reported that the Secretary-General had offered the SRSG position to Staffan de Mistura. U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke was credited with the leak. Holbrooke reportedly said that de Mistura was supported by the U.S. government.

However, on January 22, another Foreign Policy blog, "Turtle Bay," reported that de Mistura had "turned down the job, citing unspecified personal reasons," according to a UN official. As a result, other candidates reportedly were being reconsidered, including, in addition to Guéhenno and Martin:

  • Antonio Gutteres (Portugal), head of the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees;
  • Jan Koubis (Slovakia), Director of the UN Economic Commission for Europe, former foreign minister;
  • Knut Vollebaek (Norway), foreign minister.

Over the weekend, however, de Mistura reportedly changed his mind and accepted the position in a telephone conversation with Ban; as Deutsche Welle writes, "the public roller coaster ride of his nomination had finally came to end."

De Mistura Biographical Information

Beginning his UN career in the Food and Agricultural Organization in 1976, Staffan de Mistura moved on to serve as the Director of the UN Information Centre in Rome, the Personal Representative of the Secretary-General for Southern Lebanon (2001-2004), and the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Iraq (2007).

In July 2009, de Mistura took on the role of Deputy Executive Director for External Relations of the World Food Programme in Rome.

He also has worked in Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Rwanda, the Balkans, Kosovo, Laos, and Vietnam.

Critiquing the selection, the Inner City Press revisited its earlier reports of nepotism as a factor in de Mistura's past appointments.

De Mistura holds dual Italian and Swedish citizenship and speaks seven languages.

According to Deutsche Welle, de Mistura is "undoubtedly qualified for the post," and reportedly he is supported by the Scandinavian group in addition to the United States: with de Mistura being from Sweden, "obviously this is a consolation price for the Eide appointment which went not really the way it was planned originally.... It's a way for the Scandinavian group of countries to not to lose face on this rather failed appointment of Kai Eide," in the view of one Afghanistan expert.

Civilian Surge

The "civilian surge" in Afghanistan is an effort to send "hundreds of ... experts to support work on development projects," in the country, while U.S. military presence in the region also escalates by 30,000 within the year. (Also sending more troops are the United Kingdom and Germany.) As a civilian force, the experts are meant to help the Afghan people to establish self-governing institutions, ultimately aimed "to undermine support for the Taliban and other insurgents" (Reuters).

According to Radio Free Europe, Ban spoke this week of a "turning point" in Afghanistan's "struggle for survival," placing particular pressure on de Mistura to shape the UN mission's role. De Mistura's appointment also comes as "Karzai seeks to shift emphasis of the Afghan conflict onto a diplomatic track. Karzai's plan is to use incentives to reconcile with his government thousands of moderate rank-and-file Taliban fighters who may have drifted into the orbit of the militants for the lack of a clear alternative."

On January 26 Karzai said of the surge, "If partnership means submission to the American will, then, of course, it's not going to be the case... But if partnership means cooperation between two sovereign countries, one of course very poor and the other very rich, ... then we are partners."


UN elections and appointments in the news