The departure of Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide provides an opportunity to restructure the civilian side of the international mission as the Obama administration's military strategy kicks into gear.
The 60-year-old Eide, who oversees the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, said he will not renew his contract when it expires in March. He said he has asked U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to start searching for a replacement so the post would not be vacant like it was for two months before he started.
Eide's stewardship was tarnished by allegations from his American deputy, Peter Galbraith, that he was not bullish enough in curbing fraud in the August presidential election. President Hamid Karzai was declared the winner three months later after his last remaining challenger dropped out of a runoff.
Eide said controversy over the election was not linked to his decision to leave.
The U.N. mission also is still reeling from a pre-dawn assault Oct. 28 on a Kabul guesthouse where dozens of U.N. staffers lived. Five U.N. workers were among those killed in the attack, which prompted the U.N. to relocate hundreds of employees, some outside Afghanistan.
Eide said he had put forth a proposal that calls for better coordinating the civilian effort under the U.N. umbrella. It comes just after President Barack Obama announced he is sending 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. Many of those troops, under the command of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, will be on the ground about the time Eide steps aside.
"If we talk about a transition strategy, which we are with McChrystal's theme, then we have to do the same on the civilian side," Eide said.
Eide said he feared the military buildup ordered by Obama will increase pressure for quick results from civilian aid projects to satisfy taxpayers in donor countries when what is needed is to build up Afghanistan's ability to sustain itself.
He said there is not enough expertise inside the U.N. system and that the civilian-military provincial reconstruction teams were the most "uncoordinated part of the civilian effort."
"You have a number of PRTs that do their own things within provinces," Eide said. "They do not cross provincial boundaries nor are they linked up to the Afghan government the way they should be."
Eide also lamented that while thousands of Afghan civil servants are being trained, it's hard to persuade them to take local official positions paying only $60 to $70 a month.
"They say 'Why should we?' They don't have cars. They don't have offices," Eide said. "They don't have electricity. They might have a monthly operating budget of $15 a month."
Problems with the election, however, overshadowed much of Eide's work. His handling of the controversy prompted the European-based International Crisis Group to call on Eide to resign, saying reports of fraud and ballot stuffing damaged the U.N.'s ability to function effectively, weakened internal morale and eroded Afghan confidence in him.
"The U.N.'s mission to bring stability to the country has been severely jeopardized," the group said in a statement last month. "His effectiveness as head of mission will always remain in doubt. If credibility is to be restored, Eide must step down."
In his defense, Eide said that during his tenure, the U.N. mission successfully resolved human rights cases, raised awareness of civilian deaths during military offensives and worked to get foreign donors and agencies speaking with one voice.
"Have we achieved what we want to achieve? No, none of us have," Eide said. "The military hasn't and on the civilian side, we have not. But some things have been achieved."
Eide's criticism of the fragmented international effort has resonated outside Afghanistan.
Gerard Russell, fellow of the Carr Center at Harvard University and a former British diplomat, said that in the past eight years, Karzai has dealt with 12 top military commanders, four heads of the U.N. mission and a series of ambassadors from countries providing troops and financial assistance.
"There needs to be greater continuity, but there also needs to be greater unity," Russell said. "That may not be achieved through a U.N. official."
Gareth Price, head of the Asia program at Chatham House, a think tank in London, said Eide's position was weak from the start.
"Before he got the position, there was a suggestion there should be someone stronger who could knock heads together in Afghanistan," Price said.
Paddy Ashdown, a British diplomat who was Bosnia-Herzegovina's postwar international administrator, was backed by U.S. and British officials for the job, but the Afghan government "wanted someone softer," Price said.
"Eide was the man who filled that role, but it's clear now that the Afghan government isn't working, and the message from America is that they do want someone stronger again."
In Washington, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Eide had a productive partnership with the U.S. "We are confident that his replacement, when named, can bring the same kind of excellent leadership to the international effort," Kelly said.
A U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the U.N. position, said among possible replacements being discussed were Staffan de Mistura, the former U.N. representative in Iraq, and Jean-Marie Guehenno, former U.N. undersecretary general for peacekeeping.