NATO Considers High-Ranking Civilian Post in Afghanistan

The U.S. and its NATO partners are considering establishing a high-ranking civilian post in Kabul to ensure that nonmilitary reconstruction activities focus on top priorities, international officials familiar with the issue said Thursday.

The decision could be announced at an international conference Jan. 28 in London, where Afghan and international officials will map plans to shore up the Afghan government as the U.S. and its allies rush 37,000 more troops here to confront the Taliban.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue is under discussion, said NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen had not made a final decision.

The new appointee would have greater authority than NATO's current senior civilian representative in Kabul, Fernando Gentilini of Italy, who was expected to leave Kabul after the London conference.

The United Nations' top official in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, recently complained that some provincial reconstruction teams, combined civilian-military units working on development projects around the country, are "doing their own thing" and are not linked to the Afghan government's priorities.

U.N. officials say that has contributed to inefficiency in the reconstruction effort, which has lagged despite billions of dollars committed to Afghanistan since the U.S. and its allies ousted the Taliban from power in 2001.

The Afghan government hopes the London conference will agree to channel more funds through Afghan ministries, despite allegations of widespread corruption. The idea is to bolster Afghan institutions, increase the government's prestige and combat Taliban claims that the international mission is a foreign military occupation.

"Our expectation is that the international community will agree to channel assistance through the government so that there is no parallel structure in Afghanistan — only one elected government, which has legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan people," said Ghulam Jilani Popal, head of the Afghan Independent Directorate of Local Government, an agency seeking to boost effectiveness and capacity in local government. "That will also help government institutions develop their capacity and pave the way toward self-sufficiency."

According to the international officials, the top NATO civilian would direct the flow of money and assistance to the provinces and ensure they did not get siphoned off by corrupt Afghan authorities.

The post would be comparable in stature to the top U.S. and NATO commander here, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

U.S. officials have called for greater coordination between the military and the civilian reconstruction effort.

In London, Paddy Ashdown, a British House of Lords legislator and former U.N. high representative for Bosnia, said appointing an international coordinator should be the "first aim and hopefully the first outcome" of next week's conference.

The international community will struggle to achieve progress in Afghanistan "unless they speak with a single voice and act to a single plan, which it appears we are still scandalously completely incapable of doing," he told the House of Lords on Thursday.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown's spokesman Simon Lewis said Britain's government was aware of the NATO proposal, but said he would not discuss the issue ahead of the London conference.

Lewis declined to say whether Brown would approve the appointment of Britain's ambassador to Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill — regarded as a leading candidate — to the post.

In a briefing with reporters in London on Wednesday, Sedwill did not raise the prospect of leaving his current position but stressed the importance of a clear strategy to link international military and civilian work in Afghanistan.