OSLO U.S. "bullying" of Afghan President Hamid Karzai is counterproductive and talks with the Taliban are the only way to peace, the former U.N. envoy in Kabul said on Tuesday.
Kai Eide, who was the top U.N. official in Afghanistan for two years until March 2010, also called on NATO members to "stay the course" on their military and civilian engagements in Afghanistan at a November 19-20 summit in Lisbon, and make decisions on troop withdrawal based on the situation on the ground.
"The withdrawal should not be dictated by the U.S. political calendar, which is dominating too much today," he told Reuters in an interview.
Eide criticised the Obama administration, and Obama's envoy Richard Holbrooke, for undermining Karzai's government after a period of closer U.S. relations with Kabul under Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush.
"I see his flaws, more close up than most, but I do believe that overall we have not treated him fairly," he said of Karzai, who has been widely criticised in the West for election fraud and failing to clean up rampant corruption.
Eide, who has written a memoir entitled "High Stakes in Afghanistan," singled out Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, for repeatedly "humiliating" Karzai and failing to grasp the complexity of Afghan life.
"This is not the Balkans, where you can bully people into accepting a solution," he said, referring to Holbrooke's previous role as special Balkans envoy during the Clinton administration.
"The complexity of the Afghan political scene and society has not been fully understood and respected by some key American representatives.
"I had one as my deputy (U.S. diplomat Peter Galbraith) and I believe Holbrooke is another who failed to demonstrate that respect," Eide said.
"It had a damaging effect on the relationship between the U.S. and Afghanistan by humiliating the president (Karzai), in my view quite unnecessarily," he added.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon fired Galbraith after he criticized Eide and the UN for not being tough enough on Karzai after revelations of widespread fraud in the 2009 presidential election. After his sacking, he went public with his criticism.
Eide said it was a good moment to get Afghan talks moving.
"(From) now and into the first months of next year you will have a somewhat calmer period on the battlefield and it's tremendously important to make use of those months to try to regularise the kind of contracts (with the Taliban) that may be emerging," he said.
He suggested that if mediation is needed, a good candidate for the job would be Lakhdar Brahimi, a veteran U.N. envoy from Algeria, who Eide said was a confidante of Karzai, a Muslim and "not too close to the Americans."
"What is important is that before next summer the process can be under way, but that will require some difficult decisions by the international community, by Afghan neighbours, by the Taliban and by the Afghans themselves," he said.
Eide said that for three years -- until about last February -- there had been "sporadic contacts" between the Taliban and international and Afghan officials.
"If there is now a tendency to resume those contacts then that would be good," said Eide, who declined to go into details about his own dealings with the Taliban.
"The best way to move forward is to keep (Taliban talks) as confidential as possible for as long as possible."
(Editing by Michael Roddy)