8 October 2014
Sixty-two-year-old Nicholas Haysom, Nelson Mandela’s former legal adviser, is the United Nation’s new chief in Afghanistan. Popularly known as “Fink’ to his friends, Haysom brings with him a wealth of experience as head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (Unama).
Haysom, who has been deputy special representative since 2012, succeeds Jan Kubiš of Slovakia. Before his appointment by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as his special representative in Afghanistan on 1 October, Haysom was Ban’s political adviser in New York, and before that UN adviser to the constitutional negotiations in post-war Iraq.
Haysom went to school at Michaelhouse in KwaZulu-Natal and obtained degrees from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the University of Cape Town where he was SRC chairman and president of the National Union of South African Students. He was active in anti-apartheid student politics and spent several periods in detention. He later practised law in Joburg.
Haysom, who was deeply involved in the negotiations which produced South Africa’s first democratic government in 1994, is conscious that Afghanistan is not South Africa or any of the other countries where he has tried to resolve bitter conflicts over the past 20 years, including Burundi, Sudan and Iraq.
In Afghanistan, he takes command of UN operations in a country where the newly elected government is still very much at war with Taliban Islamist extremists. Speaking from Kabul, Haysom said he was lucky to be taking up office during a lull in the country’s turbulent politics.
New Afghanistan government
Under guidance of the UN and the international community, a new government of national unity is being formed after bitterly contested presidential elections between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. Ghani was eventually declared winner of the elections and a new government of national unity has been formed, with Ghani as president (succeeding Hamid Karzai) and Abdullah as “chief executive’ pending an amendment to the constitution to create a new position of prime minister that he will fill.
The new Afghanistan government faces significant and immediate challenges, chief among these being insufficient money in the coffers to pay salaries of civil servants. In addition, Afghanistan is a country where sharp ethnic tension reinforces political divisions, according to Haysom. Ghani belongs to the dominant Pashtun tribe, while Abdullah comes from another major group, the Tajiks.
“And so the formation of the government of national unity was widely welcomed by the international community, the neighbours and a large section of the Afghan population,’ he said.
Haysom said there were elements in both factions of government who did not believe that a government of national unity served their interests. But he was confident that the government would develop the clear sense of unity of purpose it would need to succeed.
But Haysom said he believed Ghani and Abdullah were capable of governing inclusively and both seemed to be personally committed to the government of national unity.
On the Taliban threat, Ghani declared in his inaugural presidential address that he would launch a peace process with the group. Haysom noted that war was not sustainable in the long term. Peace was required to attract investors and to prevent the drain of Afghanistan’s capital and skills. In any case, financing an army, comprising more than 350 000 soldiers, was imposing a huge burden on one of the world’s poorest countries.
Haysom said for peace to emerge in Afghanistan both the government of national unity and the Taliban would have to recognise that they were caught in a hurting stalemate with no prospect of a military victory by either.
Haysom said the UN had been in contact with the Taliban for the past two to three years, mostly for practical purposes such as gaining access to contested areas for delivering humanitarian aid and seeking ways to avoid civilian casualties.
But the UN had also engaged them on the idea of participating in an intra-Afghan peace dialogue which some had seemed agreeable to. That dialogue would have to be owned and led by Afghans themselves. Any UN role could only be supportive and, accordingly, the international community must wait for the new government to decide on its approach.
End to civil war
Haysom’s sense from his contacts with the Taliban was that the more moderate and nationalist members did not want the civil war to drag on interminably, destroying the country’s human and material capital.
A recent agreement between the new Afghan government and the US and Nato to allow some troops to remain beyond 2014 was not a game-changer from a purely security perspective. However, it was a positive development from a psychological and political perspective. It was a clear signal to ordinary Afghans of the international community’s intention to stay the course.
In addition, it would help guarantee financial support, and hence the viability of the Afghan security forces, rather than supplementing existing combat troops, according to Haysom.