NEW YORK — As the Northern Alliance solidifies its military hold on Afghanistan, pressure is mounting for the United Nations to fill the political vacuum created by the Taliban's retreat and to assist in the formation of a broad-based coalition government. For the U.N.'s peacekeeping arm, it will be one of its most challenging missions, and one it will enter into reluctantly, knowing that failure is highly probable.
Since its creation, the United Nations has been forced to change its mission many times. Its previously straightforward peacekeeping operations, such as monitoring cease-fires in Kashmir and Korea, have become coupled with a civilian-based "nation-building" component in places like Kosovo and East Timor.
The international organization also has learned some valuable lessons from its failures in Somalia and Rwanda. It more keenly understands which circumstances can be controlled by multinational forces and which can benefit from comprehensive assistance. It also knows better which situations to stay far away from, and Afghanistan is surely one of them. In Afghanistan, the U.N. is being asked to keep and build the peace while implementing a mini-Marshall Plan in the harshest of social and environmental conditions. That's not a recipe for success.
While in East Timor for two years as a U.N. worker, I learned firsthand the limits of an expanded U.N. peacekeeping role. A May 1999 agreement between Portugal, Indonesia, Australia and the United Nations allowed the international organization's electoral staff to enter East Timor and administer a referendum to determine the status of the former Portuguese colony. The question to be decided was straightforward: independence from--or autonomy with--Indonesia. The fatal flaw of the agreement was a clause specifying that the safety of the U.N. staff would be the responsibility of Indonesian security forces. In other words, the staff was beholden to one side of a conflict--the side of the U.N. member state. After the referendum's results were announced--a landslide vote for independence--the civilian staff could do nothing but watch as the Indonesian-backed militias, police and army looted and destroyed the country, displacing hundreds of thousands of innocent people.
In the absence of a rapid response to this worst-case scenario, a U.N.-sanctioned, Australian-led multinational force entered East Timor to chase out remnant militia and stabilize the situation. About a month later, U.N. peacekeeping forces arrived, but only after weeks of discussions within the U.N. Security Council over what the regional make-up of the contributing forces should look like and which Asian nation should lead the effort.
This contrasts markedly with the situation in the Balkans. There, NATO forces keep the peace. As part of a regional collective security organization, these forces care more about stability in their backyard and are accordingly armed with a wider mandate and clearer rules of engagement. Each participating country's contingent has a designated responsibility toward achieving the mission's goals. In addition, NATO forces regularly conduct joint training exercises and, as a result, are more prepared to work together after deployment.
Clearly, then, the U.N. has not mastered peace-building. At U.N. headquarters, that requires a clear vision, supportive structure and sometimes the ability to slap the hand of a member state when it breaches internationally held norms. In the field, it requires a more pro-active and comprehensive approach to bring about a sustainable peace. Building the peace is not limited to civilians working under the safety umbrella of U.N. troops, orchestrating elections or brokering fair representation in a coalition government. It requires other important elements, such as an international police force that will work with local police to enforce a rule of law, and an international military force that will encourage post-war militaries to stay out of politics and business and work to fulfill the mandate of establishing and protecting a unified state.
In Afghanistan, civilian democracy and governance workers will attempt to nation-build with warlords who are unlikely to appreciate the benefits of a stable, inclusive government when, over the past decade, they have profited more from war than peace. U.N. aid workers will try to return displaced refugees--particularly southern Pushtuns--to parts of the country now controlled by the largely Tajik and Uzbek Northern Alliance. And the international organization's military wing, in addition to fending off regrouped Taliban militia, will attempt to build peace among ethnic groups that have been fighting the Soviets and each other for almost three decades. All this will be undertaken in one of the world's most geographically barren lands in the midst of a Central Asian winter.