The world’s sole superpower faced one of its darkest moments when Al Qaeda terrorists turned passenger planes into flying bombs on 11 September 2001. While America’s rage over the tragedy was understandable, the response by launching a massive war effort, first in Afghanistan and then Iraq, is running out of steam. The immediate reaction of the Bush administration was to deal resolutely with terrorism and a policy was crafted along the dictum “you are either with us or against us.” America still needed to legitimize and internationalize its invasion of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan for harbouring the perpetrators of the attack on the US homeland. But the method of incrementally employing the UN Security Council as an instrument for an open-ended war has resulted in problems that nobody seems to be in a hurry to address. The objective of this essay is to focus on the need to entrust the UN its legitimate role of peacekeeping in a country that has been ravaged by thirty years of war. It is feasible to reassess the situation for two reasons. First, an exit strategy in Afghanistan is on many minds; and second, the Republican Party has been replaced by the Democrats who have traditionally had more respect for the United Nations.
The US decision to enlist the support of the Northern Alliance, dominated by the ethnic minority, to oust the Taliban from Kabul in 2001 has turned out to be very costly. It signaled indifference to the Afghan society’s tribal composition. The ascendance in Kabul of the Northern Alliance gave them the advantage of controlling the new regime’s security apparatus. This meant that Hamid Karzai and other Pushtuns in the government were actually under the constant watch of their local and foreign minders, which provided an impetus to the Taliban to regroup and recruit Pushtuns to fight the occupation forces and their local collaborators. America pursued its plan by bringing in the UK as its principal ally to take over control of Kabul and its surrounding areas. The Pushtuns, of all people, did not need to be reminded that the British had now succeeded in subjugating their capital; something they had failed to achieve in the Afghan wars a century ago.
The US and the UK, serving as twin locomotives of the operations in Afghanistan, went the extra mile to secure UN approval for their actions. By establishing a linkage to various resolutions pertaining to the Taliban and Al Qaeda, they succeeded in convincing the Security Council to pass, on 20 December 2001 the all important Resolution 1386, authorizing the deployment of an International Security Force for Afghanistan (ISAF). Mindful about possible questions about the legality of their action, the authors of the Resolution based the mandate on the Bonn Agreement of 5 December 2001 on provisional arrangements in Afghanistan, pending the re-establishment of permanent government institutions. Resolution 1386 accepted the UK’s offer to take the lead in organizing and commanding ISAF.
Resolution 1386 proved to be only the thin edge of the wedge for the ever expanding western military hold over Afghanistan at the expense of a genuine international intervention under the UN flag. The methodology used by the US/UK at the UN seemed a convenient way of using the Security Council as an instrument of war. ISAF’s initial mandate was for a period of six months. It was to: “assist the Afghan Interim Authority in the maintenance of security in Kabul and its surrounding areas, so that the Afghan Interim Authority as well as the personnel of the United Nations can operate in a secure environment.” Afghanistan’s neighbours were urged to provide over-flight/transit facilities for ISAF. We have certainly come a long way from this benign mission, turning Afghanistan into a vast battle ground with no end in sight.
Resolution 1386 was tantamount to carving in stone the earlier US decision to rely excessively on the Northern Alliance for the realisation of its anti-Taliban/Al Qaeda objectives. While the Security Council was used as a sponsor of ISAF, the operational control was handed over to the participating countries. It was also left to these countries “to help the Afghan Interim Authority in the establishment and training of new Afghan security and armed forces.” Time would show that this partisan approach to the internal and external aspects of a highly complex situation would lead to the prolongation, if not the perpetuation, of the conflict in Afghanistan.
The mandate of ISAF was regularly extended, beginning with Resolution 1413(2002) and gradually expanded from Kabul and its adjoining areas to the rest of Afghanistan. ISAF was expected to work in close coordination with the Afghan Authority, the Special Representative of the Secretary General and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) coalition. Its scope of activity was distinct from that of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) which was set up to undertake a vast programme of humanitarian assistance, reconstruction, institutional reforms, elections and anti-narcotics efforts. Turkey took over the lead of ISAF from the UK in June 2002, followed by the joint lead of Germany and the Netherlands. The system of six- monthly renewal of the mandate and the corresponding change in the leadership of the force was replaced by a yearly mandate.
The terms employed in the UNSC resolutions in the early stages of ISAF were those of a limited mandate. Resolution 1510 adopted on 13 October 2003 authorized expansion of the mandate of ISAF outside Kabul and its environs to support the Afghan Authority “in the maintenance of security so that Afghan authorities as well as personnel of the United Nations and other international civilian personnel engaged in particular in reconstruction and humanitarian affairs, can operate in a secure environment, and to provide security assistance for the performance of other tasks in support of the Bonn Agreement.”
The expanded mission began to encounter problems in getting enough troop commitments because many coalition partners did not agree with the Anglo-American drive to step up operations. The situation on the ground became more complicated with the Taliban emerging as a deadlier enemy, attacking foreign forces as they ventured into new areas. By early 2005, Security Council resolutions had begun to present the situation in stark terms. Resolution 1589 of 24 March 2005 which extended UNAMA’s mandate for another year, called upon the Government of Afghanistan, with the assistance of the international community, the OEF coalition and ISAF, to continue to address the threat to the security and stability of Afghanistan posed by Al Qaeda operatives, the Taliban and other extremist groups. Factional violence among militia forces and criminal activities, in particular violence emanating from the drug trade further aggravated the situation.
Resolution 1589 was mainly directed at the governments and public opinion in those partner countries where opposition to sending more troops to Afghanistan was gathering momentum and, in particular, the countries already receiving corpses from combat zones. America, foreseeing long term operations in Afghanistan embarked on a parallel track of gradually transferring the control of UN-mandated ISAF to NATO. The extension of ISAF/NATO operations to southern Afghanistan in the summer of 2006 caused a split in NATO ranks with Germany leading the group that refused to take on a combat role for its troops. Others, like the Netherlands and Denmark agreed to send their troops to the south where Britain, Australia and Canada were already battling the Taliban. The US pursued its OEF offensive outside the ISAF/NATO chain of command.
UNSC Resolution 1659(2006) referred to NATO’s continuing commitment to lead ISAF; welcomed the adoption by NATO of a revised operational plan allowing the continued expansion of ISAF; and called for greater operational synergy of ISAF with the OEF. Resolution 1662(2006) referred to the continuing importance of “combating increased terrorist attacks” by the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other extremist groups as well as the narcotics threat. In legal terms, the Security Council may not have handed ISAF command to NATO but that is what has happened in practice by turning the system of lead nation into that of a whole group of nations which belong to a military pact. This surrender of a UN-mandated command to a military alliance brought a qualitative change to the ideological character of the conflict. The creeping outsourcing of operations mandated under Chapter VII of the UN Charter was made easy in a uni-polar system in which the single superpower could push its way through the half-hearted resistance by other key players. It can be argued that ISAF did not have a UN command to begin with as its operational control was handed over to the participating countries. Hence, if the command was handed to the collective organisation of those countries, ISAF would have been managed more effectively. With the advent of a new administration in Washington, it is time to review actions which were wrong in principle and failed to achieve the declared objectives.
Three years after the control of ISAF finally passed to NATO, the balance sheet is mostly in the negative. First, the ISAF mission has lost its moral high ground and is now decisively seen as a US and Allies’ war effort. The Taliban and their Al Qaeda backers have gained a psychological edge in recruiting new fighters and suicide bombers to attack the foreign troops and their facilitators. Second, NATO’s thrust into southern Afghanistan has extended and intensified the conflict in Pakistan’s tribal zones. The implications of this spillover are grave but that aspect needs to be discussed separately. It must, however, be noted that one of the consequences of the spillover is the much higher number of attacks against NATO supplies through or from Pakistan. The US aerial attacks against targets in the tribal areas have undermined the Pakistani state’s authority in the eyes of its citizens.
The Americans should be given credit for being frank in admitting that the situation in Afghanistan is grim. However, to use that assessment for sending more troops and launching, alongside, a diplomatic initiative to deal with AfPak is hardly the answer. Barak Obama, who sparked the American voters’ imagination with his ideas of change, must review the basic approach on ways and means of resolving the conflict in Afghanistan. This would require a complete change in the role assigned to the United Nations in preparation of an exit plan. The Bush administration’s method of using the UN as an anchor to pursue its war plans, will have to be replaced by a genuine role for the universal body, leading to a UN Peace Keeping Force in Afghanistan.
The Democrats have traditionally supported the United Nations as opposed to the Republicans who see it as a nuisance or occasionally, as with the neo-cons, a convenient peg for launching new wars. If the Democrats want to rid America and the world of that legacy, they have to start acting now. In a region rife with conspiracy theories, there are many who claim that the US wants AfPak to keep simmering because bringing peace would deprive it of a foyer of instability. It is apparent, however, that a certain degree of fatigue has set in. This raises the question of the west’s capacity to remain on top of conflict situations. It is obvious a gradual and orderly withdrawal is preferable to a rout or a hasty retreat.
While inheriting the outgoing administration’s military strategy, President Obama quickly launched a high profile diplomatic initiative to send the message that Afghanistan was not just a military project. The nomination of Richard Holbrooke as Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, followed by similar appointments by key allies, indicated that the Democrats had mobilized resources to match the troop surge with a diplomatic offensive.
Nobody should expect quick-fixes from Holbrooke and others because the issue to be resolved is one of the most challenging that the superpower has faced since the collapse of the Soviet system. On the military front, guerilla warfare is not really a strong point of conventional forces. The high-tech approach can target groups of Taliban in places but with collateral damage so severe that the Afghan Government is asking for a revision of the agreements for operations by foreign troops reached with the Afghan Interim Authority in 2002. Civilian deaths from aerial attacks have kept rising despite clear stipulations in UNSC resolutions, asking “ISAF and other international forces to minimize the risk of civilian casualties.”
The realistic scenario the Americans and their allies can hope for is a stalemate, with the Afghan government and foreign forces controlling the urban centres and highways and the Taliban holding sway in major parts of the countryside; each keeping the other on tenterhooks. An orderly exit strategy would have to follow the path of negotiations. The US will gain by convincing its enemy that they are in no hurry to leave but willing to accept reciprocal scaling down of operations while the talks proceed.
At the height of the Cold War, America was in search of initiating a dialogue with the Soviet Union to minimize the risks of mutual destruction. The US did not break its diplomatic ties with Moscow even during the chilliest period of its relationship with the latter. In the context of Afghanistan, it would have made sense had the US not closed its embassy in Kabul but, instead, increased its profile to keep an eye on a country that was turning increasingly into a base for terrorism.
Support for negotiations was expressed in UNSC Resolution 1833(2008) with the call “on all Afghan parties and groups to engage constructively in peaceful political dialogue within the framework of the Afghan Constitution.” It encouraged the implementation of Afghan-led reconciliation programmes but with full respect of measures introduced in Resolution 1267(1999) and other relevant resolutions directed against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Resolution 1806(2008) authorized UNAMA to provide support, if requested by the Afghan Government, in the implementation of Afghan-led reconciliation programmes.
Resolution 1868(2009) adopted by the Security Council on 23 March 2009 welcomed “the efforts of the Afghan Government to promote dialogue with those elements in opposition to the Government who are ready to renounce violence, denounce terrorism and accept the Afghan Constitution,” and called for “enhanced efforts to ensure the full implementation of the Action Plan on Peace, Justice and Reconciliation in accordance with the Afghan Compact without prejudice to the implementation of measures introduced by the Security Council in its Resolution 1267(1999) of 15 October 1999 and other relevant resolutions of the Security Council.”
In a series of measures introduced in resolutions under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations, the Security Council had imposed flight bans against Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and an arms embargo. In a final blow, Resolution 1390(2002) had made it obligatory on all states to freeze the financial assets of these entities/associates and their members. All states were also required to prevent the entry or transit of these individuals except for judicial process or if they were nationals of the state. Viewed in this context, the replacement of the words “but with full respect of measures…” in Resolution 1833(2008) by the words “but without prejudice to the implementation of measures…” in Resolution 1868(2009) is a meaningful shift. It signals the desire of the US and its allies to seek an enabling environment for talks with the Taliban.
The US will obviously act on what it perceives to be in its national interests. The only hope, therefore, lies in the new administration’s own determination to distance itself from the course followed in Afghanistan by the Bush team without success. That would require a revision of America’s original preference of considering the Northern Alliance as its privileged partner. Even more important, the policy of using the United Nations as a diving board to conduct war has to be reviewed. The idea of turning NATO into a military arm of the UN should be rejected forthwith.
The founding members of the UN would be aghast at how the organisation’s fundamental role of maintaining world peace has transformed into a mechanism for crafting resolutions which the sole superpower would use to outsource operations to its willing coalition partners. The Democrats should not lose time in repudiating this distortion. Preparatory work should begin for interposing a UN Peace Keeping Force in Afghanistan. Utmost care will have to be taken to make it a truly neutral force. The contingents making up the force should be drawn from countries that do not have a direct role in Afghanistan. This would automatically exclude countries in the present coalition as well as Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours. The presence of contingents from Islamic countries in the force would make it more welcome in a society which is generally ill at ease with the west.
The transition from a heavy-handed NATO-led operation to a UN Peace Force is not going to be easy nor is it a task that can be achieved in a short span of time. Henry Kissinger once lamented that patience was not an American virtue. According to him, the Americans believe that complex problems can be solved by applying enough resources and energy. And if success does not follow, they start losing patience. President Obama has stated that his goal is “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.” Ironically, Osama Bin Laden was forced to leave Sudan by the United States after which he headed for Afghanistan. Post 9/11, Osama and his warriors were stormed out of their caves to melt away in the tribal belt straddling Afghanistan and Pakistan. The problem of radicalization and militancy keeps growing with the increase of foreign troops in Afghanistan. Should America cut its losses and leave AfPak to deal with the mess? Yes, but it should not be a rerun of the 1990s when the US abandoned the region immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This time, the transition should be orderly. The initial step in this direction should be taken by scaling down NATO’s involvement and reverting to the lead nation concept. In the second phase, alongside talks with the major Afghan players, especially the Taliban, an outline of the new peace force should be developed for gradual phasing out of ISAF which has moved away from its original mission of maintaining security by assuming a more aggressive and combatant posture.
If handled appropriately, President Obama may be able to boast of how his administration de-escalated the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan without compromising America’s security in his re-election campaign.