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Afghanistan: UN Calls For Neutral Peacekeepers

  • Bruce Pannier

With opposition forces scoring rapid advances in Afghanistan, the international community is racing to stay abreast of events. One area of concern is the apparent need for peacekeeping forces to be deployed in the country. There are fears the situation could degrade into a situation like that in 1992, when the communist regime was ousted and civil war broke out between various rival factions. But the task of choosing troops that could effectively keep the peace in Afghanistan is a tricky one. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier looks at which countries may be the likeliest candidates called on to contribute.

Prague, 15 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- As Afghanistan's Northern Alliance continues to push forward against Taliban forces, the international community is pushing ahead with initiatives of its own.

The United Nations yesterday unanimously passed a resolution supporting guidelines for an Afghan political reform process. It also discussed possible solutions to a second pressing issue -- that of the need for neutral peacekeepers to help maintain order in the scarred and divided country.

UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi had recommended an international force for Afghanistan in an address to the Security Council on 13 November. But the UN put off any immediate decisions regarding peacekeeping forces, as Britain's ambassador Jeremy Greenstock told reporters yesterday: "I don't think you should think of an early mandate to authorize an international coalition of the kind that we put into East Timor or the kind that we put into the Balkans, let alone the Gulf War. I think it will be a more evolving, inter-changing, inter-playing provision of security from outside that works alongside with the Afghan forces that are already making gains there."

UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said yesterday any international force deployed in Afghanistan will be based on arrangements between member states, and that the UN will be doing no recruiting.

The U.S. ambassador to the UN, John Negroponte, said the resolution passed yesterday provides enough authority for coalition troops already in Afghanistan to help maintain law and order in the capital, Kabul, and in areas vacated by fleeing Taliban forces.

But a contingent of foreign peacekeepers would appear to be an inevitable aspect of Afghanistan's future, as the country's traditionally fractious groups struggle for a role in any post-Taliban government.

The composition of such a force, however, remains a delicate issue. Many countries are offering troops and support to any future peacekeeping mission -- among them Britain, Indonesia, New Zealand, Canada, and Turkey. But analysts say the international community should tread carefully in choosing which countries will participate, as troops from many nations would be unacceptable to the Afghan population.

Speaking on 13 November in Turkey, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf pressed for a combination of UN forces and troops from Muslim countries: "There ought to be some kind of United Nations umbrella and a United Nations force, maybe, also specially composed of OIC [Organization of Islamic Conference] countries, which means the Muslim countries force being there for the purpose of giving stability, for the purpose of giving balance to whatever new political arrangement emerges there [in Afghanistan]."

But there are some Muslim states that clearly should not be invited to send troops. Pakistan is one. The Northern Alliance has said for years that Pakistan supports the Taliban. The ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras -- who make up the bulk of the Northern Alliance -- would oppose a Pakistani military presence in Afghanistan, however well-meaning that force might be.

In fact, Paul Burton -- a coordinating editor and security analyst at "Jane's Sentinel," part of the British-based Jane's defense group -- says he believes none of Afghanistan's neighbors should contribute troops to such a force: "There are a multitude of reasons why every surrounding state of Afghanistan won't be sending troops to a peacekeeping or security force. All of them have a vested interest in the outcome in Afghanistan and to a lesser or greater extent can be accused of bias."

Burton also rules out the participation of any Arab states. Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda terrorist network -- believed to be comprised mainly of Arabs -- has been based in Afghanistan for several years, and its members are known to have fought alongside Taliban forces. The Northern Alliance -- much as it would resent the presence of Pakistani troops -- also would likely not agree to the deployment of troops from Arab nations.

Burton also said stronger Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia -- while well-suited militarily to contribute troops to an Afghan peacekeeping force -- have minorities who support bin Laden. Any participation in a peacekeeping mission might have negative consequences at home. Burton added that the smaller Arab states, such as Oman or Yemen, simply have no experience with peacekeeping operations.

Russia, another regional player, is also an unlikely candidate. That country has a bad history in Afghanistan, dating back to the Soviet occupation of the country in the 1980s.

Burton said there is one country in the region that is well-suited to send troops to such a mission: "One of the ideal candidate states would be Bangladesh, primarily because Bangladeshi forces have participated in a wide range of UN peacekeeping initiatives all around the world -- from Angola to Liberia, Georgia, Croatia, and Tajikistan."

Burton says Indonesia would also be a good choice to supply peacekeepers, noting it is one of the few Muslim countries where support for bin Laden is minimal.

Turkey -- which has a recent history of peacekeeping in Somalia and Kosovo -- could also be involved.

But Burton cautions that peacekeeping may not be what is needed in Afghanistan at this point: "The force that goes in can't essentially be a 'blue-helmeted' UN peacekeeping operation because that has to assume the will of the people in the country you're going into, and you've got to ask the fundamental question, 'Is there a peace to keep?' They're going to be entering an anarchic scenario. UN peacekeepers whose mandate isn't to open fire, these guys need to defend themselves. Some sort of force with UN sanctions -- yes. But a peacekeeping force -- no. I think they have to be a much more proactive security force. In that respect, there's never been a [UN mission] like it."

Diplomats at the United Nations have said any multinational force that would eventually be approved by the Security Council could include soldiers from Turkey, Jordan, Bangladesh, and European nations.