Accessibility links

Afghanistan: Lessons From Peacekeeping In Former Yugoslavia

  • Jolyon Naegele

The UN Security Council tonight or early tomorrow is expected to authorize a British-led UN security force in Afghanistan to be deployed as early as late December, and which would be allowed to use force. RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele reports that UN-authorized peacekeeping engagements in the Balkans offer a wealth of lessons to the new force.

Prague, 20 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The international community is learning.

UN peacekeeping missions in Croatia, Bosnia, and Macedonia, and UN-authorized NATO-led peacekeeping missions in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia over the past decade have built on past lessons and mistakes.

The peacekeeping missions from 1991 to 1995 in Croatia and Bosnia were plagued by a lack of resolve, an unwillingness to use force, and frequent acquiescence or even indirect collaboration with Serb aggressors, as when Dutch UN peacekeepers stood aside during the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of some 7,000 men and boys.

In contrast to most Balkan peacekeeping efforts, the mission being sent to Afghanistan is likely to be on a much smaller scale at the Afghan government's request, with an initial force of 1,000 soldiers eventually growing to perhaps 5,000 on a six-month mandate.

Afghanistan's interim defense minister, Mohammad Qaseem Fahim, was quoted today by AP as saying that only 1,000 of the foreign soldiers will actually carry out peacekeeping duties. He says their presence will be largely symbolic.

Fahim told AP the other soldiers -- numbering anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 -- will assist with humanitarian aid and will act as a reserve force, remaining out of public view at Bagram air base north of Kabul.

Laura Silber, former Belgrade correspondent for the "Financial Times," is co-author of "Yugoslavia -- Death of a Nation" and is currently a New York-based senior policy adviser to international financier George Soros. She says the international community must learn from its peacekeeping mistakes in the former Yugoslavia.

"I would say the single biggest error [in peacekeeping in the Balkans] was probably putting in [UN] peacekeepers in Sarajevo in 1992 with a mandate they could not possibly fulfill," Silber said. "And what they became was a protection service for the delivery of humanitarian aid. And what was needed was a robust force that could actually keep the peace. They were peacekeepers while there was a war going on."

Silber says the lessons of nearly a decade of involvement in Bosnia are clear: "I think in Bosnia, so far, the international community has failed. There is still a great question of what is going to be the follow-on police force. What inherits the UN police force -- which now will supposedly go out of existence and there's still no prescription as we look on as troops draw down in Bosnia. And we have a police force that should supposedly take up some of the tasks that you could have had or maybe would have had the military force doing. There is still no strategy. And I think in Afghanistan, if there is any way they can put a strategy in place, a longer-term strategy, that builds in the idea, 'Yes, in "X" number of months, there is going to be pressure to draw down to see how we can maintain a robust force but that will actually meet the needs of the country.'"

John L. Clarke is professor of defense management and strategic studies at the George Marshall Center in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. He is a veteran U.S. special forces commander in Bosnia and Somalia and author of the U.S. army manual on peace operations.

"Not all so-called peacekeeping operations are peacekeeping operations. The terminology is important, and it makes a difference," Clarke said. "The terminology, the use of the term 'peacekeeping,' in those instances where there is no peace to keep, resulted in the early '90s in a number of failures, not only in Somalia, but also in certain parts of the former Yugoslavia."

Clarke agrees there are lessons to be learned: "The important lesson to be learned there is that most of the operations that international security organizations engage in today are not peacekeeping operations but peace-enforcement operations. And the important distinction there is that force may be used not only for self-defense, as in traditional peacekeeping, but also force may be used to carry out the mandate."

Clarke notes that multinational forces -- though bound to spawn problems -- need extra tolerance: "I think we need to understand that as long as we are going to engage in international or multilateral peace operations, we are always going to have the difficulty -- the problem -- that all national elements ultimately report not only to the peace operation commander but also through national chains back to their national governments, seeking advice, seeking clarification and so forth."

Clarke notes that despite the importance of having a single unified command and a single set of rules of engagement, all rules of engagement are always subject to national interpretation in a multinational force. But he says that thanks to an increased professionalization of armies everywhere, there is now a greater ability to carry out multinational peacekeeping operations with less reliance on going back and forth between national channels.

Clarke notes that while the U.S. and Britain have taken a leading role in peace enforcing and peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and Kosovo, they are better suited to one than the other.

"It must be stated that because of those particular two countries [the U.S. and Britain] and the policies they undertake, that they don't make very good 'peacekeepers.' They make much better 'peace enforcers,'" Clarke said. "But 'peacekeepers' implies a certain sense of impartiality, at least on the part of the belligerents, and I'm not certain that the U.S. and Britain are always perceived in that way, regardless of what actions they undertake. So increased professionalization is the best way to ensure that these operations are handled in the manner that they should be."

British Balkans expert Misha Glenny perceives British peacekeepers as considerably more active than their European and even U.S. counterparts: "In southeastern Europe, British contingents on the whole, but not always, have acted much more robustly and vigorously and decisively than some of their counterparts from other European countries and, indeed, the United States. The U.S. military has been very, very reluctant to involve itself in difficult actions in southeastern Europe, preferring instead to hunker down in its barracks. And it really is a question of who is commanding the force, how decisive they are and what ability they have to square up to commanders who are subordinate in the chain of command of the peacekeeping operation, but who can get on the phone to their capitals and their governments and say, 'I'm not taking this from a British officer or Russian officer or an American officer or a French officer or whoever it is.' This is a dreadful operational headache, which I'm sure will emerge in Afghanistan."

And Glenny, author of a history of nationalism in the Balkans and a best-selling book on the breakup of Yugoslavia, notes that multinational forces have their weak points, as they are often only as strong as the weakest of their national contingents. And local factions are often quick to take advantage.

"Certain paramilitary or disruptive forces feel more at home in zones with a lax military regime than they do in other ones," Glenny said. "And in Kosovo itself there was an absolutely critical error in the first instance, and it's widely acknowledged [it was] made by the French commanding officer to draw a line in the middle of one city -- Mitrovica in the north -- between the north and the south, and thereby establishing effectively a large enclave, which, if what you want is to re-establish multicultural cohabitation in somewhere like Kosovo, you can't do it. You're setting up an enclave, a homogenizing system."

A growing trend in peace operations is for increased security and stability on a civilian level.

As Professor Clarke puts it, "The military does what they do very well in these operations, but once we've created that initial stability, then increasingly, we have to rely on civilian police forces -- militarized police forces, such as the Gendarmarie and Carabinieri -- and training local police forces to provide what then becomes necessary."

"After the initial need for stability in a country is established, then you have a need for law and order. Soldiers can do that, but policemen do it much better," Clarke said. "And therefore, for example, I have urged the European Union to create police forces to send down to places like Bosnia and Kosovo in order to provide the services that are now so desperately needed down there, which are police forces -- people who understand the difference between peace enforcement and law enforcement."

But Glenny warns that separating the military, diplomatic, and civil security aspects has been a recipe for failure in Bosnia: "You should not regard the security aspect in isolation, i.e., if you look at what has happened in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the security component of the peacekeeping operation -- IFOR and SFOR -- has been kept quite separate from the civilian, humanitarian, and political aspects of the peacekeeping operation. And that means that a whole range of the overall peacekeeping tasks requested and required by the international community at the conference in Dayton -- which triggered the entire operation in late 1995 -- a whole range of these tasks remains absolutely unfulfilled."

Glenny cites as an example the return of refugees to their homes -- an integral part of the Dayton agreement -- as a prerequisite for the reconstruction of Bosnia. But he notes that while only the peacekeepers were capable of enforcing the returns, their mandate said nothing about this role. The peacekeepers, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the international community's high representative traded accusations, while refugees remained largely unable to return to their homes.

Kris Janowski is the UNHCR's chief spokesman. He spent most of the Bosnian war in Sarajevo: "The humanitarian lesson [of former Yugoslavia for peacekeeping elsewhere] is that humanitarian aid or humanitarian intervention should not be a substitute for political or even military intervention. This is what we essentially saw in Bosnia for about three years, where we had a situation where, essentially, delivery of humanitarian aid was the lowest common denominator that everybody could agree on, while there was no political will to actually resolve the conflict."

Janowski says the international community's success in helping the people of Afghanistan to help themselves will depend on how sustained and solid its commitment will be. The commitment, rather than the size of the force, is the key.