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UN: Afghanistan Represents Isolated Case In Approach To Failed States

  • Robert McMahon

The United Nations has moved quickly to try to rebuild Afghanistan, for both humanitarian and security reasons. But despite its heavy involvement in Afghanistan, the United Nations has no fixed program for helping failed states in other parts of the world. Experts on UN affairs say such a policy would require a fundamental change in UN peacekeeping and in member states' willingness to commit their nationals to potentially dangerous missions.

United Nations, 4 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A United Nations political mission, overwhelmingly supported by the UN Security Council, is heavily engaged in the process of nation-building in Afghanistan.

The mission is seen as a crucial opportunity to provide lasting peace for a country whose wars have destabilized Central Asia. It also can begin to heal the humanitarian wounds that have created the world's largest refugee population.

But regardless of the success of the UN's engagement in Afghanistan, experts say the UN cannot be expected to form similar "failed-state reaction" teams in other parts of the world.

This is partly due to the extraordinary way that Afghanistan's failings affected the world, says Jeffrey Laurenti, a senior analyst with the United Nations Association, an independent think tank that closely follows UN affairs.

Laurenti says that influential UN member states, such as the United States, Russia, and China, had compelling national security reasons for taking action in Afghanistan.

"You had a formidable coalition right there. When you don't have those circumstances, you don't have the same willingness to use military force to enter a society, to enter a country, and we see that already in the resistance internationally to U.S. talk about taking out the government in Baghdad," Laurenti says.

The UN Security Council authorized the 4,500-member International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), led by Britain, to deploy in the Kabul region and help train Afghan soldiers. The international force has the promise of logistical and emergency aid from U.S. forces still operating against Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan.

The United States and major Western European nations involved in the force are currently debating whether to expand beyond Kabul.

Laurenti says this kind of military authorization by a UN body has to be justified by a clear and present danger in order for the world community to accept it. The governments that supply troops to a UN-authorized force, as in Afghanistan, have to decide that there's enough of an interest to let them use force.

And, Laurenti says, there has to be a pressing concern on the part of influential states, especially the United States, or UN military engagement will not happen.

A senior official on UN affairs at the U.S. State Department, Bill Wood, tells RFE/RL the United States believes that other elements of the UN system -- not just peacekeeping -- can play an important role in helping war-torn countries reconcile and rebuild. He says the Security Council should be sparing in authorizing military engagements.

"We reject the notion that the Security Council should just take over a situation and perpetually run it. The thing that makes the Security Council unique is that it is authorized to be intrusive in countries. And sometimes in extreme circumstances that is necessary," Wood says. "But we think that that kind of intrusion into the national life of countries should be limited."

But Wood notes the growth in peacekeeping missions approved by the Security Council in recent years. From a low of about 12,000 peacekeepers in the 1990s, UN peacekeeping deployment has risen to nearly 45,000.

In countries such as Somalia, essentially a failed state divided up by warring clans, the United Nations is trying to build peace through humanitarian and development programs. No UN military engagement is foreseen.

This runs counter to the original intent for the Security Council to be a body that reacts to crises anywhere they occur, says Brian Urquhart, a former UN undersecretary-general and early architect of UN peacekeeping operations.

Urquhart says that, at present, the United Nations is limited in its ability to respond to multiple crises.

"There is a kind of triage in the way the UN looks at the world situation, which I don't think is what was originally intended but there it is," Urquhart says. "If you only have the resources for one or two crises at a time, that is what's going to happen."

And when the international community does recognize a crisis and wishes to respond, Urquhart says, it has to cope with a sluggish, understaffed UN peacekeeping operation: "I think the trouble actually is -- and it's always going to be the case -- that the UN is a shoestring operation in peacekeeping. It's completely improvised. It has no permanent infrastructure, no permanent establishments. It runs completely on instant demand in a crisis. And that's a hell of a way to run a military organization."

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan touched on the problems facing UN peacekeeping during a recent speech to the German parliament in Berlin.

Annan said that through experience, the United Nations has found modern-day peacekeeping operations work best as part of an interconnected effort involving humanitarian, military, political, social, and economic sectors.

Some of this interconnection is currently seen in Kosovo and, so far, in Afghanistan.

But Annan said the UN has rarely been given the resources to consistently and effectively carry out such operations.