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UN: 'Light Footprint' In Afghanistan Could Hold Lessons For Iraq

  • Robert McMahon

The UN Security Council last month unanimously voted to extend the UN mission in Afghanistan for another year, an action little noticed among the debates involving Iraq. The vote reflected satisfaction with the way UN officials have guided the political and humanitarian efforts there. But there are mixed views over whether the UN's "light footprint" approach in Afghanistan, still very much a work in progress, would be effective in Iraq.

United Nations, 7 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- One year ago, the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) was launched to guide the country through a postwar period of regime change and recovery from 20 years of warfare.

The recent renewal of the mission by the UN Security Council reflected its confidence in the UN's efforts so far. The mission, led by UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, has helped the Afghan Transitional Administration meet its main timetables on political reforms, raising hopes that a representative government will be elected next year.

More than 2 million refugees and internally displaced people have returned to their homes. A new currency has been launched. There has been no major outbreak in fighting, although renewed activities by Taliban fighters in the southeast have raised concerns.

An international force keeps the capital region of Kabul secure while U.S. troops deployed elsewhere continue to pursue remnants of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters. It seems to be the kind of role U.S. planners are now envisioning for the UN in Iraq. U.S. presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer discussed this in a briefing on 4 April.

"The United Nations, in the president's judgment, should and will have a role [in postconflict reconstruction of Iraq]. The role of the UN will be involved in humanitarian efforts, the role will be involved in help on the reconstruction efforts. But principally, the future of Iraq is for the Iraqis to decide. The United States, of course, is on the ground providing security, and that's an important part of this, but there will be a role for the UN," Fleischer said.

Despite the different circumstances, the UN mission in Afghanistan could serve as a model for Iraq, said Lee Feinstein, director for strategic policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former U.S. State Department official in the Clinton administration.

Feinstein told RFE/RL that the way the United States and Britain initially assumed responsibility for security in Afghanistan also has useful lessons for Iraq, where both countries now lead a coalition pressing to oust the government of Saddam Hussein.

"The UN doesn't do peace enforcement well. That's something that needs to be done by a coalition of the willing with very clear command and control. So, in the case of Iraq, Afghanistan shows how important it is to have the United States and Britain in charge of security operations, with the participation of others who can make useful contributions," Feinstein said.

But Afghanistan's peace process is far from secure. In its latest report to the Security Council, the UN mission said insecurity and the lack of law and order continue to erode support for the transitional process.

The report cites developments in the training of a national army and police and planning for demobilization of armed groups. But deep concern remains that a lack of reliable security structures outside of Kabul are slowing the pace of reconstruction and economic development.

The UN report to the council expresses hope that provincial reconstruction teams led by the United States might help in improving local security. The teams, which include military-civilian engineers, are deployed in Konduz, Gardez, and Bamiyan, and there are plans to station teams in Mazar-e Sharif, Herat, Jalalabad, and Kandahar.

James Dobbins served as a special U.S. envoy to Afghanistan for the administration of President George W. Bush and now directs the International Security and Defense Policy Center at Rand, a private research institute.

He told RFE/RL that the UN mandate in Afghanistan should have been more extensive. But the country's progress, he said, has been impressive considering the limited resources provided.

"The situation there is tenuous. Nothing that's taken place is irreversible but against the background of recent Afghan history, so far so good. And if the United States and others don't further diminish their support, there's some prospect it will continue to make modest progress," Dobbins said.

What's lacking in Afghanistan, Dobbins said, is the robust UN mandate given for the mission in Kosovo, which has been a virtual UN protectorate for nearly four years. Dobbins served as U.S. senior envoy to the Balkans during the Kosovo air campaign of 1999, negotiated the Security Council resolution that ended the fighting and oversaw the U.S. efforts at peace implementation.

He said the Kosovo mission serves as a better model for the postwar situation in Iraq. He pointed out that the United Nations and NATO-led forces are responsible for key pillars such as security, reconstruction, and democratization, all crucial sectors for a postwar Iraq.

If there is a commitment to a multilateral approach in Iraq, Dobbins said, Kosovo offers the best guidepost. If the decision is made to proceed unilaterally, the U.S. government's post-World War II administration of Japan is the model to follow.

"The most successful operation in terms of simple levels of competence and capacity to field resources and to integrate efforts of various donors was Kosovo, by far. And so I think that to the extent you want to do this in a multilateral fashion, Kosovo offers the best model. Now, if you want to do it unilaterally, then, sure, Japan offers the best model. So I foresee a substantial debate both within the United States and between the United States and other countries," Dobbins said.

U.S. officials have repeatedly stressed that they will seek to turn authority over to Iraqis as soon as possible. The goal in Afghanistan was local ownership of the revival process as much as possible, but Afghans continue to appeal for international support in reconstruction and security. They are also worried that the focus on Iraq will drain away resources from their own fledgling reconstruction effort.

Afghanistan's ambassador to the UN, Ravan Farhadi, expressed this concern last week to RFE/RL: "Afghanistan is suffering from the fact that the attention of the world is now towards Basra and Baghdad instead of being towards Afghanistan, like it was last year."

UN officials say the humanitarian appeal for Afghanistan that lasted from October 2001 to December 2002 attracted a generous response from donors -- more than $1.18 billion. But aid agencies say a similar amount will be needed in the next 14-month period to maintain service to Afghanistan's vulnerable population, in addition to thousands of millions in reconstruction assistance.

Without this financial assistance and continuing political support, UN officials say Afghanistan's progress could reverse.

Meanwhile, the United Nations recently issued its largest-ever humanitarian appeal --- for $2.2 billion -- to address expected needs in Iraq. And Iraq's reconstruction costs are expected to be in the tens of billions of dollars.