UN Balks at Post-Taleban Role

United Nations officials are horrified by US talk of the deployment of UN peacekeepers in Afghanistan after the overthrow of the Taleban.

UN Balks at Post-Taleban Role

United Nations officials are horrified by US talk of the deployment of UN peacekeepers in Afghanistan after the overthrow of the Taleban.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

Every time a shell is fired at the Qurugh frontline, just south of the border with Tajikistan, you can feel the vibrations reverberate through the hot air. Then you crouch in the trenches, jump over the top and sprint forward with troops of the anti-Taleban 523 Kunduz Brigade.

Just behind the lines, are ruined villages with compounds full of tea-sipping soldiers and commanders champing at the bit, waiting for the order to launch an all out offensive on Mullah Omar's forces.

Many of these men are refugees from Taleban-held territory. They want to go home and to be reunited with their families.

Like most Afghans they are exhausted by 22 years of war, and indeed, many of them are too young to even remember what peace was like. But some still have plenty of energy left.

Reclining like a pasha on a mattress on the floor of his headquarters General Alam Kahn, a veteran of the conflict with the Soviet Union and the civil wars that have followed, said simply, "Not only am I not tired but I want to fight Pakistan."

Kahn's antipathy towards Islamabad, which nurtured him and his fellow mujahedin fighters during the war against the Soviet Union, springs from the fact that, as they say, Pakistan then tried to dictate who would govern Afghanistan and finally sponsored the Taleban.

After a hearty lunch of rice and mutton, the general's aide, Faziludin, who lost an arm fighting in Kabul, thoughtfully sucks a coffee flavoured boiled sweet. Then, in a matter of fact way, he lets drop that when he gets to Mazar-e-Sharif, he intends to "kill Pakistani, Arab and Chechen Taleban but not Afghan ones because they are my brothers."

In 1997, just after the Taleban first entered the city some 2,000 of them were massacred, just over half crammed into containers and left to bake to death in the blistering sun. When the containers were opened the bodies were found to have turned black. In 1998, the Taleban retook the city and massacred some 6,000 people in revenge.

Paik Chong-Hyun, a UN special rapporteur, who investigated the deaths of the Taleban, wrote in his report that many of them were tossed down deep wells, then hand grenades were thrown in and the wells were bulldozed over.

Ever since, UN-led efforts to make peace have come to naught. It feels especially bitter about Afghanistan since Diego Cordovez, then a UN under secretary general, helped negotiate the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989.

In the wake of that none of the solemn commitments made by any of the parties involved was kept. So, the country has been at war ever since, with neighbours and big powers alike interfering and manipulating the various parties as they see fit.

UN policy makers are highly alarmed by the evolving situation, fearing they will be asked to clear up the mess in the wake of the current bombing campaign.

On Thursday, Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general and his special representative for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister, met Richard Haass, the top US state department official in charge with Afghanistan plus John Negroponte, the US ambassador to the UN. On Friday, Brahimi was due for talks with the US administration in Washington. In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the US, the UN kept a low profile, doing little in public beyond issuing statements of condolence and regret. Now, according to IWPR sources, it is shifting into high gear.

"Given our past experience," said a senior UN political official in New York, who asked not to be named, "we are trying to be prepared this time." She said an emergency task force had now been formed which was, "running through all the scenarios in case the Taleban are defeated".

Over the last few days, Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, has mooted the idea of a post-Taleban UN peacekeeping force for Afghanistan. But UN officials are horrified by the idea. They fear being called in to sort out an impossible mess made by others.

"We have been burned too often," said the UN official referring to the organisation's missions in Bosnia and Croatia between 1991-95. Its representatives are still bitter about these believing that the US undermined them and that they were then blamed for their failure.

Now, with not a little sang-froid, UN officials are certainly not keen to find themselves hauled into an Afghan mission to help out the US.

Even the fact that President Bush has suddenly told Annan that the US will now pay the bulk of its longstanding arrears to the world body, is not helping assuage UN scepticism.

"What have they got in mind?" said the UN source, "for how long? What would the mandate be? The US would like to move quickly and declare a situation where the UN takes over but we are saying this cannot be rushed. Brahimi is trying to lower the tone. The conditions are not there to think of deploying troops let alone anything else. Who is going to give the troops? Africans? Is the US going to put its troops in harms way? This is no joke. It makes Bosnia look like a kids game."

One idea that has been mooted is that the UN could play a similar sort of role to the one it played in Cambodia, in the run up to the elections it supervised there in May 1993. But, as the UN source pointed out, "In Cambodia you had a framework for peace. In Afghanistan you don't".

When he visited Islamabad on Tuesday, Colin Powell appeared to endorse the proposal of Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf that a future government of Afghanistan should include "moderate Taleban elements".

This enrages Northern Alliance spokesmen such as Abdullah Abdullah, the foreign minister of the anti-Taliban alliance. He has rejected the proposal out of hand saying that there was no such thing as a moderate Taleban element. "Their objective is terrorism and fanaticism so who would expect us to join such a government with such people. This is against the objective of the international alliance against terrorism," he said.

Down in the Panjsher valley, Northern Alliance officials are preparing a broad-based future administration, which would include non-Taleban Pashtuns. Given the current diplomatic dynamics, it is quite possible that, at a certain point in the future, the moves afoot at the UN, in the US and in the Panjsher valley will come together and a formula for governing Afghanistan involving the UN will be hammered out. When, and what that will look like though, it remains far too early to tell.

Tim Judah, author of Kosovo: War and Revenge (Yale), is a regular IWPR contributor.

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