Tuesday, 18 May 2021


Try UN peacekeeping in Afghanistan

Afghanistan has been on this cross road before. At least four times the US has been stupefied over how it should exit Afghanistan. With the war becoming its longest in history, this time round it is determined to leave by the twentieth anniversary of the event that brought it to Afghanistan, 9/11. As earlier, the question as to what after the US-NATO intervention ends remains unanswered and as earlier has the potential to prolong the war, if in a different form without the US present.

The answer here to the question is a UN peacekeeping. Instead of leaving a vacuum behind with potential to unravel the gains of the last twenty years, the UN could insert a multidimensional peace operation. The peace operation would assist the interim Afghan government, presumably overseeing the transition, with elections and continuing of peacebuilding, while the force component of the operation provides a modicum of security to the people.

To see if the idea is feasible, lets envisage a possible post US future in Afghanistan. The two sides, the government and the Taliban, are yet to get talking in earnest. If Turkey’s intercession does not take off – the trip to Istanbul for talks between the two sides having been postponed recently – then the two would likely carve out their respective spaces and spar across these. The vacuum in governance and authority will allow the Islamic State and assorted terror groups space and they may strike deals to reenter the picture. People will be imposed on unduly, especially women, girls and children. A civil war like scenario be recur as was in the nineties. The turmoil will make Afghanistan a magnet for proxy war by interested regional and outside players.

Such a scenario needs preventing. The UN has been in peacekeeping for over seven decades. It has experience of scores of peace operations, including those with complex mandates in highly unsettled conditions. Its efforts through this century have professionalized peace operations considerably, making the instrument adaptable to difficult conflict and post conflict settings as Afghanistan. Its peacekeeping doctrine is fleshed out, covering as it does peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding – peace enforcement not being relevant here.

Adequate appetite can be expected for the UN Security Council to back the idea. The Chinese and Russians would be happy to see the US exit the region. The US itself appears to be set to leave. The other two P5 members, UK and France, have had a presence in Afghanistan as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan and would also be leaving with the US. International peace and security requires that Afghanistan does not provide sanctuary for terror groups. The peacebuilding effort in Afghanistan needs preserving.

Missing so far is a regional organization to step up to the conflict resolution table. The UN prefers to act alongside and in support of a regional organization. Afghanistan is a member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and an observer with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), drawing its membership from mainland Asia including Central Asia. The two organizations can broker the UN’s role in Afghanistan and provide the necessary regional heft and ballast to the peace operation. China has already urged the SCO to take a view of the coming change in Afghanistan. The SAARC for its part has been moribund for long only an out-of-the-box idea, as here, can challenge it to step up its act as a regional organization.

Is the idea doable? This very valid question can be examined in the peace operations framework made famous in Boutros-Boutros Ghali’s ‘Agenda for Peace’: peace-making, peacekeeping, peacebuilding and peace enforcement. Currently, there is a special political mission in place, which will have to convert to a peace operation with the addition of peacekeepers into its format.

Peacemaking is ongoing and would need to eventuate in an agreement on an interim government to see the transition of Afghanistan into the next government. This may entail elections down the line. Peacemakers in Doha would require staying engaged, with the UN mission keeping them informed and advising as necessary.  A precedent is in the Doha peace process in Darfur being assisted by the hybrid UN-African Union Mission in Darfur in which the joint mediator of the two organizations worked intimately with the peace backers in the Gulf Cooperation Council.

The transition would require securing with peacekeeping troops on ground under a Chapter VI mandate. Chapter VI is emphasized since the militarised template has been tried and roundly failed in Afghanistan over past forty years. The country will likely be seemingly divided initially with the sides controlling their respective areas of dominance. Peacekeepers will have to maintain the ceasefire, intercede in localized mediation to restore breaches and support the protection of vulnerable civilians by the dominant party in areas of their deployment and within their capacity.

The forte of SAARC members is peacekeeping and it is here that SAARC can consider contributing. Both India and Pakistan can be represented in the force, with their areas of deployment being India majorly in the areas of the erstwhile Northern Alliance and Pakistan largely in the Taliban controlled areas, with other SAARC member contingents deployed alongside.

Peacekeeping deployment also has an overlay of blue beret monitors. These can be provided by the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC). Since Iran is a member its monitors can be deployed in Hazara inhabited areas. This point on having states with a legitimate interest in some areas being deployed in the area of interest is to give each a sense of reassurance and preclude proxy wars that might arise if states get a perception that their agenda is being undercut. It also helps with security of the deployed elements, deploying as they would be areas welcoming their presence.

Since terror groups may target the UN, the two main sides – the government and the Taliban – would require curtailing the power of terror groups. The peace operation may have a hammer element within it, Chapter VII empowered, to deter and respond to terror attacks such as by the Islamic State Khorasan chapter. This could be SCO provisioned, since the SCO has undertaken exercises on counter terrorism as part of its cooperation over the past few years. The peace enforcement element can assist the two sides in controlling ungoverned spaces.

Afghanistan secured by peacekeepers thus, peace building will taken on significance. Elections and run up to elections will be the most crucial. There may be constitution making support to be provided, depending on what the agreement in Doha comes up with. Even after the new government is in place a couple of years on, peace building support will have to continue in areas as security sector reform and disarmament, demobilization and reintegration. The post conflict management including incorporation of some Taliban into the Afghan National Security Forces will have to be done. Demining effort will be colossal. Capacity building across all sectors – education, health, corrections, justice etc – will be covered by the UN Country Team, with the UN Peace Building Commission stepping up as necessary.

A replication of the Bonn meeting, in the aftermath of Operation Enduring Freedom, may have to be called so that the resources underwriting peace building are made available. The US and the European Union (EU) should contribute to Marshall plan levels of contribution, if only to compensate for keeping the country in turmoil for two decades. China’s Belt and Road initiative’s extension into Afghanistan would also help.

The buck for the operation will of course rest with the Security Council. However, with the regional organizations extensively involved – SCO, SAARC, OIC, GCC - the command and control set up must reflect their interest and include the regional players in the mission leadership. For instance, the head of mission can be from the OIC, to give the mission a Muslim profile. Her political affairs deputy could be from GCC, since GCC would continue to be involved with peacemaking, and the deputy overseeing peace building from EU. The force could have force commander in rotation from SAARC member states, with the deputy from SCO.

Whereas national and religious orientation is not a criterion in the peopling of positions in UN missions, all appointees under oath not to act in parochial interest but only to further the UNSC given mandate, the issue finds mention here only to make the idea of the mission more palatable for the two sides. It reassures the people of their security and interest being catered for. It also will further cooperation between the regional organizations, making them stakeholders in a positive outcome. It also helps further the UN idea of a regional solution to regional conflicts.

What’s in it for the region? The region, including India, is Covid ravaged. It cannot continue into a post Covid future as though nothing has changed. It has to reconfigure its national security policy to privilege human security. This would entail forging ties of cooperation with neighbours, in this case principally India and Pakistan. Afghanistan, that has served so far as a site for regional rivalry if not proxy war, can serve instead as an opportunity. Pakistan has already voiced its interest with its army chief talking about geo-economics. India can take this forward using SAARC to secure the peace operation and integrate Afghanistan into the regional economy through connectivity projects involving Pakistan. The interface with both China and Pakistan in securing peace in Afghanistan can throw up habits of cooperation, reduce mistrust and help the three sides tackle their bilateral issues better.