Steve McDonald, Consulting Director, Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh, Lecturer, L'Institut d'Études Politiques (Sciences Po), Paris, and Director, Concentration on Human Security
Michael Lund, Consulting Program Manager, Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, is struggling to achieve its goals due to an overambitious, wide-ranging and often ambiguous mandate, consistently poor security, and perceived partiality, said Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh, Lecturer for L'Institut d'Études Politiques, at a meeting at the Wilson Center on September 10th, 2009. Dr. Tadjbakhsh shared her findings from her recently completed study of the challenges facing UNAMA, which were published in a new report on Security Council Resolutions under Chapter VII with the Fundación para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Diálogo Exterior, FRIDE, in Madrid. The report covers the countries of Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone, as well as Afghanistan, which is where Tadjbakhsh conducted her field research.

UNAMA was launched in support of the Bohn Agreement (2001), but since 2002, its mandate has expanded tremendously. The "the Lead Nation Approach of the donor community had proved ineffective" Tadjbakhsh stated, so UNAMA was given far greater responsibility to rebuild Afghanistan's political system, coordinate aid flows, outsource security, and ensure fair elections to create a democratic and free market model. In the process, UNAMA's focus has become less clear. Dr. Tadjbakhsh offered six principle suggestions to make UNAMA more effective after more than seven years of existence, beginning with the difficulty of political peacekeeping operations in a highly active combat zone. She posited that the task of establishing new political institutions and norms is blocked by constant fighting. "Military objectives [continue to] undermine political stabilization," she said. Consequently, the Afghan civilian perspective on peacekeeping and institution building with international actors has become more negative due to prolonged exposure to war and foreign troops, which in certain areas has generated sympathy for the Taliban. Moreover, peacekeeping is a monumental task if "there is no peace to keep."

Another key issue is that there are simultaneous humanitarian, political, military, infrastructure, gender and private sector efforts taking place, partially due to UNAMA's complicated mandate. Dr. Tadjbakhsh cited an accordion effect, in which many actors are present at once and complicate or confuse the efforts in the minds of Afghan civilians. An incremental and more process-oriented development strategy where issues would be dealt with in stages would be more effective. This fact complicates UNAMA's mission further, as it is responsible for aid money distribution and management for many of the organizations working in the country on different issues.

The mission is compromised by a general perception that it is not neutral, Tadjbakhsh said. From inception, the mission, per United Nations operational procedures, is accredited as a partner of the Afghan Government and, as it is seen to be supporting government, it is often seen by Afghans as a part of the government structure. Therefore, UNAMA is presumed to be acting on the behalf of the government and not as a neutral arbiter to all parties to the conflict. This problem is illustrated especially well in the case of ISAF, the security force authorized by the UN Security Council and currently under NATO command. Although the Security Council has authorized this force, it has no authority over it given that it is under command of NATO. Furthermore, because ISAF is engulfed in the counter-insurgency of NATO, its impartiality as a peacekeeping force is problematic. Such instances of outsourcing, including the lead nation approach where NATO partners have zones of responsibility, make sense practically but have had adverse consequences and cause communication and credibility gaps between UNAMA and other mission critical organizations. Tadjbakhsh used the analogy of "two separate wars" to describe the situation, one against the forces of international terror, in particular Al Qaeda, and the other internally against the Taliban. The latter needs a broad mission of development, education, job creation, and "winning hearts and minds" to succeed. The former often undercuts those objectives.

Tadjbakhsh cited the lack of an exit strategy as another key problem. She explained that this had been intentionally avoided during the drafting of the UNAMA mandate due to historical conditions in which Afghans were occupied and then abandoned twice by international players (the British and later the West after the Russian defeat). In that context, UNAMA has set benchmarks, rather than a strategy, and the options of negotiation, regionalization or "Afghanization" as the possible end game has not been thought through.

In closing, Tadjbakhsh recommended the adoption of a grand regional strategic meeting to include Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, and other regional stakeholders to explore these exit options. She also feels the international community needs to restore its impartiality and clarify the division of duties between political and military elements of the mission. Furthermore, she posited that it may be advantageous for the UN to take a more strategic role focusing mainly on political development and negotiations, instead of its current "housekeeping" role.