The United Nations is struggling to remain relevant in Afghanistan. At the heart of the UN’s challenge is a growing perception that it has lost the trust and respect of Afghan leaders, as well as considerable segment of the general public.
The UN’s delicate position was highlighted by the April 1 attack against a UN compound in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, an incident that left three UN staffers and four UN security guards dead. In an effort to defuse tension and restore its image among Afghans, UN officials quickly blamed Islamic radicals for the violence. The tragedy was the outgrowth of a mass demonstration against the burning of a Koran by Terry Jones, an extremist pastor in Florida. According to the UN version of events, a small group of militants, numbering no more than 15, infiltrated a mob of about 3,000 and somehow redirected its fury toward the UN compound. In singling out militants for responsibility, the UN apparently wants to downplay the possibility that widespread public anger with the UN played a role in the tragedy. At least four Afghans, in addition to UN personnel, died in the April 1 incident.
Other accounts, including those of eyewitnesses, as well as an article published by The Wall Street Journal, have clashed with the UN version. These accounts suggested that the violence was the product of a spontaneous outburst of anger among protesters, rather than the result of well-targeted action by militants. If accurate, such a view has ominous implication for the future of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). Relations are already severely strained with the Afghan government, led by President Hamid Karzai. If the popular mood also has turned against UNAMA, then its ability to promote Afghanistan’s stabilization would appear to be thoroughly compromised.
Popular frustration with UNAMA has been building steadily in Afghanistan. As a coordinating agency for foreign assistance, including civil-military aid, UNAMA has come to be associated in the public eye with problems, including civilian deaths. At the same time, UNAMA’s lower public profile during the past year is complicating its efforts to reverse the slide of its image.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s disenchantment with the United States is relatively well known, but his dissatisfaction with UNAMA’s role is less documented. Karzai’s main complaint, it seems, is that both the United States and the UN won’t accord the Kabul government a level of freedom of action that he thinks it deserves, even though corruption is rife in Afghanistan, and the government has not demonstrated it can meet the basic needs of the people.
In a March 22 speech that announced the beginning of the security transition that would bring areas under the control of Afghan national security forces -- including, ironically, Mazar-i-Sharif -- Karzai singled out the UN for criticism. “There are numerous UN institutions operating in Afghanistan, of which the government is not aware, and their spending and performance is questionable to us,” Karzai said. “We have begun talks with the UN on this issue and hope the issue could be resolved in the course of this year.”
President Karzai’s remarks came as the UN Security Council extended UNAMA’s mandate, a process that had grown strained after Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul shot off a letter to the UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon calling for a curb on UN activities in Afghanistan. Diplomatic sources described the letter, dated March 1, as written in “language that was not diplomatic at all.” It reportedly listed 10 specific demands for changes in UNAMA’s mission to ensure that its “future mandate should correspond with the principles of Afghan leadership and ownership.”
While some demands merely called on the UN to meet pledges, such as a commitment to support the routing of a greater share of international assistance through the Afghan government, others demanded that the UN curtail its efforts to promote democratization and good governance. Afghan authorities specifically asked the UN not to include mention of electoral reform or sub-national governance in UNAMA’s renewed mandate and to “limit its offices to the six recognized zones throughout the country.” The renewed mandate dropped earlier references to the UN’s leading role in electoral reforms, but it emphasized a need for a stronger UN presence. It also included a concession by agreeing to an Afghan government demand for a comprehensive review of the UN mission in the coming months.
Since the April 1 incident in Mazar, the UN has been careful not to point a finger at Karzai, even as the Afghan president faces international criticism elsewhere for using inflammatory rhetoric that helped spur protests across Afghanistan against the Koran burning episode in Florida.
The source of the Karzai administration’s antipathy for UNAMA seems rooted in the fallout from Afghanistan’s 2009 presidential vote and parliamentary elections the next year, both of which were marred by widespread fraud. UNAMA lent its support to independent electoral bodies that substantiated fraud claims and whose authority later came under attack by various government institutions.
In 2010, UN officials attempted to reinvigorate its relationship with Karzai, installing Staffan de Mistura as UNAMA’s special representative, following the departure of Kai Eide. De Mistura lowered UNAMA’s visibility inside Afghanistan, curbing its contact with the public and reducing its political involvement to concentrate on the delivery of health and education services. Such efforts, however, did not produce the hoped-for results.
In recent months, UNAMA has sought to carve out a role as a neutral mediator in the reconciliation process between the government and Islamic militants. If popular anger, not militant scheming, was behind the Mazar-i-Sharif attack against the UN compound, UNAMA’s mediation aspirations would seem dashed, as it would show that all the major actors in the peace process – the government, the Taliban and the Afghan people – have serious doubts about the organization. Already, the government has emphasized in a letter to the UN secretary-general that UNAMA could play a role in the peace process only “if requested by the Government of Afghanistan.”
Disliked by Karzai’s administration, it seems that UNAMA will have limited influence over Afghanistan’s political course for the foreseeable future. It likewise may encounter growing difficulties in playing a humanitarian role, if it is viewed as a partisan entity in the ongoing conflict.
Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul.