As the world awaits a US response to this month's terrorist attack, diplomats at the United Nations have achieved uncommon unanimity - for at least the time being - on the right of the United States to take unilateral action under the aegis of self-defense.
The UN Security Council has been discussing behind closed doors what elements of fighting terrorism to incorporate in the council's next resolution on the subject. Diplomats have stressed many options on the table, but one point seems clear: as one diplomat put it, "military action is certainly not the focus of this resolution."
It is not the focus, diplomats say, because UN acquiescence on any US action against Afghanistan has already been settled. Terrorism and Afghanistan in particular have been the focus of past UN treaties and resolutions. During the past two years, three Security Council resolutions have imposed and tightened sanctions on the Taliban, which controls roughly 90 percent of Afghanistan, for not surrendering Osama bin Laden.
And on September 12, the Security Council unanimously passed a resolution that condemned the terrorist attacks against the United States the previous day, calling on all states to bring those responsible to justice, and reaffirming "the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense."
The new resolution, a draft of which was circulated by the United States on September 27, deals with international commitments to freeze terrorists' assets, prohibit support for them, and cooperate in exchanging information on national law enforcement activities.
[The UN Security Council unanimously approved the resolution late on September 28].
In contemplating military action, traditional US Security Council allies Britain and France have wholeheartedly voiced their support for possible US military strikes against targets in Afghanistan. Russia and other council members, however, have been a bit more reserved in expressing their support for US anti-terrorism actions.
"We expressed our solidarity with the United States. We said that to fight terrorism all means should be applied - political, economic, diplomatic, and if necessary force," said Sergei Lavrov, the Russian ambassador to the UN. But, he added, "we proceed on the basis that any force that would be used would be done on the basis of international law."
Russia is a key factor not only because of its veto in the Security Council, but also because it has been encouraging cooperation among the United States and the Central Asian states, especially Tajikistan, which relies on Russian border guards to patrol the country's frontier with Afghanistan. The United States has sought permission from Central Asian states for use of air space and staging areas for a possible attack.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has suggested that Tajikistan, which has the longest border with Afghanistan of all Central Asian states, might offer its airport for US forces. Uzbekistan has already welcomed US military transport aircraft carrying intelligence-gathering equipment and offensive weapons.
In exchange for their support, Afghanistan's neighbors will expect international assistance in coping with an expected upsurge of Afghan refugees. While relatively few Afghans have left their country since the September 11 attack, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees says it is preparing for an influx of up to one million refugees into Pakistan, 400,000 into Iran, 50,000 into Tajikistan and 50,000 into Turkmenistan. UN relief officials in Islamabad warned that that the numbers of internally displaced persons inside Afghanistan could go from the current 1.1 million to 2.2 million.
To demonstrate the severity of the potential humanitarian crisis, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan personally announced a call for donor support, saying that $584 million will be needed in the next six months to provide assistance to up to 7.5 million Afghan refugees and internally displaced people.
"There are broad regional dimensions to (the crisis) and I think the refugees will be trying to get to wherever they can get to," Annan told reporters September 27. "So all the neighboring countries will have pressure on their borders to varying degrees."
The UN's ability to aid the internally displaced in Afghanistan has been hampered by the fact that all international staff were evacuated after the terrorist attacks. Officials say that the 700 local UN staff members are trying to deliver supplies to those in need, but the theft of remaining supplies and the seizure of communications equipment have hampered their efforts.
"My understanding is that there are very few commercial trucks available inside Afghanistan, making it extremely difficult (to deliver food) even if we find some people to help us." said Kenzo Oshima, the UN's Emergency Relief Coordinator. "And the food stock has dwindled. All this make it a very difficult situation in which to operate food aid to the people in need."
In the immediate future, given the tacit acceptance of its actions, the United States is well advised not to clarify or justify its actions, politically or legally, at the United Nations, UN analysts say. These conditions may change, however, as the anti-terrorism campaign unfolds.
The resolution passed on September 12 "is probably broad enough to cover some sort of retaliatory measures against bin Laden and his group," said Stephen Schlesinger, director of the World Policy Institute. "It may be broad enough to attack Afghanistan. But it would be wiser for the United States if it wants to maintain a broad based global coalition, to return to the Security Council and ask for more specific authority for targeting people or states, outside [of targeting] bin Laden."