Peacekeeping Forces Have a Long Afghan Haul Ahead of Them


Nov 29, 2001

This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on November 29, 2001.

Whether they are feeding refugees or helping to track down surviving terrorists, international peacekeeping forces are likely to play a major role in Afghanistan's future.

Ensuring security for all Afghans is the immediate challenge facing peacekeepers. As the world saw in the Balkans, winners often kill, rape or expel their former masters while the world looks on. If the various communities in Afghanistan do not feel secure, they will be reluctant to accept any negotiated agreement, fearing that their rivals will renege.

Revenge, however, is an Afghan tradition. Already the Northern Alliance has taken vengeance on isolated Taliban fighters it has captured. And, as the prison revolt in Mazar-i-Sharif suggests, the passivity of captured Taliban members cannot be guaranteed.

Some leaders of the Pashtun community, many of whom cooperated with the Taliban, must be part of a future government of Afghanistan if it is to be even nominally representative. If Pashtuns fear for their safety they will oppose the new regime.

Peacekeepers must help the new regime prevent extremists from using Afghanistan as a haven, while not threatening the rights and privileges of local leaders — a difficult balancing act.

From a U.S. point of view, an ideal regime would be able to prevent radicals from hiding in the caves and mountains. From the local warlords' perspectives, a weak central government is better, as it must leave them alone or beg for their support. Outside forces will have to bolster the regime over the next few years as it consolidates power.

All of Afghanistan's neighbors currently oppose the Taliban, but they do not agree on a replacement. Pakistan seeks to ensure its dominance and that of the Pashtun community. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan appear satisfied if the future government is strong enough to crack down on the terrorist training camps and havens. Iran seeks to offset Pakistan's dominance. This creates the potential for a lasting proxy conflict.

To help meet these challenges, any intervening force must have an ambitious mandate. The United Nations, preferable as a vehicle for intervention given its legitimacy, is notoriously weak in using force rapidly and decisively, as will be necessary in counter-insurgency operations. The United Nations should authorize several states to use their forces to bolster the government of Afghanistan. Islamic states are preferable. Turkey, Indonesia and Bangladesh have already volunteered troops.

Strengthening these forces with help from the West will be necessary, given the challenging military environment. U.S. forces will be needed in the background to reassure the peacekeepers that they will not be abandoned and to assist in the most difficult operations.

Foreign troops must have a mandate to use force aggressively to bolster the new Afghan regime, not just in self-defense. Some warlords will not be satisfied with their share of the bargain; others will conduct reprisals against past rivals. The international force must help the authorities in Kabul control these warlords. Policing much of Afghanistan will require large numbers of soldiers. These forces will be conducting counter-insurgency operations. They must work with villagers and their leaders to root out the radicals among them. The United States and its allies will need to win the hearts and minds of a highly nationalistic people about whom they know little.

At times these operations will involve casualties, often inflicted in the most heinous way imaginable. Soviet veterans of the Afghan war still shudder when they recount how resistance fighters tortured Soviet soldiers. Intervening forces today may face the same problems. The United States and its allies must recognize that they are in for the long haul. If Washington walks away from Afghanistan, as it did after the end of the Cold War, Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization might revive or a similarly destructive group might emerge.

The writer is research director at the RAND Corporation's Center for Middle East Public Policy. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

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