The head of the UN Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) briefed the Security Council yesterday. Neil MacFarquhar suggests that Eide may have been implicitely critical of the U.S. military surge in his remarks, which stressed the need for Afghan civilian capacity building. This is a snippet of what Eide told the Council. (Full remarks here.)
If we do not take these civilian components of the transition strategy as seriously as the military component, then we will fail. What we need is a strategy that is politically and not militarily driven. For years, there has been a consensus—at least in rhetoric—that this conflict ultimately cannot be solved by military means. But most of our focus has been on the number and activities of military forces. The political strategy is too often shaped as an appendix to military thinking.
For years there has also been a consensus— at least in rhetoric—that the process of “Afghanisation” must be accelerated. However, parallel structures to the Afghan government have not been reduced. According to the latest Donor Financial Review, 80% of aid to Afghanistan has been provided through bilateral projects, bypassing the Government, less than 10% of total aid has been provided to the Government, but only a quarter of that amount is not earmarked for a specific activity in the budget. The situation has been improved somewhat over the last year but basically remains the same. These figures do not demonstrate a mindset where Afghans are allowed to take the lead.
The military surge must not be allowed to undermine equally important civilian objectives and the development of such a politically driven strategy. It must not lead to an accelerated pressure for quick results in governance and economic development efforts, which could divert resources from a long-term approach to civilian institution building and economic growth. Furthermore, it must not lead the military to expand their engagement into key civilian areas, such as those I just mentioned. That could result in a situation where the international community becomes more entrenched rather than a situation where the Afghans are more empowered.
To add some context: Eide is expressing the basic UN approach to nation building. The UN’s role in Afghanistan (which, remember, is set by the Security Council) is to support the development of Afghan institutions. UNAMA looks at pretty much every action in Afghanistan through this lens. This holds true in all UN nation-building efforts. From East Timor to Liberia, the measure of success for the UN is whether or not the international community is able to responsibly transfer governance to local authorities after a period of transition. This is the UN’s “exit strategy.”
In Afghanistan this approach means that UNAMA will more of then than not will come down on the side of strengthening the authority of the government over other competing prioroties. This can sometimes come into conflict with American counter-insurgency goals, which is probably the source of Eide’s frustration. For example, American military commanders in Afghanistan have been empowered to distribute funds for quick impact development projects. These projects may help win over local support for Americans, but if the aid is distributed in such a way that it bypasses the Afghan government it goes against the UN’s long term political goals.
This is not to say that American and UN goals are intrinsically opposed in Afghanistan. Far from it. One of the most important capacity building tasks is strengthening Afghan security institutions, like the Afghan National Army and Afghan Police. And here, the United States and NATO are in the lead. Still, sometimes political and military goals can come into conflict and it is the responsibility of both sides to manage these trade-offs responsibly.