For the United Nations, this is the money quote from President Obama’s much anticipated Af-Pak speech:

My Administration is committed to strengthening international organizations and collective action, and that will be my message next week in Europe. As America does more, we will ask others to join us in doing their part. From our partners and NATO allies, we seek not simply troops, but rather clearly defined capabilities: supporting the Afghan elections, training Afghan Security Forces, and a greater civilian commitment to the Afghan people. For the United Nations, we seek greater progress for its mandate to coordinate international action and assistance, and to strengthen Afghan institutions.

Now what does that mean? And how can the UN deliver? Can the UN deliver?

Some context: After the fall of the Taliban the Security Council authorized a small UN mission for Afghanistan, called the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA). Initially, UNAMA’s size was deliberately kept small and its mandate fairly limited, which reflected a 2001-2002 era disinclination for “nation building” on the part of the Bush administration. (UNAMA was actually smaller than the mission in Kosovo, which has a territory and population a fraction of the size of Afghanistan.)

As it became increasingly clear that nation building in Afghanistan was, in fact, required, UNAMA’s mandate steadily expanded and it was granted more money and personnel. Toward the end of its term, the Bush administration came to support a fairly radical overhaul of UNAMA. In January 2008, the United States and United Kingdom floated Lord Paddy Ashdown as a possible UN head of mission in Afghanistan. (In UN speak, the position is called the “Special Representative of the Secretary General,” SRSG). Ashdown is a high profile British politician who lead UN efforts in Bosnia after the Dayton accords and the idea was that someone of his stature could function as a “super-envoy” capable of mustering broad international support for UN objectives in Afghanistan.

The Karzai government, however, balked at the idea. Ashdown was removed from consideration and Ban Ki Moon instead appointed a very competent bureaucrat, the Norwegian Kai Eide as SRSG.

This brings us to a few weeks ago, when the Washington Post reported that the administration sought to tap Peter W. Galbraith as a deputy to Kai Eide. Galbraith is a well regarded diplomat in his own right, having served as the first United States ambassador to Croatia during the Balkans crisis. There was speculation that in appointing someone of Galbraith’s stature to serve in the UNAMA, the administration was signaling its intentions for a broader UN role in Afghanistan.

I took this question to Ambassador James Dobbins, who represented the United States at the Bonn Conference as President Bush’s special envoy to Afghanistan. Dobbins is the author of several books on nation building, most recently After the Taliban: Nation Buiding in Afghanistan. Dobbins told me that he viewed the appointment more as a symptom of frustration in what the United Nations has been able to accomplish than a solution for empowering UNAMA. He conceded that getting Galbraith in there was a step in the right direction, but emphasized that what is ultimately needed is an SRSG “that can get European leaders on the phone.” The means someone who is more than a competent senior bureaucrat and who can command the attention of world leaders. Dobbins half-jokingly floated the name “Tony Blair.”

If not Tony Blair, I think the general idea here makes sense. For the United Nations to fulfill its role in Afghanistan, the Obama administration and its allies probably need to revisit the idea of the “super-envoy,” or at least someone who can talk directly to heads of state and lean on them to provide funding, personnel and political support for what is needed to make the UN’s mission in Afghanistan a success. Since Karzai seems cool to the idea, perhaps this will have to wait until after the August 20 elections in Afghanistan.

Stay tuned!

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