SALT LAKE CITY — A few days ago, I called a high United Nations official whom I trust for one of those background discussions journalists have when they want to know what's really going on, as distinct from what diplomats carefully say in public.
The topic was Afghanistan and the substantial role the UN is likely to have there once the shooting stops.
"Everything the UN's done before [in a peacekeeping role] looks like a picnic compared to this one," my friend said. "We're not looking forward to it. But we should rise to the challenge."
Brave words for an institution facing a daunting task, but one which, if tackled successfully, could mark the UN's finest hour.
All that is involved is maintaining stability in a wild and barren land where education is minimal and poverty rampant; where the birth of male children is heralded with a celebratory volley of gunshots; where a rifle is as essential a piece of equipment as a toothbrush is to most Americans; where the politics are Byzantine; where national cohesiveness is undermined by fratricidal tribal suspicion; and where Afghans have spent centuries enthusiastically repelling foreign troops since Alexander the Great first took a crack at it in the 4th century BC.
There are three potential roles for the UN in Afghanistan: humanitarian, political, and military.
In the humanitarian field around the world, the UN excels. It brings water to villages that have no water. It brings food to starving refugees. It saves the lives of children who might otherwise die. It is the UN story most overlooked by the mindless critics who invent tales of diabolical UN chicanery and world-governing ambition.
But though courageous UN workers often bring relief in the face of danger, their work requires certain minimal standards of political and military stability.
Among the fanciful political ideas being floated for post-Taliban Afghanistan is a kind of protectorate status under the UN. To me, that seems unrealistic, as it does to Lakhdar Brahimi, the Algerian diplomat who is the UN's point man on Afghanistan. Mr. Brahimi is a mediator seasoned by service in hot spots around the world. I first knew him in Haiti, where he displayed the same kind of realistic caution with which he is approaching Afghanistan.
All options in Afghanistan are bad, he believes. The challenge is to find the least bad.
If the UN cannot and should not aspire to govern a disjointed Afghanistan, it can surely act as a political facilitator, and perhaps ideally be accepted as a trusted referee among the components of a post-Taliban government.
But before the political process can proceed very far, there will need to be military stability. Who is to enforce that?
Before he became UN secretary general, Kofi Annan headed the UN's military peacekeeping operations. He is keenly aware of the challenges they faced in such countries as Somalia and Bosnia.
The UN can only be effective as a peacekeeper in areas where the warring factions have agreed to stop fighting and welcome an impartial force to monitor that agreement. The UN is ineffective as a military force required to impose peace in an area where the conflict still rages. That, as we have seen in Bosnia, is a role for an organization like NATO, with its heavy artillery and armor and air support. UN peacekeepers, by contrast, are lightly armed, with little or no offensive capacity.
Some years ago, I drove the road from Kabul through the Khyber Pass into Pakistan. One soon erases romantic 19th-century Kiplingesque notions of noble contest between red-tunicked British soldiers and fierce Pashtuns. It is hard and dismal country, which was murderous to both defenders and attackers. It is no terrain in which President Bush wants occupying US troops to get bogged down.
While maneuvering over the post-Taliban future goes on, Mr. Bush is looking to the UN, recently honored with the Nobel Prize for its past efforts in the cause of peace, to play a constructive role. The extent of that role is unclear. If it involves a military component, the contributing countries to that force and the coordination between - and deployment of - the various national units must be managed with much skill.
The dividends for the UN from successful intervention in Afghanistan would be high: a return to recognition of the UN's international utility, not to mention a much more cordial relationship with the United States.
But it will be no picnic.
John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, served a one-year term as UN assistant secretary general and director of communications in 1995.