Why you won't see UN blue helmets in Afghanistan

The UN votes this week on the makeup of peacekeeping forces.

With the Afghan capital of Kabul quieter than expected, the interim Afghan government is lobbying to limit the size and scope of a multinational peacekeeping force.

But the West is taking no chances, forging ahead with efforts to stabilize the volatile country by sending the first elements of a peacekeeping force that will arrive on Saturday.

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in a lightning visit to Afghanistan Sunday, reiterated the need for a force of 5,000 to 6,000. And in a recent tour of Kabul, British Maj. Gen. John McColl surveyed how to deploy the first of the peacekeepers by Dec. 22, when the interim government takes office.

Afghan leaders such as Defense Minister Mohammed Quassim Fahim have said they want a maximum of 1,000 foreign troops, and only to secure government offices in the capital.

Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah has said he wants the force deployed on the basis of Chapter VI of the UN charter, which does not explicitly allow the use of force. Nations likely to participate have said they want to do so under Chapter VII, which permits the use of force.

But if there's anything all parties agree on, it's that the force should not be led by the United Nations. And UN officials agree, going to great pains to clarify that the force is definitely not a UN enterprise.

"We're not in the enforcement business, and we're going to be very skeptical about being thrust into situations where we can't succeed," says one UN peacekeeping official.

That doesn't mean the UN is getting out of the peacekeeping business, say UN officials. Rather, they're breaking with the 1990s tendency to use the world body as peacekeepers of first resort.

Analysts credit the world body with learning lessons from disastrous campaigns in Somalia and Bosnia, which explains much of why UN blue helmets were considered only the third-best option for Afghanistan's tricky situation: They lacked the full backing of ruling parties on the ground.

Instead, the UN Security Council this week will likely give its stamp of approval to a British-led "coalition of the willing" that includes a first-ever European Union contingent and troops from several Muslim nations.

"The UN doesn't want responsibility for a high-risk, low-yield mission," says David Phillips, deputy director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It would much rather focus on civilian peace-building and reconstruction, a role it's much more comfortable with and adept at."

Indeed, UN operations are expanding from humanitarian relief and political mediation to such post-conflict activities as voter registration, census-taking, job training to lure soldiers away from fighting, and crop conversion to wean poppy farmers from the heroin trade.

"The UN can't simply go in and assert what it thinks a viable nation emerging from conflict ought to be," says John Hirsch, vice president of the International Peace Academy. "What it needs instead is a set of decisions from the local actors as to what sort of political arrangements they want. Then the UN can support them."

The image of UN peacekeeping became tarnished after failed missions in Somalia in the 1990s and in Bosnia, where the neutral UN force didn't stop Bosnian Serbs from killing thousands.

In 2000, Secretary-General Kofi Annan submitted his organization to the scrutiny of a panel of experts led by Lakhdar Brahimi, the current UN envoy to Afghanistan.

The Brahimi panel recommended that UN peacekeepers never again be used as "peace-builders," or sent in without sufficient financial or political support, and without "robust rules of engagement" to defend themselves or act against those who seek to undermine peace accords.

Intimately familiar with Afghanistan, Mr. Brahimi was quick to note that historically, the country has not taken kindly to

invaders or interlopers. His first option was for an all-Afghan force. But given the level of distrust and rivalry among Afghans, the parties to the Bonn negotiations were more receptive to a second possibility: a "coalition of the willing." Unlike a UN-led force, it could be quickly deployed - and quickly withdrawn.

"There seems to be widespread consensus here that we should not allow ourselves to be set up for failure," says a UN peacekeeping official, on condition of anonymity. "So we will have a large role in Afghanistan, but the military component is not it. And that suits us extremely well."

As the situation in Afghanistan unfolds, some predict the UN role may follow the pattern of Kosovo and East Timor and become a model for future conflicts. In those case, a third party with a vested interest seized the initiative, and the UN worked toward promoting good governance and preventing a recurrence of hostilities.

In Kosovo, NATO took the lead in a conflict in its backyard; in East Timor, neighboring Australia swung into action.

As in Afghanistan, there may always be a need for unilateralism that cuts through red tape and arduous consensus-building, says Brett Schaefer, a policy analyst in The Heritage Foundation's UN Assessment Project.

"The world doesn't fall into neat categories all the time," Mr. Schaefer says. "Just because a mission is multilateral doesn't ensure it will be effective, successful, or even appropriate option to take."

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