KABUL, AFGHANISTAN, AND UNITED NATIONS — In the marble-floored Royal Palace No. 7, Lakhdar Brahimi looks as if he has the future of Afghanistan on his lean shoulders. In a way, he does.
As the United Nations point man in Afghanistan, Mr. Brahimi is responsible for every single UN activity here - from emergency food relief and refugee repatriation to peacekeeping and reconstruction. That's just the easy stuff. Soon, the UN will help the Afghan government rewrite its constitution, hold national elections, and demobilize private armies that don't particularly want to demobilize.
By most accounts, the UN's efforts in Afghanistan are considered innovative, an outgrowth of lessons learned from recent UN missions - from Rwanda to Kosovo to East Timor. Here, the UN has honed its skills, taking a back-seat role and letting Afghans make all the big decisions, while UN officials offer the funding and technical expertise to act on those decisions. It's a method that, if given the chance, the UN says it could bring to Iraq when rebuilding there begins in earnest.
The Bush administration says the UN will play a "vital role" in Iraq; Arab leaders and the European Union say that the UN must be tapped for its nation-building experience; and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan says that only by enlisting the UN can the rebuilding of Iraq be considered "legitimate."
But in each of the areas where outside assistance will be needed - humanitarian aid, peacekeeping, political reconstruction, creating a judicial system, and rebuilding the economy and infrastructure - the UN's role could range from taking the lead to standing on the sidelines.
Critics say the heady optimism that accompanied the UN's creation in 1947 has long since vanished. The international body, they argue, is too indecisive to respond quickly, too reluctant to use force, too bloated and bureaucratic to think creatively, and too overburdened with past conflicts to be handed any more.
But UN officials and supporters say the organization is the only neutral force left in the post-cold-war world, and that the UN needs to be allowed to do what it does best: providing a coordinated and neutral form of assistance to nations trying to get back on their feet.
Most observers, as well as the Bush administration, agree the UN will play a vital role in providing humanitarian aid. On Sunday, 50 UN World Food Program trucks filled with 1,400 tons of wheat flour arrived in Iraq from Jordan.
The UN has well established relationships with nongovernmental organizations [NGOs] which have proven most effective at distributing basic necessities.
Since 1999, the UN has been providing humanitarian relief for tens of thousands of refugees displaced by war in Kosovo. In addition to food and medicine, the UN provides mattresses, blankets, and basic cooking and housing materials. In Afghanistan, returning refugees are given repatriation packages of cash and household items.
While few Iraqis have been displaced by the war there, supply lines have been damaged, and in some areas, particularly the south, food and water have been in short supply. The US military and the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, headed by retired Gen. Jay Garner, have been charged with providing temporary aid.
With its existing Oil For Food program in Iraq, the UN is already on the ground providing 480,000 tons of food per month through some 45,000 distribution points. This program plays to the UN's strengths of appearing neutral and impartial.
Ross Mountain, director of UN relief operations in Iraq, says food distribution will be easier in Iraq than in other countries, partly because there are plenty of educated Iraqis able to run the programs themselves.
"Iraq has, in comparison to most other countries in crisis, a viable civil service that has been working, and a population that is highly skilled that has stayed in the country," says Mr. Mountain. "This is not a situation where we would foresee a need for rafts of international people to come in and take over functions of government."
It is unlikely the UN will be asked to play any kind of peacekeeping role in Iraq. UN supporters and critics agree that, in this area, the UN has had a mixed record.
"Where the mandates failed in prior efforts, the UN was put in a live conflict without sufficient resources [such as in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Somalia], and sometimes where there was an agreement but the UN did not have enough power [such as in Cambodia]," says William Durch of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a foreign-policy think tank in Washington.
A comprehensive UN report in 2000 by Brahimi recommended that future UN forces be given the troop strength and decisionmaking powers so that peacekeeping forces would have the ability to prevent atrocities such as the 1994 Rwanda genocide or the massacre of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995, instead of just looking on helplessly.
"The record is really grim on their ability to do peace enforcement..." says Noel Williams, a retired US Marine colonel and peacekeeping expert at the Marines' Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities. "Never point an empty gun, and that's what the UN tends to do. It's worse than doing nothing."
But Julian Harston, the UN's acting director of peacekeeping operations for Asia and the Middle East, says improvements have been made in recent years.
"The Brahimi report has been the basis for significant changes in the way the UN can deploy and keep the peace," says Mr. Harston.
Supplies such as computers and vehicles have been pre-positioned at an Italian airbase for quicker deployment; more attention is paid to the quality of troops member countries commit and making sure they are well supplied; the staff overseeing military and police units was increased by nearly 50 percent; and a situation room has been established at UN headquarters in Manhattan to communicate directly with troops in the field.
With the US planning direct military rule in Iraq for the first few months, the UN is unlikely to replay its "light imprint" role of assisting the new Iraqi civil authority as it has done in Afghanistan. At a recent conference of Iraqi opposition leaders in the city of Nasiriyah, there was no UN representative present.
Yet critics and supporters of the UN say that its role in Afghanistan could fit well with the task of creating a credible and sustainable Iraqi government.
In 1999, the UN committed itself to developing two transitional civil administrations, first in Kosovo and six months later in East Timor. Particularly in East Timor, a country of 800,000, its responsibilities were vast: establishing custom services, setting and collecting taxes, adjudicating property disputes, reconstructing public utilities, creating a banking system, running schools - and even picking up the garbage.
The UN does have the advantage of appearing impartial, says James Paul of the Global Policy Forum in New York.
"This is not a technocratic issue," he says. "It's about legitimacy and legality within Iraq, and it should be 100 percent clear that an international agreement that is truly independent of the US will be much more effective than an occupying force."
Some experts think the UN's efforts in Afghanistan - helping Afghans choose an interim administration through village town meetings - could be applied in Iraq as well. But patience will be of the essence.
"We can't rush to the first guy that rises up and says, 'I can do it,' " says Mr. Durch. "The interim regime should not be set up by [US] Central Command. We can avoid that by fading to gray and letting the UN come forward and manage it."
But the size and scope of Iraq's rebuilding make some of these past examples obsolete. And with the Pentagon currently working to organize an interim government, the Bush administration does not see a role for the UN in Iraq's political reconstruction.
"There is no consideration of the UN being the government at all in Iraq," says a Bush administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "I don't think they have the capability of running Iraq."
After the looting that has gone on around Iraq, the need for restoring civil order, police forces, and legal systems has become crucial in the short term. More difficult will be the process of reconciliation and trials for those responsible for crimes against the Iraqi people.
Here, the UN may have an advantage over US military authorities because it can draw on a broader range of experience from its member nations.
In Afghanistan, for instance, the UN has subcontracted the task of rebuilding the legal and police functions to individual countries: Germany is training police forces, Italy is training judges, Britain is handling narcotics control, and the US is training the new Afghan National Army.
No single nation can do all this on its own, particularly those in the US-led "coalition of the willing" that fought in Iraq, says Jeffrey Laurenti, executive director of the UN Association of the United States.
"NATO cannot bring in Arabic-speaking judges or lawyers to rebuild the legal system or police," says Mr. Laurenti. "Unless you want to turn this over to the Arab League, there's no other group of countries with that capacity" besides the UN.
Tribunals set up to prosecute criminals from Bosnia and Rwanda have been largely successful, though justice has come slowly. The UN's greatest postconflict success may be in Sierra Leone. This month, indictments came down just a year after the court was set up. It is voluntarily funded by 20 countries, and the UN secretary-general appoints a majority of the bench with the government appointing the rest. "So far, it looks like it's working much better than Rwanda," says Chris Seiple, a former US Marine and peacekeeping expert at the Institute for Global Engagement. Mr. Seiple says the Sierra Leone tribunal is much less costly, and because it operates inside Sierra Leone (the Rwanda tribunal is in Arusha, Tanzania, and the Bosnian one is in The Hague), citizens are more a part of the process.
In most postwar zones like Kosovo and Afghanistan, the grunt work of getting an economy moving again is done by an alphabet soup of organizations such as UNICEF (UN Children's Fund) and UNDP (UN Development Program), aid groups such as Oxfam, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and major donors such as the World Bank.
In Afghanistan, there have been pledges of international assistance directly to the government, and UN officials in Kabul say the international community has given nearly 90 percent of what the Afghan government has asked for.
In Iraq, the US will eventually have to reach out to other partners, says Laurenti. This is true, in part because international donors will be reluctant to give if reconstruction is perceived to be run by the US military, and in part because US taxpayers will be unwilling to foot the bill. Iraq's oil reserves should help defray some of the cost, in contrast to places like Kosovo and Afghanistan which have few natural resources.
Some members of the Bush administration say that the business of reconstructing power grids, roads, oil wells, dams, hospitals, and schools should be put in the hands of private US companies like Halliburton or Bechtel, which last week was awarded a $680-million reconstruction contract.
But Sid Balman of Interaction, a coalition of US-based aid groups, says private companies could cause more problems than they solve. "They put a premium on speed and efficiency," he says. "But these companies don't understand the importance of building self-sufficiency so [the people] are not reliant on aid in perpetuity. [The companies] don't understand the culture. They don't understand the politics of a region like NGOs, who have been doing this work for decades in the Middle East. It's a recipe for failure."
In Kabul, Brahimi refuses to be drawn into a discussion about Iraq or any other conflict than the one at hand: Afghanistan. And here, he has one main regret. "In hindsight," he says, "I would have liked for us to have gone much slower."
It's a striking statement, coming at a time of growing frustration among Afghans that so little has been accomplished with the $1 billion or more of international aid spent so far. But Brahimi says that rebuilding a country from scratch takes time and careful planning.
"Understandably, when you see these pictures of people suffering, you want to go as fast as you can," he says. "But I think you've got to resist that quite understandable urge, and move at the pace that is effective and not just seeming to be responding to a situation."
Then Brahimi breaks his silence on Iraq, voicing the concern of many that America's current focus on Baghdad will take away its attention from its commitments to Kabul.
"I tell the Americans, 'Look, we will keep screaming,' " says Brahimi. "Because there are only 24 hours in a day, and if you are too busy elsewhere, it's not because you don't want to [help]. You just may not have the time or resources anymore."
Duration: October 1991 - September 1993
Mandate: Initially, to maintain a cease-fire, clear mines, and set up repatriation settlements. Later, to oversee implementation of the agreement ending the conflict; maintain law and order; monitor human rights and elections; assist in setting up a civil administration; and repatriate and resettle returning refugees. Its mandate ended with the formation of a new Cambodian government.
Authorized personnel: 22,000 military and civilian
Cost: $1.6 billion
Duration: June 1999 - present
Mandate: To establish an interim civilian administration; perform basic administrative functions in health, education, banking, mail, and telecommunications; facilitate Kosovo's move toward an autonomous political system; coordinate humanitarian and disaster relief; support reconstruction of key infrastructure; maintain law and order; promote human rights; and assure the safe return of refugees.
Authorized personnel: 42,000 troops; 4,446 civilian police; 39 military observers
Cost: $1.6 billion
Duration: October 1999 - present
Mandate: To assist in laying the foundations for the transition to independence; provide security and maintain law and order; establish an interim administration; coordinate humanitarian and development assistance; support eventual self-government; and ensure the safe return of refugees.
Authorized personnel: 9,150 peacekeeping troops; 1,640 civilian police
Cost: $1.2 billion (as of 2002)
Duration: December 2001 - present
Mandate: To coordinate 16 agencies operating in the country; promote national reconciliation; develop the capacity of the Afghan administration at the national, provincial, and municipal levels; investigate human rights violations and recommend, where necessary, corrective actions; maintain a dialogue with Afghan leaders, political parties, civil society groups, institutions, and representatives of the central authorities; and reform the security sector.
Total UN personnel: 665
Cost: $96 million (projected through 2003)