The Obstacles to Peacekeeping in Afghanistan Are Greatly Exaggerated

World Politics Review, 03.09.2021
Charli Carpenter, profesora de ciencia política y estudios legales (U. de Massachusetts- 

Two weeks ago, in the aftermath of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, I argued that a United Nations peacekeeping mission should be considered as part of, or complementary to, a strengthened mandate for the U.N.’s existing political mission in the country, UNAMA. Since then, a group of over 20 scholars has been working with the University of Massachusetts-Amherst’s Human Security Lab to game out scenarios, consolidate the supporting evidence and make some research-backed guesses about whether peacekeeping should be on the table in Afghanistan today.

The emerging consensus in this group is that there are reasons to think it should, based on peacekeeping’s record of success in other places. To make it work, the U.N. would need to establish a role for itself in an intra-Afghan peace process aimed at averting a civil war between the Taliban and any remaining armed holdouts to the government that they are in the process of assembling. To that end, outside states should condition their recognition of the Taliban-led government on the group’s acceptance of intra-Afghan peace talks and a peacekeeping operation. That mission should be as large and strong as is acceptable to all parties, but even a small observer mission will very likely help. The U.S. and other NATO countries should contribute resources to it but not troops. Instead, Muslim-majority countries should take the lead on the ground, with inducements offered if needed.

Why might peacekeeping help ? Lots of reasons. As Georgetown professor Lise Howard wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed this week, peacekeeping has historically been one of the global community’s most effective and underappreciated tools. A wealth of research shows that when neutral witnesses are present with the consent of the conflict actors, those actors are statistically likely to behave better and seek nonviolent forms of conflict resolution. In places where peacekeepers have mandates to protect civilians, the perception that they are on the side of civilians, rather than either warring party, reduces violence. And peacekeepers can help even when they’re relatively hamstrung vis-à-vis the warring parties ; lots of violence in civil wars occurs among civilians, and peacekeeping helps tamp that down, too.

But George Washington University professor Paul Williams is also right when he points out that peacekeeping is not without its risks and disadvantages. It’s a politically complicated endeavor to stand up a mission. How do you broker a peace you can keep? How do you get the warring parties to agree to peacekeepers? How do you convince the Security Council to authorize and fund such a mission, and troop-contributing countries to send their soldiers into harm’s way?

Once a peacekeeping mission has been approved and deployed, it’s an even more complicated endeavor to make it work. How do you ensure a mission has enough power to defend itself and civilians, without undermining its perceived neutrality as a custodian of peace? If it’s a purely observer mission, how do you reap the benefits of a peacekeeping presence without overselling the mission in a way that puts civilians at risk from their own false expectations ? How do you a structure a mission so it is culturally appropriate and maximally effective, while minimizing the chances it can make things worse?

These are important questions, and, contrary to Williams’ assertion, they are among the ones our team grappled with these two weeks, knowing that policymakers would need to weigh and balance them in conducting assessments and making plans. But they all have practical answers. And even where the answers are contested or vexing, the questions are not in and of themselves reasons to doubt that peacekeeping could work in Afghanistan—because it has in many other comparably complicated contexts. And because, as Williams points out, there is a minimum 60-day lead-time to stand up a mission, it makes it all the more urgent to begin thinking now about how it could work and what it would need to work in Afghanistan—a question that perhaps should have been asked as long ago as 2002. It’s not up to scholars to figure everything out. As Williams notes, this is a job for a special assessment team headed by the U.N. Secretariat. The interesting question is why exploring and gaming out this possibility isn’t already on its agenda.

Rather than assuming that the political hurdles are insurmountable, one could begin with asking how to build political will for a Security Council resolution. The fallacy of fatalism. Many arguments against such a mission don’t hold water when you look at the research. Take the argument that no troop-contributing country in their right mind would send soldiers to Afghanistan only to make them the targets of jihadists. But soldiers from major troop-contributing countries like Indonesia, Egypt, Ethiopia and Pakistan already deal with jihadists in their backyards. And as Jacob Kathman and Molly Melin’s work shows, countries like Nigeria and Bangladesh send troops to peacekeeping operations because it is politically expedient, allowing them to maintain large, well-trained armies while lessening the risk that those armies will turn against them as tools of a military coup. Plus, peacekeeping operations are a cash cow for most troop-contributing countries, which rent out their troops to the U.N. for $1,428 per soldier per month, and at times more. Such countries are susceptible to Western aid inducements, so the real questions are whether the West will offer those inducements and whether the U.N. wants to invest political capital in mounting a peacekeeping operation in Afghanistan.

Other reasons against a peacekeeping operation in Afghanistan seem more assumed than real, particularly the argument that the Taliban would never consent to one. To begin with, no one has yet bothered asking them, despite the fact that in the past they have indicated they might be open to the idea. In addition, new research suggests that Afghanistan may not be as hard a case for obtaining consent or preventing host-state abuse of peacekeeping than might be feared. A working paper by Timothy Passmore, Jaroslav Tir and Johannes Karreth shows that the degree of international leverage over a host country explains the durability of consent agreements : Civil war states with high reliance on international integration, such as membership in international trade organizations, have had “tangible incentives to both allow PKOs and to help fulfill the mission of return to peace.” Afghanistan would appear to be in such a situation. Desha Girod recently argued the international community has significant leverage over the Taliban when it comes to aid alone.

It seems likely that consent for a peacekeeping operation could be both secured and enforced if recognition by the international community were conditioned on the establishment of an intra-Afghan peace. But the international community has to decide it wants a peace mission to do that, and the myth that the Taliban would “never agree” appears to be part of the discourse that is preempting that conversation. This is conveniently tautological : The Taliban cannot consent if they are not invited to do so, and they won’t be invited to unless members of the Security Council develop a political appetite for a mission and the Secretariat conducts an assessment.

Rather than assuming lack of consent and using that assumption to dismiss the idea, an alternative way to look at this is to acknowledge, as our working group has, that consent could be an obstacle and try to figure out how to persuade the Taliban to accept—or even see it as in their interest to request—a mission. And rather than assuming international political hurdles are insurmountable, one could begin with recognizing the diplomatic obstacles and asking how to build political will for a Security Council resolution. But that would require acknowledging that, political will aside, the idea of peacekeeping might make sense and from there working backward toward figuring out how to make it happen. This is the point our working group arrived at, after reviewing the research and concluding that the operational value of a U.N. peacekeeping operation likely far outweighs the risks. If the real problem is politics, that’s not insurmountable.

The tyranny of global disinterest. Of all Williams’ arguments against U.N. peacekeeping in Afghanistan, the most analytically convincing and yet least morally compelling is global disinterest. He’s absolutely right that there are not yet official discussions on peacekeeping and that this would need to change to move forward. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a workable idea. It just means that it’s not a popular one—yet. This may explain why there isn’t already a peacekeeping mission, but it’s not at all a good reason why there shouldn’t be.

Williams is not alone in staking out this position. Many of the arguments I’ve seen on social media against exploring even the idea of a peacekeeping mission are really predictions about its likelihood of success, based not on its potential effectiveness, but on whether there is currently the necessary global political will and forthcoming resources to give it a chance to work. This is far less a commentary on the merits of peacekeeping as a policy option than on the willingness of the international community to put their money, political capital and peacekeepers where their mouths are. It’s also a commentary on how pundits and analysts use—or choose not to use—their considerable persuasive power. Political will, after all, is not a resource like guns or saffron that is quantifiable. It is constructed, not just in U.N. meeting rooms but in think tanks, strategy meetings and op-ed pages.

To be fair, a mission in Afghanistan would face practical challenges, as great as any mission in the world. As in Bosnia, it would face mountainous and inhospitable terrain. As in Mali, it would face a jihadist threat. As in South Sudan it would face an exhausting and arid climate. As in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it would face the prospect of having weaker leverage against the government, at whose pleasure it remains in the country, than against rebel groups. Nevertheless, as Passmore, Tir and Karreth’s work suggests, Afghanistan might actually be a better candidate for a mission than a place like South Sudan, where the concept of consent became compromised. And even in the most complex, difficult situations where it’s impossible to prevent all violence by jihadists or the state, research shows that peacekeepers can tamp down violence among civilians, engage in conflict resolution and reduce animosities among conflict actors. By contrast, where peacekeeping hasn’t been tried—think Syria and Libya—those conflicts metastasized and spread.

The problem here is not that peacekeeping doesn’t work or that Afghanistan is too difficult. It’s that the United Nations is an organization that, like all organizations, thinks about its own reputation. It quite reasonably prefers to avoid trying anything that can be perceived or interpreted as a failure. But even if an Afghan peacekeeping operation failed to provide 100 percent effective protection of civilians, it would still be better than the alternatives. It would be saving many civilian lives beyond what might otherwise occur, simply through its presence as a neutral arbiter that can provide confidence measures, serve as a buffer or mediate disputes between conflict parties. In addition, once deployed, it can provide an information resource to alert the U.N. to impending threats of violence or atrocities. Even in a less optimal scenario, a peacekeeping operation would go some distance toward staving off civil war. The worst-case scenario, where no effort is made, is likely to be a far bigger nightmare.

The operational questions raised by Williams and others are valid. They are in fact among the many questions the working group at the Human Security Lab has examined in recent days and will continue to wrestle with. If this policy proposal is taken up by U.N. officials and diplomats in the future, they are certainly among the questions they need to analyze, sort out and balance. But the fact that a mission would be difficult or that the political will for it must be built, rather than lying ready at hand, aren’t in themselves reasons to argue against a peacekeeping operation if it otherwise might make sense. And it’s certainly not reason to suggest that thinking through a potentially valuable option should be kept off the U.N. agenda. Quite the opposite.

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