After the Taliban

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By Richard Holbrooke
Wednesday, November 14, 2001

Now that the American-led effort in Afghanistan has achieved its first significant success -- the removal of the Taliban from Kabul -- four ingredients are essential to prevent the country from slipping back into anarchy of the sort that followed our last success there in 1989. Then, after Soviet troops had been driven out by U.S.-sponsored forces, the West turned its back on this remote, war-torn nation; the Taliban and Osama bin Laden filled the vacuum.

The first requirement, of course, is the elimination of bin Laden and his senior command structure, and the destruction of the Taliban's military forces. Al Qaeda's continued presence is not only a direct and immediate danger to our own homeland security; it would also guarantee that parts of Afghanistan would continue to be used as a sanctuary to foment terror and hatred throughout the world. This is unacceptable, and the reason pursuit of bin Laden and the Taliban should proceed in whatever way is deemed necessary.

I remain confident that this part of the process will succeed; that a combination of air power, improving intelligence and well-placed commando raids will, over time, find and destroy the enemy, probably without the need for American regular combat units.

The other three parts of the puzzle, those concerning the future of Afghanistan, are far more elusive, in some ways, than the world's leading fugitive. They require a clear-cut policy, put into place quickly. Now that Kabul has fallen, there is no further excuse for delay.

First comes a new government for Kabul. The effort must start even while fighting continues. The various balancing acts among the factions and ethnic groups in Afghanistan do not affect our vital national interests directly -- but absence of a peaceful outcome would. This immensely complicated problem needs strong leadership from the U.N. special representative for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, who knows the issues well but needs also to know that his recommendations will be supported -- that is, imposed on Kabul -- by all the concerned powers, including Afghanistan's seven neighbors plus the United States, Russia and India. Brahimi needs to have a full mandate from the U.N. Security Council, then assemble a "temporary" or "provisional" governing authority. Two successful recent U.N. special representatives in somewhat comparable circumstances -- Bernard Kouchner in Kosovo and Sergio Viera de Mello in East Timor -- had such a Security Council mandate, and with it they were able to create fragile but viable political structures in hellishly difficult circumstances.

The second ingredient is equally urgent -- and also has ample recent precedent. The United Nations should prepare now to send to Kabul as soon as security is established, in addition to vast humanitarian assistance, a substantial group of skilled international officials who can create an administrative structure for a nation whose own trained personnel have been destroyed by almost 30 years of war, murders and exile.

A rough estimate is that such an effort in Afghanistan would require about 3,000 U.N. civilian personnel and would last two to four years before it could be phased out in favor of local government. These efforts require international civil servants of rare commitment and courage. But compared with the costs of the military operations, to say nothing of costs of another vacuum in Afghanistan, they are worth undertaking.

The third and last ingredient in the post-Taliban Afghan equation is the most difficult and the most expensive -- but it is absolutely necessary. That is, of course, a security force that allows the new political authority and the international administrative structure a chance to succeed. Some people in the United Nations and in Washington have speculated that such a force could be assembled from within Afghanistan itself. To me this is fantasy; the Afghans have been fighting among themselves too long to form an integrated security force right now. The only real options are a U.N. peacekeeping force or a multilateral force that is sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council but run separately from the United Nations.

The distinction between these two options is often confusing to those outside the world of U.N.-speak. But it is critical. A U.N. peacekeeping force takes too much time to assemble, is invariably weak in its command structure and far too politicized for the task. This was the story in the U.N. peacekeeping forces that failed in Rwanda, Somalia and Bosnia in the early 1990s, almost taking down the United Nations with them.

A multilateral force, on the other hand, receives its legitimizing authority from the U.N. Security Council -- but then runs its own show. This was the case in East Timor, where the Australians had troops on the ground within 96 hours after the 1999 Security Council resolution, backed up rapidly by other nations. (Kofi Annan said later it would have taken at least four months to assemble a U.N. force.)

So the vote here is strongly for a multinational force, known in the trade as MNF. But who would play the role Australia played in East Timor? The best choice would be Turkey, the only Muslim member of NATO, with a tough and well-led army. Behind it could come a number of other nations, primarily, but not exclusively, Muslim. Bangladesh has indicated its readiness to participate, as might other key Muslim nations such as Morocco, Jordan and others. As for the United States, it would not be in anyone's interests for this country to supply more than a limited number of logistics and communications support troops. Our presence in fixed positions on the ground in Afghanistan would be just the target the next generation of suicide bombers would most welcome. The American role should remain the first task -- find and eliminate bin Laden and his supporters.

We will have to be prepared to cover a good portion of the costs of such an MNF. It won't be cheap, but it will be in our long-term national interests. Now that the first declared goal of the United States and its allies has been reached, we must accept the consequences and costs of our success, and not let it slip away through a failure to follow through.

The writer was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the Clinton administration.


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