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Afghanistan, Where the Line between UN and US Has Become Blurry

By Dr. Assem Akram

As the United Nations General Assembly is opening in New York, one important question needs to be asked: Is the United Nations direct cooperation with US forces in Afghanistan in accordance with the letter and the spirit of its own Charter?

When the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was asked whether the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq broke international law, he said: Yes, if you wish. I have indicated it was not in conformity with the U.N. Charter from our point of view, and from the charter point of view it was illegal. (News Agencies, Sept. 17, 2004). Annans remark prompts this question: Is the United Nations direct cooperation with US expeditionary forces in Afghanistan legal and does it fit the frame set by the United Nations Charter?

It would appear that nobody seems to be really bothered by this issue, but when I hear or read that UN election workers or other UN expatriate staffs in Afghanistan are being escorted by the US military to this or that location to perform their duty, I raise eye-brows. Almost three years after the fall of the Taliban, the American expeditionary force (more than 20, 000 now) has no legal basis for its continued presence in Afghanistan. The only texts that provide legitimacy to a foreign military presence in Afghanistan are the UN Security Council Resolutions that are voted on a cyclic basis (the latest being Resolution 1536 of March 26, 2004) giving mandate to a number of UN approved initiatives with the aim to bring peace, stability and recovery to Afghanistan. Resolution 1536 bears no mention of the US contingent in Afghanistan and therefore signals by default that its action is not being approved by the world body.

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is the only ad hoc military force that has been created and mandated by the UN (Resolutions 1386, 1413, 1444 and 1510). It is a multinational coalition contingent acting under a clearly defined mission in Afghanistan. This force, strong of about 6,500 men originating from a variety of contributing countries, has a conditional existence that is prolonged every six months after a formal review of its action by the Security Council. Conversely, the American forces in Afghanistan are not part of the ISAF and do not respond to the worries and the goals set by the International Community through the UN; rather they are there to pursue particular strategic and policy goals molded in Washington by the Bush Administration. The American expeditionary forces in Afghanistan do not report to the Interim Afghan Government led by Hamed Karzai - though a man they helped put in place -, and are solely reporting to their own higher hierarchy in Washington. In essence, no matter what its motivation may be, the American contingent on Afghan soil is an occupation force in a country that is officially sovereign, independent and a full member of the United Nations.

The question is therefore to wonder if, in Afghanistan, the United Nations by collaborating with an occupation force to implement a policy and an agenda that are designed in Washington is not clearly violating its own Charter and discrediting itself by setting a dangerous precedent. Did Kofi Annan understand the implications of blurring the line between UN-approved programs of action and those outlined by the US-led expeditionary forces in Afghanistan? Did the Secretary General realize that by allowing, for example, the ISAF to take part in the Pentagon-engineered Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) scheme, he was not only putting in jeopardy the credibility of the very institution he represents but also that he was putting at risk the lives of hundreds of NGO workers as well as UN staff members operating in Afghanistan and perhaps elsewhere?

A result of this miscalculated promiscuity can very unfortunately be viewed in the events of Herat where, earlier this month, a mob of demonstrators protesting Governor Ismail Khans dismissal attacked UN flagged offices while chanting Death to America and Karzai Puppet. This is only the last striking event in a string of unfortunate incidents where UN and humanitarian workers have been targeted. It is indeed very dangerous to give the perception that US military and the UN are working hand in hand in Afghanistan and that the US military, the UN and NGOs are likewise cooperating in a common humanitarian and reconstruction task in Afghanistan. Whereas the NGOs have repeatedly denounced this amalgam because of the risk their personnel is undergoing, the UN has been silently accepting the blurring of the lines and has been collaborating on a daily basis with the US expeditionary forces in Afghanistan, perhaps adopting a too pragmatic attitude.

I believe that in order to retain its credibility and assert its positive neutrality, the United Nations in Afghanistan should distinguish its action from that of the American expeditionary contingent. Each entity has its own mission, obey to different rules and pursue different objectives. The only alternative would be that Washington puts its troops under the UN umbrella and integrates the ISAF, which it is reluctant to do because it would tie its hands and it would then no longer be able to do what ever it pleases, as it does now. Outside an explicit mandate voted by the UN, any foreign military presence in Afghanistan violates international law and, consequently, any collaboration with such a force infringes the spirit and the letter of the UN Charter: one would have expected that the last to do so would have been the UN itself, guarantor of the international legality!



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