Global Policy Forum

UN Involvement in Afghanistan



Photo Credit: UN Photo/Eric Kanalstein

Afghanistan has long suffered from great power rivalry and foreign military intervention, including the bitter Anglo-Afghan wars of the nineteenth century. Beginning in 1979, the country again descended into a prolonged period of devastating conflict. A Soviet military intervention (1979-1988) took a heavy toll, as US-backed Islamic militants fought a bitter conflict against the Soviet occupiers. There followed a period of civil war and warlordism from 1988 to the mid-1990s, then rule by a government organized by the Islamic Taliban, and finally in 2001 a military intervention by the United States followed by further violence, instability and civil war.

In late 2001, the Security Council authorized the United States to overthrow the Taliban government, as an offensive against the terrorist al-Qaeda organization, said to be based in the country. The Council also authorized the US and its NATO allies to set up the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to provide military support for a newly-established pro-Western government (the United States also continued to run a separate anti-terrorist military operation). In March 2002 the Council established the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) to manage all UN humanitarian, relief, recovery and reconstruction activities. Despite (or perhaps because of) these military-centered initiatives, Afghanistan has remained a "failed state." The authority of President Hamid Karzai, victor in the presidential election of October 2004, barely extends beyond Kabul's suburbs, warlords have gained back control of most of the country, and opium is now the principal agricultural crop.

The Taliban has enjoyed an upsurge of military success in 2007-2008 and several NATO countries have expressed concern about the political viability of the operation. Public support for deployments to Afghanistan in countries such as Germany and Canada has evaporated. The media have reported on US-UK air bombardment of innocent civilians as well as bold Taliban attacks against US and NATO forces, suggesting that the intervention is failing to produce the promised security, democracy and prosperity.

The UN's role in the country includes an election operation that is working with Afghan authorities to register voters and organize elections for 2009 and 2010. Other efforts include promoting of good governance and the rule of law, training of police, and the like. But in a land torn by violence, warlordism, drug production and intense suspicion of foreigners, these programs seem unreal and very unlikely to succeed. Until Afghanistan achieves a lasting and stable peace designed and supported by Afghanis, there can be no prospect of progress, electoral or otherwise.


GPF Perspectives l UN Documents | Articles

GPF Perspectives

Kai Eide Interviewed by GPF’s Catherine Defontaine (November, 2011)

This is an interview, undertaken at the beginning of November 2011, between Kai Eide, former UN Special Representative in Afghanistan and former head of UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and Global Policy Forum associate Catherine Defontaine. Kai Eide discusses UN’s role in Afghanistan and argues that the situation on the ground has not improved but, on the contrary, dramatically worsened. According to him, there is no military solution to the conflict. He urges the international community to focus more on civilian means in order to put an end to the war. Kai Eide also reflects on certain controversial moments in his tenure –the 2009 reelection of Hamid Karza and his rift with his deputy, Peter Galbraith- and shares his thoughts on the various challenges Afghanistan will be facing in the future. (Global Policy Forum)

UN Documents

The Situation in Afghanistan and its Implications for International Peace and Security (March 10, 2009)

This report by the Secretary General on the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) shows that security in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate. The General Assembly has agreed to increase UNAMA's 2009 budget by 91 percent, which includes an additional 115 international staff and 3 provincial offices.

Security Council Resolution 1833 (September 22, 2008)

Resolution 1833 extends the NATO force ISAF mandate until October 13, 2009. The resolution condemned the targeting of Afghan civilians by armed groups and stressed that an increase in violence has a deleterious effect on the stabilization and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. The resolution does not, however, mention NATO's air strike in August 2008, which reportedly killed 90 people, including 60 children.

Security Council Resolution 1386 (December 20, 2001)

The Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution authorizing a peacekeeping force in Afghanistan under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter.

Picture Credit: Christian Science Monitor (2002)


Does the US Military Want Afghanistan to get Even Nastier? (December 8, 2011)

Some within the US military would argue that the massacre of Shia worshippers in December in Kabul could be useful to NATO’s strategy in Afghanistan, especially if it is represents a trend. WikiLeaks revealed a telling statement from former chairman of the US National Intelligence Council Peter Lavoy, “the international community should put intense pressure on the Taliban…to bring out their more violent and ideologically radical tendencies.” NATO, under this strategy, would provoke the Taliban to inflict such extreme violence upon civilians that the Afghan people would ultimately reject the insurgents. Though the official policy is to win support by protecting Afghan civilians, NATO may actually be trying to make the population less secure. (Guardian)

UN Tally Excluded Most Afghan Civilian Deaths in Night Raids (October 25, 2011)

A UNAMA report, stating that only 30 civilians died in targeted raids in Afghanistan during the first six months of 2011, credited the US-NATO command with reducing civilian casualties. However, according to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), the number of night raids UNAMA investigated could only have been a small fraction of the total. Most night raids are carried out in districts dominated by the Taliban where people are not able to file complaints. The very broad definition of “insurgent” used by NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) suggests that most of those killed in night raids would be considered civilians under international humanitarian law. (Inter Press Service News Agency)

Afghanistan Officials ‘Systematically Tortured’ Detainees, Says UN Report (October 10, 2011)

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) released a report documenting systematic torture of detainees, including teenage boys, in Afghan detention facilities across the country. Some of the worst allegations of abuse took place at the National Directorate of Security (NDS) facilities. Chief of investigations at the NDS told the UN that normal methods to extract confessions do not work in Kandahar, and “if we know the detainee is an insurgent we punish them.” The UN found convincing evidence that a significant proportion of the interviewees transferred from foreign military custody to Afghan jails had been victims of torture. (Guardian)

To Stay or to Go: Iraq and Afghanistan (August 18, 2011)

Almost a decade after initiating the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US is struggling to maintain stability in both nations, jeopardizing its timeline for withdrawal. While both wars have distinctly different issues at play, there are also significant similarities. This year has seen persisting violence in Afghanistan and the continuing influence of the Taliban in government. Similarly, Iraq has experienced mounting attacks on civilians and soldiers, highlighting the fragility of the nation. Despite Obama’s election promises to withdrawal and in light of Washington’s rapidly declining influence over these countries, it appears that the US is now less than willing to leave. (Open Democracy)

Debate Rages over US Withdrawal (June 9, 2011)

US military forces are scheduled to start withdrawing from Afghanistan in three weeks time. However, an intense debate is currently taking place in relation to the size and pace of that withdrawal. US President Barack Obama's political advisors are arguing for a substantial withdrawal whilst others are hoping for a “modest" drawdown. A modest drawdown might mean that only a few thousand of the nearly 100,000 soldiers and marines currently based in Afghanistan would return to the US by the end of the year. (Common Dreams)

Opium Wars (Feburary 2011)

Poppy cultivation in Afghanistan funds the Taliban insurgency and it also sustains many impoverished farmers. With few other options to make a living, poppy cultivation provides a source of income, but forces farmers to walk a fine line between the US military, aid providers and the militants. This article touches on the strange history of opium- how it became a fallback crop when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and why the Taliban banned it when in power. After the US invasion, production has rebounded and many are involved. (National Geographic)




US Military Investigates 'Death Squad' Accused of Murdering Afghans (December 29, 2010)

The US is investigating the 5th Stryker Brigade for murdering Afghan civilians and consequently covering it up. The "top to bottom" review will be scrutinizing the perpetrators as well as the commanders who did not intervene.  The investigation shows that the killings were general knowledge among the soldiers and many approved of them. (The Guardian)

The Afghan government says that NATO is responsible for an attack that killed at least 45 civilians, including women and children. The incident in Helmand occurred despite supposedly rigorous new restrictions on the use of force, which make the use of heavy weaponry illegal unless "trusted" surveillance sources say there are no civilians present.  It is not clear which country's troops were involved or who authorized the missile attack, but this tragedy adds to the overall impression that NATO is still killing civilians indiscriminately. (Guardian)

Karzai Rails Against Foreign Presence, Accuses West of Engineering Voter Fraud (April 2, 2010)

The President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, has made scathing criticisms against UN involvement in Afghanistan. Karzai accused the UN and foreign powers of wanting a "puppet government" and "orchestrating fraud in last year's election." The President's comments highlight the growing distrust of foreign intervention, at a time when thirty-thousand new US-troops are flooding in to the country. (Washington Post)

UN Cuts Kandahar Staff Over Security Concerns (March 21, 2010)

Following a security review, the UN has announced that it will be cutting its foreign staff in Kandahar (Afghanistan). Afghanistan Rights Group has expressed alarm at this decision. Kandahar - already an unstable city - will need to be prepared for the impending unrest and influx of refugees NATO's newest offensive in the region will cause. (Globe and Mail)

Afghan Military Strategy Doomed Without Big Changes, UN Chief Warns (January 29, 2010)

The US administration's military strategy and recent troop surge stands in the way of a meaningful, Afghan-led political development strategy.  The UN chief in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, argues that the strategy must be demilitarized to ensure success.  He also heavily criticizes the current three-pronged military tactic of "clear, hold and build."  (The Times)

UN in Secret Peace Talks with the Taliban (January 28, 2010)

In early January, the UN Afghanistan envoy held peace talks with the Taliban. Taliban regional commanders and the leadership council met with Kai Eide in Dubai to find a peaceful resolution to the long-standing conflict. The meeting follows an understanding that mid-level Taliban commanders are tired of fighting, and the next generation of fighters "could be willing to compromise on some issues."  (Guardian)

Britain and the US are backing a new multi-million pound fund to "buy off" low ranking Taliban officials. It is estimated that seventy-five per cent of Taliban members fall into this category. The move follows the UN Security Council's decision to remove sanctions from several Taliban ex-Afghan government members. The UN chief to Afghanistan welcomed the move, saying "If you want results then you have to talk to the relevant person in authority," the Taliban in this instance. (The Independent)

Threats to Afghan Future, says UN (January 7, 2010)

The UN representative to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, has stated that a military strategy is not sufficient to secure sustainable peace in Afghanistan. Mr Eide urges the UN to focus on "civilian institutions," agriculture and infrastructure. Further, he highlights the growing irritation among the Afghan public over "expectations that have not been met.". (BBC)



UN Officials Say American Offered Plan to Replace Karzai (December 16, 2009)

In a letter he wrote to respond to criticism of his work, Kai Eide - the UN Representative in Afghanistan - reveals that his deputy Peter Galbraith had come up with a plan to remove Afghan President Hamid Karzai from power.  It appeared at first that Galbraith had been fired from his post after he accused the UN of covering up widespread fraud during the Afghan presidential elections. But now Eide - his former superior - says he was actually fired because of his proposal to replace President Karzai with a more Western-friendly figure. (The New York Times)

"There Hasn't Been Two Seconds of Intelligent Discussion About Living Standards in Afghanistan" (December 3, 2009)

In Afghanistan, the US has been relying on military forces to address problems that rather demand development assistance and diplomacy, says Columbia University economist Jeffrey D. Sachs. According to Sachs, the link between poverty and insurgency - the fact that vast unemployment and economic deprivation makes it easy for the Taliban to mobilize fighters - has been largely ignored. Neither has there been much serious discussion on how the war is adding to the Afghan people's poverty and misery. (Nieman Watchdog)

Dodging the Real Questions on Afghanistan (December 2, 2009)

On December 1, 2009, US President Barack Obama declared that the US would be sending 30,000 additional troops to fight in Afghanistan. His speech reflected an increase of troops and resources rather than a new strategy. Obama failed to address central critiques of his policy, as he ignored the question of whether an increase in US troops might fuel insurgency rather than quash it, or the risk that the "surge" may further destabilize Pakistan. (American Prospect)

UN Warns of Complete Withdrawal from Afghanistan After Deadly Attack (November 5, 2009)

The UN has announced it will relocate 600 of its 1,100 staff in Afghanistan following a Taliban raid on a UN guest house that left 8 people dead. The "non-essential" employees will be moved to safer parts of Afghanistan and Dubai. The relocation comes at a time of growing doubt about the international strategy in Afghanistan and shows how much security has degraded in the country. While the UN says it remains committed to Afghanistan, in private UN officials admit that the guest house attack came close to meeting the organization's threshold for a general evacuation of the country. (Guardian)

UN Can't Account for Millions Sent to Afghan Election Board (October 29, 2009)

Two audits reveal that the UN cannot account for tens of millions of dollars provided to the Afghan election commission in preparation of the presidential election. As of April 2009, the UN had spent more than $72 million supporting the questionably independent commission, a board whose members were appointed by Karzai himself. According to former deputy representative Peter Galbraith, the flaw was not a management flaw but a political one: the UN should have demanded more accountability before agreeing to bankroll the elections. USAID, which funded a major part of the elections, is blaming the UN for failing to properly monitor the money - as if Washington didn't actually know what was happening on the ground. (ProPublica)

Afghanistan: Remember the Women? (October 21, 2009)

Ann Jones, author of Kabul in Winter, debunks the myth that the American intervention in Afghanistan has improved the situation of Afghan women. Despite talk of equal rights for women, the Karzai government has proved just as eager as the Taliban to confine women to the domestic realm. For women, public life as well as life at home remains dangerous. Not only are women still considered as men's property, they are now caught in the cross-fire, killed, wounded and forced to flee whenever troops advance in Afghanistan. (The Nation)

UN Attempts to Defend Neutrality in Afghanistan (October 8, 2009)

Kai Eide, UN Representative in Afghanistan, has denied allegations by his former deputy Peter Galbraith that he downplayed widespread fraud in the Afghan presidential election. Eide argues that he decided to "side with the institutions" - namely Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC) - in the interest of state-building in Afghanistan. This even when the IEC has reported a number of votes cast 5 times superior to the UN estimate in regions where Karzai won by large majorities. (AP)

Afghan Taliban Say They Pose No Threat to the West (October 7, 2009)

The Taliban have stated on their website that they have no plan to harm Western countries and are pursuing purely national goals. They claim to be fighting for independence against an occupation force perceived as an expansionist attempt from the US under the guise of the so-called "war on terror." This statement clearly sets the Taliban apart from Al Qaida and strikes a blow to the notion that the Afghan war is a "war of necessity". (Reuters)

What I Saw at the Afghan Election (October 4, 2009)

Peter Galbraith speaks out on the reasons why he was fired from his post as deputy UN representative in Afghanistan. He denounces the way his superior has been downplaying the level of fraud during the Afghan presidential election and warns of the impact this could have on the UN's perceived impartiality. According to Galbraith, not pursuing the issue of fraud and handing the victory to Karzai could have disastrous effects on Afghan unity, with many Afghans not trusting a government emerging from the tainted vote. (Washington Post)

China Maps an End to the Afghan War (October 2, 2009)

Afghanistan has become a growing issue in the Chinese media, signaling China's heightened concern over the deepening crisis. A recent article published in the government-owned China Daily is calling for the withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan. The article departs from the American analysis of the issue, asserting that the crisis will be solved by focusing on Afghanistan rather than on the broader region - a clear opposition to the American "Af-Pak" approach. According to the author, a withdrawal would allow for an intra-Afghan peace process between warring factions, with the Security Council assuming the responsibility of guiding and monitoring the settlement. (Asia Times)

Rethink Afghanistan (October 2009)

Rethink Afghanistan is a ground-breaking, full-length documentary focusing on the key issues surrounding the Afghan war. It questions the way the US administration has framed the war and calls for an immediate end to military operations in the region. This documentary invites viewers to "rethink" their preconceived ideas by answering important questions on the motives, cost and impact of US involvement in Afghanistan: Has the war made the US safer? What do the Taliban want? Has the situation of Afghan women improved since the Taliban were overthrown? Can the war be "won?"

US Diplomat "Forced Out" Over Stance on Afghan Election Fraud (September 30, 2009)

Peter Galbraith, the top American UN diplomat in Afghanistan, was removed from his post after a dispute with his superior, UN Special Envoy Kai Eide. The two diplomats disagreed over how to respond to August's fraud-riddled presidential elections, with Galbraith taking an outspoken line over alleged vote-rigging - a position which angered Karzai and his ministers. Galbraith's removal illustrates the deepening divisions within the UN and the US administration on the strategy to adopt in Afghanistan. (The Guardian)

The Situation in Afghanistan and its Implications for International Peace and Security (March 10, 2009)

This report by the Secretary General on the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) shows that security in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate. The General Assembly has agreed to increase UNAMA's 2009 budget by 91 percent, which includes an additional 115 international staff and 3 provincial offices.


UN Mission Chief Warns Afghanistan's Allies (December 8, 2008)

Kai Eide, the UN special representative for Afghanistan, stated that Afghanistan's international  'partners', including the UN and NATO, must increase their efforts to minimize civilian casualties and improve their reconstruction programs. US military actions in Afghanistan make it difficult for the UN and NATO to protect the Afghan population and to rebuild the infrastructure. (International Herald Tribune)

Truth as Collateral Damage (October 22, 2008)

Civilian deaths in Afghanistan caused by US and NATO attacks are quite predictable. NATO uses close air support attacks instead of ground troops in Afghanistan to save money and to spare personnel, but this results in three times more victims than US military actions in Vietnam, Yugoslavia and Iraq. To cover up these civilian deaths, NATO reports them as eliminated rebel militants. (Guardian)

Report of the Secretary General on the situation in Afghanistan (September 23, 2008)

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon states that military operations by international forces in Afghanistan have increased the number of civilian victims. The report also states that the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan has worsened, including food insecurity.

Afghan Civilian Casualties Mount: UN (August 6, 2008)

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reports that in the first five months of 2008, civilian deaths in Afghanistan have increased by 62 percent when compared to the same period in 2007. These numbers differ greatly from those presented by NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which claims that UN figures are "exaggerated." This article warns that civilian deaths by ISAF and the lack of compensation for victims continue to lower the Afghani people's support for the NATO forces, thus fueling the resistance. (Embassy)

Special Report of the Secretary General to the Security Council on the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan (July 3, 2008)

In this report to the Security Council, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon states that the security situation in Afghanistan has drastically deteriorated in 2008. Ban urges UNAMA to assist the Afghan Independent Electoral Commission in preparing the upcoming local elections and to help the Afghani government to strengthen local law enforcement. To this end, Ban proposes new training programs for police to improve the immediate security situation in the country.

Security Council Report Update: Afghanistan (June 9, 2008)

France is pushing for a Resolution in the Security Council to ban the trafficking to Afghanistan of acetic anhydride, a key component in the production of heroin. A UN study states that Afghanistan produced over 8,200 tons of heroin in 2007, making the country almost the worlds biggest suppliers of the drug. The Resolution will call upon Afghanistan to cooperate with the International Narcotics Control Board, urges bordering counties to strengthen border controls, and asks the Secretary General to monitor the implementation of the Resolution by UN member states. (Security Council Report)

Letter from NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer to the Security Council on Afghanistan (February 4, 2008)

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer paints a depressing picture of the security situation in Afghanistan in this report to the Security Council. Some six years after the UN mandated a NATO force (ISAF), the report notes that the Afghan Army and Police forces are inadequately trained and that there exists a vacuum in the rule of law in the country. Scheffer also states that much of Afghanistan remains in the hands of opposition forces, and that attacks against civilians and military personnel in the country have increased.


UN, US Actions Sometimes at Odds on Afghan Policy (July 5, 2007)

Before Abdul Hakim Monib deserted the Islamic movement in favor of US-backed President Hami Karzai, the US placed him on the UN's list of sanctioned al-Qaida members. Now Monib serves as governor of Afghanistan's Uruzgan province, and the US praises him for counter-terrorism cooperation. Working with Monib poses legal questions because it technically violates Security Council-imposed sanctions. But removing Monib's name from the UN's sanctions list requires approval from all fifteen Security Council members. This paradox exposes the inadequacy of the current UN system of sanctions against individuals. (Washington Post)

Afghanistan: UN-Backed Body Steps Up Efforts for Reconstruction (January 31, 2007)

The Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board (JCMB) - a committee of 23 countries and international institutions to monitor implementation of a five year plan for reconstruction in Afghanistan - was set up in 2006. JCMB's first meeting sees new initiatives addressing lack of security, poverty, human rights and Afghanistan's political environment. The UN-backed body who proposed the five-year plan tells the JCMB that it is time to step up efforts to rebuild the post-war country, including improving security, easing poverty and fostering human rights. (UN News)


Violence Fuels Disillusionment and Threatens Reconstruction (December 7, 2006)

While Afghanistan faces its deadliest phase of violence since 2001, a UN Security Council mission report warns that growing insurgency, corruption, impunity, increased opium trade and weak governance cause "despondency and disillusionment" among Afghans. During its mission, the UN Security Council team heard mounting criticism from Afghani officials on the international community's lack of support to Afghan democratic institutions. Furthermore, Afghanis raised concerns about the overlap of NATO work from military to humanitarian affairs. (Integrated Regional Information Networks)

NATO Now the Primary Security Force in Afghanistan (October 9, 2006)

NATO took the lead of the international security forces present in Afghanistan in October 2006, thus seeming to reduce the US role in the country. The NATO commander has said that the security challenges Afghanistan face, with the resurgence of the Taliban and the narcotic traffic, "will not be resolved by military means." According to UN statistics, 2.9 million Afghans live from opium trade, which the Afghans warlords control. (World Politics Watch)

Afghans Fear Fallout from Iran Sanctions (September 28, 2006)

As some UN Security Council members threaten to enforce sanctions on Iran, analysts worry about the adverse political and economic effects these sanctions could have on neighboring Afghanistan. This Institute for War and Peace Reporting article warns that sanctions would have a major impact on the Afghan economy, which shares close economic ties with its western neighbor. Also, some experts fear that Iranians might support Afghan insurgent groups as a way of retaliating against the US-led call for sanctions against the Iranian regime.

UN Urges NATO to Hit at Afghan Drugs (September 12, 2006)

While the Security Council adopted a resolution extending for another year the mandate of the international security force in Afghanistan, the United Nations anti-drug chief urged NATO to take "robust military action" to destroy Afghanistan's opium industry. Opium harvest increased by 49 percent over 2005 providing the Taliban with the financial means to fund terrorism. Some observers wonder whether military action would effectively put an end to the increase of narcotic crops in the country. (International Herald Tribune)

Taliban Taking Over (September 5, 2006)

The US-led coalition in Afghanistan has implemented numerous policies which have created a humanitarian crisis in the southern part of the country, according to the Senlis Council report. By prioritizing military and counter-narcotics programs instead of those focused on development, the US has forced countless people into poverty. As a result, support for the Taliban continually grows in the south as the group steps in to help those negatively affected. (Inter Press Service)

Afghanistan's Anti-Narcotics Strategy (August 29, 2006)

According to the 2005 statistics from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the cultivation of opium in Afghanistan significantly increased, accounting for 87 percent of world production despite the Afghan government's National Drug Control Strategy. This Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies article points out that the Taliban insurgency encourages narcotic production to fund its activities. "The lucrative nature of the Afghan opium trade that links cultivators, traffickers and consumers is one of the biggest threats to effective nation-building and regional stability," the author says.

The Afghanistan Compact (January 31, 2006)

This joint report by the government of Afghanistan, the UN and more than 60 countries represents a five-year plan aimed at putting Afghanistan on a solid course towards stability. The Compact outlines benchmarks and a timeline on four critical areas of activity - reconstruction and development, governance, security, and counter-narcotics - that the Afghan government should meet. The international community, in turn, will provide resources to help the central Asian country "stand on its own feet."



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