Minna Jarvenpaa, AAN founding member and former head of UNAMA’s Analysis and Policy Unit, looks ahead at the challenges faced by Afghanistan’s new UN SRSG.
Staffan di Mistura, who on the eve of the London Conference was appointed by Ban Ki-moon as his Special Representative to head up the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), has an unenviable task ahead of him. He will take over a mission with a reduced and demoralised staff, a reputation that has been tainted in the eyes of the Afghan public, and decreased credibility within the diplomatic community.
Against this background, di Mistura will need to be realistic about what UNAMA can achieve. It will take a year to build the mission back up to the level where it was before the very public controversy between Kai Eide and his deputy Peter Galbraith over the handling of the elections, and before the attack on UN staff in the Bakhtar guesthouse. These have accelerated the brain haemorrhage from key units across the mission that had started earlier because of unhappiness over how the organisation was being run. A leaner staff means that di Mistura will need to focus the mission on core business – also by seeking a narrower mandate – and he will need to listen to his staff.
What UNAMA has always done best is political outreach and analysis. Its strength has been its field presence. Even now, UNAMA still boasts the most extensive and well-informed network of field officers of all the international actors in Afghanistan. Many of its Afghan and international political officers have spent years in the provinces and established strong relationships with provincial and district officials, tribal elders, communities and civil society representatives. This gives UNAMA an edge – if it is ready to use it.
During the 2009 elections, UNAMA staff were consistently ahead of their counterparts in the assembled Embassies and international organisations in the speed and accuracy with which they collated and analysed data on ghost polling stations and other forms of fraud. That the advice was not heard or taken is another matter.
In contrast to its original mandate as a primarily political mission, UNAMA has over the last two years focused increasingly on aid coordination. Beyond an important behind-the-scenes role in support of the Afghan government (most notably finance minister Zakhilwal, agriculture minister Rahimi and minister Shahrani, now in charge of mines and minerals), this has yielded little. In an attempt to increase its role in this area, UNAMA has called for aid agencies to second 15-20 senior officials to act as donor coordinators in various sectors. But this is a distraction. Donor coordination is not a role that UNAMA can play effectively in a context where donors do not want to be coordinated. It is not even a role that the Afghan government wants it to play as it sees donor coordination to be within its own purview. At best, UNAMA can continue to coach some of the key ministers with economic and social development portfolios and support them when they assert a government lead. For this it needs a few high-quality people with solid development backgrounds, not an army of aid officials.
UNAMA is a political mission. A key role for it is to voice the concerns of Afghans, both about their government and about the behaviour of the international community. In the past, it has advocated an approach by ISAF to reduce civilian casualties, and more recently it has sought to engage the international military forces on the issue of detentions. The people of Afghanistan have also looked to UNAMA – in vain as it turned out – to speak out about the election fraud in both the 2004/2005 cycle and in 2009. To play this role of championing the Afghan people, UNAMA needs to position itself both close enough to President Karzai and the US to have access and influence, and far enough to be able to speak out.
Specific areas of policy focus for UNAMA in the coming period should include seeking to ensure:
(1) Safeguards for credible elections;
(2) Integrity of political appointments (Ministers, Governors, Police Chiefs, Judges);
(3) Underpinning security forces growth by proper recruitment, vetting and training practices;
(4) Equitable distribution of aid between north and south, with a recognition that investment in the north could shore up stability and create a basis for future growth, while most aid in areas of intensive fighting is wasted;
(5) A framework for talks that can lead to a peace settlement;
(6) Transitional justice.
If UNAMA is to reassert itself as a player under di Mistura, it must revert to its core political role, raising a red card when one of the other actors strays from the rules of the game and serving as a guarantor for the integrity of the overall political process.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020