The South Asia Channel
Will the U.N.’s withdrawal cancel out the U.S.’s civilian surge?
By Brian Katulis On Thursday, the United Nations mission in Afghanistan announced that it would relocate hundreds of foreign staff out of the country in response to an attack targeting a U.N. guest house in Kabul last week. U.N. spokesman Dan McNortan told reporters that out of a total of 1,100 expatriate workers, 600 will ...
By Brian Katulis
On Thursday, the United Nations mission in Afghanistan announced that it would relocate hundreds of foreign staff out of the country in response to an attack targeting a U.N. guest house in Kabul last week. U.N. spokesman Dan McNortan told reporters that out of a total of 1,100 expatriate workers, 600 will be temporarily relocated for security reasons.
The United Nations has a presence of about 5,600 personnel in Afghanistan, the vast majority of whom are Afghan nationals. Kai Eide, the Norwegian diplomat who heads the UN mission in Afghanistan said, “We will do what we can to avoid disruption of work.”
What exactly does the United Nations do in Afghanistan? It conducts the sort of work that top U.S. and NATO commander in the country Gen. Stanley McChrystal and key U.S. policy leaders on Afghanistan have identified as essential to the effort of stabilizing the country — carrying out reconstruction and relief efforts, and provides advice on internal political processes, among other things. (See more details on the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan here.)
The timing of this decision to pull out personnel comes at a sensitive juncture for the Obama administration, as it gropes for an updated strategy to replace the one it announced in March. And it comes at a time when the United States has started to implement a “civilian surge” aimed at getting more personnel to work some of the very same issues — reconstruction, development, and building governance structures — that the U.N. staff now set to leave the country were doing.
The 600 U.N. staffers who are being relocated is about the same number of people the Obama administration is set to send as part of the civilian surge in 2009. Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew late last month briefed reporters and told them that the Obama administration plans to have just under 1,000 civilians with the State Department and USAID in Afghanistan by the end of the year, up from 320 at the start, meaning that the civilian surge by the United States is about 600. So just from a numbers perspective, depending on where the U.N. staffers are relocated and for how long, the U.S. civilian surge to Afghanistan — if it indeed goes through as planned — may simply just cancel out the loss of U.N. workers being pulled out.
Now that’s just an interesting note about the simple numbers game — there are more complex dynamics involving specific tasks and projects. U.N. agencies have certain tasks that they conduct, and the United States and other countries engaged in Afghanistan on development and governance have their own efforts. There are some coordination mechanisms between these efforts, but many observers have noted that the coordination between the development and governance efforts in different parts of Afghanistan is weak.
Which raises a broader question — what is the comprehensive strategy for making sure that all of the efforts planned by international agencies and individual countries on the development and governance fronts are coordinated? Since weak governance and corruption have been identified in both the strategy reviews and strategic communications of the Obama administration on Afghanistan, it makes sense that some sort of action plan — coordinated among all of the countries and international organizations in Afghanistan — should be developed to address these threats to Afghanistan’s stability. But where is that plan?
As I mentioned in an article earlier this week, the draft metrics floating around Washington, DC earlier this fall shouldn’t leave anyone optimistic about how well advanced the strategy for development and governance efforts in Afghanistan is, which is a major problem. In many ways, the simpler policy question is whether or not to send more troops — the more difficult questions are those related to these other components of a possible integrated strategy in Afghanistan, because of a lack of resources and capacity in U.S. civilian agencies. Additionally, the simple fact of the matter is that governance and economic development have a direct impact on internal power dynamics in Afghanistan — who we choose to partner with impacts the internal fights among Afghans for power, for better or worse.
Another issue is the question of leverage and how to best shape the calculations and actions of Afghan leaders to align with the interests of global security. The U.N. decision on Thursday seems mostly about security concerns, but Eide curiously sent an interesting “don’t take us for granted” message to Afghan leaders: “There is a belief among some, that the international community (presence) will continue whatever happens because of the strategic importance of Afghanistan,” Eide said. “I would like to emphasize that that’s not true.” Whether this “tough love” message matters remains to be seen.
But the overall point here is that if there is one positive thing about the messy election process in Afghanistan, it is that it has brought governance and anti-corruption more closely to the center of the policy debate on national security, which is quite amazing. The experts knew for years that these issues were problems, but now these problems have helped to some small degree reframe the national security debate on Afghanistan to something beyond just how many boots on the ground there are. Now the challenge for the Obama administration is to come up with concrete policy actions that can effectively deal with these problems of weak governance and corruption, and whether we have a coordinated international strategy to do so.
Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
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