Peacemaking Diplomacy: United Nations Good Offices in Afghanistan
by William Maley
Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium
Citation: "Peacemaking Diplomacy: United Nations Good Offices in Afghanistan," chap. in Building International Community, Kevin Clements and Robin Ward, eds. (St. Leonards, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 1994) pp. 250-254.
Use of UN good offices succeeded in encouraging Soviet forces to withdraw from Afghanistan. However, the UN has not succeeded in producing an internal settlement between the warring Afghani factions. Maley examines the factors which made UN good offices successful in the first instance, yet ineffective in the latter.
In 1978 domestic communist groups seized control of Afghanistan by military coup. The new communist regime faced sharp opposition from rural population. It attempted to suppress opposition by using terror tactics. In 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and installed a president of their own choosing. Domestic opposition then escalated into civil war between the Mujahideen, the popular resistance, and the Soviets. The UN faced two constraints in responding to the Afghan situation. First, Soviet veto power prevented the Security Council from passing any resolutions regarding Afghanistan. Secondly, and more significantly, the General Assembly responded to the blockage in the Security Council by moving to recognize the credentials of representatives of the Soviet- installed Afghani government. Having recognized that government as legitimate, the UN was later constrained from dealing with the Mujahideen, which in turn prevented the UN from negotiating an internal settlement in Afghanistan.
Facing military failure, the Soviet Union decided to gradually withdraw its troops. The Soviet Union signed a set of Geneva Accords in 1988 which set forth the terms of their withdrawal. Because the General Assembly had recognized the Soviet installed Afghani government, negotiations over troop withdrawal did not include the Mujahideen. The UN Secretary general hailed the Accords as paving the way for Afghani self- determination. UNOCA was launched in Afghanistan to provide for humanitarian relief, resettlement of returning refugees, and economic reconstruction.
However, Maley notes, the Accords "simply required the Soviet leadership to do what it had unilaterally chosen to do in November 1986."[p. 252] Soviet troops were withdrawn, but the Soviet installed Afghani government remained in place with firm Soviet backing. The civil war continued between the Mujahideen and the Soviet backed government of president Najibullah. Maley argues that the premature launch of UNOCA, "by absorbing donor funds when they could not be realistically be used for reconstruction--and in the process exhausting the sense of commitment to Afghanistan of significant donors...actually harmed Afghanistan's prospects of recovering from years of damaging conflict."[p. 253]
UN attempts to foster an internal settlement were overtaken by events. The Soviets and the U.S. both agreed to stop shipping arms to Afghanistan, and the Soviets withdrew their backing from from the Najibullah government. Najibullah offered to turn power over to a transitional mechanism, but the UN was unable to produce a mechanism acceptable to all the parties. Najibullah's government collapsed, and the Mujahideen seized power.
Maley draws four lessons for the use of UN good offices from the Afghani experience. First, "issues of credentials are political, not merely procedural, and should be approached with the greatest of care."[p. 252] Second, settlements will fail if parties are excluded. Exclusion of the Mujahideen from the Geneva Accords contributed to the unrest subsequent to Soviet troop withdrawal. Third, UN humanitarian programs should not be deployed on faulty or unrealistic assessments of the political situation. Finally, "highly expert, level-headed assessments of complex political situations is required if good office missions are not to collapse spectacularly."[p. 254