The Pitfalls of UN Peacekeeping in Afghanistan

A peacekeeper serving with UNMISS, March 2021. (UN Photo/Gregorio Cunha)

The Taliban’s increasing stranglehold over Afghanistan and the prospect of the United States (US) military forces leaving generated calls for the United Nations (UN) to deploy a peacekeeping operation to the country. Although no official UN discussions about a potential peacekeeping operation in Afghanistan have occurred, desperate civilians and several experts have proposed different types of missions and mandates. The trouble is, they all face serious challenges and major risks. While the Taliban holds most of the keys to unlocking any mission, even the Taliban’s consent and cooperation will not guarantee international willingness or success.

Send in the UN Peacekeepers

Along with desperate civilians calling for UN peacekeepers to facilitate continued evacuations from Kabul, three analysts have recently called for different forms of UN peace operations to deploy to Afghanistan.

Writing before the US military withdrawal, Major Ryan Van Wie argued that it was in Washington’s strategic interest to lay the groundwork for deploying a UN peacekeeping operation (PKO). He concluded that “If an intra-Afghan settlement appears possible in the coming years, an Afghan PKO offers a credible mechanism for intra-Afghan parties to attain desired concessions and achieve internal stability.”

In May, Charli Carpenter argued that “what’s needed is the steadying hand of a robust international peacekeeping, peacebuilding and peace-enforcement mission under United Nations auspices.” On August 12, Professor Carpenter called for a humanitarian military intervention, but failing that a UN peace enforcement mission—“a robust military response from third parties” that would acquire “Chapter VII authorization to protect civilians” in Afghanistan.

Most recently, Lise Howard called fora large, multinational U.N. peace observation mission” that could verify “the Taliban is keeping its promises”—“to not engage in revenge attacks, to not allow Afghanistan to become a haven for terrorists, and to uphold the rights of women and minorities (within the framework of Sharia law).” 

Peacekeeping Prerequisites

While they raise some interesting issues, none of these proposals discussed the political and operational prerequisites for assembling and deploying a UN peacekeeping operation. These are the things that need to happen to turn ideas into real operations.

First, consultations must take place among the relevant actors in the UN system—the secretariat, the member states, and relevant agencies—as well as the relevant parties in Afghanistan and regional organizations. If these showed promise, the UN secretary-general would probably request a strategic assessment to clarify the options for UN engagement. If subsequently the relevant actors were still serious, a technical field assessment should be rapidly deployed to assess the security situation on the ground and sketch options, modalities, and financial dimensions for configuring a potential UN operation. If the Security Council determined that one option is viable, it must formally authorize the mission in a resolution, setting out its mandate, size, and configuration. While the secretariat would need to draw up operational plans and force requirements, it must also appoint the relevant senior personnel to lead the mission, and orchestrate the complicated force generation process to find and prepare the right type and numbers of peacekeepers.

All these things take time and a large degree of political consensus. To my knowledge, none of them have been met, nor have they even been discussed officially by the relevant parties. A good indicator is the fact that Security Council Resolution 2593, passed on August 30, did not mention any of the potential elements for a UN peacekeeping operation in Afghanistan, nor the idea of a “safe zone” apparently mooted by French President Emmanuel Macron.

The Pitfalls of Peacekeeping in Afghanistan

The advocates of a new UN mission have called on peacekeepers to prioritize different things, including securing evacuations from Kabul, facilitating humanitarian relief operations, verifying that “the Taliban is keeping its promises,” and even a Chapter VII enforcement mission to protect civilians.

Each proposal faces major political hurdles and involves major risks. First, losing the war has left the Taliban dominant, albeit facing some localized resistance. The ball is very firmly in their court. Without Taliban consent and active cooperation, UN peacekeeping is a non-starter. The Taliban’s longstanding desire to remove all foreign forces from Afghanistan persists. But circumstances could arise where they thought it useful to consent to a small UN peacekeeping operation, beyond the UN assistance mission already in the country (UNAMA). However, even if the Taliban gave their consent, significant risks would remain in the form of fighters from al-Qaida, the Islamic State-Khorasan, and other potentially hostile groups. In 2000, the Brahimi Report concluded “There are many tasks which United Nations peacekeeping forces should not be asked to undertake and many places they should not go.” Without the Taliban’s support and active cooperation, Afghanistan is one of those places.

A second problem is that Afghanistan’s political context isn’t well-suited to UN peacekeepers. UN peacekeeping can improve even very difficult situations, including some ongoing civil wars. But it works best when there’s a viable peace process to help implement and a host government to support. Afghanistan today most closely resembles a very bloody and messy ending of a civil war where one side is dominant and probably able to impose its preferred order across most of the country. Afghanistan has no peace deal to help implement, no clear peace process to support, and no ceasefire to monitor. An added complication is that its de facto Taliban-led government lacks international recognition.

 A third pitfall is the risk of peacekeeper casualties and hostages. Lightly armed UN observers would be highly vulnerable to attack by armed groups operating in Afghanistan—chief among them al-Qaida and the Islamic State-Khorasan. It’s important to recall that even large and robust UN peacekeeping missions have had their military personnel taken hostage, including in Rwanda (1994), Bosnia (1995), Sierra Leone (2000), and Syria (2014). Furthermore, experts on local security dynamics in Afghanistan have warned that peacekeepers operating in small (company or smaller) formations would quickly risk being confined to cities and their bases, thereby reducing their ability to conduct patrols and monitor the situation. Automated forms of machine surveillance could help but are hardly a sufficient substitute, especially if a rapid response is required.

Such risks are why in semi-permissive or high-threat environments like Afghanistan, the UN would not usually consider deploying observers without a larger, more robust protection force. At the UN, “robust” means peacekeepers can protect themselves, civilians, and, if necessary, overcome local armed opposition. But given the extent of armed actors in Afghanistan, even a large and robust protection force would also be vulnerable. Besides, if such peacekeepers deployed, local Afghan civilians threatened by the Taliban or other groups would quickly expect that they protect them as well as the UN’s observers.

As the last two decades demonstrate, even the world’s strongest militaries are vulnerable in Afghanistan. Moreover, any force robust enough to offer real physical protection to civilians would be much less likely to secure the Taliban’s consent in the first place.

These considerations mean that while a small deployment of observers—like the short-lived and largely ineffective UN Mission in Syria—is unlikely, a large mission will almost certainly struggle to find enough personnel. Advocates proposed different lists of troop-contributing countries: Major Van Wie ruled out China, concludingPossible options include capable South American states (i.e., Brazil, Colombia), African states (i.e., Senegal, Egypt), Indonesia, and Bangladesh.” Carpenter proposedpeacekeepers from Muslim-majority countries, preferably from outside the region: Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Egypt,” while Howard saw them comingprimarily from China and Muslim-majority countries.” So far, none of these countries have offered to play such roles. China is particularly interesting to watch since it does have an untested 8,000-strong peacekeeping standby force. Yet it has been a louder advocate about the need to keep UN peacekeepers safe and secure than it has about the importance of civilian protection, and Beijing abstained on Security Council Resolution 2593.

Although not an argument against a UN force per se, it’s also important to note that the UN’s fastest deployable forces are the Vanguard Brigade units in the Rapid Deployment Level of its Peacekeeping Capability Readiness System. They can deploy within 60 days of receiving a formal invitation from the UN Secretariat. So far, however, the clock hasn’t even started ticking. 

In sum, neither local nor international politics are currently right for a UN peacekeeping deployment in Afghanistan. Both could change, of course. But right now, no clear and realistic mission has been officially discussed or scoped. No troop-contributing countries have stepped forward. Most importantly, the Taliban have not offered an invitation, and even if they did, there is the added complication of preparing for the threat that al-Qaida and Islamic State-Khorasan fighters would pose to any peacekeepers.

Rather than debate a large, robust peacekeeping force, the practical focus of UN discussions would be better served by ensuring that the organization’s longstanding Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) can operate as effectively as possible in such difficult circumstances.

Paul D. Williams is Professor of International Affairs at the George Washington University. His latest book is Understanding Peacekeeping (Polity Press, 3rd edition, 2021). He tweets at @PDWilliamsGWU