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Michelle Barsa

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Finding a Role for the UN in Afghanistan

Posted: 03/27/2012 4:50 pm

Voting unanimously to renew the mandate of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) -- the UN's in-country political mission -- the UN Security Council last week reaffirmed its commitment to supporting the Afghan government's pursuit of security, stability, and democracy.

The revised mandate covers much of what you would expect: coordination of international civilian assistance, support for the ongoing transition to an Afghan security lead and commitments to strengthen local governance, the rule of law, and development. Significantly, the mandate mentions the value of women's participation in these and other processes. That's all basically encouraging.

It's the alternating, incongruous mentions of UNAMA's role vis-à-vis the unfolding peace process that lack clarity. As the debates unfold over whether or not an international mediator might be required to support the Afghan peace talks, many in and out of Afghanistan have considered whether the UN might serve in this capacity. The reality is, however, that despite UNAMA's assertion of its neutrality, it is -- in mandate and practice -- aligned with the Karzai administration. This bias effectively prevents UNAMA from acting as a neutral mediator.

So what role should UNAMA serve in supporting the Afghan peace process? The answer, at least in part, should be for it to play to its strengths and focus its resources to ensure both the participation and protection of women in the transition period through 2014 and the Transformation Decade that will follow. Both the ongoing reconciliation effort and transition from a US to Afghan security lead present a threat to women's rights and the gains women have made over the last 10 years. Reconciliation efforts will likely involve negotiations over power sharing and local security arrangements, the Afghan National Security Forces do not necessarily have the capacity to hold back insurgent elements, and there's uncertainty over which individuals will emerge or re-emerge as powerbrokers in the wake of US withdrawal. International actors, the United States in particular, are rightfully concerned over how to mitigate the potential negative ramifications

There may not be any clear or easy solutions, but there are starting points, like independent monitoring of the effects of the security transition on women's security -- with potential impacts ranging from decreased mobility and access to government services, to increased violence against women. This monitoring could be conducted by UNAMA in partnership with Afghan women's civil society organizations and would serve to measure either improvements or regressions in women's freedoms. For monitoring to be effective, UNAMA would then have to ensure that US-led Coalition forces, international actors, and the Afghan government to respond to any severe backsliding in the realm of women's security.

In addition to supporting civil society's capacity to monitor the impact of the security transition, there is certainly work for UNAMA to do in shaping the reconciliation effort. In its technical advice to the Afghan High Peace Council, UNAMA must convey the incontrovertible truth that only an inclusive reconciliation process will be a sustainable one. Both men and women need to play a role in negotiating the compromises that will inevitably be made. A well-conceived, participatory reconciliation process will engage a wide array of leaders at the sub-national level and serve to strengthen local governing institutions. In the work UNAMA undertakes to support sub-national governance, it must attempt to ensure that elected and appointed representatives engage their female constituents to best understand their needs and proposed solutions.

UNAMA can't be all things to all people in this peace process; it doesn't have the space to be. Priorities must be narrowed. Resources must be channeled to maximize impact and protect the most vulnerable. Biases and limitations must be acknowledged. In its mandated obligation to support the Afghan government, UNAMA has a clear role to play to ensure the government holds true to constitutional commitments to the inclusion of women in political decision making, that it maintains its promise to preserve and protect the rights of women, and that it consults those Afghans most affected by war in the negotiations that will determine their fate.

For recommendations forwarded to the UN Security Council by the Afghan Women's Network on the revision of the UNAMA mandate, see here.