Revisiting the United Nations’ Role in Afghanistan

in Program

By Prakhar Sharma – As President Karzai begins his second presidential term, and the United States recalibrates its strategy on Afghanistan, it is important to understand whether the UN still enjoys enough goodwill and the credibility to lead an expanded civilian mission in the country and partner with the Afghans and the international community in stabilizing Afghanistan.  

Widespread irregularities and fraud in the election in August resulted into a political turmoil in Afghanistan with both domestic and international condemnation. This situation was exacerbated by the open disagreement between the two senior-most UN officials in Afghanistan over the election “process” and on the management of the political fallout. The election thus resulted in a serious dent to the reputation of the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).

Perceptions are crucial and the Afghans’ perceptions of the UN differ sharply from their perceptions of the other formal groups and institutions that play a prominent role in governing Afghanistan’s current transition – the Afghan government, the foreign forces (independently, and the Provincial Reconstruction Teams) and the non-governmental organizations. According to author’s personal interviews in Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009, a majority of Afghans, while not wholly opposed to the foreign military presence, increasingly resent military operations because of the large scale of civilian casualties and the subsequent waves of retribution, and misguided targeting of people to settle personal scores. The people’s trust in Afghan government institutions has deteriorated in the last three years – the government was never seen as credible but it had always enjoyed the legitimacy, which it substantially lost after the first round of election in August. The robust NGO commitments may be commended for the small successes, but for most Afghans, they also symbolize development programs and priorities that entail little, if any, consultation with the locals.

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) enjoys positive perceptions among the Afghans when compared with other key groups and institutions engaged in the country. While an increasing number of Afghans now see the international forces as “outsiders” and, in certain cases, “occupiers”, most Afghans in general welcome the UNAMA and see it removed from the rampant corruption, which they associate with the Afghan government and the NGOs. The Afghans prefer receiving assistance from their government, followed by the United Nations, above any donors or NGOs, despite their superior resources. They perceive the UN as a reliable partner that will stay the course; the Afghans recall how the UN’s engagement sustained in Afghanistan even during the Taliban regime, along with that of the World Food Program (WFP) and the de-mining organizations.
The United Nations coordinates fundamental facets of the international engagement in the country. It brings the countries together as a multinational coalition under a legal framework and approves the overarching mandate towards stabilization and peace building in Afghanistan. It does not have the power or the resources of the US, but it has the authority and the legitimacy to articulate and establish standards and norms, which remains its biggest strengths as a universal body that represents the wills of the people.

The recent decision by the UN to relocate over half of its international staff in Kabul to safer locations within Afghanistan and abroad signals the worsening security situation for the UN staff. Insurgents targeted the UN staff to scale back the UN’s efforts and undermine its commitment to stabilizing the region. As Washington considers its policy course on Afghanistan, it is imperative that the UN mission in Afghanistan is revalidated and sufficiently empowered to take on a greater role in coordination. Security should be enhanced for the UN staff so they carry out their crucial civilian and humanitarian mandate. Equally important is to renew people’s belief in the institution and in the values that it embodies. Fresh eyes and ears are needed in the mission to exorcise the ghosts of the election “process”, start anew, and to signal the criticality of the policy shift.

The United States needs a credible UN to articulate the international community’s will, legitimize its interests and initiatives, and coordinate its mission in Afghanistan. The UN’s role is therefore critical for the political process as well as the peace-building and counter-insurgency strategy. Its ability to be a neutral partner whose interests subordinate to those of the mission is unparalleled. Its merits also lie in its vast experience and demonstrated ability to bring various interest groups together and connect them to a national cause that transcends ethnic and tribal interests and socio-political divisions. It therefore has a seminal role to play alongside the US in the future of Afghanistan.

Photo credit: UNAMA,



Prakhar Sharma is a Visiting Fellow with the Regional Voices project at the Stimson Center.

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