Reports yesterday that Paddy Ashdown had accepted a post as UN envoy to Afghanistan were premature. The appointment has still to be approved by the UN security council, at which Russia could use its veto. In the post-Iraq world of foreign intervention, Russia can choose à la carte from a menu of disputes it has with western governments. The list is long, and not a month goes by when it does not seem to grow – from missile defense and conventional forces in eastern europe to the status of Kosovo. Lord Ashdown’s appointment could fall victim to the same attritional disease.
This would be a missed opportunity. If there is an international consensus about Afghanistan, it is that there are too few troops on the ground and too little aid. The Taliban is resurgent and that there is not much time to turn the situation around. In November last year the Senlis Council, an international policy think tank, said that the Taliban had the capacity to disrupt security in more than half of the country. If anyone had doubts about that, they were dispelled by Sunday’s suicide and gun attacks on one of Kabul’s most heavily protected buildings, the Serena hotel. It called itself an "oasis of luxury in a war-ravaged city". No more. Eight died in an attack specifically directed at foreigners. It has opened up a new front: the protection of thousands of foreign aid and reconstruction workers living in the capital.
By one reckoning, Afghanistan has just 4% of the foreign troops and 2% of the aid that Bosnia received per head of population. But it does not just need more troops and more aid. It also needs a seasoned politician to coordinate the international operation. Lord Ashdown has all the right credentials for the post of UN envoy. Not that this job would be anything like his last, the UN high representative and EU special representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Unlike in Bosnia, he would sorely miss the powers of an absolute, if benign, ruler. Here, he would be dealing with a sovereign government. Even so, there is a major job to be done to direct efforts to stabilize the country. At present, something close to confusion reigns.
As many as 39 nations contribute to the Nato-led international security assistance force (ISAF), and there are twice that number of national caveats limiting the use of national forces. This is not to include a smaller US-led military coalition, an EU police mission and a UN presence and 25 different provincial reconstruction teams. With no overall plan, different military tactics, discordant ideas on how to control poppy production, and no one big enough to rise above the fray, this is a recipe for disaster.
The new UN envoy would have no say in the chain of command for a peace-keeping force 41,700 strong, but he would have more powers than his predecessor Tom Koenigs had to knock heads together. President Hamid Karzai’s recent decision to expel two diplomats for talking to the Taliban may have been a flexing of political muscle – but it is also a sign of why a high-level point of contact is needed.
Lord Ashdown will have his work cut out if he gets the post. The struggle for control of Pashtun-speaking areas of Afghanistan dates back to 1893 when the border between Afghanistan and British India split the area, and the current conflict could take at least a decade of political and military effort to overcome. As the New York Times reported this week, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence has lost control of the militants it once nurtured as a proxy force to exert pressure on India and Afghanistan. It now faces a growing insurgency and al-Qaida, a virtual entity with a light physical footprint, is ideally placed to exploit it. If, as Lord Ashdown writes in his book Swords and Ploughshares, Iraq and Afghanistan represent the triumph of hubris and amnesia over common sense, it is time to put some sense back into the war.