The role of the UN in an Afghanistan “civilian strategy;” Remarks from Susan Rice

During his speech last night, President Obama said, “we will work with our partners, the UN, and the Afghan people to pursue a more effective civilian strategy, so that the government can take advantage of improved security.”

This is a pretty helpful reminder of the central, non-military role the United Nations plays in Afghanistan.  There are 19 UN agencies on the ground in Afghanistan. These are coordinated by the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), which fields a staff of about 1,500, 80% of whom are Afghan Nationals.  The UN’s activities range from humanitarian relief like refugee resettlement (the UN helped resettle 4.7 million refugees) to public health work (the UN helped vaccinate 700,000 children from Polio) to security efforts (like weaning farmers off of poppy cultivation and removing landmines) to political development (like overseeing elections and promoting public sector reforms).  Unfortunately, the UN has also become a target of insurgents. In November, five UN workers were killed in an attack on a UN compound in Kabul. Three weeks prior, five World Food Program employees were killed in a suicide attack in Islamabad.  Still, the United Nations remains a central player in civilian (i.e. non-military) efforts to restore order to Afghanistan.

Today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, along with Defense Secretary Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mullen will brief congress on Afghanistan. I expect her to lay out in greater detail what a “more effective civilian strategy” entails and what the administration expects from the United Nations in fulfillment of that strategy. Stay tuned. 


UPDATE: Well, in this morning Congressional briefings, nary a word was mentioned about UNAMA’s role in a “civilian strategy.”  However, in remarks to the press outisde the Security Council, UN Ambassador Susan Rice fleshed out what the United States is expecting from the UN. 

Reporter: Madam Ambassador, the President last night in his speech called on the UN to be a partner in building a civilian strategy. Can you talk about specifically what the US is looking for from the UN, and is the UN in a position to delver given it has withdrawn half of its staff from Kabul in the wake of the guest house attack.

Ambassador Rice: We think the United Nations has played and must continue to pay a vital role in Afghanistan. Its mission is multifaceted, as you know. It has supported the electoral process very ably, it provides humanitarian assistance, it helps to try to coordinate development and other support to the Afghan authorities, it plays a critical political role, and this role needs to continue. And we have every confidence that it will continue. We think that the personnel of UNAMA need and deserve the additional resources to ensure their security and to enable them to continue to ramp up their presence and expand it into new provinces within Afghanistan. The civilian component of this strategy is crucial and that is why the United States will increase its investment, that’s why the countries of NATO and ISAF will do the same, and why the United Nations can and must continue to play a vital role.

Reporter: Ambassador, just to press it a little further, what is your degree of concern that it’s not going to be possible given the security constraints. I mean, the plan to open up offices in new provinces is on hold, the international staff is down by about half, a lot of other activities are constrained…

Ambassador Rice: The vital missions that UNAMA is performing continue to be performed. There has been some very temporary redeployment of personnel outside of the country but most have been redeployed inside of Afghanistan. And obviously we are very mindful of the security risks and the need to strengthen, as the Secretary-General intends, the security for UNAMA and its personnel. We will be working in the context of the Fifth Committee and with our partners here to ensure that UNAMA has the resources it needs. We recognize that it has suffered a setback, but we view it as temporary and we certainly believe that there is the ability, and must be the will, for UNAMA to continue to play a vital role.

Reporter: Ambassador, are there any specific additional measures that this administration is seeking here at the UN to compliment this new strategy? And included in that, are there any specific measures to combat corruption?

Ambassador: UNAMA has played an important role in urging and working with the Government of Afghanistan to strengthen governance, including reinforcing the message that we and others have delivered about the importance of effective governance and tackling corruption. I think we saw in President Karzai’s inauguration speech and the actions he has taken thus far a renewed sense of commitment to that. And we expect UNAMA to continue to reinforce that critical element, which is essential to effective governance and to the ability for the Afghan authorities to assume the responsibilities that they must and that we believe they can for their country, following a period of intensified effort to increase security and to build the capacity of the Afghan authorities both to provide security for their people and to deliver essential services to the people.

Reporter: (inaudible) here will be asking to compliment?

Ambassador: I think, not immediately. We obviously have the UNAMA mandate review that will come up in March. We think, broadly speaking, the mandate as currently crafted is right. It was revised not long ago. Obviously, we will take a look at it as we would with any mandate when it comes up for renewal, in consultations with our colleagues on the Council and partners, just to ensure that it fully reflects and adequately reflects the reality at the time. We will work most immediately in the context of the Fifth Committee to ensure that UNAMA has the resources it needs and indeed that the security component is fully addressed.


Reporter: In terms of, you said Pakistan was also a component; would there be any involvement of the UN with regard to Pakistan in any capacity whatsoever?

Ambassador: The UN is also, as you know, playing a very important role in Pakistan, both on the humanitarian side and the development side providing much needed support and assistance to those that have been displaced. The appointment of Ambassador Ripert as a senior coordinator is meant to help the UN and help the international community align its assistance in support of the priorities of the Pakistani Government and that also is a very important element of this strategy going forward.


Photo: UNAMA Flickr stream.