Could Multinational Peacekeepers Prevent Worst-Case Outcomes in Afghanistan?

September 17, 2021
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How should the U.N. Security Council, Afghanistan’s neighbors, and international organizations engage with the new Taliban government in Afghanistan? How will these decisions impact Afghanistan’s stability in the next five to 10 years? To date, many analyses have focused on the short-term implications of the Taliban takeover. However, relatively little thought has been given to policy interventions that can bring long-term stability to Afghanistan.  The U.N. Security Council and the U.N. Department of Peace Operations should analyze how a multinational peacekeeping operation (PKO) can play a critical role in stabilizing Afghanistan. Empirical research provides compelling evidence on how PKOs support peace settlements and protect local civilians in the fragile time period following conflict termination, leading to durable peace. While several recent works have analyzed an Afghanistan peace operation’s viability, the idea has received relatively little attention in broader policy discourse. Given PKOs’ proven track record in stabilizing post-conflict states, the U.N. Security Council should seriously consider whether a PKO can provide a credible monitoring and verification mechanism to help stabilize Afghanistan.

Based on the Taliban’s consistent demands that all foreign forces depart Afghanistan, a third-party monitoring force may not be feasible. However, with dire economic and humanitarian crises facing Afghanistan, the Taliban’s need for external support might provide a window for a coordinated effort by the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council to convince the Taliban of the benefits of a PKO. A successful PKO would depend upon the right conditions and the right force structure, and must deal with the risks posed by spoilers like the Islamic State in Afghanistan.

 

 

An Afghanistan PKO would be a new type of peace operation. PKOs traditionally provide monitoring and verification capabilities to support internal peace settlements between mistrusting former combatants at the conclusion of civil conflicts. However, the Taliban’s recent military victory obviates the need for a more traditional intra-Afghan peace settlement. Rather than monitoring and facilitating trust between former internal combatants, an Afghanistan PKO would foster trust between the Taliban and other states and international and non-governmental organizations. Given reports of reprisal killings and  human rights abuses (despite the Taliban’s pledges to avoid such practices), international donors are understandably wary of resuming financial aid to a Taliban-led regime. However, if credible third-party monitoring forces were in place to verify that external aid was being responsibly spent and Taliban commitments were being honored, then international donors might be more likely to resume financial assistance. A PKO also provides a reliable mechanism for the donor states and organizations to verify the Taliban’s pledge that Afghanistan will not be used as a terrorist safe haven, as recent reporting indicates. Such trust-building measures might facilitate diplomatic recognition by some states, who are waiting to see how the Taliban will govern.

A PKO could also play a critical role in fostering intra-Afghan trust between the Taliban and millions of Afghan civilians who are living in fear and skeptical of the new regime’s promises. Rather than taking an active part in hostilities and applying coercive military force, traditional peace operations are based on three foundational principles: impartiality, host nation consent, and the non-use of force (beyond self-defense). Neutral peacekeepers would be ideally positioned to facilitate peace between the Taliban regime and remaining resistance groups by supporting disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration efforts, thus strengthening post-conflict peace duration. Increasing trust between former government officials, urban residents, and the Taliban could mitigate Afghanistan’s refugee crisis, which is predicted to worsen in the coming months. Without external support, international isolation of the Taliban regime in the face of mounting humanitarian disaster will spell calamity for millions of innocent Afghans and threaten the Taliban’s nascent sovereignty.

Assessing Taliban Consent and International Political Will

The first and most important condition for a successful PKO is the consent of the Taliban.  Deploying multinational troops without consent from the de facto government would amount to an invasion, not a PKO. The Taliban’s insistence on the departure of all foreign forces from Afghanistan seems to make consent unlikely. However, as the Taliban assumes governance responsibilities, their clear need for continued external support may provide donor states, Afghanistan’s neighbors, and international organizations with critical leverage to recommend a PKO. The fact is that, in addition to averting a humanitarian catastrophe, the Taliban stand to benefit from a PKO that facilitates expanded international assistance. Inducing the Taliban to see that such an operation could be in their interest would require a coordinated international pressure campaign orchestrated by a diverse array of state and non-state actors.

Specifically, top donor states, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, Afghanistan’s neighbors, and international governmental organizations like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund could withhold financial aid, humanitarian assistance, and diplomatic recognition, conditional on the Taliban consenting to a U.N.-led multinational PKO.  While the United States, Russia, China, Iran, and Pakistan lack histories of robust cooperation with one another, their interests align when it comes to the question of stabilizing Afghanistan. As Afghanistan teeters toward humanitarian catastrophe, the subsequent second- and third-order effects — such as millions of Afghan refugees, continued disease transmission, and the creation of terrorist safe havens — risk regional destabilization. These risks provide strategic incentives for the U.N. Security Council and Afghanistan’s neighbors to support stabilizing policy interventions. Coordinated action among this broad, international coalition could persuade reluctant Taliban leaders.

Despite a PKO’s obvious benefits, and the clear risks posed by international isolation, Taliban consent to a PKO risks the organization’s internal legitimacy. While the Taliban are frequently cast as a unified organization, some analysts have pointed to the group’s diverse and disparate assemblage of various armed groups from across Afghanistan. It remains to be seen if Taliban unity, which was boosted by opposition to U.S. and NATO forces, will persist after those forces withdraw. Given the existential threat of organizational splintering, Taliban leaders must balance their need for internal legitimacy amongst Taliban ranks (and between moderate and radical elements) against international legitimacy and external demands for the Taliban to protect human rights, civil liberties, and Afghanistan’s democracy.

Overall, a PKO with credible monitoring and verification capabilities aligns with the Taliban’s long-term interests by facilitating trust with skeptical Afghans, donor states, regional neighbors, and international and non-governmental organizations. Enabling international humanitarian relief will be critical to stabilizing Afghanistan by providing urgently needed aid to millions of Afghans facing famine, drought, a pandemic, and displacement. Despite these clear benefits, Taliban leaders will be wary of consenting to a PKO, which risks alienating the group’s radical elements and organizational splintering. If the United Nations wishes to deploy a PKO to Afghanistan, it will need to carefully craft the mission’s force structure and mandate in a manner that facilitates intra-Taliban legitimacy.

Structuring a Peace Operation for Success

Peace operations vary widely in size, composition, and force structure based on their specific mandate. PKO force structure considerations would likely be critical to obtaining Taliban consent. An Afghanistan PKO would require adequate resources to credibly fulfill its mandate while balancing the Taliban’s internal legitimacy concerns. A large PKO with a robust mandate that includes civilian protection is likely a non-starter. A lightly armed observer mission, concentrated in the main cities is most realistic, given probable Taliban doubts.

The U.N.’s Department of Peace Operations has the experience and capabilities to manage such a complex mission. A force of 10,000 to 12,000 peacekeepers, spread between Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, and Mazar-e-Sharif would provide a credible PKO with geographic coverage across Afghanistan.  These four cities alone contain approximately 12 percent of Afghanistan’s total population. Given widespread doubts over the Taliban’s recent pledges, stationing peacekeepers in major cities would be critical for the Taliban to build trust with donor states and international organizations. It would also build trust with vulnerable Afghans who previously supported or worked in the government of Afghanistan. From a humanitarian perspective, the PKO’s presence in major cities would increase international and non-governmental organizations’ access and ability to provide aid to millions of Afghans.

This PKO is also ideal for the mission’s force protection requirements. As is evident with Kabul’s recent U.S. and NATO evacuation, Afghanistan’s geography creates large risks for external forces’ mobility and their ability to resupply and evacuate casualties. Militants can isolate and cut off disparate peacekeeping units by controlling key chokepoints, such as airports or Highway 1, posing a large risk to units based away from major cities. Concentrating the PKO in a few major cities with large transportation nodes will similarly ease the mission’s logistical burden, which is a formidable challenge with Afghanistan’s geography.

Though beneficial from force protection and logistics perspectives, concentrating peacekeepers in cities reduces the mission’s monitoring and verification capabilities in rural Afghanistan. Urban PKO units will have limited ability to travel significant distances beyond their local regions, degrading the mission’s ability to patrol in rural areas and deliver humanitarian aid across the entire country. Despite these shortcomings, PKO force protection concerns may outweigh mandate considerations in a necessary trade-off to keep the mission’s risk profile suitably low to attract troop-contributing countries.

This limited geographic reach is especially problematic if the PKO’s mandate includes verifying that Afghanistan is not being used as a terrorist safe haven. However, new technology provides options to mitigate these risks. Specifically, the PKO could be supplemented with unarmed and unmanned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms, extending the mission’s monitoring capabilities into the countryside and mountain ranges. Though it seems improbable that the Taliban would accept foreign intelligence systems, if these assets were operated under the auspices of the U.N. Department of Peace Operations, it should assuage Taliban concerns. Deploying with these capabilities would be critical to monitoring rural Afghanistan and strengthening the PKO’s verification credibility. As suggested by recent research, integrating new technologies would allow an Afghanistan PKO to strengthen its monitoring and verification capabilities without significantly increasing the number of peacekeepers.

As with all peace operations, selecting donor states and PKO leaders that are acceptable to combatants is critical. In the case of an Afghanistan PKO, Muslim-majority countries like Tunisia, Morocco, Azerbaijan, or Bangladesh would be potential troop contributors. Interestingly, the Taliban previously proposed a majority-Muslim peace operation as a transitional force in 2009. These countries and Afghanistan’s neighbors should play an active leadership role in overseeing the PKO. Given these states’ interest in attaining regional stability, political will might be present for sustaining the PKO. For obvious reasons, the United States, NATO members, and partner states who supported Operation Enduring Freedom should not play a role in the PKO. While these states can offer support through PKO financing and applying international pressure to induce Taliban consent, their direct participation would detract from the mission’s neutrality and impartiality. The Taliban will also be apprehensive about formally incorporating gender considerations into a PKO’s mandate. However, compelling research highlights the importance of deliberately utilizing female peacekeepers and these considerations should not be overlooked when resourcing the PKO’s composition in a manner that protects Afghan women.

Research indicates that PKOs must be adequately resourced to fulfill their mandates. Under-resourced PKOs have routinely struggled to accomplish their mandates, as was the case with the ineffective United Nations Good Offices Mission in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Initially deployed in 1988, the mission was mandated with three core tasks to monitor: “(1) non-interference and non-intervention by the parties [Afghanistan, Pakistan, Soviet Union, and the United States] in each other’s affairs; (2) the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan; and (3) the voluntary return of refugees.” Deployed with only 50 total peacekeepers and without an intra-Afghan peace settlement, this severely under-resourced peace operation failed to provide a credible monitoring and verification capability needed for intra-Afghan parties to overcome mutual mistrust. Following the Soviet Union’s withdrawal, spiraling violence between various Afghan militias significantly increased risk to peacekeepers, sapping the political will of troop-contributing states. The mission ended in 1990 as Afghanistan devolved into civil war. Under-resourced PKOs were also incapable of fulfilling their mandates in Rwanda and Bosnia, with horrific consequences.

The Risk of Spoilers

Even if the U.N. Security Council and Afghanistan’s neighbors can induce Taliban consent for a peace operation, the mission will still be vulnerable to spoilers — parties threatened by peace settlements that employ violence to undermine internal peace processes. As seen with the tragic bombings at Kabul Airport on Aug. 26, spoilers will continue to play an active role in Afghanistan and these groups would almost certainly target peacekeepers. Though the Islamic State in Afghanistan is the most prominent threat, radical Taliban factions may also serve as spoilers in the same way that splinter factions have done in other post-conflict settings. Beyond targeting the PKO, spoilers may target remaining international and non-governmental organizations to discredit the Taliban-backed regime. In addition to extremist groups, criminal organizations are taking advantage of Afghanistan’s instability to settle scores and disrupt competitors, making attribution of attacks difficult. While these spoilers pose a certain risk for a PKO, their presence simultaneously highlights the need to have impartial third-party observers on hand who can investigate attacks and credibly attribute spoiling attacks. The risk posed by spoilers increases PKO force protection requirements, further strengthening the case for a mission that is concentrated in large cities that can leverage existing military bases.

Conclusion

Complex trade-offs dominate many aspects of this proposal. An Afghanistan PKO’s size would be directly linked to the mission’s monitoring and verification capabilities. However, the mandate’s scope and the mission’s size must be constrained in a manner that enables Taliban internal legitimacy and consent, while still providing a credible peace operation that will assuage international concerns and incentivize Taliban compliance with their stated promises. Further, the PKO’s risk profile must be low enough to gain and sustain troop-contributing countries’ support. While Taliban consent to such a mission would significantly reduce risk, the persistent threat of spoilers like Islamic State in Afghanistan will increase force protection considerations’ importance while simultaneously limiting the mission’s geographic reach. I argue these trade-offs can be carefully balanced in a manner that produces a credible PKO and a limited mandate.

Beyond trade-offs, a critical question is: Why should the U.N. Security Council, Afghanistan’s neighbors, and international organizations cooperate with the Taliban to stabilize Afghanistan? While a PKO paired with conditional foreign aid would be a vital step in stabilizing Afghanistan, it would simultaneously enable a Taliban-led regime to consolidate power in a manner that is not aligned with democracy, civil liberties, or women’s rights.

The answer is that continued civil conflict and humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan carries significant concerns. Beyond the normative considerations regarding the safety and security of 39 million Afghans, there are clear strategic imperatives for a stable Afghanistan. The widespread abandonment of Afghanistan following the 1989 Soviet withdrawal offers an instructive lesson for world leaders today. Isolating a Taliban-led Afghanistan risks continued civil war, state failure, and humanitarian disaster. Further, this isolation will likely strengthen radical sects within the Taliban. Extremist organizations may take advantage of the security vacuum, risking further regional destabilization in South Asia.

While Taliban rhetoric diminishes a PKO’s feasibility, coordinated effort across groups such as the U.N. Security Council, Afghanistan’s neighbors, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank might increase the likelihood of the Taliban government consenting to a U.N.-led PKO. Following four decades of persistent conflict, creative and proactive steps ought to be considered to bring stability to Afghanistan. Decades of research suggests peace operations’ monitoring and verification capabilities can overcome post-conflict mistrust and assist in providing Afghanistan lasting stability.

 

 

Ryan C. Van Wie is a U.S. Army Infantry officer who has deployed to Afghanistan. He has a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and his research focuses on civil conflict dynamics and military force structure. This paper only reflects the author’s views and does not represent the views of the U.S. Army or the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Army National Guard (Photo by Sgt. Heidi Kroll)