Officials Hail UN Role in Remaking Afghanistan

Lao Mong Hay remembers well the international conference in Peshawar, Pakistan, he attended a decade ago. There he watched as, even as his country was coming together, another country fell apart.

“The Afghans were fighting amongst themselves to no end,” he said. “Some of them were so extreme. The translators stopped translating. Finally, they had to call the police in with their rifles.”

Lao Mong Hay had seen this kind of violent factionalism before, of course, in Cambodia—and saw it for years after—which is why today he feels a special kinship for the Afghan people.

“I feel sympathy for them. They have suffered so much,” he said.

For that reason, Lao Mong Hay, the executive director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, greeted the news of the Northern Alliance’s victories, and the an­nouncement of the UN’s intention to set up a transitional authority in Afghanistan “as soon as possible,” with joy.

“Good,” he said. “They have suffered so much.”

Meeting at its New York headquarters Tuesday, the UN recommended Afghanistan’s various factions meet quickly and set up a coalition government, supported by UN peacekeepers. Although specific suggestions for moving Afghanistan from almost three decades of war to peace still haven’t formed, many countries are pushing for the UN to take an active role, just as it did with its Untac mission in Cambodia from 1991-1993.

After Cambodia’s factions signed the Paris Peace Accords in 1991, the UN set up a transitional authority, called Untac. It remains the UN’s largest peacekeeping mission ever, with a more than $2 billion spent and more than 21,000 workers and soldiers committed. It has since become the model for nation-building programs worldwide, in places like East Timor, Sierra Leone, the Balkans and now, perhaps, Afghanistan.

Some say the parallels between Cambodia and Afghanistan make it ideal for UN trusteeship.

“When the Northern Alliance moved in and they fled, it was like the situation with the Khmer Rouge here back in 1979. The Khmer Rouge was very strong, also,” National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh said Wednesday.

But many inside and outside of Cambodia are still divided on Untac’s success.

“I have very big respect for the UN. I think it was a success. I think in Afghanistan, we should do the same thing,” Ministry of Post and Telecommunications Undersecretary of State Ahmad Yaya said.

Ahmad Yaya, one of Cambodia’s 500,000-plus ethnic Chams, also said the Taliban reminded him of the Khmer Rouge, and must be dealt with accordingly.

“We can not let one group ruin the entire country,” he said.

Untac set up national elections, but bowed when the ruling CPP refused to abide by them. The Khmer Rouge also returned to the jungles to resume the war, and the guerrillas did not surrender in large numbers until long after Untac was gone. By 1997, Funcinpec and the CPP were at war again, with battles that lasted throughout the country until 1998.

Some, like US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann, see these failures wrapped up in Untac’s charter.

“The key problem that stems from Untac was Untac’s inability to get the parties to disarm. To do so would have meant war with the Khmer Rouge. Untac did not have a formal mandate to engage in anything other than peacekeeping. So that planted a seed of instability,” Wiedemann said.

For Lao Mong Hay the problems lay with not with Untac’s mission, but with its man: Untac leader Yasushi Akashi.

“The UN did not have a leader who was up to the task,” Lao Mong Hay he said.

Akashi, a Japanese activist with little experience or knowledge in Cambodia, alienated the people who were the biggest threat to Cambodia, Lao Mong Hay said.

“He burned the bridges with the Khmer Rouge right away by threatening to outlaw them,” he said. “It was a bad diplomatic move. It was clumsiness by Akashi.”

During his nostalgic return to Cambodia in July, Akashi defended himself by claiming he did the best he could. He reminded his critics that some Cambodian leaders, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, said he pushed them too hard the other way.

“I remember Hun Sen complained I was adopting Pol Pot tactics by pushing human rights,” Akashi said at the time.

Even supporters of Untac say that if the UN is to build on their success in Cambodia, and prevent failures like their peacekeeping mission in the former Yugoslavia—which Akashi also led—they must come in with a clear mandate.

“The UN must be concerned about disarmament, and not accept refusal,” Wiedemann said, even if it means continued war. “It seems to me axiomatic that the UN should have a mandate to do so.”

But the UN must be committed to working with all of Afghanistan’s parties, even the Taliban, to avoid its mistakes in Cambodia, Ministry of Religion and Cults Undersecretary of State and Ismael Osman said.

“If the UN wants a success like that in Afghanistan, they must allow the Taliban to participate also, to have a multi-party coalition between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban,” Osman, also an ethnic Cham, said. “The UN and [UN Secretary General] Kofi Annan should find the skills to allow the Taliban to participate.”

Lao Mong Hay does not envy the UN for the task before them in rebuilding Afghanistan.

“It‘s a hard nut to crack. We had four factions. They have 19. It’s an enormous task,” he said.

It is also a tremendous opportunity, both for the international community and Afghanistan—and Cambodia proves it, Wiedemann said.

“I think Untac was a success. No question. It left an enduring commitment to building national reconciliation and development. It took two steps forward and one step back, of course, but that’s partly due to the history here. I mean, 30 years of horror,” Wiedemann said.

And for all that, Cambodia today has a free press, freedom of speech, freedom of religion—“basic freedoms that Cambodia has and many of its neighbors do not,” the ambassador said.

Even Lao Mong Hay, who titled his book about Untac “UNfinished Business,” agreed with that assessment, but said its contribution was even more fundamental.

“Without the UN presence,” he said, “We would have fought to the last Cambodian.

(Additional reporting by Lor Chandara and Ana Nov)


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