The UN in Afghanistan: A Humanitarian Protectorate or a New Colonialism?

As the dust settles in Afghanistan, attention turns to the project of “nation building.” The United Nations is moving in to insure the new regime will be acceptable to the “International Community.” Many in the anti-war movement and elsewhere have welcomed the UN’s role, under the illusion that it represents a neutral and humanitarian alternative to US militarism.

Unfortunately, hope that the UN will be anything more than a fig leaf for US interests rings hollow. The track record of the UN shows that, despite continual declarations to the contrary, it acts in the interests of the major powers on the Security Council, or it fails to act at all.

Everyone serious about confronting US militarism must look beyond the formal ideals and rhetorical smokescreens. Far from being a neutral player, UN troops and administrators enter Afghanistan as agents of the US, lending a veneer of legitimacy to an unaccountable foreign occupation.

Who Controls the UN?

The very decision making structure of the United Nations exposes its profoundly anti-democratic character. Despite virtually all the world’s nations claiming membership, the UN Charter places all real power in the hands of the Security Council, dominated by its five permanent members: Great Britain, France, Russia, China and the USA.

In the General Assembly, led by Secretary General Kofi Annan, all member nations can submit resolutions and vote. However, the General Assembly decisions are only recommendations, with no binding force on any member country. The UN Charter places virtually all power of intervention into the Security Council’s hands. This body is responsible for organizing peacekeeping missions, negotiating cease-fires, and targeting “troubled areas” for military intervention. Through economic sanctions and military might, only the Security Council has the ability to enforce its decisions.

As long as all five Security Council members agree, decisions can be backed with considerable force. However, each of the five countries has veto power, meaning the UN can only take action if all permanent members of the Security Council agree. As a result, actions running counter to US interests or the interests of other permanent members get blocked.

Sometimes this means Washington is unable to get agreement on its projects. During the 1999 bombing of Serbia, for instance, Russia and others in the UN balked. The US simply ignored them, and used the cover of NATO to conduct its deadly bombing raids instead.

However, since the end of the Cold War, the US has used its position as the world’s dominant economy and military power to compel consensus around its agenda most of the time. For instance, Bush secured Moscow’s uncritical support for his war in Afghanistan in exchange for turning a blind eye to Russia’s brutal suppression of the Chechen independence movement. A similar deal was worked out with China concerning the crackdown on separatist movements there.

Just looking at the past decade provides ample evidence of the UN’s role as a front and proxy for imperialism. George Bush Sr. ushered in his “New World Order” with the horrific war on Iraq in 1991, which was conducted under the rubric of the UN. To assert regional dominance and maintain control of the Persian Gulf oil supplies, the US bombed Iraq with the most tonnage and at the fastest rate in the history of warfare. Human rights groups estimate that during the last decade over 1.5 million have died due to UN sponsored economic sanctions – mostly malnourished children.

In the UN’s bungled 1993 operation in Somalia, the fighting cut off food aid from tens of thousands. Among the thousands shot were 200-300 demonstrators murdered by UN troops, and 1,500 shot when US troops went on their failed search for the warlord Aideed.

The Balkan Experience

The peoples of Bosnia-Herzegovina have no democratic voice in how their country is run. Since 1995, when the warring factions signed a ‘peace deal’ in Dayton, Ohio, the UN’s High Representative has had the power to overturn any law or remove any elected official. 20,000 NATO troops are stationed in the country to enforce such decisions.

At first, most of the war-weary population supported the UN’s role, anticipating a large “peace dividend” and substantial foreign aid. The nationalist warlords accepted the deal with the understanding that they would be allowed to exploit their respective ethnic enclaves and enjoy some of the foreign aid spoils.

Over $5 billion has been pumped into the country. Much of this was siphoned into a bloated semi-colonial bureaucracy, which hands out jobs and aid money to the local leaders in exchange for their cooperation. Employees for this massive foreign-run bureaucracy account for a third of all jobs and a third of gross domestic product, according to the Soros Foundation’s Sarajevo office. With an unemployment rate of 35 – 40 percent (1999 figures), the bureaucracy easily created a patronage system, cobbling together “national unity” through jobs and bribery. The rest of the foreign aid certainly has not reached those most in need, but was instead dispersed to projects profitable to big business, which generally produced few jobs.

From the beginning the Western powers, intervened for their own interests, encouraging national rivalries as a means of doing so. Before the 1995 Dayton Accords, the US encouraged the break-up of Yugoslavia by backing successively the Croation and Bosnian Muslim nationalists to undermine Milosevic’s regime in Serbia. In 1999, the US used the Albanian nationalist movement in Kosovo for the same purpose.

Of course, the primary justification for UN and NATO intervention in the Balkans was to put a lid on the brutal civil wars, which ripped through the region after the collapse of Stalinism. Certainly this was a factor, though not out of humanitarian concern. The particular concern with the violence in the Balkans flowed from a fear that it would destabilize more of Europe, endangering important markets.

Far from ameliorating nationalist tensions, the UN-managed regime in Bosnia-Herzegovina actually further entrenched ethnic divisions. In March, the British Guardian reported that “the country is still as far from unity as it was when the guns fell silent.” The Dayton agreement established a country united on paper only. Formally it is divided into two separately governed entities: the Croat-Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) Federation and the Bosnian Serb dominated Republika Srpska. The country has a rotating tripartite presidency, with Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks each having a member.

However, even this bizarre arrangement has little practical meaning. In the Croatian areas of the Federation, the reactionary nationalist Croatian Democratic Union party won nearly 90% in the recent elections. In March, this party attempted to set up an independent Croat parliament, appealing to Croat soldiers to defect from the Federation army. This failed effort provoked the UN High Representative to remove the Croat president, Ante Jelovic, the leader of this party. Riots broke out when NATO forces attempted to take over a bank accused of funneling money to the Croat nationalist cause.

The political structure enshrines the ethnic divisions, giving legal cover to the forcibly segregated communities. There are still 800,000 Bosnians internally displaced, and 300,000 living as refugees abroad. While sometimes pushing back nationalist excesses, the UN and NATO occupation government actively promotes – through patronage – ethnic political bosses, relying on them to keep local populations in line. A weak and divided country, in fact, is in the short-term interest of US corporations, which can exploit the cheap labor, national assets, and natural resources free of local competition.

Reconstruction Blues: From Bosnia to Afghanistan

After further pulverizing Afghanistan – already a destroyed country following 20 years of brutal war – the Bush administration and European leaders rushed to promise not only humanitarian aid, but also a flood of reconstruction investments. They hold out the promise of loans from the IMF and World Bank, the Asian Development Fund, and investments from oil rich nations such as Saudi Arabia.

The promised aid will fail to change conditions for the vast majority. In the next months, enough food aid may be provided to satisfy the media mediated international opinion. Already, though, renewed reports of mass starvation are reaching the headlines. Most of the aid, like in other UN or NATO protectorates, will go to construction firms, lending banks, and a bloated bureaucracy dishing out jobs, titles, and aid money to buy off different factions of the Mujahidin.

The cost of rebuilding Bosnia has already reached $5 billion in five years. Analysts from almost all viewpoints agree this aid has failed to solve Bosnia’s problems, and conditions have deteriorated for most people there. Afghanistan has a population five times the size of Bosnia. Its economic infrastructure has been completely wrecked by successive civil wars and foreign interventions. In this period of world recession, capital investments will be extremely scarce, especially if a lasting political stability cannot be established. Even if the rumored multi-billion dollar oil pipeline project through Afghanistan materializes, precious little from this lucrative deal will be put toward health care, housing, food, or education.

Socialists and other activists in the US who see through the UN’s humanitarian façade have a special responsibility. As Movements of working people and poor will develop in opposition to the UN’s role, from the Balkans to Afghanistan, they will need allies. We need to prepare now for that inevitable development, by explaining to those in our own movement and communities the real situation.

Justice #28, January 2002