The bombing of the UN headquarters in Iraq overnight was, without doubt, a tragic, senseless and brutal act. It is all the more awful given that the people of Iraq should have no real or perceived grievance with the UN, playing as it is a limited relief and advisory role, other than perhaps its having “recognised” US forces as the occupying authority of Iraq and having welcomed the interim and US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council.* The UN force in Iraq, though, had called for a speedy transition to Iraqi self-government and had been involved in relief efforts including UNICEF. The death of UN workers in Iraq is, as Kofi Annan put it, a blow to the Iraqi people themselves.
Indeed, the very vulnerability of the UN facility may have resulted from its desire to distance itself from US troops or a heavy security presence.
We can only hope that this development does not undermine the international will to assist in the reconstruction of Iraq and that the good of the majority of its citizens is not jeopardised as a result of this criminal act.
However bad the situation in Iraq, though, it seems terribly regrettable that the news cycle appears to have forgotten Afghanistan. NATO is now to provide a continuing and stable command structure for the security operation in Kabul, but is unlikely to expand the military presence beyond the capital before the June elections. Quite apart from NATO capacity, expanding the operations of UN forces beyond Kabul will require a new Security Council resolution.
The consequence of this seems relatively clear: the warlords who still rule much of the country stand to gain a share of the country’s governance and the odds of free and fair elections do not seem especially promising.
Aid agencies report a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. Popular discontent, ethnic tensions and rivalry between warlords combined risk:
creating conditions "dangerously close" to those prevailing at the time of the Taleban's emergence.
The Red Cross still seems upbeat about its efforts to restore essential water and sanitation services, but it is hard to escape the vision of a situation slowly collapsing while the world looks elsewhere.
If this the model for reconstruction following military occupation as part of the War on Terror, it is hardly inspiring. There is already a clear sense that Iraq is sliding from US control, and a radical re-think of strategy is now needed. A new multilateral approach may be the onlything stopping Iraq becoming the new Vietnam, if UN will has not already been dealt a critcal blow. (The fact that most UN, if not World Bank or IMF, workers have elected to remain in place is simply inspiring.) The path ahead is clearly going to be long and difficult and will require a great deal of political and economic will from the international community.
(*Okay, when I wrote this yesterday I should also have thought about the crippling UN sanctions regime as a potential source of local tension and grievances also.)