When UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon traveled to Kabul last week to pay tribute to UN staff killed in a Taliban attack Oct. 28, he said the UN workers "came to Afghanistan armed not with guns or bullets. They came with a more powerful weapon-hope." In hindsight, the UN workers might wish they'd packed the guns and bullets, too. As Winston Churchill liked to say, "If you wish peace, then prepare for war."
The Taliban's successful penetration of downtown Kabul to stage the attack is a central tableau in the disintegrating political and military scene in Afghanistan. Militants successfully sealed off a major road in the capital and shot their way past security before launching grenades inside the guesthouse compound and firing at fleeing workers. At the same time they launched rocket attacks at a hotel hosting foreigners and at the presidential palace. Five UN officials were killed in the attack and nine were wounded. One worker, an American, has remained missing.
While the role of the United States in Afghanistan's ongoing strife has been meticulously examined, less has been said about the UN. Yet the UN mission is the largest entity responsible for what are now called "failed" elections in Afghanistan. It spent $300 million on the effort, from education programs about the elections to setting up and helping to run polling stations. Its workers, as a result, have become Taliban targets.
At the same time, UN head of mission Kai Eide, a Norwegian diplomat, failed to take steps to correct voter election fraud, which lies at the heart of the political instability that threatens the country.
In July Peter Galbraith, the deputy of the UN mission and an American, warned Eide that Afghanistan's Independent Elections Commission (IEC) refused to close "ghost" polling stations, those in Taliban-controlled areas or elsewhere so dangerous no legitimate poll workers would man them. Eide refused and instead empowered the UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission to toss out fraudulent ballots (many of which came from those areas). That reduced the lead of incumbent Hamid Karzai significantly enough to force calls for a runoff election, which Karzai reluctantly agreed to on Oct. 20.
But changes to the IEC mechanism were never made, nor to its lead staffing by Karzai appointees; in fact, Galbraith was fired at Eide's urging (and Obama administration approval) after the August elections. Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's opponent in the runoff, also challenged the makeup of the IEC and the prevalence of questionable polling stations. Two hundred new stations, in fact, were added for the runoff, which was scheduled for Nov. 7, with no clear guidance on how they would be staffed and observed or how ballots would be counted. When Karzai refused to make changes to the IEC, and the UN refused to intervene, Abdullah withdrew. That was Nov. 1, and the IEC canceled the runoff on Nov. 2.
"Abdullah Abdullah did not withdraw because he calculated he could not win, as some have uncharitably implied, but because he knew the election would not be honest," Galbraith wrote in The Guardian Nov. 2. Local Afghan press had already signalled Abdullah's withdrawal once it was clear no steps would be taken to clean up the IEC or other problematic areas ahead of the second round. And the Oct. 28 attack made it clear to Abdullah that not only the electoral process, but Afghans themselves, could be at risk for the simple act of casting their vote.