The UN shows its glass jaw

by Sailani on 11/5/2009 · 10 comments

In response to continuing threats to its international staff in the wake of the tragic attack on a UN guest house in Kabul it now appears that a decision has been made to withdraw about six hundred UN international staff from Kabul.  The details of the move are not clear yet, nor is its permanence, but the messaging is unmistakable; “hit us hard and we will turn tail.”

I fully understand the thinking behind this decision, and I sympathize with the responsible parties who have to consider the threat picture and take measures to manage the risk of operating a civilian mission in a warzone.  Unfortunately, I think this decision has far greater negative implications than positive ones.  While appearing a sensible response to give the UN a chance to review the living arrangements of its staff, I think it fails to take into account the impact it will have on the enemy – as all good strategic thinking needs to.

Therefore the insurgents responsible for the attack are now told in no uncertain terms that if they want to send the UN scampering out of Afghanistan, thus reducing tangible international support for the Karzai government, they just have to engage in a few more savage attacks of this nature.  In the cruel arithmetic of war they are very likely to see the great impact their low-cost attacks can thus have.  Even if the move turns out only to be temporary, the already-scarred and bruised prizefighter that is the UN in Afghanistan has exposed his glass jaw.

The UN plays an important role in country and to operate in a much reduced capacity when the mission calls for increased human and materiel resources will be a serious setback for the Afghan project.

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Ahad_Abdurahmon November 5, 2009 at 5:34 pm

LOL @ “hit us hard and we will turn tail.”
I think at this point it is hard to dissuade people from the irrelevance in these groups, they must have to live under them in order to understand its illegitimacy.

Sailani November 6, 2009 at 8:20 am

General Rams (NATO’s JFC Brunssum commander and the senior Alliance military commander for the Afghan theatre) is not too pleased with the move:

”I have just heard that the UNAMA [UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan] is going to withdraw personnel from Afghanistan,” General Egon Ramms told journalists at the Innich command bunker on the Dutch-German border. ”I am not very satisfied. By withdrawing personnel from Afghanistan it will not be able to reach the progress and success we need.”

joey November 6, 2009 at 1:08 pm

The UN is not an army, those are civilians, they are not in a position to protect them, ergo there pulling them out. Moaning about that decision is pointless.

anan November 6, 2009 at 2:46 pm

Joey, I don’t buy that for a second. If the UN cared about Afghans they would stay. Why are UN lives more valuable than the lives of ANSF and ISAF service members, or the lives of Afghan civilians?

It isn’t that the 111th Kabul Capital Division HQs (subordinate division to 201st ANA Corps) and the Kabul Provincial AUP cannot secure the province. They can, but are being denied the manpower because personal that should be deployed to them are being transfered elsewhere in Afghanistan. For example the 111st ANA Division only has 1 combat battalion in each of its two brigades.

Is it really moral for the UN to demand that the ANA and ANP divert personal from elsewhere in Afghanistan to Kabul to defend them? Are UN lives really more precious than Afghan lives in Khost, Helmand, Uruzgan, Kandahar and Zabul?

As many readers here know, Kabul Province battlespace is controlled by the ANSF, therefore it is there responsibility to protect UN personal in Kabul. My hope is that Turkey (whose 1700 troops soon assume control of RC-Center from Italy) will increase the number of their POMLTs and OMLTs embedded with the Kabul provincial AUP and 111th Kabul Division, and that they keep their mentors embedded with these two formations over the long haul, living with them, travelling with them, assuming responsibility for these ANSF units over the long term.

Ahad_Abdurahmon November 6, 2009 at 5:04 pm

“Why are UN lives more valuable than the lives of ANSF and ISAF service members, or the lives of Afghan civilians?”
Is this the right way of putting a question? I am not sure.
Regardless of citizenship and ethnicity the value of certain individuals is higher than others. Yes, it is tough to digest, but it is the harsh reality.
Some people should get some credit for at least trying to improve the value of the lives of other people.

Blaine November 6, 2009 at 5:18 pm


Despite the fact that I understand where you’re coming from, the UN has a responsibility, nay a priority, to look after their own employees above all else. I know that seems self centered for an international organization whose goal is to help Afghans, but it’s a reality one can’t escape. Would you expect ANY organization, international or not, peacekeepers or war fighters, to think in any other terms? I certainly don’t. I’m not saying it’s either right or wrong in any sense, but that fact of the matter is, regardless of what group or organization one belongs to, we will typically make decisions from OUR point of view with OUR interests in mind above all else (That’s not saying nobody takes other people into account or that we’re all callous or indifferent either, it’s simply pointing out the obvious).

anan November 6, 2009 at 7:34 pm

Many organizations do behave differently. For example the NDS, ANP, ANA, and the militaries of many countries.

The heart of Gen Petraeus’ and McChrystal revolution is that force protection needs to be sacrificed to the goal of population protection.

Isn’t the mission more important than the safety of UN staff? Yes, the safety of UN staff is also very important. Couldn’t the UN demand greater ANSF protection as a condition for staying? I don’t think it is fair to expect the ANSF to protect UN staff fully. What is fair is to expect the assigned ANSF security personal risk their lives trying.

The Afghan operation, mistakes and successes, has had a heavy UN imprint from the beginning. The UN cannot wash its hands off its own creation. To some degree the deterioration in Afghan security and the surge in violent attacks against the ANSF and ISAF is due to UN policies.

Sailani November 6, 2009 at 5:41 pm

@Joey – The point that I was trying to make, however inarticulate if may have been, was that the UN had other options to safeguard staff while improvements in security were made. Moving them out of the country only encourages further attacks by insurgents IMO.

M Shannon November 6, 2009 at 10:03 pm

The recent attack was on a UN approved guest house and not a UN guest house. The main security difference is that guests in the former can be armed and as luckily happened in this case a civilian was able to use his firearm to protect other guests from harm. The UN was lucky its rules weren’t in play.

Westerners should not rely on hired Afghan security or ANSF as the final line of defence. This won’t sit well with many (most?) UN. NGO folks but not every expat needs (or without proper training should have) a weapon. Just enough to hold the fort. I do not mean development folks should be wearing drop leg holsters and have a M4 at the ready rather they should use same level of discretion that a under cover policeman might use.

The alternative is down the road. A second successful attack on the UN and a complete withdrawal. The next event could be a bomb or an ambush but certainly the risk of a couple of gunmen attacking a compound successfully can be reduced.

Brad November 11, 2009 at 5:28 am

Man if United Nations toured with Glassjaw that would be clutch!

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