Brief Lives July/August 2004

The Pragmatist

Lakhdar Brahimi understands that perhaps neither peace nor justice is possible in Iraq—which may make him just the man the country needs

Lakhdar Brahimi—a veteran of UN missions to Haiti, the Congo, Yemen, Liberia, Nigeria, Sudan, and, most recently, Afghanistan—has now been charged with the job of mending Iraq. The difficulty of Brahimi's task can hardly be overstated: although the United States is committed to transferring some sort of sovereignty to Iraqi hands on June 30, elections will not be possible before January of 2005—and the situation in Iraq is a mess. Moreover, whatever interim administration Brahimi appoints will be hastily assembled and effectively subservient to the U.S. military; it will have little chance of being accepted as truly legitimate or representative. Nor will it be fully empowered to run Iraq's affairs.

Brahimi—whose official title is special adviser to the Secretary-General on the political situation in Iraq—is an odd match for the Bush Administration's Wilsonian project in Iraq. He does not see it as his business to engineer new democracies, or to impose outside visions on reluctant societies. On the contrary, he is a tough-minded realist who respects and understands power; his approach in similarly vexed situations has been to figure out which players are in charge on the ground and how to meet their minimum requirements. In Afghanistan, for instance, where he successfully negotiated a peace among competing armed factions after the U.S. invasion in 2001, Brahimi earned the enmity of human-rights advocates by allowing murderous warlords not merely to escape justice but to become officials of the new government. Assuring peace and stability, Brahimi explained, was a higher priority than realizing justice—and the surest way to restore peace quickly was to make the warlords stakeholders in the new government.

At the Afghan negotiations he chaired in Bonn, beginning in November of 2001, Brahimi worked out the following arrangement: an interim government would convene an emergency loya jirga seven months later, in order to select the government that would lead Afghanistan for two years after that. The loya jirga, organized by a commission of Afghans under UN supervision, has proved to be one of the most controversial undertakings of the seventy-year-old Brahimi's long career. Nader Nadery, an Afghan who worked as a human-rights activist during the Taliban era, served on the commission. He recalls that the Afghans drew up stringent guidelines excluding anyone who was known to be a human-rights violator from the loya jirga. "But Mr. Brahimi and the interim government were insisting that we invite the warlords," Nadery recalls. "He was pushing the commission to violate its own rules and procedures."

Whether the warlords were brought in on Brahimi's initiative or the Pentagon's is disputed. But Brahimi defended the idea in conversations at the time and in interviews afterward. He explained to the Afghans that if the warlords were not invited, they wouldn't accept the decisions of the loya jirga. He pointed out that the warlords, who had been armed and supported by the United States in the war against the Taliban, already controlled much of Afghanistan's territory; they could not be wished away. Four months later, in an interview conducted by the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, Brahimi said that although civil leaders claimed to be more representative of the Afghan people than the warlords were, they had no particular basis for asserting this. "Yeah, they are nice people; they want the good of their country; but to say that they are representative—how?" he asked. "You can't compare whether the others are more representative or not."

In the event, the warlords not only attended the loya jirga but occupied front-row seats and left the proceedings in possession of important government ministries. It was a turning point for the new Afghanistan and, Brahimi's critics say, a tantalizing opportunity wasted. Although few experts believe the warlords could have been excluded from the political process, most of those with whom I spoke thought that Brahimi, the United States, and the United Nations actually strengthened the warlords at a moment when they could have been weakened. Vikram Parekh, a Kabul-based researcher for the nonprofit International Crisis Group, faults Brahimi for taking too little input from his own more experienced staff members, who might have told him that some of the warlords were "paper tigers," far from invincible. Nader Nadery recalls attending the pre-loya jirga election in Mazar-e-Sharif, where a handful of regional delegates were to be elected by secret ballot from among caucuses of about sixty local notables. One of the warlords, the notoriously brutal and much feared General Abdul Rashid Dostum, stood as a candidate. For the first time his lock on power was not assured. "When they were counting votes, I saw that his hands were shaking," Nadery told me. "He was very disturbed. He was concerned if he failed, if he lost, what will happen." He didn't lose—a fact Nadery attributes to the conspicuous presence of Dostum's thugs; but even more disappointing to his opponents was the legitimacy conferred on people like Dostum by an international community that saw them not as fading figures from Afghanistan's ugly past but as crucial interlocutors in determining its future. "General Dostum left the loya jirga tent a different person," Nadery claims. "A few days ago his hands were shaking. Now he left the tent the same person he was in 1992. He'd been honored by the international community and the government."

The trouble with Brahimi's approach was that stability and justice were never actually separable. Unsurprisingly, the warlords run their ministries as patronage rackets. Their political and economic entrenchment in power, along with their failure to disarm, has made it very hard for the central government to impose the rule of law more broadly on the country. Though overshadowed by the dramatic news of insurgency and prisoner abuse in Iraq, the situation in Afghanistan has been steadily deteriorating.

Presented by

Laura Secor, a former staff writer for the Boston Globe "Ideas" section, is a freelance writer living in New York.

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