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.

Indeed, toward the end of his tenure as head of the UN mission in Afghanistan, Brahimi seems to have realized that he could not guarantee long-term security there if key ministers in the Afghan government were criminals beyond the reach of the law. "As time wore on in his last year," one diplomatic source told me, "he realized that the continued role of the warlords would bring disaster to Afghanistan. He began to care much more about human rights. It was an evolution in his thinking. He began to realize that unless one had some kind of constitution and disarmament and rule of law, the process would not end up well." Shortly before he left Afghanistan, in January of this year, Brahimi delivered a rousing speech to this effect at the constitutional loya jirga.

Beyond the immediate lessons of Afghanistan, Brahimi brings a distinct set of values and experiences to the situation in Iraq. To begin with, he has a long-standing distrust of anything that suggests colonial domination, whether by outright U.S. occupation or by heavy-handed UN administration. This makes sense given that his formative political experience was the Algerian independence movement. Born in 1934, to a wealthy rural family living south of Algiers, Brahimi was a student in Paris in the 1950s. There he co-founded the Algerian student union that would furnish the nucleus of Algeria's political elite for decades after independence was won, in 1962.

Brahimi served as Algeria's ambassador first to Egypt and then to Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1989, as undersecretary of the Arab League, he negotiated the Taif agreement that ended Lebanon's sectarian civil war. It was an accomplishment that would mark him as one of the Arab world's hardest-driving and most effective diplomats, and as a realist who was willing to negotiate with the bad guys. Years later he recalled that members of Lebanon's civil society complained that he was dealing with thugs. He replied, "I haven't come to Lebanon to meet nice people. I've come to meet these thugs. The nice people are sitting in Paris."

After Taif, Brahimi's reputation abroad soared—but his reputation at home in Algeria, where he served as Foreign Minister from 1991 to 1993, soon became clouded. With Algeria's Islamist party poised to win parliamentary elections in 1992, the National Liberation Front imposed martial law and created a six-member security council to run the country. Brahimi was a member of that council and defended its legitimacy, saying that the Islamist party should never have been legalized.

When Brahimi resigned as Foreign Minister, the UN hired him. His work over the following decade in trying to settle some of the most intractable conflicts in the world secured him his reputation as a shrewd and tireless negotiator. At a time when the United Nations suffered widespread scorn for its ineffectuality in Bosnia and Rwanda, Brahimi was globally respected for his independence and straight talk. In 2000 he was appointed to head a panel that would evaluate the past and future of UN peacekeeping. The Brahimi report, as the panel's document came to be known, suggested a sweeping overhaul of UN peacekeeping operations. It called for a centralized office of information and analysis, a rapidly deployable peacekeeping force, and a re-examination of the UN's neutral stance. "Impartiality," the report's authors maintained, should not be permitted to "amount to complicity with evil."

"The Brahimi report was a highwater mark for post-Cold War peacekeeping," one former UN official told me. "It reflected a high level of ambition and optimism about the role the UN could play in the future." But, perhaps unsurprisingly, the report's most ambitious recommendations have languished for lack of resources or political will.

How will his experience in Afghanistan and elsewhere bear on what confronts Brahimi in Iraq? The lesson human-rights advocates draw from the Afghan experience is, as Sam Zia-Zarifi, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, puts it: "If you rely on the bad guys—warlords, military leaders, the Baath Party—for short-term security to compensate for an earlier lack of resources and planning on the part of the United States, it's very hard to get those guys out." Brahimi seems to have taken that lesson somewhat to heart. At a briefing in front of the United Nations Security Council on April 27 he proposed a caretaker government composed of technocrats—professionals without political aspirations or constituencies. Under this plan Iraq's politicians and militia leaders—the parties who had the leverage on the ground and the power to subvert the peace—would play no part.

As of this writing, the United States is reportedly opposing this plan and pressing Brahimi to include members of the current governing council in the caretaker government. Whether or not Brahimi wins this battle, his initial plan reflects the understanding that his mandate in Iraq is slim. So the gamble he appears to have taken is this: the less the interim government pretends to be anything other than a short-term entity to get Iraq to elections and the end of the occupation, the less likely it is to entrench itself, to taint Iraq's future leaders by association with the occupying powers, or to enrage the public with its ineffectuality.

Brahimi probably has a better chance than anyone else of negotiating a peace, however imperfect, between the coalition and the armed Shia and Sunni militias, or a power-sharing arrangement among Iraq's political and ethnic blocs. But in devising an interim Iraqi government in which the powerful will play no role, Brahimi is taking into account not only the lessons of Afghanistan but also how little he has to work with in Iraq—and how little he has ultimately been asked to do.