Recent columns by Barbara Crossette:

Putting ECOSOC Back in the Loop (March 8, 2004)
"The UN's Economic and Social Council sank into obscurity over the decades, upstaged by the Security Council, the General Assembly, and a host of agencies working on what should have been primarily ECOSOC's issues: development, health, and human rights."

Arab Women Leaders Exerting Growing Influence at UN (March 1, 2004)
"If leading Arab women at the United Nations seem to be in the background, that is no reflection of a meekness or deference to male-dominated cultures."

Saving the U.N. From Utah (February 23, 2004)
"What is it with Utah?... Some local politicians have become convinced that the United Nations has caused the United States to 'lose' every war since World War II."

As Chile Reaches High Development Level, UN Shifts Strategy (February 17, 2004)
"While the world may hear more from Brazil, a much larger nation in both land and population, Chile ... cannot be underestimated as a potential hemispheric leader or an important voice for the wider global South."

The Cost of U.N. Whistleblowing (February 9, 2004)
"Three whistleblowers whose warnings helped draw attention to incompetence and abuses.... all lost their jobs, unfairly, because they complained."

More from U.N. Notebook.

U.N. Notebook | March 15, 2004
from U. N. Wire Afghanistan Prepares to Choose a Government

by Barbara Crossette

UNITED NATIONS—While a lot of the world's attention is focused on the thorny process of holding an election in Iraq, the people of Afghanistan are also getting ready to go to the polls, perhaps as early as June or July—or maybe not. There may be less violence—and thus less news—about Afghanistan as it moves toward consolidating a working political system, but the challenges are formidable and the process is already running behind schedule and in need of millions of dollars pledged but not delivered by countries around the world.

Diplomats and officials at the United Nations, which is playing the central role in setting up the Afghan elections, say that only a fraction of the $70 million to about $100 million—estimates vary—needed to finish establishing an electoral system has been collected. As of March 4, only 1.2 million of Afghanistan's potential 10 million voters had been registered, and they are almost all in urban areas. Registration has not yet begun in most parts of the countryside, where getting voters out to register, especially women, will be far more difficult.

Educational posters and leaflets, which election workers had hoped to distribute at the beginning of the year, were expected to begin arriving only in the last week.

To complicate the job of voter registration, nearly 2 million refugees have returned from camps in Pakistan and are resettling. Hundreds of thousands of displaced people are still moving back to homes from one area of the country to another.

And hovering over all the nuts-and-bolts details is the concern that without better security, voters cannot be free of fears of poll violence or of intimidation by local warlords. There is palpable unease at the prospect of using local militias to protect the polls, as the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, Zalmay Khalilzad, recently suggested might be done in a pinch.

U.S. allies in the war against the Taliban were much-feared warlords from the north, enemies of the majority Pashtuns who populate the rest of Afghanistan. Security Council members met with former Northern Alliance leaders on a recent trip and warned them against using their power to disrupt the election process. One of those visiting ambassadors suggests that they can only hope the message sank in.

All these issues will get an airing at an important international meeting scheduled for the end of this month in Bonn, where the political blueprints for a new Afghanistan were drafted two years ago. The question at the heart of the discussion will be whether Afghanistan can hold a credible election at all this summer.

Initially the plan was to have two concurrent political campaigns, for president and for members of Parliament. In Washington, and in the field in Afghanistan, however, there are already hints that these two elections may have to be separated by months at the very least.

Jean Arnault, who took over as U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's special representative for Afghanistan on the departure in January of Lakhdar Brahimi, who is now working on Iraq, said last month that a prerequisite for an election must be the creation of "a level playing field for political parties and candidates" and that this must be factored into any timetable for a vote.

"No matter whether we have a presidential election, a parliamentary election or a combination of both," said Arnault, who is French, "there is out there a sense that too many people out there enjoy a privileged position that could be translated into more political power unless more is done to make sure that more political parties are registered, that political parties have access to the airwaves, and that political parties can operate freely across the country."

Arnault, who had served as Brahimi's deputy, called it "silly" to insist that voting take place in June, a deadline set two years ago. "It is extremely difficult to put a date on these elections," he told reporters in Kabul.

Afghanistan is a country without a democratic history or even a very strong sense of national identity. There is no electoral law. Political parties were discredited in the 1970s as communist or pro-communist groups fought for power before a Soviet invasion. Getting political messages out is complicated by low levels of literacy. According to U.N. officials, 85 percent of Afghan women and nearly half the men are illiterate.

As in so many poor developing countries—much more so in one as ravaged by civil war as Afghanistan even before it was overrun by a U.S.-led military force in search of Osama bin Laden—the creation of a democratic culture and democratic institutions, rather than holding an election, is the hard part. The ubiquitous international election monitors almost always arrive too late to see the confusion and intimidation that has preceded the opening of polling booths.

Arnault, who was educated at the Sorbonne and was a visiting fellow at Princeton in 2001, acknowledged that in Afghanistan the hope that there would be enough professional Afghan police trained to watch over elections is not likely to come true and that "in a large number of situations the process relies entirely on what we call provincial police." That's warlord militias, in other words.

Only NATO is left as a fallback now. The Bonn meeting may determine whether that hope survives.

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More on foreign affairs in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Barbara Crossette, a writer on foreign affairs and columnist for U.N. Wire, was The New York Times bureau chief at the United Nations from 1994 to 2001. U.N. Wire is a free daily online news service covering news about and related to the United Nations. It is sponsored by the U.N. Foundation and appears on the foundation site, but is produced independently by The National Journal Group. For information on National Journal Group publications, see

Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.