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The Slide from Withdrawal to War: The UN Secretary General’s Failed Effort in Afghanistan, 1992

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Abstract The United Nations represented an organization of severely limited means during the Cold War. The Secretary-General’s office became one of the few instruments in the UN system with the power to influence international relations, albeit in limited ways. As Afghanistan emerged from one war in 1989, it risked falling into another involving the various Afghan stakeholders left to fight each other in the wake of their victory over the Soviets. The office of the Special Representative to the Secretary-General emerged as a key exponent of “quiet diplomacy,” as various emissaries shuttled across the globe working to prevent this fragile post-conflict state’s return to violent conflict. The operating environment was saturated with mistrust as a result of superpower tensions, regional agendas, ethno-religious differences, and a highly militarized landscape. This article considers the geopolitical, institutional, operational, and personal dimensions of this diplomatic campaign from the time of Soviet withdrawal until 1992. Ultimately, the campaign’s limitations overwhelmed its advantages and the Afghan state dissolved into a dark period of warlordism and violence. This article explores the reasons for the eventual failure of diplomacy and its implications for quiet diplomatic efforts that have resurfaced in Afghanistan since 2001.

Affiliations: 1: School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University 420 West 118th Street New York, NY 10027 USA


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