Preventing Conflict, Promoting Peace

It is a perforated, light blue swatch of mesh that represents the obstructed view of the world for a nation of people who were once free. Embedded in this piece of the burka is the story of the Afghan people--the story of the tears, suffering and suppression of millions of Afghan women, the denial of human rights and the history of a conflict that brewed for years. Although many international organizations and national governments attempted preventive measures to head off this violent international crisis, their efforts proved unsuccessful and, in 1996, the radical Taliban militia seized power. Unlike in Afghanistan, conflict in the Balkans unveiled new aspects of the role of international organizations and national governments in preventive diplomacy. In Macedonia, preventive measures were taken at the urging of the Macedonian government and, as a result, the violent conflict in the former Yugoslavia was prevented from spilling over.

According to most historians, preventing an international crisis is about memory, truth, history and justice, and the daunting yet unavoidable duty to weave them into an intelligible whole. To avert a conflict in its early stages, it is imperative that the history of the conflict be understood. The roots of the Afghan conflict date back to the decade of the Soviet Union's occupation. The first year of the occupation, 1979, also marked the first in the tragic history of external interference that would long color Afghanistan's destiny. According to scholar Paula Newberg, central Asia, Iran, Pakistan and the United States were perpetually intervening. Newberg says that the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan proved to be a sort of proxy war between the United States and Soviet Union and spawned horrific destruction, since the rebel moujahedeen, or freedom fighters, as they were called, were trained to form internal opposition to the Soviet regime. However, after Soviet troops left Afghanistan, the image of the moujahedeen soldiers changed from heroic warriors to that of zealous reactionaries unable to form a stable government.

The situation, as Peter Marsden writes, "became suddenly complex. . . . It was hard to know who was fighting whom and why." The moujahedeen movements and opposition factions suddenly transformed into a mosaic of confusion, and this confusion laid the groundwork for the emergence of the Taliban. Although this confusion and lack of national authority after the Soviet withdrawal appeared to signal an imminent and violent international crisis, international organizations failed to take a strong stand and prevent escalation. In 1994, the United Nations secretary general sent a special mission to Afghanistan to explore the future role of the U.N. in fostering national dialogue and reconstruction. Discussions were held with Afghan refugees, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Options considered included a substantial U.N. presence and free and fair elections, but to date these talks have continually been sidelined.

International humanitarian agencies and nongovernmental organizations were also ready to support the millions of Afghan refugees who had fled during the Soviet occupation. Nongovernmental organizations began to restore the agricultural base, clear mines from roads and set up hospitals. However, the help came too late. The radical Taliban had already taken control of portions of southern Afghanistan, plunging many areas into a full-scale system of "gender apartheid" through the pretense of Islamic tradition.

The unseated Afghan government made last-minute pleas to the U.N. in 1996 to prevent the entire nation from being plundered by the Taliban. The former leader of Afghanistan urged the U.N. Security Council to implement a peace plan to prevent a crisis. Points included a military withdrawal from Kabul, removal of heavy weapons from the capital, recognition of the city as a demilitarized zone and introduction of an international police force formed by the U.N. and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. But this plan was viewed with skepticism by other U.N. members.


Although many preventive measures were attempted, all proved unsuccessful, and in 1996, the radical Taliban seized power and imposed gender apartheid. Today, the Taliban remains in power and, according to the Feminist Majority Foundation, women are not permitted to be educated or even leave the confines of their homes unless accompanied by a close male relative and covered from head to toe in the burka, with only a small, mesh-covered opening over the eyes through which to see. Women are prohibited from going to most hospitals and are severely beaten or stoned to death for violating the Taliban's harsh edicts. Perhaps because the Afghan conflict was so complex, and because religion and Islamic tradition were at stake, international organizations failed to properly monitor the emerging crisis. While conflict brewed, international organizations showed a lack of persistence and relinquished their duty to uphold standards of human rights when challenged with "religious" or "cultural" values. Today it is evident that justice has not been met--that the Taliban has masked its oppression of the Afghan people under the pretense of religion.

In contrast, conflict in Macedonia was prevented by the foresight of the U.N. and the Macedonian national government. Officials were aware of the signs of emerging conflict in the region, which included the country's faltering economy, and they had an understanding of demographics and history. Kiro Gligorov became president of the independent Macedonia in the early 1990s and carefully kept his nation out of trouble, despite being surrounded by Albania, Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia. Throughout history, all four of these nations have had a claim of some sort in Macedonia. The economic weakness of this nation and its ethnic tensions made it seem the plausible victim in the process of "ethnic cleansing" and the pursuit of a "Greater Serbia" in progress in the Balkans. As a preventive, in December 1992, the Security Council deployed a protection force of troops along the border of Macedonia with Serbia and Albania. The U.N. hoped to prevent spread of the wider Yugoslav conflict. The troops' presence--including a U.S. Army task force and a Nordic battalion--was designed to deter anyone with a notion to ignite ethnic tensions between Slavs and Albanians and also managed to deter the spread of the Yugoslav conflict southward. And, in recent months, as ethnic conflict erupted in Kosovo, concerns that it would trigger a domino effect in Macedonia were reaffirmed, and the Security Council extended the peace mission. This judicious use of preventive diplomacy is best described by the U.S. ambassador to Macedonia, who said, "We really believe that an ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure."


These two recent examples help to affirm the importance and efficacy of preventive diplomacy. A remembrance of events from the past, an understanding of a nation's history, a sense of justice and the quest for truth all must be considered when preventing a long-festering conflict from developing into a violent crisis. In Afghanistan, preventive measures were suggested but not implemented. It is possible that the failure of international organizations to take the situation seriously led to escalation into an international conflict. And although nongovernmental organizations offered many economic initiatives to prevent conflict, military initiatives and coercion from organizations such as the U.N. were lacking to enforce peace and stability. International organizations also proved powerless to enforce universal standards of human rights when threatened with the Taliban's pretense of religion and culture. In the case of Macedonia, conflict was prevented because U.N. officials and the national government understood Macedonian demography and history. International organizations knew that there were many Albanians in Macedonia and carefully monitored the conflict in the Balkans. They also provided military initiatives to safeguard human rights and prevent ethnic conflict from spilling over.

The Afghan and Macedonian conflicts show that international organizations and national governments must work together persistently to prevent crises. Like the threads that together create the mesh cloth of the burka, the world must also come together to prevent violent international conflict and create a society in which all human beings will be treated equally, regardless of race, color, gender or creed.

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