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In Afghanistan, who will pick up where the U.S. leaves off?

Obama to detail Afghanistan troop pullout plan
President Obama

As President Obama prepares to draw down U.S. troops from Afghanistan and explain his blueprint for turning security over to the Afghan government by 2014, his administration is struggling to address what will come next in a country that has in the past been a threat to U.S. security. Al Qaeda is degraded and Osama bin Laden is dead, but insurgencies remain, as do drugs and poverty. Will the U.N. be able to pick up when Washington withdraws military forces?

On Tuesday, in his acceptance speech after reelection to a second term, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that, "as never before, the U.N. is on the front lines protecting people and also helping build the peace" in Afghanistan, among other places.

And Georgette Gagnon, the human rights director of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said this week that "more civilians were killed in Afghanistan in May than in any other month since 2007, raising fears of a further escalation during the summer with serious humanitarian implications."

In the wake of the death of Osama Bin Laden, there were revenge attacks around Afghanistan.

"We are very concerned about the escalation of fighting this summer," Mohammad Hashem Mayar, deputy director of the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR), said, noting that the violence could affect their distribution of relief to civilians.

U.N. analysts believe that the more the U.N. stays involved in Afghanistan's reconstruction, the easier it will be for the U.S. to get out.

In addition to aiding the hampered efforts to deliver humanitarian aid, the U.N. Security Council this week shored up the Afghan government's program to reconcile with the Taliban by agreeing to lift sanctions on members of the Taliban's militia if they renounce terror.

The unanimous vote by the Security Council, led by the U.S., adopted two resolutions that separate the Taliban and al Qaeda in the enforcement of sanctions - including the assets freeze, arms embargo and the travel ban - and which remove some names, including several members of Afghanistan's High Peace Council, from the list.

The Obama administration's U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice said that the U.N. action sends a "clear message to the Taliban that there is a future for those who separate from al Qaeda, renounce violence and abide by the Afghan constitution."

But there is a long road to recovery in Afghanistan, where the drug trade still thrives.

The 2011 World Drug Report, to be released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) on Wednesday, does not paint a pretty picture of Afghanistan. Although global opium production declined during the last three years, that trend is unlikely to continue and preliminary findings are that Afghan opium production will probably bounce back in 2011.

Additionally, the price of the drug has increased, meaning that opium has become a lifeline to the Afghan economy. UNODC has focused on Herat, Farah, Nimroz, Ghor and Kandahar with the effort to contain opium cultivation and instability.

"We can definitely see a record profit in this harvest," said the UNODC's country office representative in Afghanistan, Jean-Luc Lemahieu.

The UNODC's 2010 report noted that "Poverty and violence are usually portrayed as the biggest challenges confronting Afghanistan. But ask the Afghans themselves, and you get a different answer: corruption is their biggest worry."

"For an overwhelming 59 percent of the population, the daily experience of public dishonesty is a bigger concern than insecurity (54 percent) and unemployment (52 percent)," said Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director of the UNODC.

As far as the direction and oversight of all U.N. relief, recovery and reconstruction activities in Afghanistan, UNAMA is at the forefront, and their "Relief, Recovery and Reconstruction" program is aimed at coordinating the humanitarian development activities of U.N. agencies with an emphasis on five main sectors in Afghanistan: agriculture, energy, private sector development, capacity building, and higher education and vocational training.

Their human rights unit was mandated by the Security Council to assist Afghanistan's institutions, hampered by violence in their efforts to deliver essential services, security and justice in Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kunduz, Herat, Bamyan, Kandahar, Jalalabad and Gardez.

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) also launched a food voucher project in eastern Afghanistan, distributing monthly food vouchers to families in Jalalabad.

President Obama's mandate - while announcing a drawdown of troops to the American public, which is divided on the war and concerned about the human and economic costs - will need to explain how Afghanistan will stabilize. The U.N. is certainly offering to bear some of the weight, but the challenge will be for the international community to shore up its efforts.

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