Afghanistan is pretty much off the international radar screen these days. But it wasn't so long ago that the United Nations was called upon to bring stability, self-rule and security to the country -- a mandate not unlike the one it faces today in Iraq.
Adding to the similarity is Lakhdar Brahimi, the man heading the U.N. team in Iraq, who also navigated Afghanistan's post-Taliban transition.
Yes, they are two very different countries: Iraq with an educated people, an infrastructure that once worked and institutions with competent functionaries. Then there is Afghanistan, destroyed by more than two decades of war, with a largely uneducated population and no institutions to speak of.
Yet there are enough parallels to make an examination of how the U.N. fared in Afghanistan valid. Chief among these parallels are the ethnic and religious divisions that have plagued both countries for generations. So what can we learn from the first experience as we get started on the second? If we graded the U.N.'s performance in Afghanistan, here's how it would rate:
Security: This would have to be an F, given that Brahimi himself, in his farewell speech, admitted, "There is fear in the heart of every Afghan because there is no rule of law." How did this happen? Right from the outset, Brahimi and the U.N. made concessions that led to an insecure Afghanistan. The ink hadn't even dried on the Bonn agreement that brought the first post-Taliban government to power in Afghanistan when the U.N. let armed militias flout the accord. These militias stayed in Kabul in defiance of this agreement, which demanded they be evicted.
The U.N. compromised away Afghanistan's security step by step so that it could meet a series of deadlines: two loya jirgas (grand councils), a constitution and elections.
That Afghanistan today is a struggling nation, overrun by drugs and undermined by powerful militias and their warlord leaders-turned-government-ministers, reflects a United Nations that measures itself by successes on paper, not on the ground.
Development: another failing grade. The Afghans' expectations following the collapse of the Taliban were high, maybe too high. Today, nearly three years later, they are a deeply disappointed people. They have seen very little development outside of the cities. Jobs are rare, the infrastructure is still woefully inadequate and little substantive change has come to their daily lives. Yet Afghans see international aid workers in fleets of large, four-wheel-drive vehicles, living in grandly refurbished and rebuilt homes.
Self-governance: Another disappointment. Elections have been postponed until September, and most Afghans aren't registered to vote. It's still not clear whether elections will be just for a president or for the assemblies as well.
Any criticism of the former moujahedeen, who are now power brokers and government ministers, is met with death threats and demands for apologies. The new constitution does some good for women, giving them two representatives from each province. But the violent reaction from the men to criticism of moujahedeen from a woman delegate is just one example of how far women in Afghanistan still have to travel.
Ethnic and religious rapprochement: The U.N. failed here as well. It did nothing in Afghanistan to stop a cycle of discrimination and linguistic chauvinism. Its inaction actually encouraged discrimination against ethnic Pashtuns because they had been the backbone of the Taliban. Worse, it created a feeling among Pashtuns that they had no political recourse.
Getting this right at the outset of a post-conflict situation seems critical. Pandering to ethnic and religious discriminations and giving one group prominence because it was previously the target of discrimination is a losing game. Such a course also doesn't recognize that at the very heart of ethnic discrimination is power, either getting it or retaining it. Taking this path, as the United Nations always does, only promises further power struggles.
During the Taliban regime there was discrimination against Dari-speaking Afghans. But before the Taliban, Dari-speaking Afghans discriminated against Pashto speakers. It's a cycle we can't understand, but one we can easily -- and wrongly -- perpetuate through acceptance, which the United Nations does.
Stability: It's a tenuous stability that seems likely to collapse when international forces leave the country. Yet to Afghans, that's what seems likely in the face of militia activity, ethnic divisions and little development or reconstruction.
The report card for the United Nations and its chief architect in Afghanistan speaks for itself. We can only hope they will do better in Iraq.
Kathy Gannon, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is on leave as Associated Press bureau chief for Afghanistan and Pakistan, where she has been a reporter for 15 years.