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Wednesday, 10 October, 2001, 17:30 GMT 18:30 UK
UN walks a fine line
The UN finds itself involved in the crisis at different levels
By the BBC's United Nations correspondent Greg Barrow

The United Nations is clenching its fist against the sponsors of terrorism, while its humanitarian arm is trying to offer support to Afghan civilians.

The balancing act is a difficult one as the US-led air strikes continue in the campaign against Osama Bin Laden and the Taleban.

Most delegates consider it a foregone conclusion that one way or the other the Taleban will not survive

David Malone, president of the International Peace Academy
At the same time, the UN is having to look ahead to when the fighting stops and what role it can play to bring stability to a region ravaged by years of war and drought.

Soon after the 11 September attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the UN Security Council passed a resolution that gave a green light for America's military response.

Sanctioning air strikes is one thing but it presents a huge problem for the UN's aid agencies, which have to try to pick up the pieces.

Abby Spring, a spokeswoman for the World Food Programme, said they were determined to take supplies into Afghanistan, despite the bombing.

"There is no question it is going to be very tough in the winter," she said. "But I think the UN has got a job to do and we are doing the best job we can."

If the pilots flying the American and British planes above Afghanistan can keep their aim straight and true, support for military strikes should remain strong.

An aid workers carries WFP supplies
The World Food Programme is determined to keep aid moving
The only dissent inside the Security Council has been prompted by concern for civilians - a concern underlined by the deaths of four Afghans working for the UN in Kabul.

But even this, according to the Irish president of the Security Council, Ambassador Richard Ryan, has not weakened their resolve.

"The deaths are deeply regretted," he said.

"The United States and the United Kingdom have informed us that they are looking into how it happened. The United Nations Secretariat is also undertaking an urgent investigation.

Unlikely alliances emerged

"But the determination and the will of the council overall is not in question."

The question some are asking is how long can this unity last?

The collective horror the world felt at the attacks on America brought nations together. Unlikely alliances emerged.

The UN Security Council chamber
The UN Security Council has been united so far
But the age-old political fault lines are still there and David Malone, president of the International Peace Academy, says limitless support from the big players in the geo-political game should not be taken for granted.

Russia and China are, of course, veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council.

"The Chinese always have reservations over military action in their neighbourhood and it is important to remember that Afghanistan is their neighbourhood," said Mr Malone.

"I think keeping the Russian Federation happy is going to be the larger challenge."

Both China and Russia have helped ensure the swift passage of recent UN resolutions on Afghanistan and their support will be vital for any future UN initiatives.

Already there is talk of what role the UN should play once the war is over.

A UN spokeswoman names the Afghan aid workers killed after an air strike
The UN lost four Afghan aid workers after an air strike

Sir Kieran Prendergast, the UN's Under Secretary General for Political Affairs, said their objective was to promote a "home-grown" outcome in Afghanistan.

"If there was an administration that appeared to have been put in place by outsiders, I think it would face a considerable handicap in terms of the attitudes of the Afghan people," he said.

It could turn out to be the UN's finest hour, or it could be disastrous.

Either way, David Malone believes the UN should move quickly to make up its mind about what it is going to do.

"The UN needs to focus on its role after the fighting stops in Afghanistan," he said.

Understudy to big actors

"Most delegates consider it a foregone conclusion that one way or the other the Taleban will not survive and that we will be dealing with a different Afghan government in the future.

"And in that sense it is a somewhat frightening prospect for the UN system."

But that is all in the future.

Right now the UN is playing understudy to the big actors in this game - the US and its allies.

It is supporting rather than leading at this stage, but no one has any doubt that the UN's time will come when the guns fall silent.

See also:

10 Oct 01 | Americas
UN 'anxiety' over wider strikes
09 Oct 01 | Americas
UN Security Council backs attacks
09 Oct 01 | Middle East
Syria gets UN security seat
26 Sep 01 | Americas
UN seeks role in anti-terror war
08 Oct 01 | World
Raids split US friends and foes
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