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On Top of the World

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Since October 15, Lakhdar Brahimi has been responsible for forging an agreement among the factional leaders in Afghanistan, as well with its neighbors, for a post-Taliban government. A former Algerian foreign minister, Brahimi is universally respected in the Muslim world and has Annan's complete trust. But he took on the job with reluctance. He had spent spent two years in the late nineties on the same mission before quitting in frustration. "No one in Washington and London cared about what was going on in Afghanistan," says Prendergast. Adds Gillian Martin Sorensen, another top Annan aide: "There were a lot of people here who knew trouble was coming." Concurs Ruggie: "All the debates about why they hate us, about Al Qaeda, are not new to anyone who's worked at the U.N."

Last week, the morning meetings were consumed by what Brahimi would propose on November 12, when Powell meets at the U.N. with his counterparts. Should the former king be restored, a tribal assembly convened, the Taliban consulted? Brahimi insists that only a broad-based coalition can govern Afghanistan -- he has even posited rotating the country's leadership among twelve tribal leaders.

Brahimi has made rapid progress, but the feeling at the meetings is that it might be jeopardized. "Suddenly, the political progress is outpacing the military campaign," says Edward Mortimer, Annan's influential chief speechwriter. "I don't know if Brahimi's proposals can sustain the uncertainty of when the military campaign will end."

When Bush declared in early October that the U.N. would be crucial to nation-building in Afghanistan, it might have seemed like a compliment. But at the U.N., it sounded more like a buck being passed. "The U.N. does not want to get thrown this dog," one diplomat close to Annan says. "They do not want to be left with this monster without the resources they need."

This question has become a source of great tension since September 11. As Prendergast colorfully puts it, "We're obviously concerned that they'll pile up tasks on the U.N. like an overpacked donkey in the bazaar -- and then walk away."

The Rwanda genocide in 1994 nearly ruined the U.N.'s reputation, and that of Annan too -- he was chief of the U.N. peacekeeping division when its forces failed to stop the massacres. Although Annan resurrected his career by commissioning an unsparing report and issuing an apology, there is still palpable bitterness that member states failed to support the U.N. "For two years, Madeleine Albright's sole job here was to make sure the Security Council didn't do anything," says Harvard's John Ruggie. "The Clinton administration was absolutely brutal, shifting blame wherever they could -- but Annan never lost his cool."

"All the debates about why they hate us, about Al Qaeda, are not new to anyone who's worked at the U.N.," says a former aide.

While the U.N. has rehabilitated its reputation with highly praised missions in East Timor and Kosovo, Afghanistan is of a different magnitude. "Kosovo and Timor each represent about one-twentieth of the scope of the challenge in Afghanistan," says David Malone, a former Canadian ambassador who heads the International Peace Academy.

The U.N. does not want to send a peacekeeping force to Afghanistan. "If the Taliban falls," says Eckhard, "30 percent of them will go underground and become guerrillas -- and we'll be the enemy." The U.N. is already the biggest private employer in Afghanistan, with 5,800 people working in all the major cities.

A multinational force -- led, perhaps, by Turkey -- is Washington's latest preference, but it has not found favor at the U.N. "We tend to promote a third option," Prendergast says, "that of a homegrown Afghan force."

The crisis, meanwhile, has mobilized nearly all of the U.N.'s hundred or so agencies, from the World Health Organization to unicef to the U.N. Development Programme and the World Bank. All told, the U.N. employs over 64,000 people worldwide -- not including 47,000 peacekeepers in fifteen countries.

"Hey, Ted -- it's great seeing you! Every time we meet, I pick up another $31 million check!" John Negroponte, America's polished and formidable U.N. ambassador, has just spotted Ted Turner at a reception last Monday night.

A career foreign-service officer, Negroponte has kept a low profile since the Senate rushed through his controversial nomination in September, and the reception is his first as ambassador. Turner is the U.N.'s guardian angel, the man who stepped in to pay Washington's dues to the U.N. when Congress refused. The latest handout came in September -- the $31 million went to bridging the gap between what the U.N. says Washington owes and what Congress thinks it should pay. With his girlfriend, Frederique D'Arragon, in a red twill suit by his side, Turner is nonetheless regaling guests with stories about Jane Fonda. "I know, I was married to her! That thing about Vietnam was all a mistake!" Negroponte, who as a political officer in Vietnam during the war staked out a position more hard-line than Henry Kissinger's, didn't blink.

Later in the evening, Turner corners Negroponte and exclaims: "You know, we're fortunate that all these attacks happened, because you never could have done your job without this!" He goes on. "In fact, I didn't know how we were going to get the U.S. to become more internationally minded. It seemed impossible. But now, I think, we've got a chance!"

"Yes," the ever-discreet Negroponte replies quietly, hoping to turn the conversation, "but there's the real question of how we can contain fundamentalist Islam."

Turner booms back: "Well, we're glad you're onboard!"

Negroponte, whose brother Nicholas is the founder of the MIT Media Lab, is a Colin Powell confidant. He started his job on a Monday, and by Friday, Negroponte says with palpable pleasure, "I got the anti-terrorism legislation passed unanimously -- to my surprise!"

The London-born son of a Greek shipowner, Negroponte has led a luminous foreign-service career, though it was marred by controversy over his stint as ambassador in Honduras in the early eighties; Negroponte's accusers say he turned a blind eye to rampant human-rights abuses. But September 11 quelled congressional critics, who did not want the U.S. to be left voiceless at the U.N.

Images of a vast and bumbling bureaucracy, with its associations of world government and black helicopters (a U.N. brochure states explicitly that no such helicopters exist), did much to ignite anti-U.N. sentiment, fueled persistently by Senator Jesse Helms. As a result, shrugs an adviser, "no ambitious politician in the U.S. can say anything good about the U.N."

Shortly after 9 A.M. on the morning of Tuesday, October 30, Annan makes his way past the Barbara Hepworth sculpture in the U.N. plaza. There he is met by Richard Roth of CNN, who'd been alerted by Annan's aides that he would make some "off the cuff" comments. The statement he delivers, however, has been labored over for days by his staff. He essentially calls for an end to the bombing campaign. "What I am saying is that we would want to see this whole military operation ended as soon as possible, particularly the air action, so that we can begin to move in our supplies."

Annan's staff did not want it to play heavily in the U.S. for fear of embarrassing Washington -- so there was no press conference or even an announcement to the correspondents on the third floor. But the pressure had increased from Europe and elsewhere for Annan to take a stronger stand. "He needed to reassert that he was the secretary-general of the United Nations, not of the United States," confides one aide. "We knew that while this country doesn't take him that seriously, Europe and the developing countries look at every word he says. They need him to legitimize their own actions to their people."

The statement found its target while producing minimal collateral damage in America (none of the first-tier American dailies reported it), even as it reverberated abroad. "I was in Japan when he made that statement," says Annan deputy Mark Malloch Brown, "and journalists buttonholed me for an elaboration. Around the rest of the world, it echoes." Annan can say one thing to Charlie Rose -- how, for instance, "the poor are poor not because of globalization, but because they're not getting enough of it," a message crafted for an American audience -- and send quite a different message to Le Monde or Al Hayat. Earlier this month, his aides say Annan was livid after Mary Robinson, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, called in mid-October to suspend the bombing. Annan has been focusing increasingly on making the U.N. speak with one voice, and Robinson broke rank with her remarks. "There's a huge attention paid to words," say Malloch Brown, himself a former writer for The Economist.


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