Expected Council Action
In March, the Council will renew the mandate of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), which expires on 17 March. It will also hold its quarterly debate on Afghanistan, during which it will consider the Secretary-General’s 90-day report on UNAMA. Tadamichi Yamamoto, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative in Afghanistan and head of UNAMA, is expected to brief.
Key Recent Developments
The security situation remains very fragile and continues to take a heavy toll on Afghan security forces and the civilian population.
The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) continues to lose ground over territories it previously controlled, due to Afghan forces’ activities with the support of NATO airstrikes. On 12 February, Afghan forces launched a new offensive against ISIL in Nangarhar province, where ISIL still holds a few districts. At the same time, the threat of ISIL terrorist attacks throughout the country has intensified. At least 21 people were killed and more than 40 injured in a 7 February suicide bombing outside Afghanistan’s Supreme Court in Kabul, for which ISIL claimed responsibility. Council members condemned the attack in a press statement issued the same day.
Meanwhile, clashes between the Taliban and Afghan security forces have intensified, with the Taliban continuing to push forward. The Taliban controls about 10 percent of the country’s districts and contests another 33 percent of them. Since the withdrawal of the bulk of NATO forces in December 2014, Afghan forces have relied heavily on NATO airstrikes against the Taliban. However, these have come at a significant cost. According to UNAMA, NATO airstrikes in Helmand province on 9 and 10 February killed at least 18 civilians, nearly all women and children.
Another alarming trend are attacks by militants on aid workers, resulting in limited humanitarian access. On 8 February, six employees of the International Committee of the Red Cross were killed and two others were reported to be abducted to an unknown location in northern Afghanistan, in an attack attributed to ISIL.
The Taliban, ISIL and other groups have reportedly also profited from the illegal smuggling of natural resources. On 2 February the Afghan Anti-Corruption Network, an Afghan civil society watchdog, reported that militants received at least $46 million from the smuggling of natural resources, mainly marble and talc, from Nangahar province to Pakistan.
On the political front, the Taliban continue to resist political dialogue. In an appearance before the US Senate Armed Services Committee on 9 February, the commander of NATO’s Resolute Support mission and US forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, accused Russia of undermining NATO’s efforts and acting to legitimise the Taliban as an anti-ISIL force. There have been reports that Russia has acknowledged it has “limited political contact” with the Taliban but denies assisting the group. Nicholson also said that NATO should deploy additional troops in order to defeat the Taliban.
Russia hosted talks on countering extremist activities in Afghanistan and the region on 15 February with representatives of Afghanistan, China, India, Iran and Pakistan. Afghanistan and India took a hard line against the Taliban in the meeting, while China, Russia and Pakistan urged direct talks with them. Afghanistan requested that the US be invited to any future talks. However, at the end of the meeting, Russia extended a future invite only to Asian nations.
The tense relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan took a turn for the worst after a terrorist attack on a Sufi shrine in southern Pakistan killed more than 80 civilians and wounded some 250 on 16 February. Pakistan reacted with cross-border shelling, targeting camps supposedly used by Jammat-ul Ahrar, a splinter faction of the Pakistani Taliban. In addition it closed the border crossings to all movement of people and goods and demanded that Afghanistan hand over 76 suspected terrorists. Afghanistan reacted with a similar demand that Pakistan hand over 80 suspected insurgents and close 32 camps it claims are being used by the Taliban and other groups.
The Council held its last quarterly debate on Afghanistan on 19 December 2016. During the debate, Yury Fedotov, Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, told the Council that in 2016 opium poppy production in Afghanistan grew by 43 percent.
The then Chair of the 1988 Afghanistan Sanctions Committee, Ambassador Gerard van Bohemen (New Zealand), briefed the Council on 19 December after visiting Afghanistan between 11 and 13 November 2016. He noted that the Taliban’s income from narcotics is estimated at around $400 million per year and that cutting off that financial stream could have a significant impact on the Taliban’s capabilities.
While reconciliation efforts with the Taliban have stalled, the government concluded an agreement on 29 September with insurgent leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, head of the Hezb-i-Islami militant group. On 3 February, the ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee removed Hekmatyar from its sanctions list.
On 16 February the Committee delisted one individual, who is now known to have passed away in 2001.
Human Rights-Related Developments
On 6 February, UNAMA released its annual report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict in Afghanistan, covering the period from 1 January to 31 December 2016. The report concluded that 2016 saw the highest number of civilian casualties—11,418 documented deaths and injuries—since reporting began in 2009, including record numbers of children killed and injured, with fighting between pro (both Afghani and international) and anti-government forces the leading cause of death. In an accompanying statement, Yamamoto warned that levels of civilian casualties are likely to remain “appallingly high” unless all parties seriously commit to examining the consequences of their operations.
On 12 February, UNAMA released a statement expressing its grave concern at the escalation of fighting in Helmand province, which left at least 25 civilians, mostly women and children, dead and many more wounded. According to UNAMA, NATO airstrikes killed at least 18 civilians, as mentioned above, while a Taliban suicide attack on 11 February killed at least seven civilians, mainly children, and wounded more. The 891 civilians killed or injured by the different parties in Helmand in 2016 was the highest figure in a province outside of Kabul.
The Human Rights Council is set to consider the report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the human rights situation in Afghanistan at its 34th session (A/HRC/34/41) in March. The report, covering the period from January to November 2016 and prepared in cooperation with UNAMA, highlighted as areas of ongoing concern the treatment of conflict-related detainees, the prevalence of violence against women and lack of respect for freedom of expression, and drew attention to institutional weaknesses and a culture of impunity as factors that continue to adversely impact the human rights situation.
The immediate issue for the Council is the renewal of UNAMA’s mandate.
An ongoing key issue has been how to address the deteriorating security situation, its devastating impact on the country’s stability and the toll the conflict is taking on the civilian population.
A related issue is whether it is possible to generate momentum for reconciliation efforts, given the continued heavy fighting between the insurgents and government forces.
The link between the insurgents and drug production and trafficking and illicit exploitation of natural resources is another ongoing issue.
The most likely option for the Council is to renew UNAMA’s mandate for an additional year. In doing so, the Council may consider language that:
- deplores the high number of civilian casualties and demands that all sides avoid killing and injuring civilians, recalling that targeting civilians is a war crime;
- underscores the need for the international community—and particularly neighbouring countries—to continue to support and cooperate with Afghanistan;
- calls for accountability for alleged crimes committed;
- emphasises the linkages between extremism and drug production and illegal exploitation of natural resources (e.g. talcum, marble and gold); and
- highlights the importance of reconciliation in an effort to bring an end to insurgency in Afghanistan.
Council members’ long-standing concerns about the deteriorating security environment and its impact on civilians continue, though with different points of emphasis. During the last debate, Russia said it was “perplexed” by claims that it is providing support to the Taliban. Russia then noted that the Quadrilateral Coordination Group, which consists of Afghan, Chinese, Pakistani and US officials, has proven unsuccessful in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. In addition, pointing to statements made by Nicholson, Russia expressed its dismay at attempts to diminish the threat of ISIL in Afghanistan.
Several Council members, including Egypt, France, Japan, Russia and now Kazakhstan—continue to raise concerns about the connection between the Taliban insurgency and drug production and trafficking. During the last debate, Japan reiterated that drug trafficking fuels corruption and the Taliban insurgency, while also jeopardising the safety of Afghans. Japan added that the same can be said of funding from illegal mining activities.
Japan is the penholder on Afghanistan, and Kazakhstan chairs the Sanctions Committee.
UN DOCUMENTS ON AFGHANISTAN
|Security Council Resolutions|
|15 March 2016 S/RES/2274||This was a resolution renewing the mandate of UNAMA for one year.|
|13 December 2016 S/2016/1049||This was the report of the Secretary-General on UNAMA.|
|Security Council Meeting Records|
|19 December 2016 S/PV.7844||This was the quarterly debate on Afghanistan.|
|Security Council Press Statements|
|7 February 2017 SC/12708||This condemned an ISIL-perpetrated suicide attack outside the Afghanistan Supreme Court the same day.|
|Sanctions Committee Documents|
|16 February 2017 SC/12721||This was a press release on the delisting of one individual from the Afghanistan Sanction list.|
|3 February 2017 SC/12705||This announced the removal of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar from the ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida sanctions list.|