Expected Council Action
In June, the Security Council will hold its quarterly meeting on Afghanistan. Deborah Lyons, Special Representative for Afghanistan and head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), is expected to brief the Council via videoconference (VTC) on the latest Secretary-General’s report on UNAMA, due on 17 June. A civil society representative may also brief the Council.
The mandate of UNAMA expires on 17 September, and the mandate of the Monitoring Team assisting the 1988 Afghanistan Sanctions Committee expires on 16 December.
Key Recent Developments
On 10 March, the Security Council adopted resolution 2513, which welcomed the progress towards a political settlement of the war in Afghanistan facilitated by the 29 February Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan signed by the US and the Taliban and the Joint Declaration for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan issued by the US and the Afghan government. The resolution further called on the parties to carry out confidence-building measures to support future intra-Afghan negotiations, including reductions in violence and the release of prisoners.
On 17 May, there was tenuous progress towards the advancement of intra-Afghan negotiations when Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and former Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah signed a power-sharing deal aimed at resolving their dispute over the results of the 28 September 2019 presidential elections. Under the deal, Abdullah relinquished an executive role in the government in exchange for half of the cabinet positions for his coalition (50 seats in total) and an appointment as chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR), which will oversee the peace talks with the Taliban.
Since the resolution of the political stalemate between the Afghan political elites was seen by many as one of the pre-conditions for progress towards intra-Afghan negotiations, these developments raised hopes among international stakeholders for further headway. However, the Taliban reiterated on 18 May that they would not agree to participate in the peace talks until the Afghan government released 5,000 prisoners who are members of the militant group. At the time of that statement, a limited exchange of prisoners had taken place, with the Afghan government having released about 1,000 prisoners while the Taliban released at least 260 Afghan hostages.
Another sticking-point that continues to cloud prospects for intra–Afghan negotiations is the persistent level of violence in the country. While the Taliban seem to be adhering to their commitment under the US-Taliban agreement to halt attacks against international forces, the group’s attacks against the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces have continued unabated. Tensions mounted following two attacks on 12 May—on a Kabul hospital in which assailants attacked a maternity ward, resulting in at least 24 deaths, mostly of women and newborn babies, and on a funeral in Nangarhar, in which at least 25 civilians were killed and 68 injured. The latter attack was claimed by the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-KP), while the former was not claimed by any group. The attacks were strongly condemned in statements issued by the Security Council and by Secretary-General António Guterres.
Although the Taliban denied responsibility for the 12 May attacks, President Ghani blamed them and ordered Afghan forces to move from the “active defence” posture they had been in since the signing of the US-Taliban agreement to conducting offensive attacks against Taliban militants. In response, the Taliban warned that they will increase their attacks on Afghan security forces. In a recent example of hostilities, seven people were killed and 40 injured in a Taliban assault on an Afghan intelligence agency post in the eastern province of Ghazni on 18 May.
Civilians continue to bear the brunt of attacks by all sides of the conflict, with UNAMA reporting an increase in civilian casualties in April relative to the previous month. According to the mission, the Taliban were responsible for 208 civilian casualties in April (the same level as March), while Afghan security forces were responsible for 172 civilian casualties (a 37 percent increase from March).
On 23 May, the Taliban announced a three-day ceasefire for the duration of the Eid al-Fitr holiday. President Ghani instructed the Afghan security forces to also observe a ceasefire and announced the release of an additional 900 Taliban prisoners as a show of good faith, bringing the total of released Taliban prisoners to about 2,000. The announcement of the ceasefire was welcomed by Guterres, who urged the parties to seize this opportunity to advance towards an Afghan-led peace process. This marked the second time a formal ceasefire was observed between the Taliban and the Afghan government in nearly two decades of war, with the first brief cessation of hostilities taking place in 2018, also during the Eid al-Fitr holiday.
The latest report of the Monitoring Team assisting the 1988 Afghanistan Sanctions Committee, issued on 19 May, warned that the Taliban could continue to employ delaying tactics, such as insisting on a full prisoner swap or objecting to the composition of the Afghan government’s negotiating team, in a bid to stall the intra-Afghan negotiations while international forces continue to leave the country in line with the US-Taliban agreement. On 15 May, a US Pentagon spokesman indicated that the US is on track to fulfil its obligation under the agreement to reduce its forces in Afghanistan to roughly 8,600 troops by mid-July.
There have been several international initiatives since March to bring the Afghan parties to the negotiating table. On 16 April, a meeting of the “six plus two” format—a group consisting of six countries bordering Afghanistan (China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) as well as Russia and the US—took place under the auspices of the UN. This was the first meeting in many years of this group, which was last operational between 1997 and 2001. Participants discussed the importance of regional initiatives in promoting peace and stability in Afghanistan and repeated the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire aimed at facilitating the delivery of humanitarian assistance due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Representative to Afghanistan, travelled to Doha and later to Kabul on 17 May with the aim of pressing the sides to take the necessary steps to commence intra-Afghan negotiations. At press time, there was still no concrete date for the start of these negotiations. It remains likely that the sides will find it difficult to start direct negotiations before the lifting of travel restrictions imposed to slow the spread of COVID-19.
As of 29 May, Afghanistan reported 13,659 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 246 fatalities from the virus. OCHA has warned that the pandemic poses an increased threat to Afghanistan because of the strain it might put on an already fragile medical system, along with the possibly dire economic repercussions on the impoverished and malnourished population. According to OCHA, protests erupted in the first weeks of May across the country, including in Nangarhar, Laghman, Ghazni, Parwan, Balkh and Ghor provinces, with citizens expressing their dissatisfaction with lockdown measures and the government response to the pandemic, including the perceived lack of transparency in the distribution of food to those in need.
Key Issues and Options
The key priority for the Council is supporting political and security stability in the country to facilitate the continuation of negotiations geared towards achieving peace in Afghanistan.
Council members will be interested in hearing from the briefer an update on the status of international efforts to start the intra-Afghan negotiations. In light of the recent spike in hostilities and civilian casualties, many members are likely to emphasise in their statements the responsibilities of all sides to protect civilians.
A new concern for the Council is the impact of COVID-19 on the fragile health institutions in the country and the economic effects on vulnerable populations. Council members may therefore consider asking for a briefing by OCHA on how the international community can further assist in tackling the threat of the virus in Afghanistan.
Council members are generally united in their support for UNAMA and are committed to advancing the peace process in Afghanistan. All Council members seem to share the hope that the US-Taliban agreement will facilitate progress towards intra-Afghan negotiations. It appears, however, that several members are cautious about a provision in the agreement that calls for the removal of Taliban-affiliated individuals from the 1988 sanctions regime. Some members emphasise that the sanctions regime is an important tool in compelling the Taliban to participate in the peace process and are apprehensive about lifting the regime completely in the near future. They advocate for a more phased approach in which the de-listing of individuals will be considered based on their participation in the intra-Afghan negotiations.
Germany and Indonesia are the co-penholders on Afghanistan, and Ambassador Dian Triansyah Djani (Indonesia) chairs the 1988 Afghanistan Sanctions Committee. The US is the penholder on the sanctions file.
UN DOCUMENTS ON AFGHANISTAN
|Security Council Resolutions|
|10 March 2020S/RES/2513||This resolution welcomed the progress towards a political settlement of the war in Afghanistan facilitated by the 29 February “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan” signed by the US and the Taliban, and the “Joint Declaration for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan” issued by the US and the Afghan government.|
|17 September 2019S/RES/2489||A unanimous adoption of resolution 2489, renewing the mandate of UNAMA until 17 September 2020.|
|17 March 2020S/2020/210||This was the Secretary-General’s report on UNAMA.|
|Security Council Meeting Records|
|31 March 2020S/2020/274||This was a record of briefings and statements which were made at the 31 March 2020 videoconference (VTC) on Afghanistan.|
|Sanctions Committee Documents|
|19 May 2020S/2020/415||This was the 11th report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 1988.|