Expected Council Action
In September, the Security Council is expected to renew the mandate of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), set to expire on 17 September. Prior to that, the Council will also hold its quarterly meeting on Afghanistan. Deborah Lyons, Special Representative for Afghanistan and head of UNAMA, is expected to brief the Council via videoconference (VTC) on the latest Secretary-General’s report on UNAMA, issued on 18 August. Saad Mohseni, Chief Executive of MOBY GROUP, which contains MOBY media group—the largest media company in Afghanistan—will also brief the Council on issues relating to media freedom in the country.
Key Recent Developments
The reporting period of the latest Secretary-General’s report was characterised by concerted diplomatic efforts aimed at bringing together the Afghan government and the Taliban for direct peace talks. The commencement of intra-Afghan negotiations appeared to be imminent following a 9 August announcement by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that his government would release a final round of Taliban prisoners, comprising 400 militants. Many observers saw the decision by the Afghan government as a step to overcoming the last obstacle to the start of direct negotiations, as the Taliban had previously announced its willingness to begin talks within one week of the full release of Taliban inmates. The action would also fulfil the provision stipulated in the 29 February US-Taliban agreement that called for the Afghan government to release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners and for the militant group to release 1,000 Afghan prisoners ahead of the start of intra-Afghan negotiations.
On 17 August, however, the Afghan government reversed course after it had released 80 of the last 400 Taliban inmates, maintaining that it would not release the final 320 prisoners until the Taliban released all remaining government prisoners held by the group, including 20 elite Afghan troops. In addition, Australia and France have reportedly expressed concerns about the release of some militants whom they claim were involved in high-profile attacks. In a 15 August statement, the French Foreign Ministry called on the Afghan government not to release Taliban fighters accused of killing French citizens in Afghanistan. Although Afghan officials, including Abdullah Abdulla, the chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, have stated that direct talks may start in the first week of September, at the time of writing, a date for the start of intra-Afghan negotiations had yet to be determined.
As the talks continue to stall, Afghanistan experienced a rise in attacks against peace activists and Afghan officials involved in the peace negotiations. On 14 August, Fawzia Koofi, a member of Afghanistan’s negotiation team, sustained minor injuries after an attack by unknown assailants. The attack was condemned by Ghani and Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Representative to Afghanistan, who praised Koofi for her work to promote women’s rights. On 19 August, Abdul Baqi Amin, a high-ranking official in the Education Ministry, was killed in a car bomb explosion. Amin had previously taken part in intra-Afghan dialogue talks with the Taliban which took place in Qatar in 2019, in which Afghan officials participated in their personal capacity. No group claimed responsibility for the attack and the Taliban condemned the murder.
The Afghan government’s 9 August announcement on the release of the final batch of Taliban prisoners was made after a three-day meeting of a consultative assembly known as a Loya Jirga, comprising thousands of tribal elders and other stakeholders from across the nation, which eventually advised the government to release the prisoners. The Afghan president maintained that a decision on the release was beyond his authority, as some of the prisoners were accused of grave crimes, such as murder and kidnapping. Media reports point to some issues with this consultative process, as the representatives of the Loya Jirga were reportedly not presented with information about the nature of the crimes committed by the prisoners.
The recent push towards direct negotiations was also preceded by a three-day ceasefire between the Taliban and the Afghan government from 31 July to 2 August during the Eid al-Adha holiday. This marked the second formal ceasefire by both sides in the past year; the first took place between 23 and 25 May during the Eid al-Fitr holiday. After a brief reduction in hostilities, violence resumed on the night of 2 August with a terrorist attack on a prison complex in Jalalabad. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL /Da’esh) claimed responsibility for the attack, in which at least 29 were killed and 50 injured. More than 1,300 inmates tried to escape during the attack; while the majority were re-captured, several members of the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISIL-KP) and the Taliban were able to escape. Members of the Security Council condemned the attack in a 5 August press statement, which underscored the need to hold perpetrators of acts of terrorism accountable.
While the intra-Afghan negotiations continued to stall, the US expressed its intention to complete its part in the US-Taliban agreement. On 8 August, US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced that the US would reduce its forces in Afghanistan to fewer than 5,000 troops by the end of November in accordance with its obligations under the US-Taliban agreement. At the time of the signing of the agreement in February, the US had nearly 13,000 troops in Afghanistan.
UNAMA’s mid-year report on protection of civilians, issued on 27 July, painted a dire picture of the heavy toll the civilian population continues to pay while the parties to the conflict fail to begin negotiations towards a comprehensive ceasefire. According to the report, the first half of 2020 witnessed the killing of 1,282 civilians, with 2,176 civilians injured. UNAMA stressed that while the figures represent a 13 percent decrease compared to the first half of 2019, there was no reduction in civilian casualties attributed to the Taliban and the Afghan national security forces. According to the mission, the decrease can be attributed to a reduction in operations by international forces and in attacks by ISIL-KP.
UNAMA’s report illustrates the disproportionate effect of the conflict on women and children, who accounted for more than 40 percent of civilian casualties in the first half of 2020. It further warned about the increased vulnerability of children to recruitment and use by parties to the conflict because of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, including school closures and economic difficulties which increase pressures for children to earn money for their families. The report said that “prioritizing the experiences, needs, and rights of victims of the conflict” is essential to creating an environment conducive for the peace talks.
Human Rights-Related Developments
On 14 August, Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, issued a joint statement on Afghanistan with three other Human Rights Council-mandated special rapporteurs (Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association; and Agnès Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial summary or arbitrary executions). The statement said that “the death of nine defenders since the beginning of this year shows the emergence of a truly alarming trend [that] has far exceeded last year’s figures” and that “impunity allows the perpetuation of such crimes and implies a lack of recognition for human rights defenders’ role in society”. The statement emphasised that investigations in many cases have not yielded any results, underscoring that “there needs to be full accountability for such egregious violations of human rights”. The rapporteurs called on the government of Afghanistan to do better at “detecting and acting on early warning signs, such as threats and intimidation, protecting others who find themselves at risk, and thoroughly investigating violence, including killings, when they happen”.
Women, Peace and Security
On 27 July, an Arria-formula meeting on “Women and the Afghan Peace Process: Ensuring Women’s Participation and Promoting their Rights” was held via VTC. It was co-organised by Afghanistan, Germany, Indonesia, and the UK . Rula Ghani, the First Lady of Afghanistan, was the keynote speaker while concluding remarks were provided by Baroness Fiona Hodgson of Abinger, member of the UK House of Lords and honorary member of the Group of Friends of Women in Afghanistan. The panellists were Hasina Safi, Afghanistan’s Minister of Women’s Affairs; Dr Habiba Sarabi, member of the Afghan government negotiating team; Ghezal Haris, head of the Afghanistan Ombudsperson’s Office; Special Representative Lyons; and Sheikha Alya Ahmed bin Saif Al-Thani, Permanent Representative of Qatar to the UN.
All of the participants expressed their strong support for the meaningful participation of women in the upcoming intra-Afghan negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. They further stressed that any eventual peace agreement must safeguard women’s rights and preserve the gains made in the past 20 years towards the empowerment of women and girls in Afghanistan. The panellists emphasised the need to hear input from women across all of Afghan society, including women residing in rural areas, before and during the negotiations process. Several speakers called on the Taliban to include women in their negotiations team, while Dr. Sarabi noted that the international community should convey to the Taliban that their legitimacy will be questioned if their team has no female representation.
Key Issues and Options
The main issue for the Security Council in September will be the renewal of UNAMA’s mandate. Council members will closely follow the progress towards the commencement of intra-Afghan negotiations. They may wish to discuss possible modifications to UNAMA’s mandate to correspond with developments in the peace process. A key issue for the Council will be to consider how the mission can play a constructive role with regard to the peace talks. Looking ahead, some Council members may wish to discuss ways in which UNAMA’s role may change in the event of a possible withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan in accordance with the US-Taliban agreement.
Several members may seek strengthened language on the role the mission can play in the promotion of women’s rights, considering how members such as Belgium indicated during the 27 July Arria-formula meeting on women’s participation in the Afghan peace process that they expect the promotion of women’s rights to remain at the centre of UNAMA’s work.
Regarding the peace process, the Council could request that Khalilzad brief members in an informal interactive dialogue on recent developments. This would be an opportunity for members to learn more about the agreement and solicit insights from Khalilzad, an Afghanistan-born former US ambassador to the UN (2007 to 2009), on how the Council can best support negotiating efforts.
Because of the importance of regional support for the peace process, Council members may also consider inviting the Special Representative and head of the UN Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia (UNRCCA), Natalia Gherman, to brief the Council in the upcoming quarterly meeting. Since Council members usually receive updates on UNRCCA’s activities in closed consultations, a briefing in an open meeting could help facilitate a broader discussion about initiatives by Central Asian states in support of the Afghan negotiations.
Council members are united in their support for the peace process in Afghanistan and for UNAMA’s work. However, controversy arose during negotiations on UNAMA’s mandate renewal in 2019 because of disagreements between China and the US on whether to maintain a reference to the Chinese “Belt and Road Initiative” (language that had been included in preceding resolutions) in the context of welcoming regional economic cooperation.
In March 2019, the impasse almost led to a vote on two competing drafts, resulting in an adoption of a six-month technical rollover of the mandate. In resolution 2489 adopted in September 2019, which most recently renewed UNAMA’s mandate for 12 months, an apparent compromise reference to “regional cooperation and connectivity” replaced the explicit reference to the Belt and Road Initiative.
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.|
|18 August 2020S/2020/809||This was the Secretary-General’s report on UNAMA.|
|Security Council Letters|
|7 August 2020S/2020/783||This letter contained a compilation of statements made at the Arria-formula meeting on “Women and the Afghan Peace Process: Ensuring Women’s Participation and Promoting their Rights”, held on 27 July.|
|29 June 2020S/2020/597||This letter contained the record of the latest quarterly meeting on the situation in Afghanistan, held on 25 June.|
|Security Council Press Statements|
|5 August 2020SC/14271||This was a press statement in which members of the Security Council condemned the terrorist attack that took place at a prison complex in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, on 3 August 2020.|