December 2020 Monthly Forecast

Posted 30 November 2020
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Expected Council Action

In December, the Security Council is scheduled to hold its quarterly meeting on Afghanistan. Deborah Lyons, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan and head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), is expected to brief on the latest Secretary-General’s report on the mission, due on 10 December. The Council will also be briefed by Ambassador Dian Triansyah Djani (Indonesia) in his capacity as chair of the 1988 Afghanistan Sanctions Committee and by Shkula Zadran, Afghanistan’s Youth Representative to the UN. Additionally, the Security Council will need to renew the mandate of the Monitoring Team assisting the 1988 Afghanistan Sanctions Committee before its 17 December expiry.

The mandate of UNAMA expires on 17 September 2021.

Key Recent Developments

The situation in Afghanistan remains complex as the intra-Afghan peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban stall and high levels of violence continue to adversely affect civilians and erode trust between the parties. The intra-Afghan negotiations that started in Doha, Qatar, on 12 September, were lauded by many in the international community as a significant development in the peace process. To date, however, the negotiation teams of the Afghan government and the Taliban have not started discussing substantive matters as disagreements arose around the procedural rules for the talks.

The main areas of contention relate to the question of which interpretation of Islam should be used in legislation in post-conflict Afghanistan and the extent to which the contents of the 29 February US-Taliban agreement will serve as terms of reference in the negotiations. The Taliban has demanded that the Hanafi school of Sunni jurisprudence serve as the principal source of future legislation in Afghanistan while the Afghan government expressed concern that this could lead to discrimination against religious minorities in the country. Additionally, the Taliban has insisted that the rules of procedure for the talks state that the group is only negotiating with the Afghan government as part of the US-Taliban agreement, thus signalling its ongoing reluctance to recognise the Afghan government as a legitimate and independent governing entity.

The results of the US presidential election have also added uncertainty to the negotiation process. The US-Taliban agreement and the joint US-Afghanistan declaration were crucial in bringing the parties to the negotiating table. As such, questions relating to the implementation of assurances made by the US, such as the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and the removal of Taliban members from UN sanctions designations, have a direct impact on the progress of the talks. Analysts have surmised that the parties would lack motivation to compromise until there is clarity regarding the policy of US President-elect Joe Biden on these matters. The intention of the outgoing Trump administration to accelerate the troop drawdown in Afghanistan also serves as a complicating factor in the negotiations. On 17 November, US Acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller announced that the number of US troops in Afghanistan, currently approximately 4,500, would be reduced to 2,500 by 15 January.

On 21 November, outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with the negotiation teams of the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha. According to a Taliban spokesperson, representatives of the militant group discussed with Pompeo the release of additional prisoners and the removal of Taliban members from UN sanctions designations.

As the peace talks fail to progress, civilians continue bearing the brunt of widespread violence across Afghanistan. The period between October and early November witnessed a series of deadly terror attacks and targeted assassinations in the capital Kabul and increased fighting in rural areas across the country. Tensions mounted after two attacks in Kabul—on 24 October near the Kawsar-e Danish educational centre and on 2 November at Kabul University—resulted in the death of at least 46 people and injured dozens, most of whom were students. Although the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) claimed responsibility for both attacks, mutual recriminations between the Afghan government and the Taliban ensued as the government blamed the militant group for the assaults and the Taliban accused the government of sheltering ISIL terrorists. Members of the Security Council condemned the attacks in press statements issued on 27 October and 5 November, respectively, in which they called for a reduction in violence and stressed that attacks deliberately targeting education facilities are unacceptable.

Meanwhile, fighting between the Taliban and the Afghan National Security Forces in several provinces—including Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan—since early October has sparked widespread displacement. As at 18 November, OCHA had verified the displacement of more than 28,000 people in those provinces, with 15,236 people displaced in Helmand alone. The US launched a series of airstrikes in response to the Taliban’s offensive on Helmand province that started on 11 October, while claiming that the Taliban’s actions were “not consistent” with the US-Taliban agreement and undermined the peace talks.

According to UNAMA’s quarterly report on protection of civilians, issued on 27 October, there has been no reduction in civilian casualties caused by the parties to the conflict since the start of the intra-Afghan talks. During the reporting period of 1 January to 30 September, UNAMA documented the killing of 2,117 civilians, with 3,822 people injured. Afghanistan remains the deadliest conflict for children as child casualties constituted 31 percent of civilian casualties in the first nine months of 2020, with 553 children killed and 1,295 injured. Attacks against education facilities have continued unabated, with 45 incidents of attacks against schools and education-related personnel recorded during the reporting period of UNAMA’s protection of civilians report. According to UNICEF, the ongoing insecurity around education facilities contributes to Afghanistan’s having one of the world’s highest rates of children who are out of school, as 3.7 million children were already believed not to have been enrolled in school before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and an additional 7.5 million children left school due to the pandemic.

On 20 November, a high-level Arria-formula meeting was held via videoconference on: “What can the Security Council do to support the peace process in Afghanistan?”. The meeting was chaired by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Estonia, Urmas Reinsalu, and President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan was the keynote speaker. The briefers were Lyons; Fatima Gailani, member of the Afghan government negotiating team; and Laurel Miller, Asia Director at the International Crisis Group. At the meeting, speakers emphasised the importance of preserving and building upon the gains made in the past 19 years in the country, including the human rights and constitutional rights of women, girls and minorities. They further reaffirmed their support for the participation of women in the Afghan peace process and for the promotion and safeguarding of their rights in an eventual peace agreement.

Key Issues and Options

The immediate issue for the Council is the renewal of the mandate of the Monitoring Team assisting the 1988 Afghanistan Sanctions Committee. The practice in previous years has been to renew the mandate of the Monitoring Team for two years. However, in 2019 the US, the penholder on the Afghanistan sanctions file, requested a shorter period for the mandate, resulting in a one-year mandate renewal resolution. Council members may choose to renew the mandate of the Monitoring Team for a period that, in their view, will correspond to developments in the peace talks.

With regard to the intra-Afghan talks, the Council could request that Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Representative to Afghanistan, brief members on recent developments in an informal interactive dialogue. Such a meeting would give Council members the opportunity to seek advice on how the Council can best support negotiating efforts.

Council members may choose to implement proposals that were presented by the briefers at the 20 November Arria-formula meeting on the peace process in Afghanistan. One such proposal, suggested by Miller, is for the Council to consider appointing an impartial mediator for the talks who could assist the sides with reaching compromise on difficult issues.

The prevalent violence in Afghanistan, including its adverse effect on children and youth and their right to education, is also a matter of concern for the Council. In this regard, Council members can raise awareness of the importance of incorporating child protection considerations in the intra-Afghan talks and encourage those involved in the negotiations to use the “Practical guidance for mediators to protect children in situations of armed conflict”—a UN-wide guidance document developed through a process led by the Office of the Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict to provide mediators with tools to prioritise the protection of children. Council members can also urge the parties to agree on child protection measures as early confidence-building measures in the negotiations. Such measures can include an agreement to cease attacks on schools and hospitals, release and reintegrate child recruits and detainees, and designate areas for humanitarian demining to protect children from the impact of explosive remnants of war.

Council Dynamics

Council members are united in their support for the peace process in Afghanistan and for UNAMA’s work. However, issues have arisen in the past around matters relating to the 1988 sanctions regime. It appears that during last year’s negotiations on the renewal of the mandate of the 1998 Monitoring Team, the US requested that the mandate of the team be renewed for three months. The US circulated the draft resolution three days before the expiry of the monitoring team’s mandate, which limited the timeframe for discussions. A compromise was reached to renew the mandate for one year. It is possible that the impetus for the US’s proposal for a shorter mandate was its desire to facilitate progress in the negotiations it was holding with the Taliban at the time.

The US-Taliban agreement states that once the intra-Afghan negotiations commence, the US will engage with members of the Security Council and Afghanistan to remove Taliban members from the 1988 UN sanctions list. At the time of writing, the US has not submitted any de-listing requests in this regard. Other Council members, who are not signatory to the US-Taliban agreement, have been emphasising that the issue of de-listing should be approached on a case-by-case basis, in line with resolution 2513 that calls for considering the de-listing of Taliban members based on their action, or lack thereof, to reduce violence or advance 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.

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Security Council Resolutions
15 September 2020S/RES/2543 This was a resolution renewing the mandate of UNAMA until 17 September 2021.
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.
Secretary-General’s Reports
18 August 2020S/2020/809 This was the Secretary-General’s report on UNAMA.
Security Council Letters
8 September 2020S/2020/891 This was a letter containing the statements made at a Security Council meeting on the situation in Afghanistan, held on 3 September 2020.
Security Council Press Statements
5 November 2020SC/14349 This was a press statement in which Council members condemned the 2 November attack that took place at Kabul University.
27 October 2020SC/14338 This was a press statement in which Council members condemned the 24 October attack that took place near the Kawsar e Danish educational center in Kabul.