March 2021 Monthly Forecast



Expected Council Action

In March, the Security Council is scheduled to hold its quarterly meeting on Afghanistan. Deborah Lyons, the Special Representative 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 15 March.

The mandate of UNAMA expires on 17 September, and the mandate of the Monitoring Team assisting the 1988 Afghanistan Sanctions Committee expires on 17 December.

Key Recent Developments

Afghanistan remains mired in insecurity as the intra-Afghan talks in Doha stall, and widespread violence continues to adversely affect civilians. On 2 December 2020, the negotiating teams of the Afghan government and the Taliban concluded protracted deliberations on the rules of procedure for the peace talks and agreed to adjourn the negotiations until 5 January, when they were expected to discuss the agenda for the peace talks, leading to substantive deliberations. The negotiation teams did not reconvene until 22 February. While the peace talks were delayed, Taliban representatives, including the head of the Taliban negotiations team, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, travelled to meet with international interlocutors in Pakistan, Iran and Turkmenistan between mid-December and mid-February.

It appears that a major factor hindering the talks is uncertainty around the Afghanistan policy of the new administration of US President Joe Biden. In a 22 January conversation with Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan conveyed the US’s intention to review the February 2020 US-Taliban agreement, including to “assess whether the Taliban was living up to its commitments to cut ties with terrorist groups, to reduce violence in Afghanistan, and to engage in meaningful negotiations with the Afghan government and other stakeholders”. Separately, a US State Department spokesman said on 26 January that the Biden administration will review the sanctions imposed by the former administration of President Donald Trump on ICC officials involved in investigating US troops and intelligence officials for possible war crimes in Afghanistan.

A crucial aspect of the review of the US-Taliban agreement is whether the US will adhere to its obligation under the agreement to withdraw all foreign troops by 1 May. The decision on the troop withdrawal is time-sensitive and has far-reaching repercussions for US allies, Afghanistan’s security, and the continuance of the peace talks. Taliban representatives have stated on several occasions that if the US does not abide by its commitment, the Taliban will withdraw from the intra-Afghan talks and resume armed struggle.

On 3 February, a report by the Afghanistan Study Group—a bipartisan panel established by the US Congress to examine the US-Taliban agreement—concluded that a withdrawal adhering to strict timelines without considering the Taliban’s compliance with the agreement would increase the US’s vulnerability to terrorist threats and the potential for civil war in Afghanistan. The group recommended a diplomatic effort by the US and Afghanistan’s neighbours to convince the Taliban to agree to an extension of the timeline for the withdrawal of international troops and to abide by its commitments under the agreement. A member of the panel noted in an interview that possible leverage in respect of the Taliban includes its desire for international recognition as a legitimate political movement and for sanctions relief.

Following a meeting of NATO defence ministers on 17 and 18 February, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said at a news conference that violence in Afghanistan must decrease and more progress needs to be made in the peace negotiations. At the time of writing, the US had not made an official statement regarding the troop withdrawal.

Meanwhile, as peace talks between the sides remain delayed, violence continues to surge across Afghanistan. UNAMA’s annual report on the protection of civilians, issued on 23 February, noted that 3,035 civilians were killed and 5,785 injured in 2020, with women and children constituting 43 percent of casualties in the past year. The report said that the peace talks have failed to reduce the number of civilian casualties, and trends include targeted killings of government officials, military personnel, civil society members, and journalists. In a recent attack, two female judges were killed in Kabul on 17 January.  According to a 15 February UNAMA report, 11 human rights defenders and media professionals have been killed since the start of the intra-Afghan negotiations—a sharp increase from previous months. UNAMA warned that this has led to the contraction of media space and pushed many professionals to self-censor or flee the country.

In recent months, the Taliban has carried out an intense offensive, capturing military bases and police outposts near capital cities in provinces such as Helmand and Uruzgan in the south and Kunduz and Baghlan in the north. According to media reports, the Taliban has been levying taxes and installing its own administrative services in areas it has captured, thus challenging the authority of the state. Analysts surmise that the Taliban’s actions seek to pressure the Afghan government into making concessions in the peace negotiations. It appears that the Taliban has made new demands for the peace talks, including the release of an additional 7,000 prisoners and the formation of an interim government—both of which the government has rejected.

Against this backdrop, Afghanistan continues to suffer from the increasing spread of COVID-19 and a deteriorating economic and humanitarian situation. According to the World Bank, the poverty rate in Afghanistan rose to 72 percent in 2020—a 22 percent increase from 2019. The UN warned that 18.4 million people—nearly half the population—will need humanitarian assistance in 2021. Almost 17 million people are in crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity, with nearly half of all children in Afghanistan facing acute malnutrition in 2021. The Afghanistan humanitarian response plan requires $1.3 billion to reach 15.7 million people in need.

Human Rights-Related Developments

On 3 February, UNAMA and OHCHR published the sixth periodic report on the treatment of persons deprived of liberty for security and terrorism-related offences in Afghanistan, covering 1 January 2019 to 31 March 2020. The report, based on 656 interviews, found that while the percentage of detainees claiming to have been tortured has decreased slightly compared to 2017-2018, 30.3 percent of those interviewed said they had been subjected to such treatment. It also found that the failure to implement procedural safeguards resulted in detainees held incommunicado and in solitary confinement in the National Directorate of Security.

During its 46th session, the Human Rights Council (HRC) is expected to receive a briefing on 22 March on the report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan and on the achievements of technical assistance in the field of human rights, covering 1 January to 30 November 2020 (A/HRC/46/69). The report concluded that “[d]espite a reduction of 21 percent in civilian casualties, Afghanistan remained one of the deadliest places to live in 2020”. Among other findings, it said that women and girls continue to face challenges in accessing justice for crimes of violence and that civil society actors continue to be increasingly targeted. The report made a series of recommendations, including that the parties to the conflict urgently agree to a comprehensive cessation of hostilities.

Key Issues and Options

A key priority for the Security Council is supporting the intra-Afghan talks to facilitate a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Afghanistan. An issue in this regard is how to advance the engagement of the sides in the peace process. Council members may consider delisting certain Taliban members from the 1988 UN sanctions list. Some Council members may emphasise that delisting should be approached on a case-by-case basis in line with resolution 2513, which calls for considering the delisting of Taliban members based on their action, or lack thereof, to reduce violence or advance the intra-Afghan negotiations.

As the March meeting will take place during the US presidency of the Council, it might serve as an opportunity for Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Representative to Afghanistan, to brief members on recent developments. This could yield ideas on how the Council can best support negotiating efforts.

Looking ahead, Council members might wish to consider how to encourage the sides to incorporate into the negotiations such issues as the protection of children and considerations relating to disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration and security sector reform. They may also wish to discuss ways to include the voices of women, youth, children, and minorities from all segments of Afghan society in the talks as they progress.

Council Dynamics

Council members are united in their support for the peace process in Afghanistan and for UNAMA’s work. The change in the US administration and the five new elected members may affect Council dynamics on Afghanistan. While the Biden administration’s Afghanistan policy has yet to be publicly announced, its engagement with the Afghan government so far has demonstrated more attention to the concerns of Kabul in the peace process. Notably, at the time of writing, incoming US officials have not engaged directly with the Taliban, unlike officials in the previous administration.

Incoming member India replaced Indonesia as the chair of the 1988 Afghanistan Sanctions Committee. With Norway taking over from Indonesia as the chair of the 1267/1989/2253 Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee, the two committees are chaired by different Council members for the first time since 2011.

Council member India has long had close ties to Afghanistan and has since 2001 cooperated with the Afghan government on development, reconstruction and capacity-building in the country, most recently sending Afghanistan its first supply of the COVID-19 vaccine. Issues relating to counter-terrorism are likely to be a focus for New Delhi as Indian officials have often said that Afghanistan should not serve as a sanctuary for terrorists or as a staging ground for activities against India.

Estonia and Norway are the co-penholders on Afghanistan, and Ambassador T.S. Tirumurti (India) chairs the 1988 Afghanistan Sanctions Committee. The US is the penholder on the sanctions file.

Sign up for SCR emails

Security Council Resolutions
18 December 2020S/RES/2557 This resolution renewed the mandate of the Monitoring Team supporting the 1988 Afghanistan Sanctions Committee for another year, until 17 December 2021.
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
9 December 2020S/2020/1182 This was the Secretary-General’s report on UNAMA.
Security Council Letters
22 December 2020S/2020/1274 This was a letter containing the statements made at a Security Council meeting on the situation in Afghanistan, held on 17 December 2020.