Expected Council Action
In June, the Security Council is scheduled to hold its quarterly debate on Afghanistan. Estonia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Eva-Maria Liimets, is expected to chair the meeting, which will be held at ministerial level. 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 June. An official from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and a civil society representative may also brief.
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
The situation in Afghanistan remains difficult. A diplomatic push initiated in March to reinvigorate the intra-Afghan peace process appears to have slowed down, while civilians continue bearing the brunt of persistent violence. On 14 April, US President Joe Biden announced that the US would begin withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan on 1 May, with the aim of completing the withdrawal by 11 September; recent media reports indicate that the withdrawal will be accelerated, with US and NATO troops expecting to leave Afghanistan in the first half of July.
The US decision delayed the 1 May deadline for foreign troop withdrawal stipulated in the February 2020 US-Taliban agreement. While Biden described the decision as “keeping with the agreement”, the Taliban has announced that the group views it as a violation of that agreement. In addition, Taliban officials have stated that the group will refuse to participate in any conference aimed at determining Afghanistan’s future until foreign troops have departed.
On 21 April, a high-level meeting on Afghanistan, planned to take place in Istanbul from 24 April to 4 May with the participation of representatives of the Afghan government, the Taliban, and the international community, was postponed. A joint statement by Turkey, Qatar and the UN (the co-organisers of the postponed meeting) noted that the aim of the meeting was to enhance the momentum of the Doha talks, which started in September 2020, but that they had agreed to postpone it to a “later date when conditions for making meaningful progress would be more favourable”. At the time of writing, no new date for the Istanbul conference had been set, and it was unclear if it would take place.
The Doha peace process reportedly continues, as the delegations of the Taliban and the Afghan government continue talks in Qatar. The negotiations appear to be making little progress in light of demands by the Taliban for the release of an additional 7,000 Taliban prisoners and the removal of its members from UN sanctions designations.
On 17 March, the Secretary-General announced the appointment of Jean Arnault as his Personal Envoy on Afghanistan and Regional Issues. Arnault is expected to liaise with regional countries with the aim of supporting the negotiations between the Afghan parties. The Secretary-General’s spokesperson conveyed in a 20 April press briefing that Arnault had been unable to start his duties due to personal health reasons. The Personal Envoy appears to have travelled to New York to meet with Council members during the week of 24 May.
Meanwhile, daily attacks, often targeting civilians, continue in the country. On 30 April, a car bomb attack on a guesthouse in Pul-e-Alam in the eastern province of Logar killed at least 27 people and injured more than 100. High school students were reportedly among the casualties. On 8 May, a car bomb attack on a high school in Kabul killed at least 90 people and injured more than 150, many of whom were teenage girls. The attack took place in a western district of the capital that is home to many residents from the predominantly Shiite Hazara ethnic minority. To date, no organisation has claimed responsibility for the two attacks, but the Afghan government has blamed the Taliban. Security Council members strongly condemned the attacks in press statements issued on 3 May and 10 May, respectively. The 10 May statement expressed concern about the prevalence of violence against education facilities in Afghanistan in recent months, which severely affects students’ right to education.
The latest report by the 1988 Committee’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, covering the period between May 2020 to April, argued that the Taliban’s rhetoric indicates its unwillingness to reduce violence to facilitate peace negotiations. It added that the group’s intent is to strengthen its military position because it believes that it can achieve its objectives either through negotiations or, if necessary, by force. The report notes that the monitoring team’s interlocutors have assessed that the Taliban is responsible for 85 percent of the targeted assassinations of recent months and that many of the victims were outspoken critics of the group or had previously been threatened by it. The monitoring team added that although the Taliban has taken some steps to restrict Al-Qaeda activities in Afghanistan, the two groups “remain closely aligned and show no indications of breaking ties”.
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. News of the accelerated withdrawal of US troops has added uncertainty to the process, and some analysts have expressed concern that the Taliban might abandon its engagement in the peace talks and pursue a military victory. There is also debate on whether the international community has non-military leverage to compel the Taliban to participate in peace negotiations.
Some have suggested that the removal of Taliban members from the 1988 UN sanctions list can be used as a tool to promote the group’s engagement in the peace process. Several Council members, however, feel that sanctions relief should not be used as a bargaining chip and emphasise that de-listing should be approached on a case-by-case basis in line with resolution 2513, which calls for considering the de-listing of Taliban members based on their action, or lack thereof, to reduce violence or advance intra-Afghan negotiations. At the time of writing, there has been no new de-listing request submitted to the 1988 Committee in this regard.
Looking ahead to UNAMA’s mandate renewal before its September expiry, members could consider whether any adjustments are needed to the mission’s mandate. Such amendments could reflect UNAMA’s expected cooperation with the Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy and any possible changes because of the expected withdrawal of foreign troops.
The prevalent violence in Afghanistan, including its effect on children and youth and their right to education, is also a matter of concern for the Council. In this regard, Council members could raise awareness of the importance of incorporating child protection considerations in the intra-Afghan talks. They could also urge the parties to agree on child protection measures as early confidence-building steps in the negotiations. Such measures could include an agreement to cease attacks on schools and hospitals and to release and reintegrate child recruits and detainees.
Adequate resourcing for UNAMA’s child protection capacities is an important related issue. In a 7 May Arria-formula meeting on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children in situations of armed conflict, UNAMA’s Human Rights Chief, Fiona Frazer, noted that the pandemic has laid bare the requirement for additional human resources to address the growing child-protection needs in an increasingly difficult environment. Resolution 2543 of 15 September 2020, which most recently renewed UNAMA’s mandate, included language strengthening the mission’s child protection capabilities, but the mission has not received additional human resources to date. During the upcoming negotiations in the General Assembly’s fifth committee on special political missions in October and November, Council members may seek to emphasise the need to receive necessary financing for the implementation of provisions stipulated in resolution 2543.
Council members are united in their support for the peace process in Afghanistan and for UNAMA’s work. Possible changes to Council dynamics on Afghanistan relating to the change in the US administration and the advent of the five elected members in 2020 are likely to become more pronounced during the upcoming negotiations on UNAMA’s mandate renewal.
Thus far, Ireland and Mexico—the co-chairs of the Informal Experts Group on women, peace and security—as well as Norway have indicated their strong emphasis on issues relating to the meaningful participation of women in the Afghan peace process and the safeguarding of their rights. Ireland has also signalled its focus on accountability, while India has emphasised issues relating to counter-terrorism.
India also appears to highlight the views of regional states on the Afghanistan file. In this regard, an initiative by Russia in early April to promote a presidential statement welcoming the 18 March meeting hosted by Russia in Moscow of the extended “Troika”—a group comprised of China, Pakistan, Russia and the US— did not succeed. It seems that India broke silence on the proposed text several times since it did not include its suggested language on the 30 March ministerial conference of the Heart of Asia Istanbul Process (a process aimed at increasing regional cooperation on Afghanistan comprising 15 countries, including Afghanistan, China, India and Russia).
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.
UN DOCUMENTS ON AFGHANISTAN
|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.|
|12 March 2021S/2021/252||This was the Secretary-General’s report on UNAMA.|
|Security Council Letters|
|26 March 2021S/2021/291||This letter contained a record of the statements made at the quarterly meeting on Afghanistan, held on 23 March 2021.|
|Security Council Press Statements|
|10 May 2021SC/14515||In this press statement, Security Council members condemned the 8 May 2021 attack on a high school in Kabul.|
|3 May 2021SC/14510||In this press statement, Council members condemned the 30 April 2021 attack on a guesthouse in Pul-e-Alam.|