Expected Council Action
In September, the Security Council is expected to consider the renewal of the mandate of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), which is set to expire on 17 September. The Council will also hold its quarterly meeting on Afghanistan. Deborah Lyons, the Special Representative for Afghanistan and head of UNAMA, and a representative of Afghan civil society are expected to brief.
Key Recent Developments
Following a military offensive that swiftly gained momentum in the aftermath of the Biden administration’s announcement that the US would begin withdrawing troops on 1 May, the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan. During the initial phase of the offensive, which also began in early May, the Taliban focused primarily on taking control of districts, roads, military outposts, and border crossings in rural areas. By early August, the Taliban controlled more than half of Afghanistan’s 421 districts and, in direct contravention of its February 2020 peace agreement with the US, had begun attacking several provincial capitals throughout the country. Zaranj, the capital of Nimruz province near the Iranian border, fell to the Taliban on 6 August and was quickly followed by several major Afghan cities, including Kunduz and Kandahar, which were captured by the Taliban on 8 and 12 August, respectively. On 15 August, the Taliban seized Kabul and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country.
Following an initial meeting regarding recent developments in Afghanistan on 6 August, the Council convened again for a briefing and closed consultations on 16 August following the fall of Kabul. The Secretary-General briefed, and Afghanistan’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Ghulam M. Isaczai, participated under rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure. In his statement, the Secretary-General said the UN had received “chilling reports of severe restrictions on human rights throughout the country” and noted that he was particularly concerned by accounts of violations of the rights of women and girls. He also called on the Council to “use all tools at [its] disposal” to suppress the threat of terrorism in Afghanistan and guarantee that basic human rights will be respected. He further noted that the UN intended to stay in Afghanistan and urged the international community to remain united.
Shortly after the meeting, Council members issued a press statement. Among other matters, the statement expressed concern about reports of serious violations of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses, stressed the need to bring perpetrators to justice, and called for greater efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan and allow unhindered access for humanitarian actors. Council members also called for the establishment of a new government with the full, equal, and meaningful participation of women, as well as urgent talks to resolve the crisis of authority and arrive at a peaceful settlement.
Although the Taliban declared the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan on 19 August, which is the same name it used when it was last in power, it also indicated that it will not make any decisions or announcements regarding the formation of a new government until the 31 August deadline for the withdrawal of US troops expires. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, the Chair of the High Council for National Reconciliation, are currently negotiating the formation of an inclusive interim government with the Taliban.
On 18 August, the UN announced that it had relocated a number of UNAMA’s international staff to offices in Almaty, Kazakhstan. On 24 August, reports suggested that the Taliban had taken control of UN compounds in Afghanistan and that local staff were facing reprisals. Approximately 3,000 Afghans are currently employed by UNAMA.
The international community’s response to the Taliban’s seizure of Afghanistan has varied. On 16 August, a spokeswoman for the Chinese government said that China is ready to deepen “friendly and cooperative” relations with Afghanistan and that it will respect the “wishes and choices of the Afghan people”. China has not closed its embassy in Kabul. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Special Representative on Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, noted on 16 August that Russia will observe the actions of the new authorities before deciding how to respond, and subsequently said that the Taliban were better negotiating partners than Ghani’s “puppet government”. Russia also held military exercises with Tajikistan along its border with Afghanistan and has kept its embassy in Kabul open. In a possible sign of closer relations with Russia, the Taliban asked Russia to negotiate with a group of Afghan leaders who are currently holding out against the Taliban in Panjshir Valley. On 17 August, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, said that the EU will only cooperate with the Taliban if it respects fundamental human rights, especially those of women, and prevents the use of Afghanistan’s territory by terrorist organisations. On 16 August, the US said that it will not support the Taliban if it harbours terrorists or fails to uphold the basic rights of its people, particularly women and girls.
The humanitarian and refugee situations in Afghanistan, which were already dire before the Taliban’s takeover, have continued to deteriorate. In an 18 August press conference Mary-Ellen McGroarty, the World Food Programme’s Country Director in Afghanistan, said that 14 million Afghans are currently suffering from severe hunger and that $200 million in food aid is required before the start of winter. At the same press conference Caroline Van Buren, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Representative in Afghanistan, noted that 500,000 people have been displaced in Afghanistan since January. The suspension of aid to Afghanistan by many member states, as well as the IMF’s announcement that it has halted plans to distribute $400 million in emergency reserves to Afghanistan and the US Treasury Department’s decision to block access to $9.4 billion in funds held by Afghanistan’s central bank, are likely to affect the Afghan response to the humanitarian crisis.
At the time of writing, the situation at Kabul airport was chaotic. Control of the road leading to the airport was divided among the Taliban, the remnants of Afghan intelligence forces, and foreign troops. On 26 August, two suicide bombers detonated explosives outside Kabul airport. According to media reports, as many as 170 people were killed and at least 200 were wounded. On 27 August, the Council issued a press statement regarding the attacks. The statement noted Islamic State in Khorasan Province had claimed responsibility, condemned all instances of terrorism, reiterated that no Afghan group should support terrorists and called on all parties to facilitate the safe evacuation of civilians.
In the days preceding the blasts, international leaders have been pressuring US President Joe Biden to extend the 31 August evacuation deadline. In response, the Taliban said there would be “consequences” if foreign troops stay beyond 31 August. On 24 August, Biden announced that the US was “on pace to finish by August the 31st”, and the US ultimately ended its operation on 30 August, with thousands of Afghans still waiting to leave the country. On 29 August, approximately 100 countries announced that the Taliban had provided assurances that foreign nationals and Afghan citizens will be allowed to travel freely to destinations outside Afghanistan following the withdrawal of foreign military forces.
On 30 August, the Council adopted resolution 2593 concerning recent developments in Afghanistan. The resolution demands that Afghan territory not be used to attack any country or shelter terrorists and asks for strengthened efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. It also calls on all parties to allow unhindered access for humanitarian actors. In relation to the evacuations from Afghanistan, the resolution notes that the Taliban has made a commitment to allow Afghans to travel abroad. It references the dangerous security situation around Kabul airport and expresses concern regarding intelligence which indicates further terrorist attacks may take place nearby. The resolution calls on relevant parties to work with international partners to strengthen security near Kabul airport and requests that every effort be made to allow for its rapid and secure reopening. It further underlines that all parties must respect their obligations under international humanitarian law, reaffirms the importance of upholding human rights, and calls on the parties to seek a negotiated political settlement.
Human Rights-Related Developments
On 10 August, the High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet issued a statement warning that the “failure to stem the rising violence and commission of human rights violations and abuses is having disastrous consequences for the people of Afghanistan”. The statement also referred to rising civilian casualties and “reports of violations that may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity”, as well as serious violations of the rights of women and girls. Bachelet reiterated these points during a 24 August special session of the Human Rights Council on the “serious human rights concerns and situation in Afghanistan”, which was convened following an official request submitted on 17 August by Pakistan, Coordinator of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and Afghanistan. The request was supported by at least 89 states. In her speech, Bachelet also advocated for the creation of a special mechanism to closely monitor the actions of the Taliban.
On 16 August, a group of independent human rights experts issued a statement expressing outrage over “the wanton attacks on civilians, the targeting of independent journalists and media, and the violence being directed at women and girls”. Among other matters, it emphasised that the Council “must now be unequivocal in action” and called on it “to take appropriate action under Chapter VII of the Charter to safeguard the human rights and humanitarian needs of the people of Afghanistan, including its most vulnerable, and to address the role of Member States to prevent acts of terrorism under international law”.
Women, Peace and Security
On 19 August, Mette Knudsen, Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan, and Alison Davidian, UN Women Deputy Representative in Afghanistan, briefed the Informal Experts Group (IEG) on Women, Peace and Security regarding the situation of women in Afghanistan.
Co-chairs Ireland and Mexico held a press stakeout following the IEG meeting, during which Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason (Ireland) said that the co-chairs had urged the Council to protect and vindicate the rights of Afghan women and girls in all decisions and actions on the future of Afghanistan. She also suggested steps that the Council could take immediately, including calling on all parties to facilitate the “safe and timely departure of Afghans, particularly human rights defenders, women leaders and those involved in public life, women’s rights activists, peacebuilders and journalists, who wish to leave the country”; and insisting that the “full, equal and meaningful participation of women in any new government is a non-negotiable condition of international engagement”. Following Ireland’s remarks, Ambassador Alicia Guadalupe Buenrostro Massieu (Mexico) further stressed that the rights of women and girls need to be at the heart of the collective response to the crisis.
The background note for the meeting, which was prepared by UN Women, recommended that the Council adopt a resolution calling for a nationwide ceasefire in Afghanistan that “fully incorporates gender considerations, including the protection of women”. The note also recommended that the Council ask UNAMA to take account of gender considerations as a crosscutting issue throughout its mandate and support, consult and engage with a wide range of women’s civil society organisations as it carries out its work. It further suggested that UNAMA monitor threats, attacks, and killings of women.
Key Issues and Options
A major issue for the Council is the renewal of UNAMA’s mandate and determining what role UNAMA will be able to play following the Taliban’s takeover. Because this will largely be determined by the security and operating environment in Afghanistan and by the Taliban’s willingness to allow UNAMA to carry out its work, Council members will follow developments on the ground and the progress of the negotiations regarding the formation of an interim government closely. Given the fluid situation, one option is for the Council to adopt a short technical rollover of UNAMA’s mandate and request a strategic review that considers how UNAMA can operate in Afghanistan moving forward and what it can realistically achieve. This review could be conducted in consultation with UNAMA, with a particular focus on the safety and security of its staff, and the results could be used to inform a further renewal of UNAMA’s mandate before the technical rollover ends.
Council members may also wish to consider imposing further sanctions on the Taliban and members of its leadership.
Another matter for Council members to consider is the role the Council can play in ensuring the safety of women and girls. In line with the recommendations made ahead of the recent IEG meeting on Afghanistan, Council members could encourage member states to provide women at risk with emergency visas and access to diplomatic and political channels. Council members could also hold an informal meeting with Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka; the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Pramila Patten; and women from Afghan and international civil society. This meeting could focus on discussing how the Council can assist those trying to ensure the safety of women and girls as the Taliban consolidate their power.
Before the Taliban took control, Council members were largely united in their support for UNAMA’s work. At the time of writing, it remains unclear how the Council will approach the renewal of the mission, whose future will likely be contingent on the position adopted by the new Afghan authorities. In general, Council members that have kept their embassies in Afghanistan open and expressed a willingness to work with the Taliban, such as Russia and China, may be less inclined to take action that the Taliban could view as provocative. Other members who have repeatedly emphasised the importance of ensuring that the Taliban respects and upholds the fundamental rights of Afghans and adheres to international norms—including Estonia, France, India, Ireland, Mexico, Norway, the UK, and the US—are likely to be more supportive of taking action that seeks to hold the Taliban to these standards. Council members are likely to agree, however, on the importance of ensuring that Afghanistan does not become a haven for terrorism.
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|
|30 August 2021S/RES/2593||This was a resolution that addressed recent developments in Afghanistan, including the Taliban’s seizure of power and the 26 August attack at Kabul airport.|
|15 September 2020S/RES/2543||This was a resolution renewing the mandate of UNAMA until 17 September 2021.|
|Security Council Meeting Records|
|16 August 2021S/PV.8834||This was a meeting following the fall of Kabul to the Taliban.|
|6 August 2021S/PV.8831||This was a meeting on Afghanistan.|
|Security Council Press Statements|
|16 August 2021SC/14604||This statement addressed the Taliban’s seizure of Afghanistan.|
|3 August 2021SC/14592||The members of the Security Council condemned in the strongest terms the deplorable attack against the United Nations compound in Herat, Afghanistan, on 30 July 2021, which resulted in the death of an Afghan security forces guard and several injured.|