What's In Blue

Posted Mon 30 Mar 2020

Afghanistan: Informal Videoconference Meeting on UNAMA

Tomorrow (31 March), Security Council members will convene an informal videoconference meeting on the situation in Afghanistan. Ingrid Hayden, Deputy Special Representative for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), is expected to brief on recent developments and the Secretary-General’s 17 March report on UNAMA.

Tomorrow’s meeting was originally scheduled for 27 March as a debate, which would have allowed interested states to participate in accordance with rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure. The meeting was postponed, and the format was changed, due to the impact of COVID-19 on the Council’s working methods. At tomorrow’s meeting, only Afghanistan is expected to participate in accordance with rule 37. (For more on how the Council has adapted its working methods as a result of COVID-19, please see our recent What’s in Blue story, New Security Council Working Methods in the Midst of COVID-19).

On 10 March, the Security Council adopted resolution 2513, which 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. It further called on the parties to carry out confidence-building measures to support future intra-Afghan negotiations, including reductions in violence and the release of prisoners.

Since the signing of the agreement and the issuing of the declaration, however, Afghanistan has continued to experience a period of uncertainty marked by ongoing violence, a political crisis among Afghanistan’s ruling elites and looming concerns regarding the spread of COVID-19 in the country. Due to these conditions it remains unclear when the intra-Afghan negotiations– which the US-Taliban agreement stipulated would begin on 10 March — will commence.

The political impasse between President Ashraf Ghani and former Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah is likely to be a topic of discussion in tomorrow’s meeting. On 9 March, Ghani was sworn in for another term as president in Kabul, following the announcement by Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) that he had won the election that took place on 28 September 2019. Abdullah, who contested the election results and declared himself the rightful victor, carried out a parallel inauguration ceremony on the same day. International mediation efforts appear to have been unsuccessful in mending the rift in the Afghan government. After meeting with Ghani and Abdullah in Afghanistan, US Secretary of State Pompeo announced  on 23 March that the US will reduce its assistance to Afghanistan by $1 billion in 2020 and consider a further $1 billion reduction in 2021. In his statement, he cited disappointment in the inability of Ghani and Abdullah to agree on an inclusive government or to take steps to facilitate intra-Afghan negotiations such as formulating a negotiations team or agreeing on the terms of a prisoner release with the Taliban. Council members may be interested in hearing more about efforts that are being taken by UNAMA to alleviate the political impasse in the country.

Efforts to move forward with intra-Afghan negotiations are also likely to be addressed in tomorrow’s session. On 25 March, Ghani announced that he has selected a team that will represent the government in the negotiations with the Taliban. The suggested team includes 16 men and five women and is set to be led by Masoom Stanekzai, Afghanistan’s former intelligence chief. Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Representative to Afghanistan, congratulated the Afghan government and civil society on the decision regarding the team’s formation, saying they had “forged an inclusive negotiating team… [which] reflects the true tapestry of the nation and the instrumental role of women”. However, on 28 March the Taliban issued a statement rejecting the government’s proposed negotiation team, while claiming that it was not inclusive.

The Afghan government and the Taliban have taken incremental steps to resolve the hotly disputed issue of the prisoner releases, which the Taliban announced as a pre-condition for its participation in the negotiations, but which the Afghan government maintained should only be resolved in the course of negotiations. After Ghani announced on 10 March his willingness to discuss a phased release of Taliban prisoners, three technical teleconference talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban took place on 22, 25, and 29 March. Both sides agreed initially to start the prisoner releases by 31 March.

However, on 30 March, a spokesperson for the Afghan Office of the National Security Council announced that the prisoner release will not take place as planned on 31 March, without giving a new date. He said that the Taliban agreed in the 29 March video conference to send a team to Kabul to hold further technical discussions with the Afghan government. The announcement came on the heels of a period marked by increased assaults carried out by the Taliban against Afghan security forces. Between 28 and 29 March, Taliban insurgents attacked several Afghan security posts in the northern provinces of Kunduz, Baghlan, Takhar, Faryab and Badakhshan, as well as in the southern province of Helmand.

The difficult security situation in the country is likely to be discussed in the meeting, including its ongoing impact on the civilian population. According to a statement issued by UNAMA, violence affecting civilians has continued unabated throughout the month. From 1 to 25 March, more than 100 civilians had been killed and many more injured. UNAMA attributed the majority of civilian casualties to attacks perpetrated by anti-government elements, while noting that the Taliban has been responsible for a high number of these casualties. The statement further mentioned the terrorist attack that took place at the Dharamshala Sikh Temple in Kabul on 25 March 2020 which was claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province (ISIL-K) and resulted in the death of least 25 people. This attack was strongly condemned in a press statement issued by members of the Security Council.

UNAMA has echoed the call made by Secretary-General António Guterres for a global ceasefire to fight the spread of COVID-19 and stated that a reduction in violence would not only save lives and allow the country to better respond to the potential spread of the virus, but would create an environment conducive to the start of intra-Afghan negotiations.

At the time of writing, Afghanistan has reported 123 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and four fatalities from the virus. The majority of the reported cases are in the western city of Herat, which shares a border with Iran. Health care officials in the country have raised concerns that the low numbers of reported cases are due to Afghanistan’s limited testing capabilities, and that numbers are in fact higher. The fears of the spread of the virus in Afghanistan are exacerbated by the massive increase in Afghan returnees from Iran, which has been hard hit by the virus. According to the International Organization for Migration, in the past month almost 100,000 undocumented Afghan migrants returned from Iran to Afghanistan via the Islam Qala border.

Council members may be interested in hearing from Hayden about the potential impact that the outbreak of COVID-19 might have on the stability in the country and the ability to achieve progress towards intra-Afghan negotiations. They might further inquire regarding any challenges it might pose to the ability of UNAMA to perform its duties.

Council members may consider issuing press elements after the informal meeting, as has been the case with several informal video teleconference meetings which took place in the past week, such as those on Libya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Such elements may repeat the call for a nation-wide ceasefire and encourage the parties to continue taking steps to facilitate the commencement of the intra-Afghan negotiations as soon as conditions permit. Council members may also reiterate the call on the Afghan government to resolve internal differences and form an inclusive government.

On 24 March, the Secretary-General announced the appointment of Deborah Lyons of Canada as his Special Representative for Afghanistan and Head of UNAMA, succeeding Tadamichi Yamamoto, who served in this role since 2016. Lyons served most recently as Ambassador of Canada to Israel, and as Ambassador of Canada to Afghanistan between 2013 and 2016.