Afghanistan: Resolution on the Peace Process
Today (10 March) the Security Council is set to adopt a resolution welcoming 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 Afghani government.
The draft resolution in blue welcomes the intention of Afghan parties to pursue intra-Afghan negotiations geared towards achieving a political settlement and a comprehensive ceasefire. It calls on the parties to carry out confidence-building measures to support the negotiations, including reductions in violence and the release of prisoners. The draft resolution further expresses the Council’s readiness to consider starting a review of the designation status of members of the Taliban listed under the 1988 sanctions regime, while noting that such a review will be conditioned on Taliban actions (or lack thereof) to reduce violence and participate in the intra-Afghan negotiations.
Today’s vote comes in the midst of difficult political and security developments in Afghanistan in recent days, which have been marked by continued contestation of the September 2019 presidential election results, ongoing violence between the Taliban and Afghan forces, and differences of view between the Taliban and the Afghan government on an important aspect of the agreement related to the release of prisoners.
On 29 February, the US and the Taliban signed an agreement in Doha, Qatar, following the completion of a previously agreed upon seven-day reduction in violence across Afghanistan. The US and Taliban held numerous rounds of negotiations starting in July 2018, with both sides coming close to an agreement in early September 2019. The signing of that agreement was cancelled by the US, with US President Donald Trump citing the Taliban’s responsibility for a suicide car bomb attack in Kabul on 5 September that killed an American soldier and 11 others. The negotiations resumed in Doha in the fall of 2019, culminating in the signing of the agreement on 29 February.
The US-Taliban agreement sets a timeline for the withdrawal of US and Coalition troops from Afghanistan in exchange for a pledge by the Taliban to prevent elements seeking to target the US or its allies from operating on Afghan soil. In the first phase, the US is set to reduce its forces in Afghanistan from about 13,000 currently to 8,600 within 135 days of the signing of the agreement. The agreement envisions a complete withdrawal of all US and Coalition forces within 14 months, conditioned on the Taliban’s commitment to meeting its obligations under the agreement. On 9 March, Colonel Sonny Leggett, the spokesman of the US Forces in Afghanistan, announced that the US has begun the initial withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.
The agreement, which does not refer to the internationally recognised Afghan government by name, specifies that intra-Afghan negotiations between the Taliban and “Afghan sides” will begin on 10 March. It calls for the release of prisoners from both sides—up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners and up to 1,000 other Afghan prisoners—by the beginning of the intra-Afghan negotiations as a confidence-building measure. It further states that once the intra-Afghan negotiations commence, the US will engage with members of the Security Council to remove members of the Taliban from the 1988 UN sanctions list, with the aim of achieving this goal by 29 May 2020.
Following the announcement of the agreement, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani expressed on 1 March his objection to releasing prisoners before the beginning of the intra-Afghan negotiations, maintaining that the issue should be resolved only during negotiations. He further noted the logistical difficulties in implementing such a large-scale process in a short timeframe.
The Taliban for its part announced that it views the release of prisoners as a pre-condition for its participation in the intra-Afghan negotiations, and on 2 March declared its intention to resume attacks on Afghan security forces. In the following days, the group carried out numerous attacks against Afghan security forces and civilians, including a 2 March attack during a football match in Afghanistan’s eastern Khost province, which resulted in at least three deaths and 11 wounded.
On 4 March, the US carried out an airstrike against Taliban fighters in Nahr-e Saraj, Helmand- the first such strike since the signing of the agreement. Leggett stated that the airstrike was a defensive strike aimed at preventing an attack on an Afghan National Defense Forces checkpoint. While the US-Taliban agreement does not include a commitment by the Taliban to continue with the reduction of violence after the signing of the agreement, it appears that US officials expect the Taliban to reduce attacks as a show of good faith. In his statement, Leggett expressed the commitment of the US to the defense of its partners in Afghanistan and called on the Taliban to respect its commitment to the international community to reduce violence.
On 9 March, incumbent Afghan President Ghani was sworn in 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. Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who had previously contested the election results and declared himself the rightful victor, carried out a parallel inauguration ceremony on the same day.
International stakeholders have raised concerns that the rift among Afghanistan’s ruling elites will complicate the process of intra-Afghan negotiations and will weaken the government’s position in the negotiations. Due to the political crisis in Afghanistan and the disagreement on the issue of prisoner release between Ghani’s government and the Taliban, it remains unclear when the intra-Afghan negotiations will commence.
Negotiations on the resolution
The US circulated a first draft of a resolution welcoming the signing of the US-Taliban agreement and the joint US-Afghanistan declaration on 2 March. Council members then met for two rounds of negotiations, on 2 and 5 March.
It appears that in the course of the negotiations, several members sought further clarification from the US on a provision in the draft text stating the Council’s readiness to review the status of designation of individuals and entities under the 1988 sanctions regime upon the commencement of the intra-Afghan negotiations. Several members expressed concern that the provision might be viewed as a call for the complete abolishment of the 1988 sanctions architecture. It appears that assurances were made by the US that this will not be the case. Several members emphasised that sanctions are an important tool in promoting a political settlement in Afghanistan and therefore sought to add language that strengthens the conditions placed on this provision. Language was then added to underscore that the Council will only “consider the start” of the review of the status of designation of members of the Taliban upon the commencement of the intra-Afghan negotiations, to clarify that the de-listing of individuals will not take place automatically once the negotiations have started. It also appears that several members expressed the view that if the resolution doesn’t stipulate a substantive alteration of the sanctions regime then a separate provision on sanctions relief may not be needed, since the de-listing of individuals can be done through the accepted procedures of the 1988 sanctions committee.
Several council members, including European members of the Council, called for language reflecting the need to preserve the constitutional gains achieved in Afghanistan with regard to women and youth rights. The initial draft was therefore amended to include a call for the participation of women, youth and minorities in the political process, emphasising that any future political settlement must protect the rights of all Afghans, including women, youth and minorities.
The draft resolution was put under silence on 6 March, but silence was broken on 9 March by China and Russia. China sought to add a provision on the responsible withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, recalling the language on the matter that was included in a joint statement issued after a trilateral meeting between China, Russia and the US on the Afghan Peace Process held on 25 April 2019. It appears that during the negotiations, the US and other Council members in NATO expressed concern about tying the operational aspects of the withdrawal of troops to a Security Council resolution.
China further asked to add language on regional cooperation. While the resolution in blue does not contain language on responsible withdrawal of troops, it does refer to the efforts of regional cooperation for regional development.
Russia for its part sought to add language on the need to combat the trafficking of opiates originating in Afghanistan, which was eventually included in the final draft.