UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) Mandate Renewal
Tomorrow morning (15 September), the Security Council is set to adopt a resolution renewing the mandate of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) for another year until 17 September 2021. Council members are expected to vote on the resolution in person at the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) chamber.
Tomorrow’s vote comes amid significant developments in the Afghanistan peace process. On 12 September, the negotiation teams of the Afghan government and the Taliban met in Doha, Qatar, for a first round of intra-Afghan talks, which are aimed at achieving a political settlement to the war in Afghanistan. The direct negotiations between the parties mark the first time that the Taliban met with Afghan government officials in 19 years. Council members may issue a press statement on the intra-Afghan negotiations in the course of the week.
Negotiations on the Draft Resolution
The draft text in blue renews the mandate of UNAMA for a period of one year without making significant changes to the core mandate of the mission, as set out most recently in resolution 2489 of 16 September 2019. However, some language was modified to reflect recent developments, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the start of intra-Afghan negotiations. In that regard, the Council welcomes, in the draft text, the start of intra-Afghan talks and calls on the sides to undertake confidence-building measures such as reductions in violence.
The penholders on Afghanistan, Germany and Indonesia, circulated a first draft of the resolution on 28 August and convened four virtual sessions in the following two weeks to discuss input from Council members. The negotiations appear to have been generally consensual, marking a departure from last year’s UNAMA mandate renewal negotiations, which were characterised by sharp divisions among Council members and almost resulted in a vote on two competing draft resolutions.
The main point of contention during last year’s negotiations was a disagreement between China and the US on whether to maintain a reference to the Chinese “Belt and Road Initiative” (language that had been included in preceding resolutions) in the context of welcoming regional economic cooperation. It appears that this year China has not proposed language explicitly mentioning the “Belt and Road Initiative”. It did, however, apparently propose language that elaborated on possible areas of regional cooperation such as infrastructure construction. It appears that such language was not acceptable to some Council members and was not retained in the final draft text in blue.
The draft text in blue includes provisions aimed at strengthening UNAMA’s capacity to report on violations against children. The language was proposed by Belgium, the chair of the Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict, and was supported by most Council members. However, several other Council members expressed reservations about the possible budgetary implications that may be associated with such a provision. It seems that a reference to the need to strengthen the mission’s capacity to monitor violations against children was removed, as a compromise.
It appears that the Dominican Republic suggested language calling on UNAMA to facilitate the meaningful participation of youth in the Afghan peace process. To that end, its proposal referenced the need to increase the mission’s capacity on youth, peace and security and for UNAMA to establish a youth, peace and security strategy, as mandated by resolution 2535. During the negotiations, the reference to youth was streamlined to mention support for the participation of women and youth in the peace process, without tasking UNAMA with any role in this regard.
In the course of negotiations, at least one Council member wanted to include language calling for a responsible withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. Such a reference was seemingly unacceptable to several members of the Council, including those who are members of NATO, and the language was not retained in the final draft text in blue.
Political Developments in Afghanistan
The first round of intra-Afghan negotiations began on 12 September following several months of concerted diplomatic efforts aimed at convening the Afghan government and the Taliban for direct peace talks. The 29 February US-Taliban agreement, which stipulated that the intra-Afghan talks would begin on 10 March, called for the Afghan government to release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners and for the militant group to release 1,000 Afghan prisoners as a confidence-building measure ahead of the start of negotiations. However, the contentious issue of prisoner release and the high levels of violence in the country have eroded trust between the parties and significantly delayed the start of the intra-Afghan talks.
After both sides released most of the agreed-upon prisoners, the last obstacle to the start of direct negotiations appears to have been the release of a final round of Taliban prisoners comprising 400 militants who were accused of grave crimes, such as murder and kidnapping. In addition, Australia and France have reportedly expressed concerns about the release of some militants whom they claim were involved in high-profile attacks against their nationals. According to media reports, this final issue was resolved by the transfer to Qatar of six Taliban prisoners accused of crimes against international citizens and their placement under house arrest.
At the time of writing, the negotiation teams of the Afghan government and the Taliban have reached preliminary agreements on the agenda and the modalities of the talks, but have not started deliberations on substantive matters. The intra-Afghan talks are expected to include multiple rounds of negotiations likely to span several years. Some of the issues the negotiations are expected to address include the future mode of governance, long-term constitutional arrangements, the terms of a permanent ceasefire and the rights of all members of Afghan society, including those of women, youth and minorities.
Representatives of the Afghan government have stressed on several occasions that one of their first priorities for the talks is achieving a lasting ceasefire. The Taliban, however, have yet to publicly articulate a clear set of objectives for the talks or their vision of the future of Afghanistan. International commentators have noted that the Taliban is unlikely to agree to a permanent ceasefire in an early stage of the talks, since the militant group might use violence as leverage to obtain its goals in the talks. Some members of the international community therefore suggested that the sides agree to an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. Deborah Lyons, the Special Representative for Afghanistan and head of UNAMA, conveyed such a message in her latest briefing to the Council during the quarterly meeting on Afghanistan on 3 September. Lyons warned that the high levels of violence plaguing the country may derail the intra-Afghan talks and called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire to facilitate an atmosphere of trust conducive to negotiations. She then requested the international community to make a strong call for a humanitarian ceasefire as one of the first priorities in the negotiations.
Violent attacks continued unabated in Afghanistan in the weeks ahead of the negotiations. Some of these attacks targeted peace activists and Afghan officials involved in the peace negotiations, including Fawzia Koofi, a member of Afghanistan’s negotiation team. On 9 September, a roadside bomb attack targeted the convoy of Afghan Vice-President Amrullah Saleh. While Saleh was unharmed, the blast resulted in the death of ten civilians and injured dozens. The Taliban denied responsibility for the attack on the vice-president. According to Afghanistan’s defense ministry, the Taliban carried out attacks in 18 out of the country’s 34 provinces on the eve of the talks.
International stakeholders have indicated, at the outset of the intra-Afghan talks, that the conduct of the parties and the outcomes of the negotiations will influence future international political and financial support to Afghanistan. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who participated in the opening ceremony of the intra-Afghan talks, stated that the parties’ “choices and conduct will affect both the size and scope of future US assistance”. Similarly, the EU Special Envoy for Afghanistan, Roland Kobia, said that future financial and political support, including at the Security Council in the case of the latter, is conditioned on the outcome of the talks. He further stressed the importance of maintaining the values, gains and rights which have been achieved in the country.