What's In Blue

Posted Thu 19 Nov 2020

Arria-Formula Meeting on the Peace Process in Afghanistan

Tomorrow (20 November) a high-level Arria-formula meeting will be held via videoconference on: “What can the Security Council do to support the peace process in Afghanistan?”.  It is being co-organised by Security Council members Estonia, Germany and Indonesia, together with co-sponsors Afghanistan, Finland, Norway, and Qatar. The meeting will be chaired by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Estonia, Urmas Reinsalu, and introductory remarks will be made by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan, Mohammad Haneef Atmar. President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan is the expected keynote speaker. The anticipated briefers are Deborah Lyons, Special Representative for Afghanistan and head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA); Fatima Gailani, member of the Afghan government negotiating team; and Laurel Miller, Asia Director at the International Crisis Group.

The meeting will be live-streamed via YouTube, Facebook and the homepage of the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs at 9:00 am EST.

The concept note prepared by the co-organisers states that while the peace process must remain Afghan-owned and Afghan-led, the meeting can serve as an opportunity to discuss ways in which members of the Security Council and the international community more broadly can support the peace process in Afghanistan and facilitate the maintenance of peace and security in post-conflict Afghanistan. The meeting also aims to highlight the importance of the 2020 Geneva conference on future civilian assistance to Afghanistan, set to take place on 23-24 November. The concept note says that the start of the peace process has direct implications for the 2020 Geneva conference, which is co-organised by Afghanistan, Finland and the UN. An anticipated outcome of the conference is a second version of the Afghanistan National Peace and Development Framework which will provide a strategy for development for the years 2021-2025 and form the foundation of a new aid framework for Afghanistan.

The intra-Afghan negotiations that started in Doha, Qatar, on 12 September, were lauded by many in the international community as a significant development in the Afghanistan peace process. Members of the Security Council welcomed the start of the talks in an 18 September press statement, in which they called on the parties to engage in good faith and to undertake confidence-building measures such as a reduction in violence.

International stakeholders indicated at the outset of the intra-Afghan talks that the conduct of the parties and the outcomes of the negotiations would 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 stressed the importance of maintaining the values, gains and rights which have been achieved in the country.

Tomorrow’s meeting takes place amid a complex situation in Afghanistan, as the negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban have seemingly hit an impasse and high levels of violence continue to adversely affect civilians and erode trust between the parties. To date, the negotiation teams of the Afghan government and the Taliban have not started discussing substantive matters, as disagreements arose around the procedural rules for the talks. The main areas of contention relate to the question of which interpretation of Islam should be used to frame laws in a post-conflict Afghanistan and the place in the negotiations of the 29 February US-Taliban agreement. The Taliban has demanded that the Hanafi school of Sunni jurisprudence serve as the principal source of future legislation in Afghanistan, while the Afghan government expressed concern that this could lead to discrimination against religious minorities in the country. Additionally, the Taliban has insisted that the rules of procedure for the talks state that the group is only negotiating with the Afghan government as part of the US-Taliban agreement, thus signalling its ongoing reluctance to recognise the Afghan government as a legitimate and independent governing entity.

The results of the US presidential election have also added uncertainty to the negotiation process. The US-Taliban agreement and the joint US-Afghanistan declaration were crucial in bringing the parties to the negotiating table. As such, questions relating to the implementation of assurances made by the US, such as the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and the removal of Taliban members from UN sanctions designations, have a direct impact on the progress of the talks. Analysts have surmised that the parties would lack motivation to compromise until there is clarity regarding the policy of US President-elect Joe Biden on these matters. The reported intention of the outgoing Trump administration to accelerate the troop drawdown in Afghanistan also serves as a complicating factor in the negotiations. On 17 November, US Acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller announced that the number of US troops in Afghanistan, currently approximately 4,500, would be reduced to 2,500 by 15 January.

The participants in tomorrow’s meeting will be interested to hear from the briefers about the current status of the intra-Afghan talks and what can be done to promote trust between the parties. Council members are likely to reiterate their call for the parties to undertake confidence-building measures and urge them to pursue an immediate reduction of violence. In that regard, many speakers at tomorrow’s meeting are likely to express concern regarding the prevalence of violence in Afghanistan, which has continued unabated since the start of the peace talks. According to UNAMA’s quarterly report on the protection of civilians, issued on 27 October, there has been no reduction in civilian casualties since the start of the intra-Afghan talks.

The period between October and early November witnessed a series of deadly terror attacks and targeted assassinations in the capital Kabul and increased fighting in rural areas across the country. According to the New York Times, more than 200 civilians were killed in October, making it the deadliest month for civilians since September 2019.   Tensions mounted after two attacks in Kabul—on 24 October near the Kawsar-e Danish educational centre and on 2 November at Kabul University—resulted in the death of at least 46 people and injured dozens, most of whom were young students. Although the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) claimed responsibility for both attacks, mutual recriminations between the Afghan government and the Taliban ensued as the government blamed the militant group for the assaults and the Taliban accused the government of sheltering ISIL terrorists. Members of the Security Council condemned the attacks in press statements issued on 27 October and 5 November, respectively, in which they called for a reduction in violence and stressed that attacks deliberately targeting education facilities are unacceptable.

Additionally, fighting between the Taliban and the Afghan National Security Forces in several provinces—including Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan—since early October has sparked widespread displacement. As of 18 November, OCHA verified the displacement of more than 28,000 people in those provinces, with 15,236 people displaced in Helmand alone. The Taliban’s attack on Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand, prompted the US to launch a series of airstrikes against members of the militant group. Following the airstrikes, a spokesperson for the US military in Afghanistan stated that the Taliban attacks in Helmand were “not consistent” with the US-Taliban agreement and served to undermine the ongoing peace talks.

At tomorrow’s meeting, Council members are likely to reiterate their expectations for the conduct of the peace negotiations, their outcome and the principles which will underpin post-conflict Afghanistan. Many of the speakers are expected to emphasise the importance of preserving and building upon the gains made in the past 19 years in the country, including the human rights and constitutional rights of women, girls and minorities. Council members can be expected to reaffirm their support for the participation of women in the Afghan peace process and the promotion and safeguarding of their rights in an eventual peace agreement. Council members have often expressed these positions, including most recently in a 27 July Arria-formula meeting that focused on the participation of women in the Afghan peace process. Participants in that meeting also emphasised the need to hear from women across all of Afghan society, including women residing in rural areas, before and during the negotiations process.