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Afghanistan: Quarterly Meeting on UNAMA

Tomorrow morning (23 March), the Security Council will convene its quarterly meeting on Afghanistan via videoconference. Deborah Lyons, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan and head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), is expected to brief on the Secretary-General’s 12 March report on UNAMA. The Council will also be briefed by Shaharzad Akbar, chairperson of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC).

Developments in the Afghan peace process are expected to be a key focus of tomorrow’s meeting. Council members will be interested to hear updates on the recent diplomatic push to revitalise the stalled Doha peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. International efforts in recent weeks include the announcement by the US of initiatives for future conferences on Afghanistan, the appointment of a personal envoy of the Secretary-General on Afghanistan, and the holding of an international meeting in Moscow on 18 March. Members might want to hear Lyons’ analysis on how these efforts may affect the course of negotiations. Some Council members may welcome any initiatives that can bolster the intra-Afghan talks while emphasising that they should not sideline the Doha process.

The intervention by the US delegation at tomorrow’s meeting is likely to garner attention, as progress in the peace process appears to hinge on the results of the US’s review of the February 2020 US-Taliban agreement. A crucial aspect of the review is whether the US will adhere to its obligation under the agreement to withdraw US and NATO Coalition troops by 1 May. The Taliban has maintained that it would abandon the intra-Afghan talks if the US fails to comply with its commitment, while experts have warned that a withdrawal adhering to strict timelines could increase the potential for civil war in Afghanistan. In a 17 March interview, Biden said that his administration was still in the process of determining when US troops will leave, noting that a 1 May withdrawal is possible but would be difficult to carry out.

While the US considers its position on the withdrawal of troops, it has approached the Afghan sides with diplomatic initiatives aimed at reinvigorating the peace talks. In an undated letter to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, which was leaked to the press on 7 March and reported as authentic by various media sources, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken proposed convening two international conferences: a UN-sponsored event with representatives from China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and the US; and a meeting to be hosted by Turkey with senior level representatives from the Afghan government and the Taliban. At the time of writing, the Turkey meeting was reportedly set to take place in early April and the UN-sponsored event was expected in the last week of March, but specific dates have yet to be announced.

Blinken’s letter further noted that Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Representative to Afghanistan, will share proposals aimed at accelerating the peace talks with the sides involved. Khalilzad reportedly shared a draft peace agreement with the Afghan government and the Taliban during the first week of March. The draft, which was leaked and reported by several media sources as authentic, suggests the formation of a transitional government that would include members of the Taliban and would govern until a new constitution is adopted and national elections are held. However, the draft does not specify which share of the proposed governing authority would be controlled by each side. The draft also contains a proposal for a comprehensive ceasefire, including the establishment of a joint monitoring commission comprised of members from both sides and UN-appointed international observers. The Afghan parties have yet to comment publicly on the proposed peace agreement at the time of writing. The Afghan government has previously opposed suggestions for a transitional government, arguing that a government must be elected to possess legitimacy.

On 17 March, Secretary-General António Guterres announced the appointment of Jean Arnault as his Personal Envoy on Afghanistan and Regional Issues. Arnault is expected to liaise with regional countries with the aim of supporting the negotiations between the Afghan parties. The appointment of a Secretary-General’s personal envoy does not require Security Council approval. At tomorrow’s meeting, Council members may be interested to hear more from Lyons about the personal envoy’s proposed role and how his work will correlate to UNAMA’s activities.

In tomorrow’s session, there may also be discussion of the 18 March meeting hosted by Russia in Moscow of the extended “Troika”—a group comprised of China, Pakistan, Russia, and the US—with the aim of facilitating progress in the intra-Afghan talks. The meeting, which was attended by representatives from the Afghan government and the Taliban, was not one of the proposals outlined in Blinken’s letter and appears to have been planned separately. The extended “Troika” issued a joint statement in which they called on the parties in Afghanistan to reduce violence and on the Taliban to not pursue a Spring offensive. The statement urged the sides to engage in negotiations on fundamental issues to resolve the conflict. In addition, the statement took note of the appointment of the Secretary-General’s personal envoy on Afghanistan and welcomed the UN playing a positive role in the Afghan peace process.

Akbar may emphasise in her statement at tomorrow’s meeting the need to facilitate the meaningful participation of women in the peace negotiations. Akbar has expressed concern at the fact that only one woman was included in the Afghan government’s delegation to the Moscow meeting. She stated that to have credibility, future diplomatic events must include women, maintaining that women should comprise 30 percent of negotiators at a minimum. Several Council members may call for the meaningful participation of women in all future initiatives related to the Afghan peace process and reiterate the need to safeguard the rights of women, children and minorities in any possible agreement.

Another likely topic of discussion at tomorrow’s meeting is the level of violence in Afghanistan. Recent months have witnessed a worrying trend of targeted killings of government officials, military personnel, civil society members, and journalists in the country. In a recent attack on 18 March, a bomb targeting a bus carrying government employees in Kabul killed three people and injured an additional 11. In a 12 March press statement, members of the Security Council strongly condemned the targeted attacks against civilians in Afghanistan, stating that such attacks may constitute war crimes. The press statement also expressed concern about the threat terrorism poses to Afghanistan. This reference was apparently suggested by India and was supported by several Council members. It seems that at least one Council member wanted to add language condemning the Taliban’s role in violence in the country, but other members felt such an addition would not be conducive to the promotion of the peace talks.

Tomorrow’s Council meeting will be the first on Afghanistan for incoming members Kenya, India, Ireland, Mexico, and Norway. Ireland and Mexico– co-chairs of the Informal Expert Group on women, peace and security– as well as Norway, are likely to advocate strongly for the meaningful participation of women in the Afghan peace process and for the promotion of their rights in any future settlement. Mexico has also identified as a priority the countering of harmful impacts of the spread of small arms and light weapons in Afghanistan. Some members, such as Ireland and Norway, may emphasise the need to address the dire humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, including the looming threat of famine in the country.

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