What's In Blue

Posted Fri 26 Aug 2022

Afghanistan: Briefing

On Monday afternoon (29 August), the Security Council will convene for an open briefing on Afghanistan. Russia requested the meeting, citing the need to discuss the “humanitarian and economic situation and other consequences of the US and NATO military intervention” in the country. The expected briefers are Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths, Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan Markus Potzel, and a civil society representative.

Just over a year after the Taliban seized power, Afghanistan continues to face a series of overlapping crises. The humanitarian situation in the country is particularly dire. According to the latest World Food Programme (WFP) Afghanistan Situation Report, which was issued on 15 August, Afghanistan is currently experiencing the highest prevalence of insufficient food consumption in the world, with 92 percent of Afghan households struggling to meet their food needs. During a 15 August press briefing, Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Afghanistan Ramiz Alakbarov described the situation as a “pure catastrophe” and noted that only 40 percent of the $4.4 billion required for the 2022 Humanitarian Response Plan for Afghanistan (HRP) has been received. At Monday’s meeting, Council members are likely to express concern regarding the humanitarian situation. Some members may call on the international community to provide more funding for the HRP.

Afghanistan’s economic difficulties are one of the main drivers of its humanitarian crisis. Although official GDP statistics are not being produced, the World Bank estimates that Afghanistan’s economic output has shrunk by 20 to 30 percent since August 2021. Afghanistan is also experiencing widespread illiquidity and a shortage of banknotes, as well as significant inflation. As described in the World Bank’s Afghanistan Economic Monitor for August, prices for basic household goods saw 43.4 percent year-on-year inflation during July, while cash withdrawals from banks remain regulated for firms and individuals.

The links between Afghanistan’s economic and humanitarian emergencies were outlined by Griffiths during his 23 June briefing to the Council. He noted that the economy “continues to be the primary driver of humanitarian need across Afghanistan” and described the formal banking system as an impediment to the delivery of humanitarian assistance in the country, “due to excessive de-risking, which affects payment channels and causes breakdowns in supply chains”. Griffiths may discuss these issues during his briefing on Monday.

The perilous state of Afghanistan’s economy has led some experts to call for the release of approximately $9 billion in frozen assets belonging to Afghanistan’s central bank, around $7 billion of which are currently held in the US. In a 10 August letter, 71 economists and development experts, including Nobel economics prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, said that they were “deeply concerned by the compounding economic and humanitarian catastrophes unfolding in Afghanistan” and urged the US to return these funds to Afghanistan’s central bank. Some Council members are expected to echo these sentiments at Monday’s meeting.

US and Taliban officials have reportedly held meetings to discuss possible mechanisms for releasing the funds in recent months. Although recent media reports indicate that these talks will continue, they appear to have been complicated by the 31 July killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was discovered living in a Kabul safehouse reportedly controlled by a member of the Taliban. In a statement to the Wall Street Journal, US Special Representative for Afghanistan Thomas West said “we do not see recapitalisation of the Afghan central bank as a near-term option…the Taliban’s sheltering of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri reinforces deep concerns we have regarding diversion of funds to terrorist groups”.

Concerns regarding the spread of terrorism in Afghanistan have also increased following a spate of terrorist attacks that have taken place throughout the country this month, including a 17 August attack on a mosque in Kabul that resulted in at least 54 casualties. Several of these attacks were claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan (ISIL-K), the Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh). In an 18 August tweet, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) deplored the 17 August attack and noted that it was “the latest in a disturbing series of bombings which have killed [and] injured more than 250 people in recent weeks”. The tweet also called on the Taliban “to take concrete steps to prevent all forms of terrorism in Afghanistan”.

The human rights situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated markedly since the Taliban came to power. UNAMA’s latest report on human rights in the country, which was published on 20 July, notes that UNAMA has “documented persistent allegations of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and torture and ill-treatment carried out by the de facto authorities” and further says that “women and girls in particular have been subjected to severe restrictions on their human rights, resulting in their exclusion from most aspects of everyday and public life”. On 8 July, the Human Rights Council (HRC) adopted a resolution without a vote that reaffirmed its unwavering commitment to the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights by all women, girls and children in Afghanistan, including the right to freedom of movement, the right to education, and the right to health. The resolution also urged the Taliban to end practices that have restricted women’s rights and requested the High Commissioner for Human Rights to organise an enhanced interactive dialogue with the participation of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan during the HRC’s next session. On Monday, some Council members may call on the Taliban to end their practices and policies that restrict human rights.

Despite its worsening track record on human rights, the Taliban administration has continued to push for international recognition. In a 2 July statement, participants in a three-day gathering of more than 4,000 male Taliban supporters, most of whom were religious scholars, asked “regional and international countries, especially Islamic countries…to recognise the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan…release all sanctions, unfreeze funds and support development in Afghanistan”. Taliban Supreme Leader Haibatullah Akhundzada delivered a statement at the conference that appeared to signal the Taliban’s unwillingness to bow to international pressure, reportedly saying “we are now an independent country. [Foreigners] should not give us their orders, it is our system and we have our own decisions”.

From 26 to 27 July, Taliban officials attended a conference in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, with delegates from more than 20 countries and representatives of international organisations, including the EU, the UN, and the US. According to media reports, Taliban officials advocated for foreign investment and greater support from the international community at the conference, while some western attendees, including US Special Envoy for Afghan Women, Girls, and Human Rights Rina Amiri, called on the Taliban to uphold the rights of women and foster an inclusive political process. Other participants in the conference reportedly appeared to push for the normalisation of relations with the Taliban.

In recent weeks, Council members have been negotiating the standing exemption to the travel ban in the 1988 Afghanistan sanctions regime. The exemption allows certain members of the Taliban to travel abroad to attend peace and stability discussions. During the negotiations, it appears that some members sought to limit the scope of the exemption as a means of holding the Taliban accountable for their actions, particularly the measures they have implemented that restrict the rights of women and girls. These proposals were opposed by other members, who argued that the travel ban exemption should not be linked to other issues and used to punish the Taliban. Council members were unable to resolve these differences before the previous travel ban exemption expired on 19 August. As a result, the exemption is not currently in place. At the time of writing, negotiations to renew the exemption are ongoing.

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