Swift Withdrawal of International Troops Sparks Widespread Fear in Afghanistan, Experts Tell Security Council, Sounding Alarm over Taliban Military Gains
Group Must Cut Ties with Terrorists, Foreign Minister Insists, Citing Recent Massacres of Schoolchildren, Vaccinators
Amid the swift withdrawal of troops by the United States and its allies from Afghanistan, the Taliban is flexing its military muscle to gain greater control of the country’s territory, speakers warned the Security Council in a videoconference meeting today, as one civil society leader urged members to help avert a “Rwanda-type genocide” in the conflict-plagued country.
“The Taliban’s advances are significant,” said Deborah Lyons, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), as she briefed the 15-member organ and introduced the latest report of the Secretary-General (document S/2021/570). Noting that more than 60 of Afghanistan’s roughly 370 districts have fallen to a Taliban military campaign since the beginning of May — some without resistance — she cautioned that the group is seizing area surrounding provincial capitals in an effort to position itself to take those centres once foreign forces are fully withdrawn.
She denounced the military campaign as running directly counter to recent statements by the head of the Taliban Political Commission, which pledged the group’s commitment to “forging ahead with the other sides in an atmosphere of mutual respect and reach an agreement”. Expressing hope that the stalled negotiations between the United States and the Taliban will accelerate through a conference in Istanbul in April, she nevertheless reported that the latter never officially responded to the invitation to the meeting. Meanwhile, UNAMA continues to work within the scope of its mandate and, in cooperation with Member States, to find ways to move forward the negotiations.
Emphasizing that the April announcement that all international troops will be withdrawn in the coming months sent a seismic tremor through the Afghan political system, and society at large, she stressed: “The withdrawal decision was expected, but its speed — with the majority of troops already withdrawn — was not.” All actors have been forced to adjust to that new, rapidly unfolding reality. For their part, regional countries have been playing a crucial role in helping Afghanistan to stabilize and integrate more fully into the region. She called for further galvanizing the existing regional formats, including the Extended “Troika” of the United States, Russian Federation, China and Pakistan, to reinforce a political and peaceful path for Afghanistan.
“I have reassured Afghans that the United Nations will not abandon them and will stay the course,” she continued, underscoring that there is only one acceptable direction for Afghanistan — away from the battlefield and back to the negotiating table. The Council, with the support of regional countries, must do all it can to push the parties in that direction. Left to its own inertia, Afghanistan’s tragic history of conflict will only repeat itself, she warned.
Mary Akrami, Executive Director of Afghan Women’s Network, also briefed the Council, deploring that the United States-Taliban agreement reached in February “has brought nothing but increased violence”. The parties to the peace process must not negotiate peace while at the same time launching violent offensives, she insisted, emphasizing that such a duality only serves to undermine the peace process and erode the population’s confidence in it.
Noting that the plea of Afghan civil society – particularly women — for a ceasefire has been dismissed by the Taliban, she said the group has even launched a murderous campaign against professional women, journalists, and peacebuilders. Meanwhile, it has intensified its violent attacks on educational institutions and public and private properties, she said, declaring: “We are tired of attending funerals of our friends and relatives — we want an end to this war.” Urging the Council not to stand idly by as spectators, she demanded: “Do not allow a Rwanda-type genocide take place under your watch in Afghanistan.”
Ghada Fathi Waly, Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), also briefed, describing how drug trafficking could undermine the fragile peace process in Afghanistan. Citing Council resolution 2543 (2020), she highlighted the importance of regional cooperation, governance and the rule of law, including through the fight against corruption, as the “building blocks” for an Afghanistan at peace. A cornerstone action to achieve that aspiration is a well-integrated and balanced strategy to counter the illicit drug trade, she said, noting that taxes on opium — paid by poppy farmers mostly to the Taliban — were valued at $14.5 million in 2019. Taxes on the more lucrative manufacturing and trafficking of opiates may have generated eight times as much, with the total income from opium estimated at 11 per cent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product (GDP).
Noting that the total area of the country under opium poppy cultivation in 2020 increased by 37 per cent over the previous year, to the third-largest area ever measured, she underscored the need to enable more farmers to shift to viable, licit crops. The Government of Afghanistan and the country’s donors should all devote greater resources, and increase operational capabilities, to disrupt drug trafficking. In addition, she highlighted a range of support being provided by UNODC in such areas as police reform and the mentoring, training and advisory services — all of which have become even more imperative in the context of departing international forces.
In the ensuing discussion, delegates exchanged their views on the impact of the departure of foreign troops on the peace process, while also expressing concern over an escalation in Taliban attacks and the deteriorating security and humanitarian situations. Some speakers stressed the need to ensure that the gains made in advancing the rights of women, children and minorities over the last 20 years are not lost. Delegates largely expressed support for UNAMA, but some outlined nuanced positions on the continuation of a United Nations presence in Afghanistan following the expiration of the Mission’s mandate in September.
Mohammad Haneef Atmar, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan, noting the aspiration for lasting peace of all Afghans weary of bloodshed, recalled that his country welcomed the United States-Taliban Agreement. The Government, despite not being party to that compact, released over 6,000 Taliban prisoners and engaged in good faith with the group as well as international partners. The Taliban, however, have not honored any of their obligations, failing to cut ties with international terrorism and reduce violence. Recent massacres of schoolchildren in the Logar province and in west Kabul, anti-landmine personnel in the north of the country and vaccinators in the east run counter to the Taliban’s narrative of fighting the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan. Now, the Taliban must explain to the world why they are killing their countrymen just as foreign troops are leaving.
Noting that the agreement recently signed in Doha obliged the Taliban to negotiate with the Government to reach a political settlement, he said the former have not engaged with the latter’s plan for a ceasefire, power-sharing arrangements and early elections for nearly 10 months. The withdrawal of foreign troops will be completed shortly and, at that time, the international community “will unfortunately see for itself that the Taliban will not have met any of their obligations”. Stressing that the February agreement and resolution 2513 (2020) must be respected, he called on the international community to pressure the Taliban into honoring their obligations, especially the establishment of a nationwide ceasefire to facilitate humanitarian aid delivery. He further urged the international community to establish a monitoring mechanism to verify the implementation of the agreement.
Eva-Maria Liimets, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Estonia and Council President for June, spoke in her national capacity, stressing that no further concessions to the Taliban should be made. In line with Council resolution 2513 (2020), an easing or lifting of sanctions will be considered when conditions are met. Extensions of the travel ban exemptions to certain members of the Taliban have had a clear purpose, which is to advance the peace process. Emphasizing that the Taliban must demonstrate a credible commitment to peace, she said the Council must help keep peace negotiations vigorous, which is the only way to reach an inclusive political settlement. An equally important task is ensuring that every woman and girl, every student, every member of civil society or a minority group knows that they can have a peaceful future in their home country. In the next few months, the Council must decide on the future role and presence of the United Nations in Afghanistan. To that end, she said, Estonia and Norway will be engaging with other Council members and partner organizations to discuss the best way to strengthen UNAMA’s mandate. “Afghanistan today is at a crossroads, and Afghans themselves need to define its future,” she said.
Simon Coveney, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defense of Ireland, expressed concern over the lack of progress in Afghanistan’s peace process, noting that the country is today the most dangerous in the world for civilians. Citing recent attacks against journalists, civil society actors, human rights defenders, humanitarian workers, minorities and schoolchildren, he stressed that the Taliban must respect Afghans’ desire for peace, agree to a ceasefire and seriously engage in negotiations. Ireland and its partners in the European Union will only consider the easing of sanctions when genuine progress is demonstrated towards those ends. Such progress must include meaningful engagement by all Afghans — especially women — and protect women’s human rights, he said, agreeing with other speakers that “women’s rights cannot be the price of peace”. He also urged the international community to respond to the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, where 14 million people are experiencing severe food insecurity.
Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Minister for External Affairs of India, underlined the need for a genuine “double peace” — peace both within and around Afghanistan’s borders. India has been supportive of all the efforts being made to accelerate the dialogue between the Afghan Government and the Taliban, including the intra-Afghan negotiations. However, for peace to last, terrorist safe havens and sanctuaries must be dismantled immediately and terrorist supply chains disrupted. There must be zero tolerance for terrorism, including in its cross-border manifestations. It is equally important to ensure that the territory of Afghanistan is not used by terrorist groups to threaten or attack any other country. India remains committed to steadfastly supporting Afghanistan during its transition. As a development partner, it carries out more than 550 community projects covering all 34 provinces, aimed at making Afghanistan a self-sustaining nation. India has also operationalized air freight corridors and the Chabahar Port to provide greater regional connectivity, he said.
The representative of the United States said that, although her country is withdrawing all its troops from Afghanistan “after 20 long years”, its commitment to the nation’s security and its people endures. Noting the many humanitarian challenges facing Afghanistan — including high food insecurity and a surge in COVID-19 cases — she said the United States is providing Kabul with more than $266 million in new humanitarian aid and encouraged other donors to support Afghans’ immediate humanitarian needs. She also underscored the need to preserve the progress Afghan women and girls have made by protecting their rights and freedoms, and called on all those with influence over relevant parties to “step up now” to secure peace and stability in the region. It is in the international community’s collective interest to prevent terrorists from basing themselves in Afghanistan, and organized criminals from trafficking drugs there. For its part, the United States is supporting Afghan farmers in creating sustainable alternatives to poppy cultivation. “The military path will not lead to legitimacy,” she said of the Taliban’s tactics, stressing that a negotiated, inclusive political settlement is the only way forward.
Audun Halvorsen, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Norway, said the Afghan parties must own the peace process and recognize their responsibility in leading the way to peace. For its part, the international community must do more to demonstrate solidarity and support to the Afghan people. Targeted attacks, including those against humanitarian aid workers, media workers and human rights defenders, must be investigated and the perpetrators held to account. He urged the Government, United Nations agencies and donors to set up programmes for the reintegration of children detained for alleged association with armed groups. He also emphasized Norway’s support for an inclusive Afghan peace process and urged the United Nations and UNAMA to ensure that Afghan women have dedicated seats at the negotiating table.
Tariq Ahmad, Minister for South Asia and the Commonwealth of the United Kingdom, expressed concern over the “desperately slow” progress on peace negotiations and over Afghans’ continued suffering, resulting from debilitating violence and multiple humanitarian crises. Despite the withdrawal of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces, the United Kingdom remains fully committed to the people of Afghanistan. Citing recent attacks on civilians, he said the Taliban is responsible for most of the violence across the country, adding that the group must cease such acts and respect all human rights if it wants to be a part of Afghanistan’s future. He also stated that the direct involvement of women in the peace process “is not a choice, it is a must”, and called on the Taliban to engage meaningfully in peace talks and work towards a political settlement that protects progress already achieved. “There can be no return to the intolerant and barbaric Islamic Emirate of the 1990s,” he stressed.
The representative of China said Afghanistan’s future should be in the hands of its people themselves, and no external forces should be allowed to pursue their narrow self-interests. Urging the relevant parties to seize a “hard-to-come-by” opportunity, he called for the warring sides to resume talks as soon as possible. Since May, the Council has issued three statements condemning security incidents and calling for a lasting ceasefire. Emphasizing that foreign troops cannot just come and go, he called for their orderly withdrawal in close consultation with the affected stakeholders. Progress in Afghanistan requires security guarantees. Noting that UNAMA’s current mandate expires in September, he requested the Secretary-General to propose options for the future of the United Nations presence in the country, for the Council’s early consideration. He added that, as a friendly neighbour, China has always supported Afghanistan’s peace process.
The representative of Kenya condemned the use of terrorism, violence and intimidation to achieve political ends, insisting that those who apply those repulsive methods should not be legitimized through recognition as bona fide political players. As a country that has suffered in the hands of the Al-Qaida-affiliated Al-Shabaab terrorist group, Kenya identifies with the people of Afghanistan who bear the brunt of increasing terrorist attacks. Expressing grave concern that attacks by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan Province increased to 88 compared to 16 during the same period last year, he said that the Council must take an urgent, unified and unyielding stand against these acts. Any review of the sanction measures imposed under Council resolution 1988 (2011) should also be in line with resolution 2513 (2020) and predicated on the Taliban demonstrating commitment to cease all forms of violence and targeted attacks. Any proposal to delist some of its members should only be considered on merit and on a case-by-case basis, he added.
The representative of Tunisia expressed hope that tangible progress will soon be made in negotiations between the Government and the Taliban, while also voicing concern over the continued violence for which the latter is largely responsible and the subsequent enabling of terrorist activity and drug trafficking. Calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities, he urged all parties to prevent civilian casualties, abide by international law and hold perpetrators accountable. The Taliban must end its attacks, honor its counterterrorism commitments and negotiate with the Government in good faith. He also underscored that any future peace agreement must include guarantees that protect and promote fundamental rights and freedoms in Afghanistan, particularly those of women, and said UNAMA will have an important role to play in promoting peace, development and fundamental rights going forward.
The representative of Mexico called on relevant parties to immediately resume dialogue, noting that peace talks — an important achievement for the process of reconciliation — depend in part on coordinated efforts by the international community. Just as Afghanistan’s partners cannot understand the situation in Afghanistan without listening to women, he stressed that it cannot make progress towards peace without guaranteeing their full participation at the negotiating table. Afghanistan’s democratic, inclusive and peaceful future must preserve socioeconomic gains for women, youth and minorities. Turning to the fragile security situation, he stressed that the withdrawal of international troops must be orderly, coordinated and conducted in such a way that does not negatively impact regional dynamics or the Afghan armed forces’ ability to counter terrorism. He added that UNAMA must play an essential coordinating role in improving the humanitarian situation in the country, where almost half of the population requires assistance.
The representative of Viet Nam, stressing that the gains achieved so far on Afghanistan’s political front must be preserved, called for urgent efforts to advance the intra-Afghan peace negotiations. A permanent ceasefire must be achieved as soon as possible to end the ongoing violence. Describing the high number of civilian casualties in the past months as unacceptable, he urged all relevant parties to fully respect international humanitarian law, immediately stop targeting civilians and civilian objects and ensure unhindered humanitarian access to those in need. The international community should continue to support the Government of Afghanistan in promoting socioeconomic development and reconstruction of the country. In addition, he advocated for strengthened efforts to combat the threats posed by terrorism, crime and drug trafficking, and to assist people with licit sustainable livelihoods.
The representative of France said the international community must reject and condemn violence, which has risen to an unacceptable level in Afghanistan, and called for a ceasefire in accordance with resolutions 2532 (2020) and 2565 (2021). The Afghan peace process requires a genuine commitment from all parties, he said, urging the Taliban to commit to negotiations. Noting that the committee overseeing the 1988 sanctions regime is considering extending exemptions to the travel ban to allow Taliban members to attend peace talks, he stressed that such a move is a concession to peace, not to the group itself. If the Taliban fails to live up to its commitments, it must accept the consequences. No compromise should be made on the values and principles of the United Nations. Expressing a concern over increased drug trafficking, he warned that such a trend will have serious consequences on peace in Afghanistan and across the wider region.
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, expressing deep concern over violence targeting women, media workers, activists, Government employees and health workers, called for earnest joint efforts to eliminate terrorism and extremism in Afghanistan and across the wider region. It is also high time to redouble efforts to resolve Afghanistan’s drug control problem and its resulting ills, with a focus on combating illicit opium production and trafficking. The international community must respond urgently to limit the spread of COVID-19 in Afghanistan, where the pandemic is spiralling out of control. She also underlined the link between climate change and food insecurity, including the high likelihood that drought triggered by the weather pattern known as La Niña will exacerbate the situation.
The representative of the Russian Federation, noting UNAMA’s important role in coordinating international assistance to Afghanistan, said the terrorist threat still present in the country continues to pose serious security challenges, worsened by the appearance of groups affiliated with ISIL/Da’esh. These terrorists maintain sleeper cells in the country’s north and east and are building capacity to consolidate their influence in Afghanistan and spread attacks to the wider central Asian region. Pointing out that “Afghan narcotics remain a powerful driver of terrorism”, she expressed disappointment over the relatively limited coverage of that topic in the Secretary-General’s report. For its part, the Russian Federation will continue to train narcotics officers and provide additional support to Afghanistan, including through the Paris Pact Initiative. She also expressed regret over the stalled peace process, while noting that the Extended “Troika” — namely, China, Pakistan, the Russian Federation and the United States — has demonstrated its relevance and ability to lend additional momentum.
The representative of Niger said a stagnated peace process in concert with resurging violence has dampened the Afghan people’s hope. All peace processes must protect the rights of women and young people, preserving what has been achieved over the last 20 years. Meanwhile, negotiations must also address post-conflict reconstruction, including issues of disarmament, demobilization, the reintegration of former combatants and security sector reform. Calling on the international community to urgently mobilize resources to address the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan — where more than one third of the population faces food insecurity — he noted that while many Western nations are in the process of easing COVID-19 restrictions, the international community cannot escape that the pandemic continues to test the “already threadbare” health systems of developing countries such as Afghanistan, where barely over 1 per cent of the population has been vaccinated. He also called on the Council to account for climate-related security challenges when renewing UNAMA’s mandate in September, which Niger supports.