The future happiness of Afghanistan is at stake

As attention focuses on Gaza, Mahmoud Saikal explains his country must not be forgotten as the UN risks giving a free pass to the Taliban

Thursday 23 November 2023 21:00 GMT
Afghan refugees receive bread from a local charity at a makeshift camp
Afghan refugees receive bread from a local charity at a makeshift camp (AFP via Getty Images)

The recent UN independent assessment on Afghanistan, pursuant to Security Council Resolution 2679 (2023), has proposed a three-pronged initiative, focusing on building confidence through addressing the basic needs of the people of Afghanistan, attention to regional and global security and stability, and a roadmap for political engagement to reintegrate Afghanistan into the international community.

It has also proposed a multilayer UN mechanism in support of this initiative. As a welcome recommendation, the assessment envisages a more active and structured role for the UN in coordinating the now-fragmented international response to the situation in Afghanistan.

Given the Council’s expectation to see a “forward looking” assessment, the analysis doesn’t cover what has gone wrong in the past. It simply identifies key current issues and proposes concurrent moves in the above three areas, calling for further engagement with the Taliban administration.

A quick review of the Taliban’s behaviour since their inception in 1994 would have easily shown that at least a few recommendations of the assessment are pipedreams. If anything, they may work in favour of the Taliban and assist the growth of the terror it brings.

In its analysis and identification of issues, the assessment portrays the Taliban as helping make Afghanistan and ignores their invention and evolution as part of regional and global geopolitical games.

It vaguely refers to their opponents as “stakeholders” without acknowledging the thousands of men and women who have sacrificed their lives, have been wounded or have been imprisoned or forcefully removed from their homes in the struggle to free the country from the Taliban tyranny since August 2021.

The assessment asserts that “neither the international community, nor the vast majority of Afghans, wish to see renewed armed conflict in Afghanistan”. In doing so, it assumes that Afghanistan is currently in a post-conflict state and avoids making any reference to the armed national resistance actively taking place against the Taliban. It also fails to acknowledge that the people of Afghanistan are entitled to resort to all possible means to exercise their right to self-determination.

The assessment does not say enough about major Taliban war crimes and crimes against humanity, including gender apartheid; and is silent about their use and abuse of international aid, national revenue, and resources. It accepts the militancy of the Taliban and has no proposal for their disarmament.

The assessment is right that “the status quo of international engagement is not working”. But in its proposed new method of engagement hasn’t learned from previous efforts and ignores the political realities.

A concurrent three pronged-strategy, without conditionality and pressure on the Taliban, has the risk of the Talban taking advantage of economic and security engagements, as well as passage of quality time, to further strengthen their military and ideological grip over the country, and delay political engagement, as they have been doing in the past three decades, in particular during and after the failed Doha talks.

Requests for a “robust and healthy Afghan economy”, cooperation on areas such as security, counter-narcotics and regional connectivity, and genuine fight against radicalisation, extremism, and terrorism, need legitimacy in governance more than anything else.

The assessment’s call for “economic dialogue and eventual coordination with the Taliban authorities’ financial and security bodies”, with no conditionality and pressure and without addressing the use and abuse of aid by the Taliban and their butchery of people, is completely premature and a recipe for disaster and mistrust.

Responding to the assessment, the Taliban through a letter to the UN, has already welcomed further engagement and has seen the proposed support to the national economy as a “pathway to the recognition of their regime”. They have flatly rejected the proposed intra-Afghan dialogue and see no need for it at all.

The assessment’s call for “gradually resuming diplomatic engagement inside Afghanistan” is also disappointing. Such a move would further embolden the Taliban and reduce the international community’s leverage to a new low.

It claims that “security conditions have improved inside Afghanistan, easing travel and transport” and “economic predation by armed actors have sharply reduced.” It forgets that the key armed actor – the Taliban – have taken the entire country and its more than 40 million population hostage.

We welcome the assessment’s noting of persistent presence of terrorist groups and individuals inside Afghanistan such as Al-Qaeda and their relations with the Taliban, and the fact that measures taken by the Taliban against them has not been satisfactory to concerned member states.

A requirement for a serious and genuine implementation of resolution 1373 (2001), however, is missing from the assessment.

The call for “reviewing and updating relevant provisions of the UN 1988 Sanctions list pursuant to resolution 1988 (2011)” is welcoming, provided that such a review is conducted with the intent to ensure strict enforcement of the sanctions regime. This is one of the few leverages of the international community.

In the face of what has been happening since August 2021, the revision of the entire sanctions regime is long overdue. The update must strengthen its monitoring and depoliticization, making it more targeted on the Taliban’s assets, travels, and arms.

In the past two years, prominent figures of the Taliban have been instrumental in numerous violations of human rights. Their names must be added to the sanctions list.

The assessment rightly identifies inclusive governance as key demand of “many Afghan stakeholders and of the international community” but finding its remedy in “Afghan traditions of consultations and dialogue”, such as the formation of a constitutional jirga, would be contested by many for two reasons.

First, the Taliban have abolished the 2004 Constitution, hence holding a “constitutional” jirga is impossible. Second, part of the problem is the historic imposition of jirga as a fair consultative body.

Jirgas have historically failed to bring sustainable solutions to the political crisis. Despite having the loya jirga defined in the 2004 Constitution, no constitutional jirga has ever been held in Afghanistan. Almost all jirgas have served the interests of the rulers who have held them.

Chances are that in the current climate, any jirga formed under the Taliban rule will be handpicked and will serve their interests.

Over the past two decades, the people of Afghanistan proved that they are well-receptive to modern and decent methods of political participation, such as transitional authority, free elections, and referendum.

They do not deserve being offered inferior alternatives in the name of “tradition,” which would only serve to whitewash and normalize the Taliban’s tyrannical rule.

The first step of upholding the obligations of the State of Afghanistan, forming an inclusive government and enabling normalisation starts with at least the creation of an equilibrium between the Taliban and their opponents, through internal and external conditionality and pressure.

This is what the proposed UN mechanism of support should be focused on, not further unconditional engagement with the Taliban.

Ambassador Mahmoud Saikal served as Permanent Representative of Afghanistan to the United Nations from 2015 to 2019.

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