Afghanistan Approaching ‘Defining Moment’ as Peace Talks Lag, COVID-19 Pandemic Looms, Deputy Special Representative Tells Security Council

Political uncertainty, delays in the start of the peace process, increasing violence and the imminent full force of the COVID-19 pandemic make this a critical time for Afghanistan as it struggles to emerge from decades of conflict, the Officer-in-Charge of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) told the Security Council in a videoconference meeting[*] on 31 March.

“Afghanistan appears to be reaching a defining moment,” said Ingrid Hayden, briefing the 15-member Council on developments since the United States and the Taliban signed their Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan on 29 February and the inauguration of incumbent President Ashraf Ghani as the winner of the 28 September 2019 elections — an outcome disputed by his rival, Abdullah Abdullah.

[Her briefing also came on the heels of the Secretary-General’s latest report on the situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace and security, contained in document S/2020/210.]

Ms. Hayden, who is also the Secretary-General’s Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan, said the key question for Afghanistan today is whether its leaders can rally together to engage in meaningful peace talks with the Taliban — a choice made stark by the all-encompassing threat of COVID-19 to the health of its 38.04 million people and the stability of its institutions.

Describing the risk to Afghanistan posed by COVID-19 as “extreme”, she said a reduction in violence leading to a ceasefire would save lives, create a more conducive environment to begin intra-Afghan peace negotiations and enable the Government to focus on battling the looming health crisis. The deadly effects of the novel coronavirus are particularly concerning, she said, given Afghanistan’s fragile health system, its high number of internally displaced persons, its overcrowded prisons, the difficulties women face accessing health care and the lack of built-in social protection guarantees.

To help mitigate the risk, the United Nations in Afghanistan had developed a response plan to support the Government’s response to the pandemic, she said, emphasizing that that will require $108.1 million in funding until 30 June. Quoting the Secretary-General, she said COVID-19 threatens all of humanity and so all of humanity must fight back. “Only through the collective action of Member States, in close cooperation with Afghan authorities, can we hope to minimize the impact of this global threat on Afghanistan’s vulnerable population,” she said.

On peace efforts, she said that “now is not the time for divisions” and that UNAMA is urging all parties to work together to resolve their differences. With the decision by the United States on 23 March to reduce its assistance by $1 billion this year, and its readiness to do the same in 2021, Afghanistan must demonstrate a compelling case for continued international investment. Despite deep-seated grievances, now may be a rare opportunity for Afghanistan’s leaders to address fundamental issues, she stressed.

Despite the political impasse, she said that it is heartening to see the Afghan establishment agree on a diverse team to negotiate with the Taliban that includes representatives of all major ethnic groups, as well as five women members. UNAMA is encouraging the Taliban to reciprocate by including women in its delegation, thus sending a tangible signal that it has fundamentally reformed. She added that prisoner releases, if carefully managed, can build confidence to start the peace process, and that the Mission urges the parties to resolve the issue swiftly in line with international law.

Since it signed its agreement with the United States, the Taliban appears to be adhering to its commitment to reduce violence against international military forces, which have begun to withdraw from Afghanistan, she said. However, recent weeks have seen a resurgence of conflict-related violence, driven mainly by Taliban attacks against the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces. For March alone, she added, UNAMA has recorded more than 180 civilians killed, with the Taliban responsible for a high number of civilian casualties.

“This trend is regrettable, but it is also reversible,” she said, explaining that the past few months have shown that violence can be reduced significantly with a genuine commitment among all parties. She expressed concern over an Afghan Air Force air strike in Kunduz on 21 March in which nearly all those killed were women and children, as well as the threat posed by Islamic State-Khorasan Province, which claimed an attack on a Sikh-Hindu temple in Kabul on 25 March that killed and injured dozens of civilians.

In the ensuing discussion, Council members echoed the call for Afghanistan’s political leaders to show unity, pressed the Taliban to halt acts of violence and underscored the many ways that COVID-19 threatens the whole country. Speakers also congratulated Deborah Lyons of Canada on her appointment as the Secretary-General’s new Special Representative for Afghanistan and Head of UNAMA, which was announced on 24 March (see Press Release SG/A/1952).

The representative of the United States said recent developments, such as the formation of an inclusive Afghan negotiating team and progress towards an exchange of prisoners, “reflect the promise of peace”. However, to enter negotiations, the country needs an inclusive Government, she said, noting that United States Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo visited Kabul on 23 March to urge Afghanistan President Ghani and Dr. Abdullah to set aside their differences. Should an inclusive Government be formed, United States President Donald J. Trump’s Administration is prepared to revisit its decision to reduce its assistance to Afghanistan. She noted that the United States has announced $15 million to help the country halt the spread of COVID-19 and hoped that others will follow suit. She went on to call on the Taliban to immediately bring down levels of violence, emphasizing that the United States remains committed to defending the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces.

China’s representative called on all of the country’s parties, including the Taliban, to jointly develop political and security plans that are acceptable to all, through intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations. China will continue to work with the international community, especially the Russian Federation and Pakistan, to promote that dialogue process. “A divided Afghanistan is in nobody’s interest,” he clarified. He welcomed the agreement signed by the United States and the Taliban, noting that Afghanistan and Pakistan recently started transporting goods through the Gwadar Port, marking new progress in Afghanistan’s integration into the regional economy. All efforts should be made to help Afghanistan fight the COVID-19 pandemic and China is donating 30,000 test reagents, 250,000 masks and some ventilators to arrive on 1 April.

The United Kingdom’s representative, noting that the COVID-19 virus is a concern for all issues on the Council’s agenda and Afghanistan in particular, said that while options are being examined to effectively respond to the pandemic, it is ever more important that the Taliban commits to the ceasefire and that Afghan political leaders come together so the Government can lead the necessary response. The parties must overcome differences and ensure the momentum in intra-Afghan negotiations is not lost. Turning to Afghanistan’s needs, the United Kingdom has committed $362 million, he said, adding that coordination between development, security and political actors is more crucial than ever before. “There are many risks ahead of us and around us, but we need the key decision makers in Afghanistan from all parties, from all areas, to hold their nerve and to do the right thing and to come together for peace and for the people and to tackle the pandemic,” he said.

The Dominican Republic’s representative shared the Secretary-General’s concerns about an increase in the number of people in Afghanistan — from 6.3 million to 9.4 million — in need of humanitarian assistance and protection due to the conflict. “We hope that the humanitarian situation does not worsen during this time of pandemic,” he said. He added that it is important to address the drug crisis in Afghanistan and the wider region, which remains a serious problem, and encouraged the Government to ensure women a leadership role in peace talks.

Estonia’s representative expressed strong support for UNAMA’S engagement with national, regional and international partners, notably to promote gender equality. He welcomed Afghanistan’s approval for the State Ministry of Peace, an independent Government entity that coordinates peace-related issues across relevant ministries. He expressed deep concern about the 10,392 civilian casualties documented in 2019, underscoring the imperative of establishing a ceasefire amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Calling the Afghanistan Government’s formation of a team for peace negotiations a “very positive development”, he nonetheless expressed regret that the Taliban has refused to cooperate. Any effort pertaining to the peace process should not erode the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution, he cautioned.

France’s representative emphasized that the current circumstances should push all stakeholders to be more united than ever in supporting the people of Afghanistan — “a country that has been plagued by war, terrorism, poverty, and now a pandemic”. Most crucial is to ensure continued and sufficient humanitarian assistance to face the many challenges ahead, especially the risks posed by COVID-19. All parties have an obligation to respect international humanitarian law, including the protection of civilians, she stressed, describing the 25 March terrorist attack in Kabul as an appalling crime. Echoing the Secretary-General’s calls for a ceasefire, she also underlined the need for the swift appointment of an inclusive, united Government and for inclusive representation from all sides in the intra-Afghan negotiation process. In that regard, she said the signing of two agreements in February paves the way for peace and must continue despite the major disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Belgium’s representative said that the deadly terrorist attack on 25 March was another sad event in a conflict that has claimed 100,000 victims since UNAMA started counting more than a decade ago. Such violence adds to growing concerns over the spread of COVID-19 in Afghanistan and its impact on its population, with recent large-scale cross-border movements likely to put further pressure on the country’s health system. Echoing the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire, he said that Afghans need an inclusive Government that enjoys broad support, can confront the pandemic and seizes the opportunity for peace. Women must play a key role in negotiations, he said, adding that the Council must emphasize the importance of respecting Afghanistan’s Constitution and fundamental rights and freedoms. Noting that 687 grave violations against children in Afghanistan were verified in the last three months of 2019, he said that Belgium will keep looking for consensus within the Council with regards to children and armed conflict.

Indonesia’s representative said that raised hopes following the peace process agreements was marred last week by the ISIL/Da’esh attack, and concerns over rising COVID-19 cases. He appealed to Afghan parties to come together on a comprehensive peace agreement, urging the country’s leaders to set aside their differences and place people’s interest first. “We hope that the intra-Afghan negotiation will be convened once the COVID-19 crisis is over,” he said. Parties must ensure smooth humanitarian support and end violence against civilians, he said, while more broadly drawing attention to the Afghanistan-Indonesia Women Solidarity Network launched in March. He went on to call on all parties to ensure smooth humanitarian support and to “stop harming civilians”. With Ramadan approaching, it is time for a cessation of hostilities, he said, emphasizing that any peace agreement must not compromise the gains made by Afghan women.

South Africa’s representative strongly condemned the attack on the Sikh temple in Kabul, stressing: “Terrorist acts, whatever their motivation, can never be justified.” He encouraged all Afghan stakeholders committed to the nation’s peace talks to renew their efforts to rebuild trust, work towards peace and reconciliation, and to promote national unity, expressing hope that the agreement between the United States, Afghanistan Government and the Taliban, respectively, will mark an important first step from which intra-Afghan negotiations can begin.

Viet Nam’s representative strongly condemned attacks by the Taliban and other terrorist groups in Afghanistan, underscoring the importance of implementing resolution 2513 (2020) in starting negotiations for a permanent ceasefire. He welcomed the Government announcement of an inclusive team for peace negotiations, calling on it and the opposition party to set aside their differences, and urging the international community to increase technical support for conducting dialogue via remote means. He likewise urged the Taliban and all other terrorist groups to immediately stop fighting and permit unhindered humanitarian and health-care access. It is important for UNAMA to provide training, funding and technical support to Afghanistan in countering cross-border crime, he added.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines condemned in the strongest terms the killings at the Sikh temple in Kabul, reiterating the Secretary-General’s appeal for a global ceasefire amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Encouraging all parties to uphold their commitments under the 29 February agreement between the United States and the Taliban, she stressed the importance of political inclusivity among all stakeholders to create a more just and equitable society that benefits all Afghans.

Also participating in the meeting were representatives of Germany, Tunisia, Niger, Russian Federation and Afghanistan.