UNITED NATIONS — The U.N.’s top envoy for Afghanistan urged the international community on Tuesday to do everything possible to push the Taliban and the government from the battlefield back to the negotiating table, warning that “inertia” and the lack of action might lead to more years of bloodshed and conflict.
Deborah Lyons told the U.N. Security Council that she cannot overstate her concern at the current situation, saying every major trend -- politics, security, the peace process, the economy, the humanitarian emergency and tackling COVID-19 -- is either “negative or stagnant.”
She said the Taliban’s increasing violence over the past year, even as now stalled peace talks began in Qatar in September, and its latest intensified military campaign have led to significant advances for the insurgents.
“More than 50 of Afghanistan’s 370 districts have fallen since the beginning of May,” the U.N. special representative said in a virtual briefing to a ministerial meeting of the council. “Most districts that have been taken surround provincial capitals, suggesting that the Taliban are positioning themselves to try and take these capitals once foreign forces are fully withdrawn.”
She also pointed to a 29% increase in civilian casualties in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the same period last year, including major increases among women and children. She singled out the May 8 attack on girls leaving school in a majority-Hazara area of Kabul that killed nearly 100 young female students, and two attacks this month that killed 11 people clearing mines in Baghlan province and five people engaged in polio vaccinations in Nangarhar province.
While Afghans knew international forces would be leaving, Lyons said U.S. President Joe Biden’s mid-April announcement that the remaining 2,500-3,500 troops would be gone by Sept. 11 sent “a seismic tremor through the Afghan political system and society at large” because of the speed of their departure.
A U.S.-led coalition launched an invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 to hunt down and destroy the al-Qaida network and its leader, Osama bin Laden, blamed for the 9/11 attacks on America, and overthrew the Taliban, who during their rule imposed a harsh brand of Islam that stripped virtually all rights from women.
Under a February 2020 agreement with the United States, the U.S. agreed to withdraw its troops in exchange for a Taliban promise to denounce terrorist groups and keep Afghanistan from again being a staging arena for attacks on America, to reduce violence, and to enter negotiations with the government aimed at reaching a permanent cease-fire and restoring peace to the war-battered country.
Lyons said, however, “the drivers of conflict seem for now to overwhelm” hoped-for negotiations.
“For the Taliban to continue this intensive military campaign would be a tragic course of action,” she warned. “It would lead to increased and prolonged violence that would extend the suffering of the Afghan people and threatens to destroy much of what has been built and hard won in the past 20 years,” including the rights of women which she stressed “are not negotiable."
Afghanistan’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Haneef Atmar told the council the Afghan people have recently witnessed “the worst violence of the past two decades,” accusing the Taliban of failing to honor any obligations in the February 2020 agreement and instead stepping up violence and leaving the country and region “dangerously unstable.”
He pointed to the Taliban’s failure to cut ties with international terrorist groups, saying it is hosting “not only al-Qaida but also regional terrorist groups ... in pursuit of their violence campaign against both Afghanistan and other countries.” He didn’t mention the Islamic State extremist group which has been blamed for recent attacks on minority Hazaras.
With the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops “to be completed in the coming weeks,” Atmar urged the international community to try to persuade the Taliban to honor its agreement with the United States and the Security Council resolution supporting it. He said it should also establish a “mechanism” to monitor implementation of the agreement “and to take appropriate measures to ensure compliance.”
Atmar said Afghanistan is at “an inflection point” in its history — of “hope for achieving a sustainable peace after four decades of imposed war and fear of falling back into protracted conflict.”
He urged the Taliban to explain to the world community why they said they were fighting foreign troops in Afghanistan and are “killing their fellow Afghans, and especially civilians, where the foreign troops are leaving the country now.”
As a key obstacle to peace, the U.N.’s Lyons pointed to the lack of unity among Afghanistan’s quarrelsome leaders which is essential for peace talks with the Taliban. The foreign minister didn’t mention this issue.
Lyons said the Afghan people and diplomatic community “have been alarmed at the lack of political unity." She expressed cautious optimism about recent moved by President Ashrad Ghani’s government and other political leaders to come together to discuss pressing security issues, but said the real test will be whether this reinforces the peace process and strengthens state institutions.
Lyons urged the Security Council and regional countries to make every effort “to avoid the country going down the path of more bloodshed and suffering” and return to negotiations.
“The tragic history of conflict need not repeat itself -- but left to its own and our inertia it just might,” she said.
U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield reiterated the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan’s safety and security and continuing support for its security forces and economic and humanitarian needs.
She also urged countries with influence to press for negotiations between the Taliban and the government to move forward toward a peace settlement “with the full participation of women.”
U.S. President Joe Biden will meet Ghani and and Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the country’s High Council for National Reconciliation, which oversees the government’s negotiation team with the Taliban, at the White House on Friday. In April, Biden said the U.S. was leaving Afghanistan having achieved its goals: Al-Qaida had been greatly diminished, bin Laden was dead, and America no longer needed boots on the ground to fight any terrorist threat from the country.
“To the Taliban, we reiterate that the military path will not lead to legitimacy,” ambassador Thomas-Greenfield said, noting that council members from Europe, Russia and China have also stressed that there is no military solution to the conflict.
“The world will not recognize the establishment in Afghanistan of any government imposed by force, nor the restoration of the Islamic Emirate (under the Taliban),” Thomas-Greenfield warned. “There is only one way forward: a negotiated and inclusive political settlement through an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process.”