UNSC Watch: On Afghanistan, a Shaken Council Took Stock, But Deferred Concrete Steps

An ‘inclusive’ government was the stipulation of most member states. Still, only a handful of UNSC members were emphatic on the red lines that should not be crossed when engaging with a future Taliban-dominated government.

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New Delhi: The shock of the sudden fall of Kabul reverberated in United Nations Security Council, where member states grappled with the changed scenario, even as complex evacuation operations have largely tied down key western capitals from strongly criticising the Taliban for imposing a military solution.

In the third week of India’s Council presidency, there were two signature events on peacekeeping and technology and terrorism, chaired by external affairs minister S. Jaishankar. These resulted in a presidential statement on the use of technology in UN peacekeeping, a resolution on accountability of crimes against peacekeepers and a press statement on the threat posed by the Islamic State to international peace and security.

The Council also issued a presidential statement expressing concern over the situation in West Africa, including Sahel and piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.

It was, however, Afghanistan which cast a shadow over the entire week.

The Security Council convened for an emergency session on Afghanistan on August 16, less than 24 hours after President Ashraf Ghani left for the UAE, the insurgent group installed themselves in the capital and Kabul airport was besieged by thousands of Afghans desperate to leave the country.

It was a completely different country from the last meeting by the UN body just two weeks ago, when the international community had been taken aback by the Taliban’s swift advance across the country.

The press statement issued after the meeting also reflected the new realities. It called for an end to all hostilities and the establishment of “inclusive” negotiations for a new “united, inclusive and representative” government that should have “full, equal and meaningful participation of women”.

In comparison to the August 3 press statement, two points were missing. The latest document failed to mention that UNSC members could not support a military solution or endorse the Islamic Emirate’s restoration.

Sources noted that the missing phrases reflected the current situation in Afghanistan, where UNSC members were focused on getting their nationals and Afghan citizens out of Kabul with the cooperation from Taliban fighters guarding the route to the airport. It was also claimed that the Security Council, as the only UN body to deal with international peace and security, does not rely as strongly as the General Assembly on precedence in drafting a response to rapid developments.

UNSC faced cold reality of Taliban’s victory

The bleak mood was perhaps best encapsulated by Kenya’s UN envoy, Martin Kimani. “If at that time we still had hope – as slim as it might have been – for the Taliban to heed our appeal and stop its attacks, today we are faced with a fait accompli with the effective collapse of the Afghan government and a takeover by the insurgents,” he said.

Ireland’s Geraldine Bryne Nason noted that the Council had heard “many worrying alerts”, but “we failed to heed those warnings”.

While the Afghan republic may effectively not exist, Afghanistan’s permanent representative to the UN, Ghulam M. Isaczai, was forthright that the Council should reiterate that there is no military solution. He also asked the member states to articulate that they would recognise the restoration of the Islamic emirate as reaffirmed in previous council statements and agreements.

He called on the UNSC to make it clear that a future Afghan government will be endorsed by the international community “only if it guarantees the full, equal and meaningful participation of women, includes minority groups and young people, upholds human rights and fundamental freedoms and ensures adherence to the rule of law and accountability, as set out in resolution 2513 (2020)”.

Also read: ‘Asking for Our Rights’: Afghans in India Protest Outside UNHCR Office, Demand Refugee Status

An ‘inclusive’ government was the stipulation of most member states. Still, only a handful of UNSC members were emphatic on the red lines that should not be crossed when engaging with a future Taliban-dominated government.

Estonia asserted that “our cooperation with any future Afghanistan leadership will be based on its willingness to uphold the positive achievements of recent decades and act according to the norms and standards of international law, including international human rights law”.

Norway, co-penholder of the Afghanistan file in UNSC, stated that while the Taliban had issued “encouraging words”, it will be judged by its actions. “How Taliban members conduct themselves in actual deed will matter a great deal in terms of whether or not, and how, the international community will be willing and able to relate to, cooperate with and support a future new Afghan government in which the Taliban participates,” said Norway’s Odd-Inge Kvalheim.

India’s ambassador T.S. Tirumurti suggested that an “inclusive dispensation” with broader representation “would help the arrangement gain more acceptability and legitimacy”. There was, however, no mention of the Taliban by name in the Indian statement.

Among the P-5 countries, only the UK had explicit criticism of the Taliban for not adhering to its commitments to hold talks with the previous Ghani government. “We have worked hard to breathe life into peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban, working closely with the United States, our leading allies and other regional Powers. The Taliban pledged, at Doha, to engage in those talks in good faith. Its actions on the ground have betrayed that promise,” said UK’s deputy permanent representative, James Kariuki.

The US envoy, Linda Thomas-Garfield, did not comment on the Taliban’s latest actions but mainly called on the insurgent group to ensure safe departures of Afghans and urged nations to give refuge to those wishing to leave.

Russia took a dig at the United States by referring to the collapse of the US-trained Afghan security forces. “It is clear that such a sharp turnabout took everyone by surprise, including those who very recently made public pronouncements about the high degree of military fitness of the Afghan law enforcement structures that were prepared and trained over the past 20 years,” said Vassily Nebenzia.

He also asserted that there was “no point of panicking”, as a “widespread bloodbath among civilians has been avoided”. “We will determine our further official steps in relation to the Taliban depending on the evolving situation and the Taliban’s specific actions”.

Nebeniza also added that Russia remained concerned about the terror threat in Afghanistan, including from the Islamic State.

A return of Afghanistan as terror central?

Experts have warned that a victorious Taliban would embolden militancy across the world. This is especially relevant in Africa, where regional leaders warned that terror organisations had boosted their activities.

Speaking on behalf of the ‘A3+1’ bloc of non-permanent members, Kimani noted that armed insurgent groups and terrorist groups “are watching closely in order to replicate the unravelling events” in Afghanistan. “The Council must therefore carefully consider the decisions that it takes, fully aware that building political tracks for entities using terrorism to achieve political ends will in the end be counterproductive.”

Russia and China have been backing the legitimisation of the Taliban over the last couple of years. However, Beijing remains concerned – perhaps most among the P-5 due to geographical proximity – that the return of the Taliban could fuel terrorist groups in its territory.

A U.S. Marine passes out water to evacuees during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, August 22, 2021. U.S. Marine Corps/Sgt. Photo: Isaiah Campbell/Handout via Reuters

The Chinese deputy representative, Geng Shuang, backed a “broad and inclusive” political structure but reserved the strongest words were about terrorism.

“Afghanistan must never again become a haven for terrorists. This is the bottom line to which any future political solution in Afghanistan must adhere. We hope that the Taliban will earnestly deliver on its commitments and make a clean break with all terrorist organisations,” he said.

Geng also asserted that all countries should uphold their obligations under international law and UNSC resolutions to take “resolute action to prevent terrorist organisations, such as the Islamic State, Al-Qaida and the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, from taking advantage of the chaos”.

China also expressed regret that some “regional countries and Afghanistan’s neighbours” were not allowed to participate in the meeting. It was a reference to Pakistan, which had complained of being denied a seat at the UNSC meeting on Afghanistan for the second time.

India had planned that its third and last signature event for its August presidency would be a high-level briefing on the UNSG’s strategic-level report on the threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Not surprisingly, it acquired more of an Afghan flavour. The video presentation by the civil society representative, Davood Moradian, director general of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies who had just flown out from Kabul airport, also pushed the speakers to reflect more on the terror threat in a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan.

With the leading foreign players in Afghanistan focussed on evacuation efforts, UNSC remained for now on the sidelines as a platform to shape the Taliban’s engagement with the world.

However, this is likely to change by next month when the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) mandate will have to be renewed before it expires on September 15.

Incidentally, the UNAMA’s office in Herat had been attacked by the Taliban during its assault on the province in July. All senior UN officials have, so far, publicly insisted that there was no plan to evacuate UN personnel and close up shop in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Also read: Afghanistan: A Western War Zone

Faced with criticism that the UN has not been at the forefront of international efforts, UN officials pointed out that the multilateral body was led by its member states and added that nearly all big stakeholder countries had carved out their separate bilateral deals in Afghanistan.

The UNAMA’s current mandate includes support for organising elections, human rights, gender equality, transitional justice and government priorities like the rule of law. It was based on the original UNSC resolution of 2002 aimed at implementing the 2001 Bonn agreement, which led to the formation of the Afghan republic under Hamid Karzai.

With the Republic seemingly forced into the dustbin of history by the Taliban’s military victory, the mandate of the UNAMA will have to be modified, diplomatic sources confirmed.

However, with the UN and other member states having other preoccupations currently in the war-ravaged country, there may not be enough time to negotiate a new mandate. The delay in forming the new government in Kabul will also hamper member states in delineating the shape of the UN’s future mission.

Officials indicated a high likelihood of the Security Council rolling over the mandate of UNAMA for a couple of months, which will give a breather for negotiations.

The other routine activity related to Afghanistan which acquires significance in the new scenario is the travel ban exemption given to 14 senior Taliban members from the sanction regime. The latest extension to the exemption from the travel ban ends on September 22.

The exemption was only “for travels required for participation in peace and reconciliation discussions in a range of countries”. With the Doha intra-Afghan talks now infructuous, it remains to be seen whether the P-5 countries will reach a consensus on the way forward. India is the current chair of the 1988 sanctions committee.

UNSC meets on Myanmar, under the long shadow of Afghanistan

The debacle of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan also cast a pall on the discussions on Myanmar held behind closed doors.

At the private meeting on Myanmar on August 17, sources said that Western diplomats seemed unusually restrained in contrast to their usual aggressive position against the Myanmar junta. The speculation was that the handling of the troop withdrawal and return of the Taliban may have put the US on a backpedal, for now, when making interventions in other conflict hotspots.

It was the first briefing by Erywan Pehin Yusof, Brunei Darussalam’s second foreign minister as ASEAN’s special envoy to Myanmar. The Council had previously handed over the initiative to ASEAN to engage with the Junta to find a resolution to the crisis following the February coup. The ASEAN special envoy indicated that he would be visiting Myanmar sooner rather than later, but no specific dates were mentioned.

While there was no outcome from the meeting, a communique was issued which listed the speakers.

Myanmar and Afghanistan could also come up together at the mid-September meeting of the UN General Assembly credential committee, which can recommend diplomatic representation for a country in case of a dispute. The Myanmar military has written to the UN Secretary-General to replace the incumbent Kyaw Moe Tun, who publicly came out against the coup.

The Afghan envoy, Isaczai, also could end up in a similar situation if a new Afghan government led by the Taliban decides to nominate an ambassador.

In 1996, the UNGA credentials committee faced the same dilemma when the then Taliban government demanded that the UN seat for Afghanistan be reserved for representatives of the new ruling regime. The committee decided to “defer” any decision, which effectively allowed diplomats appointed by the Burhanuddin Rabbani government to continue representing Afghanistan. The US had proposed the ‘deferment’, which Russia supported.

This week in the UNSC

Besides the scheduled meeting for this week, a discussion on the humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia’s Tigray region has been added to the Council’s agenda for Thursday, where UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is expected to brief the group.

The week began with the monthly briefing on Yemen, followed by a Tuesday meeting on Haiti under the ‘any other business’ category. The other scheduled meetings are on Syria and Iraq.