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The UN’s Vital Role in Afghanistan

A mother and her children fled conflict in Lashkargah and now live in a displaced persons camp in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan. Credit: UNICEF Afghanistan

DOHA / WASHINGTON DC, Jan 24 2022 (IPS) - On December 22, 2021, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to allow for more humanitarian assistance to reach vulnerable Afghans, while preventing the abuse of these funds by their Taliban rulers.

With more than half of Afghanistan’s 39 million citizens—afflicted by drought, disease, and decades of war—depending upon critical life-saving aid to survive the harsh winter months, the decision to carve out an exception in UN sanctions against the ruling regime is timely.

All the more so as Afghanistan quickly becomes ground zero for United Nations humanitarian operations worldwide.

At the same time, addressing the underlying political, cultural, and socioeconomic challenges that continue to fuel widespread deprivation, violence, and corruption in Afghanistan requires a strategy and targeted investments in development and peacebuilding too.

Fortunately, these are also areas where the UN maintains a decades-long track record in Afghanistan (including from 1996-2001, the last period of Taliban rule) and elsewhere.

Moreover, the Security Council’s recent request to Secretary-General António Guterres to provide “strategic and operational recommendations” on the future of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), by January 31, 2022, offers an opportunity to adapt the world body to the country’s fast-changing political, security, social, and economic context.

To channel fresh ideas and critical observations in advance of the Secretary-General’s presented proposals to the Security Council on Wednesday, January 26 and subsequent UNAMA mandate review in March, we convened this past October a group of experts and former Special Representatives of the Secretary-General to Afghanistan at our institutes, the Centre for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies in Doha and the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.

Inspired by this thoughtful, unfiltered exchange, we personally arrived at several, time-sensitive recommendations elaborated upon in our new policy brief A Step-by-Step Roadmap for Action on Afghanistan: What the United Nations and International Community Can and Should Do:

First, the United Nations should aid in negotiating some conditionalities put forward by Western powers. Whilst a step-by-step roadmap for cooperation is needed, vital life-saving humanitarian aid should never be made conditional on the Taliban taking certain actions.

Given the acute differences between the Taliban and the international community, diverse mechanisms are needed for addressing distinct humanitarian and non-humanitarian issues alike. Both sides have made opposing demands that essentially negate one another, while the needs of millions of innocent, vulnerable Afghans continue to grow.

In direct immediate support of malnutrition, urgent health services, and other kinds of emergency, life-saving support detailed in a new Humanitarian Response Plan, donor countries should take careful heed of the UN’s largest-ever humanitarian appeal for a single country, announced on 11 January 2022, requesting more than USD $5 billion this year for Afghanistan.

This follows from the USD 1.2 billion pledged by nearly 100 countries at a United Nations Secretary-General convened ministerial, on 13 September 2021 in Geneva, as well as subsequent additional pledges of humanitarian aid through international organizations, such as the World Food Program and UNDP, by South Korea, France, and Norway.

Second, there is a need to remain focused on the intersections of humanitarian, developmental, and peace challenges, rather than roll-out humanitarian-only models of response in Afghanistan. To advance more integrated approaches that break down the traditional siloes of the international aid system in responding to the Afghan crisis, the humanitarian-development-peace nexus offers a powerful framework.

The United Nations and other actors have implemented Triple Nexus programming in Afghanistan in recent years, including refugee return and reintegration, asset creation, and social safety net programming.

The world body can play a vital role as a convening power and knowledge broker, facilitating local-international and whole-of-society dialogue on how to adapt nexus programming concepts and approaches in the uncharted territories of Afghanistan’s fast evolving and highly challenging operating environment.

As bilateral aid likely recedes among most major donors, the UN could also serve as a chief oversight body and conduit of international assistance through multiple emergency trust funds. In doing so, it will provide de facto international development coordination assistance, with an eye to maintaining for all Afghan citizens the delivery of basic public services in such critical areas as healthcare, education, and power generation.

The world body is also well-placed to support the new Islamic Development Bank humanitarian trust fund and food security program for Afghanistan, announced on December 19, 2021 at a gathering of thirty Organization of Islamic Cooperation foreign ministers and deputy foreign ministers in Islamabad.

Third, durable peace in Afghanistan can only be reached through high-level political will that is best expressed through an empowered mandate and sufficient resources for UNAMA (ideally led by a Muslim diplomat with the gravitas and skills demonstrated by the UN trouble-shooter Lakhdar Brahimi).

For the UN to be truly catalytic, it is vital that it is entrusted with a comprehensive mandate to perform its full suite of well-known and field-tested functions, including in the areas of reconciliation, development coordination, and humanitarian action.

To get beyond the blame game and build trust between the Taliban and other Afghan parties, the world body must be allowed to provide its good offices and other peaceful settlement of dispute tools to resuscitate an intra-Afghan dialogue toward reconciliation and political reform.

At the same time, the Afghan Future Thought Forum, chaired by Fatima Gailani, continues to be the only independent platform that brings together influential and diverse Afghan stakeholders (men and women), including Taliban and former government officials, to produce practical solutions for long-term peace and recovery in Afghanistan.

With the support of the UN, this Afghan owned and led initiative can be leveraged to work toward a more representative governing structure that safeguards, for example, girls and women’s rights, freedom of moment, and against reprisals toward those who previously fought the Taliban.

Finally, the greatest obstacle to functioning relations between the Taliban and international community is the non-recognition of the new ruling regime in Kabul, which requires a medium to long-term vision to resolve. Although the Taliban are publicly seeking international recognition, these efforts are unlikely to bear fruit immediately.

Rather than continually seeking recognition, the Taliban interim administration should instead focus on governing Afghanistan and averting an economic and humanitarian catastrophe. Demonstrating some level of governing competence—as well as a desire to reconcile and share some governing authorities with past political rivals —through concerted action is the best way for the movement to gain slowly widespread international legitimacy and eventual recognition.

To avoid Afghanistan becoming once again an operating base for international terrorist groups or an even greater source of refugees—both vital interests of the international community, including the Western powers—a multi-faceted strategy that also deploys targeted resources beyond solely humanitarian aid is needed urgently.

With thousands of staff dedicated to alleviating human suffering across Afghanistan, coupled with the West’s almost non-existent political leverage with the Taliban regime, the United Nations must resume its central development and peacebuilding roles, in addition to delivering and coordinating immediate life-saving humanitarian aid.

With the backing of major global and regional powers and the cooperation of both Taliban and non-Taliban factions alike, the UN can help to place Afghanistan on a new development and political path toward a more stable country that, over time, improves the prospects for all Afghan citizens.

Sultan Barakat is Director of the Centre for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies in Doha, Qatar and Honorary Professor of Politics at the University of York. He also taught at York University (U.K.). Richard Ponzio is Senior Fellow and Director of the Global Governance, Justice & Security Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.

The authors wish to thank Muznah Siddiqui for her helpful research assistance for this commentary.


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