UN envoy underscores need for engagement with Afghanistan’s Taliban

 Acting Minister of Interior of the Taliban-led caretaker government Khalifa Sirajuddin Haqqani (front R) attends a graduation ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 5, 2022. (Photo by Saifurahman Safi/Xinhua)

Acting Minister of Interior of the Taliban-led caretaker government Khalifa Sirajuddin Haqqani (front R) attends a graduation ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 5, 2022. (Photo by Saifurahman Safi/Xinhua)

UNITED NATIONS, Sept. 27 (Xinhua) — A UN envoy on Tuesday stressed the need for the international community to engage with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Markus Potzel, the UN secretary-general’s deputy special representative for Afghanistan, saw international engagement as the most realistic approach. If the Taliban do not respond to the needs of all elements of Afghan society and constructively engage within the very limited window of opportunity with the international community, it is unclear what would come next, he told the Security Council in a briefing.

Further fragmentation, isolation, poverty, and internal conflict are among the likely scenarios, leading to potential mass migration and a domestic environment conducive to terrorist organizations, as well as greater misery for the Afghan population, he warned. “That’s why we have to engage. The objective of our engagement is to promote governance in Afghanistan that works to the benefit of the Afghan people and respects the norms of the global community, he said.

“While success is not certain, continued qualified engagement remains the most realistic chance of achieving these objectives.”

Since taking over Kabul, the Taliban’s self-identified emirate has not been recognized by any state. At the same time, the international community also did not want to see the country collapse, he said. Afghanistan’s neighbors, in particular, adopted a pragmatic approach and sought to deepen economic and trade ties and build stability, he added.

The July 26 Tashkent conference, which for the first time brought together representatives of the Taliban, members of the region, and traditional donors, provided a platform for engagement and an opportunity for the international community to express its united position on what it expects from the de facto authorities. It was regrettable that the Taliban delegation did not take the opportunity to constructively address these expectations, noted Potzel. “Nonetheless, we believe that the Tashkent format is useful and should be continued,” he said.

Initially, the de facto authorities made commitments regarding the security and independence of humanitarian assistance. These commitments have also gradually been eroded, he said.

“We viewed with great concern the detaining by the de facto Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice and the General Directorate of Intelligence of three women working for UN agencies in Kandahar three weeks ago, as well as increasing pressures on our staff and premises and those of other agencies.”

In general, the de facto authorities are creating operational obstacles that make the work of the United Nations and its humanitarian partners increasingly difficult, and in some cases contravene global and well-established humanitarian principles, he said.

“I am afraid that patience is running out by many in the international community regarding a strategy of engagement with Afghanistan’s Taliban authorities,” he warned.

There have been some positive developments in the past few months. But they have been too few and too slow and are outweighed by the negatives. In particular, the ongoing ban on secondary education for girls — unique in the world — and growing restrictions on women’s rights are signals that the Taliban are indifferent to more than 50 percent of the population and are willing to risk international isolation, he said.

The relegation of women and girls to the home not only deprives them of their rights, but also denies Afghanistan as a whole the benefit of the significant contributions that women and girls have to offer, he said.

Some of the Taliban’s claimed and acknowledged achievements are also eroding, said Potzel.

In the past months there has been a steady rise in security incidents monitored by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) — both armed clashes and criminality, as well as high-profile deadly terrorist attacks, he said.

“Our earlier warnings about the capabilities of Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) were dismissed by the Taliban. But ISKP has demonstrated in the last few months alone that it can carry out assassinations of figures close to the Taliban, attacks against foreign embassies, as well as fire rockets across Afghanistan’s border to attack its neighbors, all while maintaining its long-standing sectarian campaign against Shia Muslims and ethnic minorities,” said Potzel.

“We are particularly concerned about the recent attack at the Russian Embassy in Kabul that killed 10 people, among them a Russian diplomat. In addition to attacks carried out by ISKP, a number of unclaimed incidents killed and wounded Afghans going about their daily lives, in particular, while attending places of worship,” he said.

The reported presence of al-Qaida leader al Zawahiri in the heart of Kabul and the strike against him, as well as the continued presence of other terrorist groups, have forced a questioning of the Taliban’s counter-terrorism commitments, further deepening the trust gap with the international community, he warned.

These questions are still unanswered, noted Potzel. Armed clashes persist between the de facto security forces and armed opposition groups in the Panjshir, Baghlan, Kapisa, Takhar, and Badakhshan provinces.

There are disturbing reports, as well as videos and photos, indicating possible serious human rights violations committed in Panjshir, he said. The economic situation remains tenuous, said Potzel.

While the Taliban claim they have increased exports, maintained the value of the country’s currency, and generated solid revenue collection, per capita income has collapsed to 2007 levels, erasing 15 years of economic growth, he said.

However, like many aspects of Taliban governance, the details behind their claims remain opaque. Part of the enduring economic downturn is due to liquidity problems that are related to Afghanistan’s isolation from the international banking system. Liquidity remains heavily dependent on the cash that the UN continues to bring in for humanitarian operations — cash that supports the needs of the Afghan people and does not directly reach the de facto authorities, he said.

Even this funding is uncertain.

To date, the 2022 humanitarian response plan for Afghanistan has only received 1.9 billion U.S. dollars out of a 4.4-billion-dollar requirement. Amid growing needs and a worsening food security situation, such a funding gap is all the more alarming given that winter is coming, he said.

In the immediate term, humanitarian partners require 614 million dollars to support priority winter preparedness in addition to the 154 million dollars required to pre-position essential supplies before areas get cut off by the weather, he said.

But these humanitarian and temporary economic measures will not meet the Afghan people’s longer-term requirements. Humanitarian assistance alone cannot replace essential service delivery systems, such as health and water, nor prevent an economic collapse, he warned.

UNAMA has been urging donors to take a complementary approach to meet people’s needs by supporting, in addition to humanitarian action, some basic human needs projects that leverage the capacity of local communities, address underlying structural issues, promote economic growth, and seek to minimize the effects of climate change, which are particularly severe in Afghanistan, he said.

In the meantime, the Taliban state they are committed to private-sector-led growth that will prevent aid dependency and conditionality. But this will require practical steps that, so far, have not been taken, including a clear legal framework, public investments, a functioning banking system, reliable energy and communication services, and an educated workforce that includes women, said Potzel.

There is also a continued lack of political inclusivity and transparency in decision-making. Most Afghans do not see themselves represented at all levels of governance. There are no consistent mechanisms for citizens to provide feedback to the authorities and little indication that the Taliban wish to even hear any, he said.

UNAMA, through its field offices, consistently works to bring together de facto local authorities and representatives of Afghan communities, including women, to improve the level of consultation, he said.

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