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Afghanistan: The Problem of Pashtun Alienation
Afghanistan: The Problem of Pashtun Alienation
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Toward a New Mandate for the UN Mission in Afghanistan
Toward a New Mandate for the UN Mission in Afghanistan
Report 62 / Asia

Afghanistan: The Problem of Pashtun Alienation

Prospects for an enduring peace in Afghanistan are still fragile despite progress since the ouster of the Taliban in December 2001.

Executive Summary

Prospects for an enduring peace in Afghanistan are still fragile despite progress since the ouster of the Taliban in December 2001. A key obstacle is the perception of many ethnic Pashtuns that they lack meaningful representation in the central government, particularly in its security institutions. Other factors contributing to growing alienation from the Bonn political process include continued violence against Pashtuns in parts of the north and west, heavy-handed search operations and collaboration with abusive commanders by the U.S.-led Coalition, and impediments to trade in the southern and eastern provinces. Unless measures are taken to address these grievances and ensure that a more representative government emerges from the forthcoming election, there will be a greater likelihood of the political process ending in failure.

Although headed by a Pashtun, Hamid Karzai, the Interim Administration created in Bonn in December 2001 was dominated by a mainly Panjshiri Tajik armed faction, the Shura-yi Nazar-i Shamali (Supervisory Council of the North). The “power ministries” of defence, interior and foreign affairs were held respectively by Mohammad Qasim Fahim, Younus Qanuni, and Abdullah Abdullah, all members of Shura-yi Nazar. The Emergency Loya Jirga in June 2002, which was expected to install a more broadly representative and hence more legitimate government, ended up reinforcing the Panjshiri monopoly over the central government’s security institutions, though it included Pashtuns in key positions in financial institutions.

President Karzai is widely seen as having been unable to limit either the power of the Shura-yi Nazar at the centre or of commanders, irrespective of ethnicity, who wield power in other parts of the country. Unless the national security institutions are perceived as representing the population as a whole, their efforts at disarmament and demobilisation are unlikely to find popular support. At the same time, the authority of local commanders will be legitimated as a vehicle for resisting ethnic domination.

Alienation from the centre is compounded by the displacement of large numbers of Pashtuns in the north, amid a wave of ethnically targeted violence following the collapse of Taliban rule by factions of the United Front that helped the U.S.-led Coalition. UNHCR, the Karzai administration, and some regional authorities have taken steps to facilitate the return of displaced northern Pashtuns. The critical issue will be ensuring security and access to land for those communities that were displaced. The international community should also support continued monitoring of violence against Pashtuns in the north and west by non-Pashtun militias, which remains acute in the provinces of Herat and Badghis, and call on regional authorities to remove and hold accountable commanders responsible for these abuses.

To date, the south and east have had only a modest stake in the political and economic reconstruction processes outlined in the Bonn agreement. International assistance has been slow to materialise in areas outside of Kandahar and other major towns, while poppy cultivation has boomed. Commanders with little or no popular legitimacy remain the principle military partners of the Coalition, and have used their power to consolidate control over regional administrations and economies. In Pashtun areas, this has led to the growth of patronage systems along sub-ethnic lines and fuelled tensions within communities; those Pashtun tribes that lack kinship ties to local authorities are marginalised politically and economically.

The Coalition, whose entry into the Pashtun provinces was welcomed by a population that had grown disenchanted with the Taliban’s increasingly arbitrary and autocratic rule, has failed to capitalise on this reservoir of goodwill. Collaboration with local commanders has drawn the Coalition into their factional and personal rivalries, compromising its non-partisanship in disputes unrelated to the war on terrorism. Heavy-handed tactics in search operations and inadequate responses to reports of civilian deaths from air strikes have also fuelled discontent with the Coalition presence.

The risks posed by the growing disaffection among Pashtuns in Afghanistan should be self-evident. The Taliban came to power not only because of the military assistance provided by Pakistan, but also because local commanders had become notorious for their abusive conduct toward civilians and extortion of traders. The Taliban’s initial success in disarming the south and restoring a modicum of security was welcomed as a respite by large segments of the local population. Today, insecurity in the south and east, impediments to trade, and continued competition for influence by the neighbouring states present a set of conditions dangerously close to those prevailing at the time of the Taliban’s emergence. The risk of destabilisation has been given added weight by the re-emergence of senior Taliban commanders who are ready to capitalise on popular discontent and whose long-time allies now govern the Pakistani provinces bordering Afghanistan.

The elections scheduled for June 2004 will be a critical barometer of the credibility of the Bonn process among Afghanistan’s Pashtuns. Reform of the central government’s security institutions should be prioritised in advance of the elections. The removal of abusive regional authorities, and their replacement by educated professionals who are perceived as neutral actors will go a long way toward reclaiming support for the central government. Suitable individuals are not hard to find: there are a large number of Pashtun professionals with management and technical expertise gained through work with international agencies and NGOs in Afghanistan and among refugee communities in the neighbouring states. The international community should also work to ensure that non-militarised political parties have the necessary security space and legal authorisation to campaign freely in advance of the election.

Kabul/Brussels, 5 August 2003

An Afghan woman walks on the street during a snowfall in Kabul, Afghanistan, 3 January 2022. REUTERS / Ali Khara
Q&A / Asia

Toward a New Mandate for the UN Mission in Afghanistan

The UN mission in Afghanistan will soon be up for renewal. In this Q&A, Crisis Group experts Ashish Pradhan and Graeme Smith discuss how the UN Security Council could update its list of responsibilities with the Taliban back in charge.

The UN Security Council faces hard choices about the future of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). The UN’s role in Afghanistan has grown more important following the Taliban victory in August 2021 and the shuttering of many embassies and international organisations. UNAMA, originally launched in 2002 after the U.S. toppled the first Taliban government, has stayed in place, acting as a point of contact for engagement with the new Taliban authorities. The mission also has the potential to serve as the “eyes and ears” on the ground for outside powers and aid donors, monitoring the human rights situation and coordinating the work of UN agencies in responding to the country’s economic and humanitarian crisis.

UNAMA’s mandate is up on 17 March, and Security Council members broadly agree that the mission should continue in some form. The Taliban also seem to want the mission to remain in place. The exact terms on which it does so, however, remain uncertain. There are significant splits in the Council over how much emphasis the mission should place on human rights issues, and whether it should engage in political – as opposed to primarily humanitarian – dialogue with the new government. UN Secretary-General António Guterres is set to deliver a report on Afghanistan and UNAMA to the Council by 31 January, and Russia will convene a ministerial-level Council meeting on Afghanistan in February, during which the future of UNAMA is likely to be a major topic.

What is the current mandate?

UNAMA’s current mandate is based on the political situation prior to the Taliban victory in August. It is sometimes called a "Christmas tree" mandate, festooned with multiple goals. The secretary-general’s special representative for Afghanistan – since April 2020, Deborah Lyons of Canada – is authorised to lead and coordinate international civilian efforts. In practical terms, the person who holds this post (along with other staff) is meant to provide advice to the Afghan government, promote democracy and human rights, build rule-of-law capacity, encourage regional cooperation, and get humanitarian and development actors working together, among other things.

How has UNAMA adapted to the Taliban takeover?

UNAMA adapted on the fly, halting activities that no longer made sense or that might have been controversial in the period of nervous calm as the war ended. Teams of UN election experts dropped preparations for anticipated future rounds of voting for the Afghan presidency and parliamentary seats. Legal experts abandoned work with the attorney general to report on anti-corruption measures (or lack thereof). Most visibly, UNAMA’s respected teams of human rights monitors stopped publishing their much-anticipated reports on the protection of civilians, which had been an important source of public information.

While some offices went quiet, others got exceptionally busy. The special representative and her team were among the first to call for a new “modus vivendi” between the Taliban-controlled government and the outside world, trying to encourage cooperation – most immediately, to address the humanitarian and economic crisis. The staff at UNAMA helped with drawing up a new Transitional Engagement Framework, possibly the most expensive plan for humanitarian and economic assistance in UN history, setting out how donors could spend $8 billion in the coming year to avoid a state collapse.

After the evacuation of many embassies, the continued presence of UNAMA on the ground became essential for day-to-day troubleshooting with what the UN calls the “de facto authorities”, the new Taliban government. Staff helped get aid shipments through border crossings and airports and ensure the safety of humanitarian workers, among other urgent tasks. The mission has suffered from staff attrition, however. Large numbers of Afghan staff in politically sensitive jobs stayed home or fled the country after the Taliban walked into Kabul. Many employees have since returned to work, and security concerns have reportedly decreased in the following months as the Taliban consolidated power and violence subsided. Still, relying on the Taliban to provide security raises uncomfortable questions about the mission’s independence for both the UN and for member states funding the organisation’s activities in Afghanistan.

How do the Taliban view UNAMA?

During decades of war, the UN became an indispensable part of basic service delivery and the Taliban worked with the UN on ensuring humanitarian access to remote parts of the countryside, including when the Taliban last had power in the 1990s. UNAMA has a long history of meeting with the Taliban, both at high levels and in conversations among mid-level staff. Such engagement was not limited to humanitarian issues but also included years of on-and-off (and ultimately unsuccessful) UN efforts to foster a peace process, alongside UN human rights advocacy focused on limiting civilian casualties and otherwise reducing harm in the conflict. Those relationships between the UN and the Taliban have carried over into the new Taliban government, as many of the same Taliban officials who handled liaison with international organisations and foreign governments in previous years have now been appointed to senior positions in Kabul.

The Taliban resent the continued imposition of UN sanctions on the group and many of its individual leaders.

At the same time, the Taliban resent the continued imposition of UN sanctions on the group and many of its individual leaders, as well as the UN’s refusal to seat their designated permanent representative in New York. Some Security Council members are concerned that UNAMA exaggerates the degree to which UN staff can work constructively with the Taliban. Crisis Group’s interlocutors among the Taliban say the two sides are working well together so far, but that serious gaps remain between the UN mission’s “Western idealism” and the Taliban’s agenda of establishing its version of Islamic governance. It remains to be seen whether those divergences will seriously impede pragmatic engagement.

Can UNAMA publish reports on human rights under the Taliban?

An important part of UNAMA’s mandate has always been promoting human rights, including through reporting on the situation of women and girls. UN officials and Security Council diplomats say these tasks are even more necessary now in the wake of the Taliban takeover. The Taliban expect the UN to talk about human rights, and there is no surprise among Taliban leaders when UNAMA raises difficult questions. The Taliban have recently told UN officials that they want the UN to continue reporting publicly. Despite the Taliban’s mistrust of international observers, they may prefer the factual narratives from the UN and other impartial watchdogs to public commentary from their domestic enemies. They appear to recognise that, over time, getting reasonable grades from the UN on rights issues could be a pathway toward increased international acceptance of their regime.

Still, it remains to be seen whether the Taliban will comment on the renewal of the UNAMA mandate and particularly the mission’s efforts to continue reporting. In other countries, armed groups have blocked UN human rights teams or denied them visas, but the Taliban appear to know that such actions would undermine their quest for international legitimacy. It is possible that the Taliban will not be the biggest impediment to human rights reporting, at least in the near term, as disagreements among Security Council members – described further below – could be a more limiting factor. Of course, if the Taliban continue to be implicated in crimes such as the disappearance of female activists, and UNAMA keeps pushing back with reporting and advocacy, the Taliban’s view of human rights work could become less benign.

What is the leading proposal for reconfiguring the UN presence?

The forthcoming secretary-general’s report on the future of UNAMA involves relatively limited changes to the mission, according to Crisis Group interlocutors. The UN would adjust the mission to suit the new circumstances, while keeping the old structure, the UNAMA name, and the existing roster of 300 to 400 international staff. UNAMA would continue to lead coordination and facilitation of humanitarian aid delivery, but it would focus more on these tasks as the humanitarian response balloons in size. The mission would also restart human rights reporting, especially on the plight of Afghan women and minorities.

This updating approach would see UNAMA shifting resources in the coming months away from defunct operations (ie, elections, peace talks) and reassigning them to new priorities, such as understanding the Afghan political economy and strengthening coordination among international donors. The current mandate to support the Afghan “government” would get rewritten to reflect the UN’s new approach of political engagement with the “de facto authorities”. The special representative would remain in the hot seat, responsible for political engagement with the Taliban, including pushing them to bring their policies and practices into line with international norms.

One unresolved question is how specific to make the new mandate. Some UN officials and Security Council members argue against detailing the tasks for the renewed mission because it could constrain the day-to-day flexibility required by UN staffers on the ground in an uncertain and evolving situation. They argue that the new mandate should instead focus on outlining the UN’s new priority areas, leaving room to interpret them.

Can the mission do more to protect the integrity of aid delivery?

A staggering amount of money is required to stave off famine in Afghanistan: the UN’s humanitarian appeal by itself, excluding other types of aid, is a record-breaking $4.4 billion for 2022. As donors contemplate that scale of spending, they need to think hard about how to mitigate the risks. Any time that international organisations and donor governments dramatically enlarge operations in a conflict or post-conflict zone, there are major risks that aid will get stolen, diverted, misused or have other unintended consequences. UNAMA had set up a small Risk Management Unit in previous years, which was later shut down, but under the new proposal this unit would be revived with additional resources. This is a vital requirement, and the stakes are high: it’s always scandalous if aid money falls into the wrong hands, but the political fallout could be incendiary should a future scandal involve the Taliban and aid money from the countries whose soldiers once battled the group.

So far, UN and non-governmental organisation staffers say the Taliban are proving themselves much less corrupt than previous Afghan governments, and aid workers are reaching parts of the country that were previously inaccessible. The Taliban say they will continue allowing access for humanitarian and development workers, including female staff. The new authorities also claim to be collecting customs and other revenues more efficiently than their predecessors, intending to wean the state off foreign assistance. All of these claims need to be checked, and checked again, in the coming years.

Donors should insist on rigorous independent monitoring of their own, of course, and some veteran officials have expressed scepticism about the UN’s ability to examine operations for risks. Still, extra layers of protection are warranted. In addition to their own accountability systems, donors should empower the on-the-ground UN teams who can endeavour to hold the Taliban accountable on a daily basis. This task would require a dedicated focal point – likely a bigger Risk Management Unit than currently anticipated – to inform the UN leadership as they talk with the de facto authorities. At times, donors might need to make tough decisions about steering money away from areas susceptible to misuse and even withholding non-essential aid when necessary. As the response in Afghanistan turns into the world’s biggest aid effort, donors should plan for an unprecedented level of scrutiny to avoid boondoggles.

How do the main Security Council members view these proposed changes?

Strong disagreements persist among members of the Security Council about international engagement on Afghanistan, apart from the specifics of the UNAMA mandate. Some European members favour a large-scale humanitarian response as well as potentially some measures that buttress the fragile Afghan state, fearing another migration crisis. That view is not unanimous, however: France opposes any aid or engagement that might be construed as legitimisation of the Taliban. The United States is wary of lifting restrictions on Afghan economic activity, even as U.S. officials admit that sanctions undercut humanitarian efforts, because Washington sees such restrictions as one of its few forms of leverage and because of the political unpalatability of a softened stance toward the Taliban. So far, the compromise at the Security Council has been to declare that international efforts should “minimise” benefits to the Taliban. UNAMA will have the task of putting that vague instruction into practice, trying to avoid state collapse without providing so much help to Kabul’s new masters that it raises hackles in New York.

A key priority should be to ensure that a significant UN presence remains on the ground ... to mitigate risks of diversion of resources and misuse of funds.

Once negotiations in the Security Council on the mandate renewal begin in February, differences are likely to emerge on the broader question of how the UN can balance these competing views regarding relations with the Taliban. In this regard, the question of retaining UNAMA’s political mandate could be an important sticking point. A key priority should be to ensure that a significant UN presence remains on the ground to carry out the type of day-to-day engagement required to mitigate risks of diversion of resources and misuse of funds. The delicate political context, though, is underscored by some Security Council members’ views that the UN’s presence and engagement should not confer any legitimacy on the Taliban authorities.

Disputes are also likely to surface on issues such as the nature of the UN’s human rights role and the degree to which it should be tasked with holding the Taliban’s feet to the fire. China and Russia both have long objected to UN missions in other conflict zones monitoring human rights. The Council’s other members – including its European contingent, the U.S. and India – envision a mission that keeps a close eye on Taliban behaviour.

These sensitivities mean that Council members – especially Norway, which as the “penholder” on the Afghanistan issue leads on the drafting of Council resolutions regarding UNAMA – will have to forge delicate compromises as UNAMA’s new mandate frames the UN’s overall relationship with the Taliban.

Council members should nonetheless see that they have a common interest in shoring up UNAMA as a channel for engagement with the Taliban. The special representative needs strong support in New York, with a mandate and political clout to rally the disparate concerned external actors and engage effectively with the Taliban. It would be dangerous for global players to try to engage with the Taliban entirely unilaterally – with Western donors, regional powers, humanitarian agencies and international financial institutions implementing their own, separate Afghanistan policies – as the ensuing disarray would only hasten a continued slide toward mass starvation and enable the de facto authorities to exploit divergences. The new UNAMA should serve not only as the eyes and ears of the world, but also as an authoritative voice calling for actions on the part of the Taliban. The special representative should feel confident in playing a leading role in international efforts, bringing a degree of orderliness to the aftermath of the West’s disorderly exit.

Contributors

Senior Analyst, UN Advocacy and Research
ashishspradhan
Senior Consultant, Afghanistan
smithkabul