icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Whatsapp Youtube
Toward a New Mandate for the UN Mission in Afghanistan
Toward a New Mandate for the UN Mission in Afghanistan
Undated handout picture of U.S., Taliban and Qatar officials during a meeting for peace talks in Doha, Qatar. Handout via REUTERS/Qatari Foreign Ministry
Q&A / Asia

Behind Trump’s Taliban Debacle

On 7 September, U.S. President Donald Trump made the startling announcement that he had invited Taliban leaders to Camp David for talks – and then cancelled the gathering. Crisis Group Asia Program Director Laurel Miller and consultant Graeme Smith explain what happened and what it means for prospects of ending Afghanistan’s war.

What was the U.S. goal in inviting the Taliban to Camp David?

The U.S. has not said what was planned for Camp David, the wooded Maryland retreat that has hosted several peace summits, but the outlines of its intentions seem clear. A week earlier, U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said negotiators had reached an agreement with the Taliban, adding that he would announce details imminently, pending President Donald Trump’s final approval. The likely explanation for the Camp David meeting is that, in light of significant criticism from various quarters, Trump was not prepared to sign off on the deal, which the parties had painstakingly negotiated over the last nine months, and wanted to better its terms for the U.S. side.

What is not yet clear is whether, by also inviting President Ashraf Ghani to Camp David, the U.S. intended to try to broker a grander bargain, including resolution of issues between the Taliban and Afghan government. If so, Trump would have been aiming for a moonshot in a peace process where victories are measured in inches. No diplomatic groundwork has yet been laid for a peace agreement among the Afghan parties, and there is no reason to think that either side would have been willing to deal on the fly.

U.S. diplomacy’s main achievement in the last year has been to persuade the Taliban to open negotiations with the Afghan government after concluding an initial agreement with Washington. Officials have indicated that the draft U.S.-Taliban agreement included a commitment by the Taliban to commence what are being termed “intra-Afghan negotiations”.  

The Taliban’s concession may sound modest, but from their perspective it is not. For years, the insurgents had vowed never to speak to a government they dismissed as a “puppet” – and never to negotiate over their country’s political future while American boots remained on Afghan soil. Months of careful diplomacy, conducted with disciplined secrecy on both sides, coaxed the process to the brink of historic intra-Afghan talks. If and when those talks start, they will undoubtedly be lengthy and complicated. 

The credibility of the U.S commitment to negotiating is harmed but not destroyed, as all sides understand that Washington will seek a political solution at some point.

Why did the planned meeting fall apart?

Trump said the primary reason why the deal fell apart was the Taliban’s recent attack in Kabul that killed one U.S. soldier, but that explanation is not credible. Both sides have been hammering each other on the battlefield, seeking leverage at the negotiating table – indeed, in the wake of the Camp David cancellation, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointed out how many Taliban fighters the U.S.-led coalition had recently killed. Taliban-inflicted violence had been ramping up throughout the negotiating process, and fifteen U.S. troops had already been killed during that time, in addition to many more Afghans. For Washington’s part, its declared policy is to use military pressure to obtain Taliban concessions. The U.S. is dropping munitions on Afghanistan more frequently now than in any year since 2001. The intensified bombing has pushed up the number of Afghan civilians killed in the war. In the first half of 2019, the UN recorded more civilians deaths at U.S. or Afghan government hands than at the Taliban’s – including a marked increase in deaths from airstrikes.

More likely, plans for the meeting never truly came together in the first place because the Taliban leaders were prepared to visit the U.S. only after the deal they had already negotiated was signed and announced.

What are the consequences for the peace process?

The U.S. president has said that the talks are “dead”, but it may not be the last word from him, given reversals in similar rhetoric he has employed in other circumstances. The 10 September departure of National Security Advisor John Bolton, who is known to oppose making a deal with the Taliban, adds another wrinkle. At a minimum, however, the debacle will mean some delay in finalising a deal that had seemed on the verge of completion. And the U.S. will need to find a face-saving way to bring itself back to the table, if the process is to resume. The Afghan government, which had openly celebrated the breach in the U.S.-Taliban process, may also need to save face.

Negotiators among the Taliban and Afghan government told Crisis Group that they continue to prepare for intra-Afghan negotiations in case the U.S. returns to the table. The credibility of the U.S commitment to negotiating is harmed but not destroyed, as all sides understand that Washington will seek a political solution at some point.

The question is therefore not whether the U.S. will return to negotiations, but when. A quick resumption of talks could jolt the process back on track. Without that, the most plausible scenario is that the U.S. and Taliban heighten their military confrontation. The Taliban may feel compelled to make good on their threat to disrupt Afghanistan’s 28 September presidential election. The year 2019 may be remembered as the most violent ever, judging by recent trends.

What do the Taliban, U.S. and Afghan government want out of a U.S.-Taliban deal?

Both the Taliban and U.S. seek the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and the end of America’s longest war. They disagree, however, over the terms and pace of a U.S. exit.

The Taliban want to regain control of centralised government, allowing them to install what they call an “Islamic system” in Afghanistan, though they seem to understand that their desires will collide with opposing views at the negotiating table. The degree of Taliban willingness to compromise on this matter is unknown, raising questions about whether they will be able to make peace with the Afghan government. It will also help determine whether Afghanistan’s donors, who pay most of the security sector and civilian government’s bills, will bless a peace deal.

The U.S. wants a peace agreement offering guarantees that the Taliban will combat the Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate. This pledge should be easy to obtain considering that the Taliban battle daily with the Islamic State, which they consider a sworn enemy. Getting the Taliban to renounce al-Qaeda, as Washington would also like, could be more difficult because some of the Taliban’s hardline supporters idolise Osama bin Laden. The Taliban seem ready, however, to deliver at least on the U.S. demand for a public declaration not to allow terrorists to abuse their territory as a staging ground for international attacks.

For Kabul, the U.S.-Taliban agreement could have been a first step toward kick-starting talks between the insurgents and the Afghan government. To their credit, some Kabul officials continue working toward the eventual moment when they sit down with the Taliban and both sides compare visions of Afghan state structure and ways of drafting a new constitution.

What can be done to revive talks?

Trump scuppered the talks, and the onus is on Washington to press ahead with diplomacy. Taliban interlocutors say they are puzzled by U.S. behaviour and, though they have indicated their continued openness to concluding talks, they are unlikely to take the initiative in pressing for a restart. Washington will also need to manage criticism of the deal out of Kabul, which has spiked in the wake of the Camp David debacle.

Contributors

Program Director, Asia
LaurelMillerICG
Senior Consultant, Afghanistan
smithkabul
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