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EFSAS Commentary

The UN will hold an overdue meeting on Afghanistan after a China-led regional group blamed the US for the “disastrous situation”


Reports about United Nations (UN) Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ decision to convene an international meeting on Afghanistan next month in Doha, Qatar, have come close on the heels of a conference of the Foreign Ministers of some of Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries –  China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan – that was held on 13 April in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Media accounts on the deliberations that the Foreign Ministers of the four participating countries engaged in suggested that they had held the United States (US) and its allies, who withdrew from Afghanistan in 2020, responsible for the country’s present “disastrous situation”. On the other hand, the closed-door meeting to be hosted by Antonio Guterres on 1-2 May will involve the participation of Special Envoys from several countries, who will seek to find a “durable way forward” for the war-ravaged nation, and look to “clarify expectations” about issues, including the restrictions on women.

Commenting on the upcoming Doha meeting, Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesman for the UN Secretary-General, said that “The purpose of this kind of small group meeting is for us to reinvigorate the international engagement around the common objectives for a durable way forward on the situation in Afghanistan”. He added that Guterres “continues to believe that it’s an urgent priority to advance an approach based on pragmatism and principles, combined with strategic patience, and to identify parameters for creative, flexible, principled and constructive engagement”. It is not yet publicly known whether the Taliban leadership would participate in the talks.

Dujarric’s announcement was made after UN Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed created a controversy by suggesting at an event at Princeton University on 17 April that discussion on recognition of the Taliban administration “has to happen… The Taliban clearly want recognition and that’s the leverage we have”. She added that the UN’s Doha meeting “could find those baby steps to put us back on the pathway to recognition … of the Taliban, a principled recognition – in other words, there are conditions”. In December 2022, the 193-member UN General Assembly (UNGA) had approved postponing, for the second time, a decision on whether to recognise the Afghan Taliban regime and allow it to send an envoy to the UN headquarters in New York.

Mohammed’s remarks, therefore, sparked a backlash from several countries and rights activists. A US official was quoted by Reuters as saying that “The intent and purpose of this meeting was never to discuss recognition of the Taliban, and any discussion at the meeting about recognition would be unacceptable”. Russia’s Ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, also told reporters that the meeting was not intended to be about recognition, but rather about “looking for the opinions of those Special Envoys on how they see the way out for Afghanistan”. Russia, despite its invasion of Ukraine, currently holds the rotating presidency of the UN Security Council (UNSC). Al Jazeera’s James Bays, on the other hand, pointed out that “The recent decision to ban female UN staff has caused real concern here at the UN headquarters and it is interesting that in addition to the comment of the Deputy Secretary General, the head of the UN development programme recently raised the prospect of the UN pulling out completely from the country”.

The backlash over Mohammed’s remarks caused the UN to clarify its position with regard to recognition of the Taliban. In the 20 April Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the UN Secretary General, Farhan Haq, a deputy spokesman, was specifically asked – “Is the Secretary-General planning to raise the issue of recognition of the Taliban at this meeting in Doha?” Haq responded with “What I can say is that the Doha conference on 1 and 2 May is not focusing on recognition, and we don’t want there to be any confusion about that. The point of the discussion, which will be held in a closed private setting, is to build a more unified consensus on the challenges at hand.  As you know, there’s a need to reinvigorate international engagement around the sort of common objectives that the international community has on Afghanistan. And so we consider it a priority to advance an approach based on pragmatism and principles, to have a constructive engagement on the issue. So that is where we will be focusing”.

Earlier, on 13 April, the Foreign Ministers of China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran held their second China-driven informal meeting on Afghanistan in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Prior to this meeting, Beijing declared its readiness to work with the countries around Afghanistan as well as the international community to help the struggling nation, and it called on the Biden administration “to live up to its commitments” in Afghanistan. In a statement preceding the Uzbekistan conference, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Beijing was ready to work more closely with Afghanistan’s neighbors and the international community for stability, security, prosperity, and development in both the country and the wider region. The statement conveyed China’s pledge to respect the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Afghanistan, as well as the choices made by its people. It called on the international community to firmly support Afghanistan to combat terrorism. Beijing also expressed hope that Afghanistan’s Taliban government would continue working actively to meet its people’s interests and the international community’s expectations of an open and inclusive political structure.

Almost as an afterthought, the statement added, “We hope the Afghan interim government will protect the basic rights and interests of all Afghan people, including women, children and all ethnic groups”. Girls currently cannot attend school beyond sixth grade, and women are not allowed at universities in Afghanistan. Women are also barred from public spaces, including parks, and most forms of employment.

Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang later told reporters that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan was a multifold strategic failure, and that the 20-year US military presence did not bring peace to Afghanistan. He added that the West’s attempt to affect a “democratic transformation” of Afghanistan did not fit local conditions. Qin Gang demanded the return of Afghanistan’s $7 billion in financial reserves that the US froze immediately after the Taliban seized power. He said, “The US should not sit back and ignore the current plight of the Afghan people, and their hard-earned money forcibly seized by the US must be returned as soon as possible”.

The Joint Statement issued by the four participating countries after the Samarkand meeting expressed support for the “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” principle to determine the country’s political future and development path, adding that Afghanistan should be a “venue for international cooperation rather than a stage for geopolitical rivalries”. The Ministers emphasized their deep concerns regarding the terrorism-related security situation in Afghanistan, and pointed out that “all terrorist groups, namely the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-KP), Al-Qaeda, the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), Jaish al-Adl etc. based in Afghanistan continue to pose a serious threat to regional and global security”. They urged the Taliban regime to “take more visible and verifiable measures in upholding its stated commitments on counter-terrorism, dismantling and eliminating all sorts of terrorist groups, with a view to preventing the soil of Afghanistan from being used by any terrorist group”.

Bashir Safi, a security analyst and former adviser to the US Department of Defense in Afghanistan, believes that the “Samarkand setting was not convened to help Afghanistan’s situation economically or politically, but neighboring countries are really worried about an inevitable threat of terrorism that will spread out of Afghanistan toward them”. He told Nikkei Asia that “Every country has its own security problem that they believe emanates from Afghanistan”.

The Ministers further argued in their Joint Statement that NATO countries should bear primary responsibility for the predicament in Afghanistan, should create opportunities for economic development and prosperity in Afghanistan, and should instantly lift unilateral sanctions against Afghanistan and return its overseas assets for the benefit of the Afghan people. They opined that dialogue and consultation were the only workable routes for a political settlement of the Afghan issue. They spoke in favour of diplomatic efforts to facilitate political settlement in Afghanistan, and expressed support for the international community, in particular “the UN, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting among Neighboring Countries of Afghanistan, Moscow Format Consultations”, in playing a positive role in this regard.

What was notable about the Joint Statement was that only a small paragraph in it alluded to inclusive governance and human rights in Afghanistan. It read, “The Ministers called on the Afghan authority to promote inclusive governance with the practical participation of all ethnic groups and political entities, and to cancel all restrictive measures on women and ethnic minorities”. With one eye on Afghanistan’s abundant natural and mineral resources, the four countries stressed equally on conducting “economic and trade exchanges as well as investment cooperation with countries in the region”. The Ministers also decided to strengthen coordination on Afghanistan at different levels.

Another meeting involving the above four countries and other immediate neighbors of Afghanistan – Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan – was also held in Samarkand. An Uzbek Foreign Ministry statement said that participants spoke of the need to develop a “joint action mechanism” to provide humanitarian aid to Afghans and restore the country’s economy. Significantly, despite a travel ban under UNSC sanctions, Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi also participated in this meeting. In his address, Muttaqi said that the Taliban was “ready to fulfill our obligations as a responsible government”, adding that since returning to power nearly 20 months ago, the Taliban had established peace and a “powerful central government” in Afghanistan, and banned narcotics cultivation and trade, setting the stage for a “meaningful” and “mutually beneficial” cooperation with the region. He also claimed that the Taliban was committed to not allowing any group or individual to use Afghan soil against any regional State or beyond, but he did not comment on the restrictions imposed on Afghan women’s access to work and education.

Media reports said strong anti-US sentiments were expressed in Samarkand. Navbahor Imamova, in a 14 April article titled ‘US Cast as Villain During Meeting of Afghan Neighbors’ in Voice of America (VOA), wrote that “A gathering of regional foreign ministers to discuss the way forward in Afghanistan this week brought little in the way of new initiatives but provided a forum for several of Kabul’s neighbors to blame the country’s economic plight on the United States and its Western allies”. The article quoted a Central Asian diplomat as saying that the US “was portrayed as an irresponsible actor, which for two decades destroyed Afghanistan and now refuses to cover the damage”.

Pakistan’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Hina Rabbani Khar, who was Islamabad’s representative at the Samarkand meetings, urged the international community to help the Afghan people, criticizing the West for “advocating a complete break from Afghanistan, to offload its problems to the neighbourhood and to walk away”. She warned of declining humanitarian support for Afghanistan and called for re-assessing policies that questioned the utility of engaging the Taliban.

India, which is not part of the China-led groupings that met in Samarkand, would, on account of its regional standing and its historical ties with the people of Afghanistan, be interested in participating in the Doha meeting of the UN Secretary General. Which Special Envoys would be invited to the table is not yet known, but India would believe that it could lend substance to the group. Responding to a question on whether India would be participating in the Doha conference, India’s External Affairs Minister (EAM) Dr. S. Jaishankar said, “We’re looking at it. We’re looking at it positively, but I guess we’ll take a call closer to the time but we are looking at it”.

The developments of these past couple of weeks seem to suggest a reawakening of international interest in Afghanistan, with the UN Secretary General’s  search for a “durable way forward” coming across as a reasonable path to pursue as long as it keeps the interests of the long suffering people of Afghanistan at its core.