The UN’s Vital Role in Afghanistan

    CountriesAfghanistanThe UN’s Vital Role in Afghanistan
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    The UN’s Vital Role in Afghanistan

    The UN can help to place Afghanistan on a new development and political path with the backing of major global and regional powers and the cooperation of both Taliban and non-Taliban factions alike.

    By Sultan Barakat and Richard Ponzio

    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.

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    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 peace-building 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.

    Need diverse mechanisms

    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.

    Humanitarian, developmental and peace challenges

    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 silos 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.

    Get beyond the blame game

    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.

    Need a multi-faceted strategy

    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.

    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 peace-building 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.

    Richard Ponzio is Senior Fellow and Director of the Global Governance, Justice & Security Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.


    This piece has been sourced from Inter Press Service

    Image: UNICEF

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