Afghanistan

Toward a New Mandate for the UN Mission in Afghanistan

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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.

"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.

"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.