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Afghanistan

Expected Council Action  

In September, the Council will hold its quarterly debate on Afghanistan, during which it will consider the latest Secretary-General’s report on the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). The Special Representative and head of UNAMA, Tadamichi Yamamoto, is expected to brief.

The mandate of UNAMA expires 17 March 2018.

Key Recent Developments

The ongoing Taliban offensive and the resurgence of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have had particularly damaging effects on the civilian population in the country. The clashes between the Taliban and Afghan security forces have been intense as the Taliban pursues its objective to take greater control of country’s territory and its population centres. At the moment, the Taliban controls around 10 percent and the government forces control some 60 percent of country’s districts. The remaining 30 percent of districts are contested between the two. The US and Afghan security forces have continued to counter the activities of ISIL. On 11 July, the US airstrike in Kunar province killed a leader of ISIL in Afghanistan, Abu Sayed. Despite some successes by the US-led coalition in targeting the leadership of the group, ISIL still continues to launch attacks targeting civilians, especially the Shia Muslim population. In the latest attack targeting the Shia population which took place on 25 August, ISIL attacked a mosque in Kabul, killing at least 20 and wounding more than 40 people.  

During the last debate on Afghanistan on 21 June, both Yamamoto and Council members emphasised the damaging effects of the deteriorating security situation. They also stressed the importance of reviving national reconciliation efforts and political dialogue. The months since the debate have been particularly violent throughout Afghanistan, with both ISIL and the Taliban launching a series of attacks. On three occasions, the Council issued press statements condemning the attacks, including after a 24 July attack carried out by the Taliban in Kabul in which more than 70 people were killed and after an attack on a Shi’ite mosque in Herat province on 1 August that killed more than 90 people, for which ISIL affiliates claimed responsibility.

ISIL has also claimed responsibility for the 31 July attack on the Iraqi embassy in Kabul. One suicide bomber activated a bomb outside the embassy, after which several gunmen entered the building. Two Afghan nationals who were employees of the embassy were killed and several Afghan police officers were injured. After a standoff of several hours, Afghan police killed all the attackers. The Council issued a press statement condemning the attack.  

On 20 August, UNAMA issued a special report on mass killings that took place in early August in the predominantly Shi’ite village of Mirza Olang in the Sayyad district of Sari Pul province. An investigation by UNAMA confirmed that Taliban and self-proclaimed ISIL fighters killed at least 36 people in the village. Among the dead were both civilians and at least seven members of a pro-government militia. Initially, local Afghan officials claimed that more than 50 people were killed and that some of the victims were beheaded, but UNAMA’s investigation could not validate such claims. The attack on Mirza Olang village is a rare case of cooperation between the Taliban and ISIL; the two groups have clashed on many occasions in the past.

When the Council extended UNAMA’s mandate in March, it requested the Secretary-General to conduct a strategic review of the mission with the aim of examining mandated tasks, priorities and related resources. The review team headed by Under-Secretary-General Ján Kubiš held meetings with a variety of stakeholders in both Afghanistan and New York. One of the main general recommendations of its report is that the UN mission’s ultimate goal in the upcoming period should be to “support all efforts to reach sustainable peace and self-reliance in Afghanistan”. Among its main findings was a recognition of the added value of UNAMA as an impartial actor that could play an important mediating role.   

The Secretary-General recommended that UNAMA increase its role in supporting and promoting bilateral and multilateral cooperation with the aim of enhancing international support for the Afghan peace process.  Regarding structural and staff changes, the Secretary-General recommended abolishing the military, police and rule of law advisory units. His report recommends closure of the UN office in Farah province and exploring the possibility of further nationalising functions in remaining provincial offices. Furthermore, the Secretary-General recommended exploring the option of reducing international staff and forming smaller multidiscipline teams. He recommended that the findings of the strategic review be integrated into the next UNAMA mandate.          

On 21 August, US President Donald Trump unveiled a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan. Trump said that the US would deploy additional troops to Afghanistan without specifying exact numbers, although media reports point towards an increase of 4,000 troops. He also accused Pakistan of providing safe havens to terrorist organisations and called on the country to cooperate with the US in its efforts in Afghanistan. Regarding US objectives in Afghanistan, Trump said that the US will not engage in nation-building but rather confront the terrorist threat.   

Sanctions-Related Developments

On 24 August, the Council adopted a presidential statement confirming that the Council has reviewed the implementation of resolution 2255 and that no further adjustment to the measures outlined in the resolution were necessary at that time. The Council adopted resolution 2255 in December 2015 to clarify how the 1988 Afghanistan Sanctions Committee functions and to reflect the changing conflict dynamics in the country. The resolution called on the Council to review the implementation of the measures outlined in the resolution by August 2017.

Human Rights-Related Developments

On 17 July, OHCHR and UNAMA released a joint report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan, covering the period from 1 January to 30 June. The report concluded that the numbers of civilians killed and injured in the first half of the year persisted at the same record high levels as last year, with a total of 1,662 killed (a 2 percent increase) and 3,581 injured (a 1 percent decrease). There was also a rise in the number of women and children killed and injured, with casualty figures for women up 23 percent and child casualties up 1 percent (with the number of children killed increased by 9 percent), reversing a decline in 2016. The report attributed 67 percent of casualties to anti-government elements (including the Taliban and ISIL), a 12 percent increase from 2016, and 18 percent to pro-government forces, a 21 percent decrease from 2016, with the remainder caused by unattributed cross-fire or other means. In a statement accompanying the release of the report, the High Commissioner for Human Rights emphasised that as “horrifying” as the statistics in the report are, they “can never fully convey the sheer human suffering of the people of Afghanistan”, with each casualty figure reflecting a “broken family, unimaginable trauma and suffering, and the brutal violation of people’s human rights”. 

Key Issues and Options

There are several inter-related issues that the Council faces with regard to Afghanistan. First, the security situation in Afghanistan has continued to deteriorate, taking an increasingly heavy toll on the civilian population and undermining the country’s stability. The presence of ISIL in Afghanistan has further complicated the security environment. Second, there continues to be a link between the insurgency and illicit activities related to drug production and trafficking and the exploitation of natural resources. Third, amidst ongoing fighting between the government and Taliban forces, efforts to promote reconciliation have continued to falter. Fourth, the regional context remains difficult, with recurring cross-border tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, including accusations that Pakistan provides a safe haven for insurgents. Fifth, there are growing concerns that factionalism within the government has created political tensions. 

Addressing these interlinked issues has been challenging for the Council. One option is to initiate a visiting mission to Afghanistan, to show the Council’s support for counter-insurgency, reconciliation, and anti-corruption efforts, and to learn how it could further assist efforts on the ground. A smaller mission, consisting of members with an especially keen interest in and engagement on the issue, rather than one of all 15 members, might be easier to organise, given security concerns.

Another option would be for the Council to adopt a resolution or presidential statement that:

  • deplores the high number of civilian casualties and demands that all sides avoid killing and injuring civilians, stressing that targeting civilians is a war crime;
  • encourages efforts toward political inclusivity and dialogue within the government;
  • underscores the need for the international community, and particularly neighbouring countries, to support and cooperate with Afghanistan;
  • emphasises the importance of development assistance in promoting Afghanistan’s stability; and
  • calls for accountability for crimes committed.

Council Dynamics

Council members remain concerned about the worsening security environment in Afghanistan and its impact on the civilian population. The renewed prominence of ISIL and its violent tactics have added another dimension to the conflict, with the potential to deepen ethnic and sectarian tensions. Among permanent members, Russia has been particularly vocal in emphasising the urgency of the threat of ISIL, while expressing disappointment that some members have in its view tried to downplay the significance of this issue. Several Council members, most notably France, Egypt, Russia and Kazakhstan, continue to raise concerns regarding the connection between the insurgency and drug production and trafficking. 

Kazakhstan and Russia have also stressed the important role of regional organisations, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, in addressing the situation in Afghanistan. During the last debate, Kazakhstan noted that the Council should review its approach to Afghanistan with the aim of strengthening regional cooperation, while UNAMA should play a greater role in facilitating Afghanistan’s integration with its Central Asian neighbours.    

Japan is the penholder on Afghanistan, and Kazakhstan chairs the 1988 Afghanistan Sanctions Committee.

UN DOCUMENTS ON AFGHANISTAN 

Security Council Resolutions
17 March 2017 S/RES/2344 The Council renewed the mandate of UNAMA until 17 March 2018.
21 December 2015 S/RES/2255 The Council adopted this resolution containing language clarifying how the 1988 Afghanistan sanctions regime functions and reflecting changing conflict dynamics in Afghanistan.
Security Council Presidential Statement
24 August 2017 S/PRST/2017/15 This was a statement on the review of the implementation of resolution 2255.
Secretary-General's Reports
10 August 2017 S/2017/696 This was a report on the strategic review of UNAMA.
15 June 2017 S/2017/508 This was the Secretary-General’s report on Afghanistan.
Sanctions Committee Document
7 August 2017 S/2017/573 This was the 20th report of the ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida/Taliban Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team.
Security Council Press Statements
2 August 2017 SC/12939 This was a statement on terrorist attack on a mosque in Herat, Afghanistan.
31 July 2017 SC/12935 The members of the Security Council condemned in the strongest terms the terrorist attack against the Embassy of the Republic of Iraq in Kabul, Afghanistan, on 31 July, which resulted in the death of two Afghan civilian employees inside the Embassy and the injury of a police officer, for which local affiliates of ISIL have claimed responsibility.
24 July 2017 SC/12924 This was a press statement in which Council members condemned the terrorist attack that took place in Kabul on 24 July and resulted in more than 70 people killed or injured, with the Taliban claimed responsibility

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