UN Special Coordinator Sinirlioğlu meets with Taliban foreign minister, Amir Khan Mutaqqi in Kabul.

UN Assessment Reaffirms Political Impasse with the Taliban

Through a new independent assessment, the UN attempts to bring member states on the same page on Afghanistan. The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres presented the report to the UN Security Council, according to a letter dated November 8, 2023.

The assessment is produced by a team led by the Turkish diplomat, Feridun Sinirlioğlu who was appointed in April by the UN Secretary General as a Special Coordinator for Afghanistan. The Security Council had asked Mr. Guterres in March of this year to produce an independent assessment of the situation in Afghanistan by November 2023.

Since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, the international community has struggled to define a coherent strategy in dealing with the anachronistic regime in Kabul. From the one hand, the potential threats of terrorism and narcotics, and the humanitarian crisis, the largest and worst of its kind according to multiple UN and aid agencies, have obliged the outside world to pump billions of dollars in aid to the country. On the other hand, the Taliban authorities in Kabul have failed to project the slightest signs of compromise toward non-Taliban political forces and the international community, strengthening a diplomatic impasse in the midst of a crisis that has jeopardized the rights and lives of nearly 40 million Afghans.

The 20-page document, while acknowledging the depth of the crisis, does not present any new findings about the situation in Afghanistan. It reaffirms the futility of currently disorganized international engagement, the expansion of the humanitarian crisis in the face of declining resources, and the intransigence of the Taliban authorities for compromise, highlighting the continued difficulty of the world to deal with the Taliban.

However, the assessment suggests a series of recommendations that it claims could help better respond to the basic needs of Afghanistan’s population, increase regional cooperation on issues of mutual interest such as terrorism and narcotics, and facilitate political dialogue among Afghans. Yet, the brief report avoids stipulating how the UN and the international community could practically materialize these recommendations.

While acknowledging the political nature of many of the challenges Afghanistan faces, the assessment in several areas seem to suggest expanding engagement without the assurances of a change of behavior from the Taliban. For example, the report recommends expanding economic support for the country, with particular focus on improving trade relations, minimizing sanctions’ impact on the banking sector, funding incomplete infrastructure projects, and supporting civil society and women. It does not, however, present assurances or safeguards to prevent diversion of aid, an issue continuously raised by observers. Earlier this week, the American Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko warned congressmen about the Taliban’s diversion of aid, which could potentially be used in financing terrorism. The report also does not mention how the support for civil society and women address or circumvent the unprecedented shrinkage of the public space for pluralist debates, particularly the presence of women.

The Taliban’s relationships with other terror groups and networks have been a contentious issue. The new assessment also notes that some of the countries consulted confirmed “the persistent presence of terrorist groups and individuals inside Afghanistan, including members of al-Qaida.”  A previous UN report had also concluded  that a substantial number of fighters from the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) appear to have unrestricted movement and safe haven in Afghanistan, from where they are carrying out increasingly violent attacks inside Pakistan.Earlier this week, the Pakistani special envoy for Afghanistan claimed that over 6000 members of the TTP live in Afghanistan with their families.The Taliban and TTP share ideological, operational, and personal alignment. A report by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) shows that the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021 has significantly strengthened and emboldened the TTP, as the group continues to target Pakistani security forces and civilians across the country.

The Taliban are yet to react to the assessment. Previously, they have often rejected findings critical of their behavior and policies and called them biased. During the past two years, international pressures and demands to convince the Taliban of respecting human rights and forming a representative government have not yielded any results. It remains to be seen whether the UN could make any progress in doing so as it attempts to adopt the recommendations.

International engagement with the Taliban have been ad hoc and disorganized. The authorities in Kabul have tried to maximize their gains from such an environment. Regional stakeholders, despite their tensions with the group, continue to find ways to work with them. In recent weeks, the Taliban have signed economic cooperation agreements with Iran and Uzbekistan, including on using the Chahbahar port in southeastern Iran. At the same time, its tensions with Pakistan, a country considered the Taliban’s only strategic patron, have heightened over terrorism concerns and refugee deportation.