EDITORIAL: No UN Meeting Could Help Afghanistan Against the Taliban

WASHINGTON, UNITED STATES – The two-day UN meeting of special envoys on Afghanistan just concluded in Doha. No breakthrough was expected and none came out of it. To be fair, the UN had not put out specific and measurable objectives either. Perhaps, the meeting was more hyped in the Afghanistan public space than it deserved. There were at least three important aspects of the meeting to note when thinking about its effects.

The first key point was the participation. The primary participants of the Doha meeting were various countries’ special envoys to Afghanistan. The conference was not one in which different Afghan sides talked to each other in the presence of the outside world. Even if the Taliban had participated, there was no plan for them to sit face-to-face with the four civil society members. That means that input from the Afghan sides would have had little bearing on the deliberations of participating countries during the two-day talks—certainly of the non-Taliban participants. Scheduling the meeting between activists and special envoys simultaneously with the Secretary General’s press briefing only made that clearer. Therefore, hearing from these activists without the Taliban and even their regional sympathizers such as Russia and Iran at the end of two days of discussions added nothing to the main deliberations which happened prior. Many of the participating diplomats had heard concerns raised by members of the civil society about women’s and minorities’ rights and liberties—including from the ones who participated in Doha.

Even if the Taliban had participated, there was no plan for them to sit face-to-face with the four civil society members.

The second noteworthy point was the meeting’s outcome. Although the UN Secretary-General spoke about achievements, there was no breakthrough. He spoke of a consensus among all participating countries on the endgame in Afghanistan but also on the programmatic priorities of the outside world. While the former is understandable, the latter could perhaps be seen as a step forward. Mr. Guterres said that all participating countries agreed on the findings of the UN independent assessment that was concluded last November, which also recommended the appointment of a UN special envoy. The Taliban have fiercely opposed another UN envoy and China and Russia had conditioned their support on Kabul’s buy-in.

Participants, however, say that disagreements remain on the profile and mandate of the special envoy. Russia and China continue to prioritize the Taliban’s position on the matter and make their support conditional. That means, no progress will be made until the authorities in Kabul give a green light despite the UN Secretary General’s decision to convene the meeting without the Taliban’s participation. That is why the UN is already thinking of another round of talks in May in which a UN Under-Secretary-General would meet with the Taliban foreign minister Amir Khan Mutaqqi to build confidence for an extended engagement.

The UN Secretary-General also said that there will be a contact group formed, although as an initiative of the member states rather than of the UN, to work with the Taliban. There were already tensions among participating countries about the composition of such a group. Regional countries with closer ties to the Taliban have shown interest in forming such a group while Western countries led by the United States who contribute most of the humanitarian aid do not want to give up their leverage. The formation of a similar group had proven impossible during the peace talks between the Taliban and the former government.

The division is not only between great powers nor only between regional countries and the West. Even those who appear like-minded do not necessarily agree on the details. The threshold for the United States, for example, to tolerate the Taliban’s bad behaviour for the sake of its national security concerns is much higher than France, a US ally which also has veto power at the UN Security Council. Others such as Canada, Sweden and in some cases even Germany’s foreign office tilt toward the French position and are skeptical of engagement with the regime in Kabul.

Regional parties on the other hand, including Russia and China, have little regard for human rights so long as their immediate security concerns are addressed. That is why the Russian representative issued a communique that they will not participate in the meeting with the four civil society members, a position in line with the Taliban’s condition for joining the meeting.  The Iranian delegation also skipped the meeting.

Perhaps, a workable solution would be to have the contact group made up of smaller countries but with the support of P5. That will create better internal dynamics in the group as smaller Western powers’ interest in political and human rights—now largely trumped by the national security interests of big powers such as the US—could balance out the regional stakeholder’s overly pragmatic approach.

The authorities in Kabul understand that foreign diplomats will continue to find new ways of working with the regime to address their concerns.

The final key question remains as to whether this or any such meeting could help the people of Afghanistan. And the answer is: probably not. The continuation of an interest-based approach from the outside world, understandable on their part, will also leave the people of Afghanistan helpless and at the mercy of a brutal regime. The group’s long-term survival dooms any prospect of human dignity and equitable prosperity. Afghanistan’s interest groups need to think about their country independently of the outside world. From a practical standpoint, the Taliban have no incentive to work with others—they do just fine by themselves. From a political perspective, the group has made it abundantly clear that it does not believe in a multi-ethnic society with a pluralistic political system. Those who continue to argue for an intra-Afghan negotiation or other avenues for finding common ground with the group are either too naïve or have ulterior motives.

That does not mean that non-Taliban groups (civil society, political groups, intellectual communities, etc.) break away from the world, but to not be constantly swayed by outsider’s interests. Yes, increased coherence and uniformity in the international response to the crisis do help the people to a major extent. But it also helps the Taliban and the sustainability of their rule in many ways. And that is where the interests of the outside world diverge from that of the majority of the country’s population. The outside world’s primary objective is to contain the crises to a manageable extent and within the country’s borders. That is why the Secretary-General encouraged regional bilateral relationships with the Taliban. The authorities in Kabul understand that foreign diplomats will continue to find new ways of working with the regime to address their concerns.

The Taliban in its current shape and form can only produce marginalization, exclusion and brutality. And no UN meeting can change that, even if it wanted.

Although the Taliban refused to participate in the UN meeting, two senior UN officials met with the group nonetheless in the last few days, convincing the Taliban that the outside world will not go anywhere no matter what the group does. Rosemary DiCarlo, the UN Under Secretary General for Political and Peace-building Affairs, met with Taliban representatives in Doha and Kanni Wagnaraja, head of UNDP for Asia and the Pacific, was in Kabul to engage the Taliban. In addition to that, the World Bank announced last week that it has unlocked $300 million of IDA funding for the Afghanistan Resilience Trust Fund (ARTF), which includes the resumption of CASA-1000, a major regional infrastructure project that will not happen without close collaboration with the ruling authorities.

Some might be too optimistic about the optics of the UN not cancelling the meeting after the Taliban refused to join. However, whether the outside world finds a consensus-based and workable solution to dealing with the Taliban or not will have little tangible impact on the long-term well-being of the people of Afghanistan. The Taliban in its current shape and form can only produce marginalization, exclusion and brutality. And no UN meeting can change that, even if it wanted.