Peace is the only hope for Afghanistan. How can the UN help to bring everyone to the table?
Afghanistan will fail without sustainable peace and the only way to achieve peace is for Afghans to talk – not just to the United Nations – but to each other, said the top UN official in Afghanistan, Nicholas Haysom.
“There’s been really significant progress, particularly if you look over 13 years when the UN Mission was started,” Mr. Haysom, Special Representative of the Secretary-General, told Politically Speaking from the Kabul headquarters of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).
A new national unity Government led by President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah was established last year following the first transfer of power from one elected leader in the country to another. Infrastructure has been developed and access to schools and healthcare has improved.
As of January, Afghan forces are for the first time responsible for the security of their country. But sustaining these achievements requires stability.
“It doesn’t have to be at peace immediately, but [Afghanistan] is simply not going to survive if there isn’t peace in the long-term,” Mr. Haysom said.
“War is unaffordable, and the levels of aid which go on to sustain the security establishment are not going to be forthcoming forever.”
In that context, UNAMA has been for the last few years intensively encouraging a peace process by talking to all the parties and nudging them to engage.
“A peace process must be one in which Afghans talk to Afghans, not Afghans talk to the United Nations. As we say in Africa, where I come from, the doctor can’t take medicine on behalf of the patient,” said Mr. Haysom.
The UN Mission has been encouraging parties to formally talk to each other directly in an ongoing peace process to a set agenda. A position the parties have not yet accepted.
“We think there are real problems that both parties face with regard to unity of purpose,” Mr. Haysom noted.
He added that the insurgency seems to believe in a narrative in which their victory is around the corner, which, combined with the presence of internal divisions, makes them reluctant to commit to a peace process.
There is a glimmer of hope that neighbours that can exert pressure on the key actors, have been – with encouraging results.
“We think at the moment there is a positive alignment of a number of factors which could promote a peace process,” Mr. Haysom said.
That includes China stepping up to the plate and a more positive engagement from Pakistan, the UN envoy said.
A land-locked country, Afghanistan’s relationship with its neighbours – who also include Iran to the west, and Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to the north – is vital.
One of the poorest countries in the world, Afghanistan’s comparative advantage is its geography. Nestled between energy-hungry South Asia and energy-rich Central Asia, Afghanistan could be a hub connecting the east and west to the north and south.
“For it to play that role, of course, it needs levels of stability, but it also needs connectivity and integration in the region,” said Mr. Haysom. “It needs the regional players to assist in the stabilization and the economic integration of Afghanistan.”
There is currently a sanctions regime against the Taliban, imposed by Security Council resolution 1988 (2011). The Council first imposed sanctions on Afghanistan under resolution 1267 (1999), which sought to force the Taliban to hand over Osama Bin Laden. The sanctions regime later grew to include people and entities the Council had determined as being associated with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
For Afghanistan, the Council also plays an important role by focusing attention on the country, thereby helping to mobilize aid. Afghanistan is tremendously aid-dependent, a fact that distorts its economy. In 2012, Afghanistan received an estimated $6.5 billion in foreign assistance, including humanitarian aid and official development assistance.
“Without that aid, it’s unlikely to survive as we know it,” Mr. Haysom said. “There have been substantial commitments made to continue supporting Afghanistan but we would be apprehensive that those commitments would melt away once Member States no longer either have men or missions in Afghanistan.”
This is particularly why the Council’s focused attention on Afghanistan matters. It is also why the UN’s presence on the ground matters. The fact that the UN remains in Afghanistan is a concrete signal that the international community will continue to support the country.
“As the international community draws down, if the UN would precipitously abandon or leave Afghanistan, it would be seen as abandonment.”
The country faces formidable challenges in the future. The fiscal gap between what Afghanistan is getting and spending is growing; it’s engaged in a very difficult political arrangement which must now deliver on its promises, including curbing corruption; and, in terms of security, the country faces in a virtual civil war just the beginning of the Taliban’s announced spring offensive.
“Any one of these would be a massive challenge for a poor country to confront, and Afghanistan has to confront all three together,” Mr. Haysom noted. “So, against this backdrop, the continued engagement of the international community and Afghanistan’s neighbours is critical.”
The United Nations has played a special role in Afghanistan over the past 13 years, assisting with the peace efforts and contributing to resolving some of the crises which have beset the country.
UNAMA has specific tasks which it needs to do to contribute to Afghanistan’s normalization, noted Mr. Haysom.
“I think providing a good offices role for the resolution of conflicts and disputes, both within Afghanistan and between Afghanistan and its insurgency, between Afghanistan and its neighbours,” he said.
“Also in the resolution of electoral disputes,” he continued, “in promoting regional engagement in the country, pointing out to the region that they have an interest, a self interest or a selfish interest in Afghanistan’s stability and prosperity.”
A central part of UNAMA’s work focuses on human rights, particularly protection of civilians. While in some UN field missions this component can cause tensions by “naming and shaming” the Government or other key partners, Mr. Haysom sees human rights as adding credibility to the Mission.
“It’s elevated our status, made us a more trusted interlocutor, one that is broadly supporting the Afghan community and it hasn’t in any way diminished our capacity to reach out either to the Taliban or to work with the Government.”
A key report for the Mission is the civilian casualty report written jointly with the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR). The latest edition documented 2014 as the worst year for civilians since the United Nations began keeping records in 2009, with more than 10,000 killed or injured in the conflict during the year.
This year could be worse, as Afghanistan finds itself with new opportunities for peace talks, even as insurgents are set to test the strength of security forces to gain leverage in future negotiations.
Protection of civilians also takes the role of protecting women from a high level of abuse within their families.
Over the years, UNAMA has found slow but even progress in implementing the Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) Law – which criminalizes acts of violence against women and harmful practices including child marriage, forced marriage, forced self-immolation, 'baad' (giving away a woman or girl to settle a dispute) and 18 other acts of violence against women including rape and beating.
As part of its core mandate, the Mission is also working to try to ensure that women -– and youth -– have an equal right to participation in public life.
“Why would we put such an emphasis on it?,” Mr. Haysom said. “Apart from the question of human rights standards, apart from the question of the fact that women constitute 50 per cent of the population, or that youth are the country’s future, what we know is that for effective growth and development, the participation of women in the public and economic life of the nation is critical."
UNAMA, will soon initiate a process to examine the role, structure and activities of all United Nations entities in Afghanistan, in consultation with the Government of Afghanistan and key stakeholders, including the donor community, as per its mandate. Some UN agencies, funds and programmes, it should be noted, have been operating in the region since Afghanistan joined the United Nations in 1946.
“We’re taking the challenge to show what value we bring to Afghanistan,” Mr. Haysom said, adding that any skills are being transferred to the Afghans and not inducing a dependence on UN’s continued presence.