New Delhi, Afghanistan is now at a “dangerous turning point” as the war the Taliban has waged against the government forces has entered a new phase and its consequences could extend beyond the country’s borders, says Deborah Lyons, the UN secretary-general’s special representative for Afghanistan.
Lyons’ warning comes ahead of talks in Qatar next week, and the Security Council’s next meeting on Afghanistan in September.
She urged ambassadors to the Council to act to prevent the South Asian nation from descending into a situation of “catastrophe so serious that it would have few, if any, parallels this century.”
“Afghanistan is now at a dangerous turning point. Ahead lies either a genuine peace negotiation or a tragically intertwined set of crises: an increasingly brutal conflict combined with an acute humanitarian situation and multiplying human rights abuses,” she told the Council in a briefing on Friday.
“And let me assure you, such a catastrophe would have consequences far beyond the borders of Afghanistan. I do believe that the Security Council and the broader international community can help prevent the most dire scenarios. But it will require acting in unity and acting quickly,” she added.
In the past weeks, the war in Afghanistan has entered a new, deadlier, and more destructive phase. The Taliban campaign during June and July to capture rural areas has achieved significant territorial gains. From this strengthened position, they have begun to attack the large cities, said Lyons, according to a UN statement.
The provincial capitals of Kandahar, Herat, and Helmand have come under significant pressure. This is a clear attempt by the Taliban to seize urban centers with the force of arms.
The human toll of this strategy is extremely distressing, and the political message is even more deeply disturbing, she said.
Homes, hospitals, shops, bridges and other infrastructure are being destroyed. In this dire situation, the United Nations and humanitarian partners continue to be present to assess needs and deliver assistance where there is access. But access is becoming increasingly difficult, said Lyons, who is also head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.
The threatening of large urban areas appears to be a strategic decision by the Taliban, who have accepted the likely carnage that will ensue. Afghan government troops are defending these cities. But this defence will also undoubtedly cause civilian casualties, she said.
Urban warfare will also inflict daily miseries when basic infrastructure such as electricity and water networks are damaged. These tactics may amount to serious violation of international humanitarian law for which individuals can be held accountable and may quickly amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, warned the UN envoy.
The suffering caused by war comes on top of an already increasing humanitarian crisis, with severe drought affecting the country. Some 18.5 million people, or nearly half of the country’s population, need humanitarian assistance. And yet, attacks on aid workers continue with more than 25 aid workers killed and more than 60 others injured in the first six months of 2021, she said.
Lyons expressed frustration over the lack of progress in peace negotiations.
“There had been an expectation when the US-Taliban deal was signed in February 2020 … that we would see a reduction of violence. We did not. There had been an expectation when the talks between the Afghan Republic and the Taliban began in September last year that we would see a reduction of violence. We have not.
There had been an expectation that when international troops left that we would see a reduction of violence. We did not,” she said.
“Instead, despite significant concessions for peace, we have seen a 50 per cent increase in civilian casualties with the certainty of many more as the cities are attacked.”
“There is a striking contrast between the activity on the battlefield and the quiet stalemate at the negotiating table in Doha, where we should see the opposite: quiet on the battlefield and engagement around the negotiating table,” said Lyons.
“In speaking to Afghans, the impression I have now is of a population waiting apprehensively for a dark shadow to pass over the brighter futures they once imagined. It is difficult to me to describe the mood of dread we are faced with every day.
As one Afghan put it to us recently, ‘We are no longer talking about preserving the progress and the rights we have gained, we are talking about mere survival.’
Another woman told us that she sometimes regretted that she had educated her daughter as that had put the daughter in a more vulnerable position. For all of us who are parents of daughters, I , I can hardly think of a more despondent comment,” said Lyons.
Afghans face this coming darkness with a sense of being abandoned by the regional and international community. They expect far greater engagement and visible support from the Security Council, which is tasked to maintain international peace and security, she said.