As the international community reacts to a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, one proposal that has been suggested is the deployment of a United Nations-led peacekeeping mission to Kabul in order to create a safe zone for future evacuations. In the ongoing chaos, it is easy to forget that the U.N. already has a mission in Afghanistan, the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), which has temporarily relocated some staff to Kazakhstan to continue its operations. This is not a random choice, as Nur-Sultan has a strong record of cooperation with the U.N.
In connection with the increasingly problematic situation in Afghanistan last month, the U.N. requested permission from Kazakhstan to move some of its staff to Almaty, Kazakhstan’s financial capital, in order to continue its work from a safer location. In the spirit of cooperation with the United Nations, and within the framework of Kazakhstan’s U.N. obligations, the Kazakh government accepted this request. A September 8 report by U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres on the current situation highlights this strategic transfer of personnel, mentioning how the U.N. presence around Afghanistan “by means of relocations, including a portion of staff members, … were moved temporarily to Almaty, Kazakhstan, where they continue to carry out their work on Afghanistan.”
As to how exactly this operation happened, an August 23 report by RFE/RL explained that at least two flights transported U.N. personnel, including “members of several Afghan nongovernmental organizations who cooperated with the [UNAMA] and other UN agencies accredited in the war-torn country.” UNAMA chief Deborah Lyons said in mid-August that 60 of her team members will remain in Kazakhstan to remotely coordinate the group’s activities in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, an August 20 U.N. press release explained that personnel, “numbering up to around 100 in total, will establish a temporary office in Almaty.”
According to media reports, the Kazakh government is cooperating with the U.N. personnel to help them get organized and back to work. An August 18 press release by the Kazakh Ministry of Foreign Affairs explained that this deployment is expected to last six months, and “all expenses for the personnel’s accommodation, rental of office space, etc. will be fully financed from the UN budget.” UNAMA, a political mission with no peacekeepers assigned to it, has not released info about where exactly in Almaty it is now located.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev reportedly decided “to fulfill the UN request as part of Kazakhstan’s commitments as a full-fledged member of the organization,” demonstrating Nur-Sultan’s pro-U.N. disposition. This initiative is not unprecedented, as the Central Asian nation aims to become a vibrant member of the international community and make a name in conflict resolution and peace-oriented initiatives.
For example, Kazakhstan has played a role in attempting to settle the war in Syria via the Astana Peace Process, which aims to provide a platform for dialogue for all parties to the conflict. While unfortunately that has not managed to achieve a permanent ceasefire, it is important to keep open methods of communication.
Kazakhstan has also cooperated with U.N. missions by providing blue helmets. As of July 31, there were 36 Kazakh troops in the U.N. mission in Lebanon (UNIFIL) and five Kazakh experts in the mission in Western Sahara (MINURSO), according to U.N. statistics. The country is the only regional state to have obtained a non-permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council (in 2017-2018).
As for Kazakhstan’s role in Afghanistan in recent months, Kazakh Air Force aircraft reportedly extracted from Kabul Kazakh diplomats in addition to 14 citizens from Kyrgyzstan, one from Russia, and one from Lithuania, who had previously asked Kazakh diplomatic authorities for assistance. Moreover, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan also host many Afghans, specially young women, that purse higher education studies. One of the many unanswered questions is the future of these U.N.-sponsored educational programs.
As the situation on the ground remains tense and violent, brave international humanitarian personnel in Afghanistan continue to provide assistance to Afghans in need. Therefore, the temporary remote office in Almaty will be an important communication and coordination center for UNAMA’s personnel for the coming months, while the possibility of a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan is debated.
As the world adapts to a “new” Afghanistan, there is much work to be done to help Afghans in need; from its temporary base in Almaty, UNAMA will continue to work toward this goal. Without a doubt, the situation in Afghanistan has become a real test for the international community regarding how much it is willing to support democratic values and the principles of mutual assistance. Kazakhstan is doing what it can to help the U.N. mission reorganize, but fixing Afghanistan has proven to be no easy task.