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The UN’s Capitulation to the Taliban

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The UN’s Capitulation to the Taliban

For decades, the United Nations has failed Afghanistan.

The UN’s Capitulation to the Taliban

A wide view of the Security Council meeting on the situation in Afghanistan in June 2024.

Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

In Afghanistan’s crowded scene of actors and accomplices, the United Nations has been an enduring and prominent presence. However, it has successfully insulated itself from public scrutiny and accountability. Its decision to exclude Afghan women and civil society representatives from the just concluded Doha conference, the third such meeting the U.N. has sponsored, may become a blessing in disguise by finally removing the facade of respectability, moral authority and competency from the U.N. 

The U.N.’s role in the decades-long Afghan conflict is as old as the conflict itself. Just a few days after the Soviet Army’s occupation of Afghanistan, the U.N. Security Council issued its first resolution related to the country (No. 46) on January 9, 1980. Thereafter, Afghanistan has competed with Arab-Israeli conflicts on the number of related U.N. interventions, resolutions, and initiatives. 

Unfulfilled Mission

The U.N.’s global role reflects its inherently contradictory structure and mission. It is pulled and pushed by three oppositional forces: Its member states, particularly the five permanent members of the Security Council; the human rights-centric U.N. charter, and the U.N.’s spiraling bureaucracies. 

The member states represent the Hobbesian world, where their perceived national interests take precedence over any other considerations; whereas the U.N. charter’s zeitgeist is essentially human rights. Between the Hobbesian and Kantian pillars lies the U.N.’s own internal politics and dynamics. Bureaucratically, the U.N. is truly a global organization, superseding the U.S. global diplomatic presence and functionalities. Politically, it is the equivalent of any organized religion, free from public scrutiny and accountability. 

The U.N.’s role and presence in Afghanistan over the course of five decades exemplifies its malaise. During the various phases of conflict in Afghanistan, the U.N. not only failed in preventing conflicts, but its role in conflict resolution and mediation efforts further exacerbated the existing conflicts. The Geneva Accords (1988) was a comprehensive package of peace agreements. The orderly withdrawal of the Soviet troops was the only accord that was fully implemented. The February 2020 Doha Peace Agreement between the Taliban and the U.S. met a similar fate: The safe exit of the U.S. military and an ensuing political, humanitarian and security vacuum. On both occasions, the two superpowers’ utilization of the U.N. was compounded by the U.N.’s passivity, inadequacies and blunders. 

The U.N.’s record in democracy promotion and human rights protection matches its bleak peace-building efforts. The Bonn Conference and the ensuing Bonn Agreement and process were convened in the aftermath of the Taliban’s collapse in late 2001. Its most important milestones, however, were marred by Washington’s manipulation, the U.N.’s complicity, and the bickering and corruption of Afghan elites. In the election of the chairman of the Afghan Interim Administration (December 2001), the president of the transitional government (July 2002), the second, third, and fourth presidential elections (2009, 2014, 2019), the eventual winners (Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani) were selected by powerful U.S. envoys Zalmay Khalilzad, (2001, 2002, 2019), Richard Holbrooke (2009), and John Kerry (2014). The U.N. agencies and envoys acted as “ partners in crime” with the U.S. by facilitating and endorsing Washington’s manipulation of Afghanistan’s political process and democratic votes. 

The U.N.’s humanitarian role in Afghanistan is also characterized by failure, secrecy, waste, corruption and complicity in the Taliban’s despotic reign. More than 30 U.N. agencies have operated in Afghanistan since the early 1980s. Despite their decades-old presence and spending of billions of dollars, not one single indicator or sector showed sustainable and transformative improvement. This reality has become more vivid since the Taliban’s seizure of power in August 2021, which practically made the U.N. agencies the “de facto government” in providing public services. The U.S. alone has made available $11.21 billion in assistance for Afghanistan since August 2021. Based on the U.N.’s own admission, more than 50 percent of the Afghan population, some 23.7 million people, require humanitarian assistance. As with any failed public service provider, the U.N.’s call and the donors’ response have been “to throw good money after bad,” rather than engage in serious reform, public accountability and transparency.  The U.N. has even refused to provide answers to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a body created by the U.S. Congress to provide independent and objective oversight of Afghanistan reconstruction projects and activities.

UN-Taliban’s Flirtatious Affairs 

The nature of the U.N.’s relations with the Taliban is consistent with its overall disappointing performance. In December 2007, the Afghan government arrested and then expelled two senior U.N. and EU diplomats for their unauthorized contacts with the Taliban, including an allegation of distribution of money to the Taliban. A close and intimate interaction between the Taliban and the U.N., particularly at the local level is an open secret. As with other stakeholders, the U.N. was entirely excluded from Washington’s negotiations with the Taliban. Since the Taliban’s takeover, however, the U.S. seemed to have outsourced to the U.N. to complete the remaining provisions of its doomed peace agreement with the Taliban. To this end, in December 2023, the U.N. Security Council Resolution (No. 2721) asked the Secretary General to conduct an independent assessment and to appoint a special envoy. 

The U.N. mission was soon confronted by the victorious Taliban’s totalitarian agenda, recurring great power competition over Afghanistan, and the U.N.’s inherently contradictory structure. To enforce their gender apartheid policies, the Taliban ordered the sacking of all female workers in public offices, including the U.N. agencies. In an attempt to force the Taliban to exempt Afghan female U.N. staff from the ban, the U.N. threatened to cease its operations in Afghanistan. The Taliban called the U.N.’s bluff and the U.N. ultimately succumbed to the Taliban’s order and suspended its Afghan women staff. 

The Taliban secured another diplomatic score by outsmarting the U.N. in regard to the independent assessment mandated by Security Council Resolution No. 2679. They left the impression that in return for a favorable assessment by retired Turkish diplomat Feridun Sinirlioglu, who had been appointed special coordinator of the assessment, the Taliban would consent to his appointment as the U.N. special envoy, which had not been proposed yet but was being discussed. Once the overall Taliban-friendly U.N. assessment was released, the Taliban accepted its key findings — except appointing the special U.N. envoy.

The Taliban have continued to build on their successful extractive diplomacy by scoring two additional diplomatic victories. In return for their promise of attending the recent U.N.-sponsored conference, they forced the U.N. to remove any political, human rights and women’s rights topics from the agenda, leaving issues of climate change, private sector, banking and humanitarian assistance. The Taliban also demanded the exclusion of women and civil society representatives from the conference. The U.N. eventually succumbed to the Taliban’s additional demands. The Taliban’s humiliation of the U.N. was further cemented by their choice of a head for their delegation to the conference, the Taliban’s chief spokesperson.

The Way Forward 

Proxy warfare, political machination, diplomatic acrobatics and elite manipulation have imposed immense suffering on the people of Afghanistan, particularly its women, with serious implications for regional peace and global security. 

Instead of doomed attempts to resuscitate the disgraced U.S.-Taliban Doha deal, the U.N. must return to its core mission and foundational values by initiating a democratic political process to empower Afghan citizens to shape their future. The Taliban have established the world’s first gender apartheid regime, according to the U.N.’s own human rights experts. The U.N. played an important role in confronting and eventually dismantling South Africa’s racial apartheid regime. It needs to play a similar role in Afghanistan. Pandering to the powerful, be it permanent members of the U.N. Security Council or the despotic and misogynistic Taliban will only accelerate the U.N.’s race to meet the fate of its predecessor, the League of the Nations.