Kabul: Fifty of Afghanistan’s 370 districts have fallen to the Taliban since May, according to the UN’s special envoy on Afghanistan Deborah Lyons, as the United States continues its military withdrawal from the country.
“The Taliban’s recent advances are even more significant and are as a result of an intensified military campaign; more than 50 of Afghanistan’s 370 districts have fallen since the beginning of May,” Lyons told the UN Security Council on Tuesday. “Most districts that have been taken surround provincial capitals, suggesting that the Taliban are positioning themselves to try and take these capitals once foreign forces are fully withdrawn,” Lyons continued to address the UN Security Council.
The news came as a local power company told media on Tuesday that violent clashes had damaged key electrical infrastructure, causing power outages in 11 provinces including Kabul. Over the past 24 hours, Taliban insurgents have taken control of several districts in Kunduz province and the important border crossing with Tajikistan, according to a Rabani Rabani, a member of the Kunduz provincial council. The districts include Chahar Dara, Khan Abad, Imam Sahib, and as well as Shirkhan Bandar, a crossing point with Tajikistan, Rabani said. One of them, the Chahar Dara district, fell without a fight in order to prevent civilian casualties, Rabani added.
Lyons also pointed to a 29 percent increase in civilian casualties in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the same period last year, including a 37 percent rise in casualties among women and a 23 percent increase among children. She singled out the May 8 attack on girls leaving school in a majority-Hazara area of Kabul that killed nearly 100 young female students, and two attacks this month that killed 11 people clearing mines in Baghlan province and five people engaged in polio vaccinations in Nangarhar province. Lyons said the military campaign runs contrary to a recent statement by the head of the Taliban Political Commission who said, “We are committed to forging ahead with the other sides in an atmosphere of mutual respect and reach an agreement.”
From politics to security, the peace process to the economy, Lyons, who is also the Special Representative and Head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), said that the “possible slide toward dire scenarios is undeniable”.
“The relentless spirit of the Afghans and their incredible resilience is being severely tested”, she said, reminding that what happens there is “of global consequence”, and the Security Council needed to be fully aware of the gravity of the situation. She described the mid-April announcement, led by the United States, of troop withdrawal after two decades of war as a “seismic tremor” for the country, which had happened unexpectedly fast.
The decision to pull out was part of the February 2020 agreement between the US and the Taliban to create space for peace among Afghans, instead, “actions on the battlefield have been far greater than progress at the negotiating table”, she added. She told ambassadors that the public and the diplomatic community in Kabul have been “alarmed at the lack of political unity”, which must be addressed or risk contributing to further Taliban territorial advances.
Even India on Tuesday called for UN-led “permanent and comprehensive ceasefire” in Afghanistan in view of a recent escalation in violence, saying that peace talks have not delivered the desired result and the country has witnessed targeted attacks on religious and ethnic minorities, women, journalists and civil rights activists.
“It is therefore crucial that the international community and, in particular, the UN council presses for a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire to ensure immediate reduction in violence and protection of civilian lives,” Indian external affairs minister S Jaishankar said during the UN Security Council debate on the situation in Afghanistan.
“We support a leading role for the United Nations, since that would help improve the odds for a lasting and durable outcome,” he said. The minister reiterated India’s calls for immediate dismantling of terrorist safe havens and disruption of terrorist supply chains. “There needs to be zero tolerance for terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, including its cross-border one,” Jaishankar said.
Even as a senior diplomat from Qatar has said that there has been a “quiet visit” by Indian officials “to speak with the Taliban”, Jaishankar on Tuesday underlined that the intra-Afghan talks have not resulted in a reduction of violence in Afghanistan. The minister also said that “any political settlement” in Afghanistan must “preserve the constitutional democratic framework”.
“If the peace process is to be successful, then it is necessary to ensure that the negotiating parties continue to engage in good faith, eschew the path to find a military solution, and fully commit towards reaching a political solution. A tangible demonstration of this commitment is required,” he said.
The UN secretary general’s report on the situation in Afghanistan submitted last week noted that “security incidents remained at high levels, with the number of civilian casualties increasing by 29% in the first quarter of 2021 in comparison with the same period in 2020”.
In fact, Russian Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Anna Yevstigneyeva also said that the deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan amid the withdrawal of foreign forces causes ever growing concerns. “The balance of power today does not look promising. Violence is rampant across the country. Just like twenty years ago, the terrorist threat remains a serious challenge” in Afghanistan,” she said, adding that the “situation with drug production and drug trafficking” also causes concerns.
“In this regard, we note with regret that the peace process has stalled. We see that attempts to organize an international meeting were unsuccessful,” the Russian envoy said. According to Yevstigneyeva, “the success depends on the scrupulous work with all sides.”
The Afghan authorities and the Taliban movement have been engaging in a peace dialogue in Qatar’s Doha since September 12 last year. However, earlier this year, negotiations stalled and later entered an effective stalemate.
Even State Secretary Audun Halvorsen said that Afghanistan is at a critical juncture. “The international military withdrawal is proceeding at phase. The level of violence is high, aggravated by numerous targeted attacks against civilians, including aid workers, human rights defenders and minorities. This calls for an immediate and meaningful reduction in violence and progress in the peace process. We are hopeful that the negotiations in Doha will yield results. The Afghan parties must own the process and recognize their responsibility in leading the way to peace. Simultaneously, the international community must do more to demonstrate solidarity and support to the Afghan people in their efforts at ending four decades of conflict,” Halvorsen said.
Halvorsen added that the continuing high level of violence in Afghanistan, and its impact on civilians is appalling. “We urge the UN and UNAMA leadership to exercise their influence in ensuring that Afghan women are not on the sidelines in any peace process, but have dedicated particular seats at the negotiation table,” said Halvorsen.
Meanwhile, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Hanif Atmar assessed the situation in Afghanistan with the UN Security Council members in an open debate. Members of the UN Security Council, including the representatives of the United States, the United Kingdom, Estonia, and Head of UNAMA condemned in the strongest terms the recent attacks on schools, demining staff, and innocent Afghan civilians underscoring that the rights of women, men, and children are not negotiable under any circumstances.
They also reiterated that any regime that acquires power through force is not acceptable, and the international community does not support it. The UN Security Council members also declared their support for the resumption of meaningful peace talks, leading to a ceasefire and lasting peace in Afghanistan. The participants also assured of their support to the Afghan government including to the Afghan defense forces and preservation of the hard-won gains of Afghanistan over the last two decades.
Minister of Foreign Affairs explicitly specified the Taliban’s commitments and enumerated their violation, citing the documented report by the UN Sanctions Monitoring Team. He added that the Taliban had increased violence against the Afghans, especially since the announcement by the United States and NATO of their troops’ withdrawal. Minister Atmar also stated that the Taliban had not honored their commitment to cut ties with the international and regional terrorist groups, and had not engaged in serious peace negotiations for months now.