On May 1, United Nations member states’ special envoys on Afghanistan will meet in Doha, Qatar to discuss how to address the Taliban’s latest restrictions on humanitarian operations. The two-day meeting follows a week of confused messaging from the UN that could directly affect next steps for helping Afghans in need of aid.
On April 18, the UN Development Programme Administrator Achim Steiner warned that unless the Taliban revoked their ban on Afghan women working for the UN, the UN was “ready to take the heartbreaking decision to pull out of the country.” The next day, UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohamed suggested member states use what little leverage they have to explore “baby steps” that could put the Taliban “on the path to recognition.”
Surely there is a solution between the threat of total UN withdrawal and the dangled carrot of recognition. And it seems the special envoys are expected to find it.
Unfortunately, divisions among the special envoys on approaches to the Taliban mirror those on the UN Security Council. China, Russia, and Japan want the UN to focus on aid and Afghanistan’s economic crisis. The United States, United Kingdom, and France have pushed a hard line with the Taliban on human rights. In March, when the Security Council passed a resolution extending the mandate of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, it passed a second resolution calling for an independent assessment of the UN’s operations aimed at finding “an integrated and coherent approach … to address the current challenges.” While China and Russia had sought a broader assessment, the US and UK signaled skepticism with the one that emerged.
Meanwhile, the Taliban’s latest restrictions have been catastrophic for the Afghan people, two-thirds of whom are dependent on food aid, most of them women and girls. The Taliban’s increasingly repressive stand banning women from working for humanitarian organizations (except in health and primary education) and the UN, has forced aid agencies and organizations to have to choose between ending their programs or negotiating ways to provide life-saving assistance without compromising principles. This is not a choice they should have to make.
The special envoys should make this clear in Doha and maintain a firm line that only a reversal of the Taliban’s oppressive policies will open the door to further engagement.