On February 18-19, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will convene a meeting on Afghanistan in Doha to discuss the ongoing humanitarian and human rights crises and the recent report on a way forward by U.N. Special Coordinator for Afghanistan Feridun Sinirlioğlu. Special envoys from U.N. member states and international organizations will attend; representatives from Afghan civil society, women’s groups and Taliban officials have also been invited. The conference is a critical, high-level opportunity for donors and the region to chart next steps on how to improve the situation in Afghanistan and engage with the Taliban regime.

Barad Bibi, a widow, and her son Wahidullah register her family of seven for aid with the United Nations’ migration agency at the Torkham border crossing in eastern Afghanistan, Oct. 23, 2023. (Elise Blanchard/The New York Times)
Barad Bibi, a widow, and her son Wahidullah register her family of seven for aid with the United Nations’ migration agency at the Torkham border crossing in eastern Afghanistan, Oct. 23, 2023. (Elise Blanchard/The New York Times)

USIP’s Kate Bateman and Andrew Watkins discuss the significance of the meeting, its implications for U.S. interests and obstacles to broader international coordination on Afghanistan.

Why is the U.N. organizing this conference on Afghanistan and why now?

Watkins: U.N. Secretary-General Guterres convened an initial conference of the world’s special envoys to Afghanistan in May 2023 (also in Doha) to address the potentially destabilizing conditions in Afghanistan, including a failing economy and increasingly restrictive Taliban policies on women’s rights.  At that point — 21 months into the Taliban’s rule — the international community was grappling with the reality that the Taliban were effectively consolidating their rule and had proven unwilling to yield to international pressure that the country follow international obligations to combat terrorism, protect human rights and practice inclusive governance. These concerns began to impact the U.N. directly, in late 2022 and into 2023, when Taliban authorities issued restrictions on Afghan women working to deliver aid and assistance with nongovernmental organizations, and even as U.N. staff.

Last spring, the U.N. Security Council also called for an independent assessment of international engagement with Afghanistan. A special coordinator was appointed and tasked to report back to the council by November 2023 with forward-looking recommendations for how the international community can engage with Afghanistan in more coordinated, more effective ways.

U.N. Special Coordinator for Afghanistan Feridun Sinirlioğlu’s report called on donors to continue and strengthen engagement, development assistance and economic integration with Afghanistan — for the benefit of the Afghan people, in spite of the challenges of dealing with the Taliban. The assessment recommended a road map for reintegrating Afghanistan back into international economic and political systems, contingent on the Taliban meeting Afghanistan’s international legal and treaty obligations. This process would incrementally expand engagement and assistance in tandem with steps by the Taliban to implement and enforce women’s rights, human rights and key commitments on security and other concerns. The assessment also recommended that a U.N. special envoy be appointed to shepherd international engagement and link various processes and platforms.

The Security Council endorsed the report’s recommendations in a resolution just before the new year (but without support from Russia and China). Guterres and many donors hope the Doha conference will help build consensus on a process or road map for collective engagement, as proposed in the assessment.

How does this conference, and the process it seeks to build toward, address U.S. policy interests relating to Afghanistan?

Bateman: U.S. interests in Afghanistan are countering terrorism, obtaining the release of detained U.S. citizens, addressing the country’s humanitarian and economic crisis, enabling the departure of Afghans eligible to immigrate to the United States, advancing human rights and ensuring instability in Afghanistan doesn’t threaten regional stability.

In his January testimony to Congress, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Thomas West said the Taliban were taking sufficient efforts against al-Qaeda and ISIS-K, and described engaging with the Taliban for the release of wrongfully detained U.S. citizens. However, he also underscored the “reprehensible Taliban policies” that continue to repress women and girls, more so than in any other country in the world.

Overall progress to improve the situation in Afghanistan will require more intensive multilateral cooperation and coordination. The United States and like-minded partners want to see the Taliban rescind their oppressive policies against women and girls, and be more politically inclusive. Meanwhile, China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan and other regional states are more concerned about Afghanistan’s economic crisis that could destabilize the Taliban’s hold on power, exacerbating cross-border threats like terrorism, crime, drug trafficking and migration.

The withholding of formal recognition is one of the international community’s main tools of leverage to address any of these concerns. That consensus has held for two and a half years, but it looks increasingly fragile — as signaled by Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s acceptance last month of ambassador credentials from a Taliban representative, amid other steps toward normalization by regional actors.

The region, less troubled by human rights violations, appears readier to normalize relations with the Taliban than does the United States/West. For the latter, the risk is that the Taliban get what they want from the region (economic and trade ties, the appearance of legitimacy), weakening collective international leverage to push for improved protection of women’s and human rights, political inclusion and shared security interests. And yet regional neighbors also argue that several potential levers to address the economic crisis lie in the hands of the United States and other Western states: continued aid, removal of sanctions and unfreezing Afghan central bank assets. But the West is highly unlikely to make concessions on sanctions or assets, a difficult and messy process both politically and bureaucratically, unless the Taliban take significant steps to reverse restrictions on women and girls and protect human rights. This is highly unlikely under the status quo of Taliban leadership, hence the current impasse. Ultimately, U.S. leverage remains weak.    

A U.N. special envoy and a multilateral mechanism for a potential road map to normalized relations with the Taliban (as recommended in Sinirlioğlu’s report), can help align these various interests and levers, and perhaps chart a path to break the impasse. A U.N. envoy may have more credibility with and ability to talk to regional states, as well as U.S. rivals Russia, China and Iran; an envoy can thus be a force multiplier for the United States vis-à-vis Afghanistan.

How will Afghanistan be represented in this conference?

Watkins: In the lead-up to last year’s meeting, there was no representation from Afghanistan.

For next week’s meeting, the U.N. formally invited the Taliban, and reportedly plans to also invite an equal number of other, non-Taliban Afghan participants, to include women and civil society leaders living in Afghanistan. Numerous Afghan activists have publicly called for the participation of Afghan women in this conference and other international forums. Last year’s U.N. assessment explicitly cited the need for women’s participation in both international and domestic political decision-making about Afghanistan.

But how, exactly, Afghan participation will play out remains up in the air. The Taliban have publicly spoken about the conference in vaguely positive terms, but have also quietly conveyed concerns about attending. The Taliban seem to seek assurances that if they attend they will be treated, at least de facto, as the government of Afghanistan. The Taliban perceive the invitation of other, independent Afghan voices as a slight against their legitimacy.

Sources say that the U.N.’s invitation to independent Afghans includes an equal number of men and women, though the details will likely depend on if and how the Taliban attend — this element of the conference is in flux, and may remain so until just before it begins.

What could impede broader international coordination on Afghanistan?

Watkins: The broadest hurdle facing the envoys’ gathering is the tense geopolitical climate: the divide between the United States and Russia and China in the Security Council continues to grow.

China’s steps to normalize diplomatic relations with the Taliban are significant gains in the Taliban’s quest for international legitimacy. China insists that it has not technically recognized the government in Kabul. Nevertheless, warming relations with China are likely to only further entrench Taliban perceptions that they can continue to safely ignore Western demands on human rights and inclusive governance. Russia, for its part, has kept the Taliban at arm’s length, continuing to warn about the threats their regime poses to the global terrorism landscape, but also seeks to stymie any U.S.-led or U.S.-friendly efforts and initiatives in the region.

Even among Western allies, there is a wide range of opinions on how to engage with challenges in Afghanistan — and with the Taliban. France’s position, which is strongly critical of the Taliban and suspicious of widening engagement with their regime, is especially relevant given its permanent seat (and veto vote) on the Security Council. It may prove difficult for the United States to even rally allies and partners around a common position.

Finally, the recommendation for a U.N. special envoy is highly contentious. While the United States has voiced its support for the swift appointment of an envoy, the Taliban have been emphatic in their opposition to such an appointment. Russia and China have been lukewarm on the idea. The envoy is likely to be a key topic of discussion — and could turn into a stumbling block.

In public messaging, the Taliban’s chief complaint is that U.N. envoys are appointed to help resolve conflicts — and they forcefully reject the insinuation that they have not brought peace and stability to Afghanistan. Broadly, the Taliban appear to be averse to the very idea underpinning the envoys’ gathering: that the international community adopt a collective, coordinated approach. As advancing relations with China and other regional countries seem to demonstrate, the Taliban have much more to gain from differing, bilateral engagements — and hope to avoid any chance of being ganged up against.

What would be a successful outcome from the U.S. government’s perspective? What is feasible/likely?

Bateman: The United States would like to see greater consensus on the appointment of a U.N. special envoy and their mandate to shepherd a broader process or road map. But the Taliban are unlikely to drop their opposition to an envoy. Thus, an acceptable outcome might be a quiet concession that an envoy will not be fully blocked from traveling to Afghanistan, or a title change like “coordinator,” which implies a function more concerned with corralling international actors than taking the Taliban regime to task. The United States will want to avoid an outcome that appears to dramatically weaken an envoy’s mandate, or scratches the idea altogether.

Another important outcome would be to maintain, at least for a while longer, the consensus on nonrecognition of the Taliban government (for instance, as conveyed in public statements by the U.N. or individual envoys).

The Doha II conference is not where concrete policy decisions on aid will be made. Nevertheless, a “win” from the U.S. perspective would be to bolster envoys’ commitment to advocate in their state capitals for continued humanitarian aid for Afghanistan — to at least slow the precipitous decline in aid.

It will be important that the voices of Afghan women and advocates of women and girls’ rights have a strong platform at Doha II. The U.S. delegation may also look to individual envoys from a diverse range of countries to underscore human rights issues and Afghanistan’s obligations under international law, to demonstrate a united front to the Taliban delegation. The conference could help reinforce the consensus that normalization will not happen without huge improvements on women’s rights.

Finally, the United States may aim to shore up support for the U.N. Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA), whose mandate will be up for renewal by the Security Council next month. If a U.N. envoy is appointed, there will also be a need to clarify the relationship and modalities between the envoy and UNAMA.

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