The past few months in Afghanistan, even by the standards set by two decades of war, have been especially calamitous.
Since April, when President Biden announced the withdrawal of United States forces from the country, violence has escalated at a terrifying rate. Emboldened, the Taliban have advanced across the country and now surround major cities, including Kandahar, the second largest. The toll has been terrible: Vital infrastructure has been destroyed, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced, and the number of people killed or injured has reached record levels. As the United States and its allies complete their withdrawal, Afghanistan, so long devastated by conflict, could be on the brink of something much worse.
It doesn’t have to be this way: Peace is still a possibility. For too long, there was a belief that the conflict could be resolved militarily. Throughout that time, the United Nations was too hesitant to step in. We should know: Between 2008 and 2020, across six years, we served as U.N. envoys to Afghanistan. In those years, the U.N. endeavored to create openings for the peace process but could not get one underway. Though last year’s agreement between the United States and the Taliban made possible the withdrawal of international forces, it sadly did not create conditions conducive to peace.
The U.N. must now step up and guide Afghanistan away from catastrophe. The alternative, as all-out civil war beckons, is too grim to contemplate.
The organization needs to do more. Though two U.N. envoys are currently assigned to Afghanistan, neither is sufficiently empowered to make a difference. The U.N.’s humanitarian appeal to support the basic needs of Afghans — nearly half of whom urgently need material assistance — remains woefully underfunded. At the diplomatic level, the Security Council has looked on blankly as peace talks, held in Doha, Qatar, have failed to make any serious headway.
Fortunately, by contrast to times in the past when disagreements among members hobbled effective responses to global crises, the U.N. is in a good position to act. The United States, Russia and China — three of the five permanent members of the Security Council — all have a stake in Afghanistan’s stability. Along with Pakistan, they issued statements in recent months calling for a reduction in violence and a negotiated political settlement that protects the rights of women and minorities. They also encouraged the U.N. to play “a positive and constructive role in the Afghan peace and reconciliation process.” Taken together, the statements demonstrate a hopeful amount of political will.
But there has not been a unified effort to hold the peace process together. The Taliban, resisting talks with the government, have focused instead on taking as much territory as possible, spreading violence across the country. Faced with a fight for its survival, the Afghan government has encouraged local warlords and leaders to take up arms. In the absence of international mediation, the two sides are raging against each other on the battlefield rather than engaging at the negotiating table. It’s a situation that revives dark memories of the 1990s, when the country descended into civil war.
Yet no single country involved in Afghanistan is well placed to help. For its part in the conflict, the United States is now viewed with suspicion. Russia and China, which have different allies among Afghanistan’s neighbors, aren’t seen as neutral either. Pakistan, regarded with hostility by the Afghan government for its ties to the Taliban, doesn’t want the involvement of India, which has opened its own channels of communication with the Taliban. Turkey, Iran and the Central Asian states are all important, but cannot act alone.
The U.N. must step into this vacuum. In the first instance, the secretary general must immediately convene the Security Council and seek a clear mandate to empower the U.N., both inside the country and at the negotiating table. That would mean the United States, Russia, China and other members of the council coming together to authorize a special representative to act as a mediator. With the pivotal support of member states, this would put pressure on both sides to halt the fighting and reach a settlement.
The U.N. mission inside the country, whose mandate comes up for renewal in September, will also need support. The rapidly deteriorating security and humanitarian situation means that Afghans across the country will need more lifesaving assistance. The U.N. must also be able to continue its crucial work of reporting human rights violations, protecting children in conflict and supporting women and girls.
The U.N. is often criticized for failing to deliver on its original purpose: to maintain international peace and security. This is an opportunity to show its worth. In the past, international diplomacy has helped bring an end to conflicts in places as varied as Cambodia, Mozambique, El Salvador and Guatemala. The organization now needs to summon the same spirit, courage and energy. It cannot stand by and watch Afghanistan collapse.
Kai Eide, a Norwegian diplomat, served as the United Nations secretary general’s special representative for Afghanistan from 2008 to 2010. Tadamichi Yamamoto, a Japanese diplomat, served in the same role from 2016 to 2020.
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