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The UN’s portrait of Afghanistan — glimmer of hope, sense of urgency

By Javier Delgado Rivera

New York City — This year’s first UN Secretary General report on Afghanistan came out on March 18th, just as the Biden administration is reassessing its May 1st troop withdrawal and pushes to reinvigorate the sluggish peace talks.

Washington’s frustration by the lack of progress in Doha, coupled with the US call for a bigger UN role in the peace talks (what led to the recent appointment of a UN Special Envoy to Afghanistan), have drawn extraordinary attention to this edition.

 “What we do in the immediate months ahead will have a great impact on how steady that path can be. The killings, the displacement, the suffering of the Afghan people must end. Now,” said Deborah Lyons, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, as she briefed on Tuesday the UN Security Council.

All meanwhile Afghanistan has been “hit-hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. The economy is disrupted, our health sector is still struggling … and many have lost their livelihoods,” Afghanistan’s Ambassador to the UN, Adela Raz, reminded the Security Council during the same virtual meeting.

As it has been the case ever since the UN started compiling its reports on Afghanistan in 1997, the Organization dissects its radiography of the country in several major themes:

Political developments

In this arena, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), the office that prepared this Report, appears relatively sanguine. It first stresses how the Government formation and “efforts to accommodate political opposition actors” led the Wolesi Jirga to confirm several ministerial posts. Yet, the Report notes, corruption and “non-observance of constitutional provisions” prompted the dismissal of two of these very ministers.

Recognizing a dose of transparency in policy-making, UNAMA appreciates how the Wolesi Jirga returned the Ministry of Finance’s budget to demand both the harmonization of civil service salaries and the balancing of provincial and sectoral development allocations.

However, UNAMA laments the halt of an equally important process. “Election reforms to prepare for constitutionally mandated and overdue provincial, district council and municipal elections … progressed slowly,” warns the Report.

Echoing fears that women’s rights may be one of the primary casualties of the peace process, the UN applauds the various forums on Afghan women held over the last months, which resulted in calls for their meaningful inclusion in the negotiations.

“Afghan women must be present in the room and at the table when the future of the country is decided on. And why? Because this is not the Afghanistan of twenty years ago,” said Ms. Lyons to the UN Security Council, this month presided by the US.


As anyone with a passing interest in Afghan affairs would be aware, the security situation in the country worsened in 2020. The Report puts a figure to this deterioration: a 10% increase in security incidents compared with 2019, and the highest since the UN started documenting this type of incidents in 2007.  

UN records show how almost all the incidents monitored, with the exception of air strikes, experienced an upturn: clashes +18.4%, detonations by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) +32%, and assassinations +27%.

“Early this month, Mursal Wahidi, Sadia Sadat, and Shahnaz Raofi were murdered in Jalalabad. They were all in their early 20s and worked as reporters. Just last week, four women and a three-year-old child – Shukria Shams, Aziza Malikzada, Nargis Kohistani, Arsh Mayil, and Khatera Mayil – lost their lives while going through their day riding a bus in Kabul,” Ambassador Raz told the Security Council with a broken voice and tearful eyes.

Many of these attacks targeted State officials, civil society, the media, judicial personnel and ulama. “Afghans and their international partners have begun to voice understandable frustrations about the lack of real outcomes [of the peace process], against the incredible backdrop of extreme violence throughout the country,” voiced Ms. Lyons.

 “The role of civil society and the media is becoming ever more critical as the peace process evolves. I am outraged by the recent spate of targeted killings,” laments the UN Secretary-General in his Report.

Human Rights

One of the most disturbing parts of this Paper reflects how the conflict continues to inflict untold pain on boys and girls: 729 child casualties in the last three months of 2020. The breakdown is distressing: 196 killed and 533 maimed.

In addition, UNAMA reflects an equally deplorable fact: a threefold-increase in verified attacks (39) against hospitals and health-care personnel in the last three months.  

Also noteworthy is the Report’s reference to a recent UNAMA and OHCHR assessment on torture and ill-treatment in the custody of the Government. A fact-finding scrutiny that highlights how “torture allegations are prevalent, stressing the need to enhance capacity, resources and training for law enforcement officials.”


This is an area where UNAMA applauds several developments. For starters, it cites how President Ashraf Ghani appointed the five members of the new Anti-Corruption Commission, making it finally operational.

In addition, the UN welcomes the Government’s latest measures to strengthen the capacity of subnational institutions. This is particularly significant in Badakhshan, Balkh, Jalalabad, Kunduz and Uruzgan provinces that started to implement a decree requiring district governors to undergo performance evaluations.

The Mission did not fail to note how on January, a former Minister of Mines and Petroleum was sentenced to thirteen months of imprisonment on charges of misuse of authority – and a month later, three members of the Meshrano Jirga were handed out a similar sentence on corruption charges.

These are somehow small, but nevertheless encouraging steps to tackle the scourge of corruption, what Ms. Lyons calls a silent terrorist, and a “horrific cancer” in Afghanistan. 

Humanitarian needs

UNAMA vividly illustrates the desperate situation of millions of Afghans. “Some 18.4 million people (or almost half the population, a record number) need humanitarian assistance in 2021, up from 9.4 million at the beginning of 2020,” exhorts the Mission. 

Meanwhile, last year witnessed the highest annual number of undocumented returnees coming home to Afghanistan: 865,793. The vast majority returning from Iran drove by the COVID-19, limited access to health care and Teheran’s deteriorated economy.

More patience, same fatigue

“There are genuine and profound differences between the Islamic Republic and the Taliban over their desired end state. None of this can be resolved in the work of a moment – nor in a few meetings, no matter the location or format. Addressing these issues will require patience and commitment on all sides,” said Ms. Lyons to the Security Council in what amounts to a compelling reality check.

But whatever the current momentum leads to, and as Ambassador Raz put it, one thing is clear: “the people of Afghanistan are tired of decades of suffering and war.”

Javier Delgado Rivera is a New York-based independent journalist focused on the United Nations. Over the last 15 years, his articles have appeared in dozens of media outlets worldwide. He runs @TheUNTimes on Twitter, and can be reached at [email protected].

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