CAMEROON, Cameroon — The U.N. special envoy for Afghanistan warned Tuesday that peace talks won’t succeed unless escalating violence stops, and urged any peace agreement to reflect that half the population today was born after the 2001 defeat of the Taliban and saw women rise to positions of economic and political power.
Deborah Lyons told the U.N. Security Council that these Afghans are now the majority and deserve to have their voices heard during peace negotiations between the government and the Taliban, and to play “an active and substantial role in Afghan society after a peace agreement is concluded.”
The Taliban were ousted from power in 2001 by a U.S.-led coalition for harbouring Osama bin Laden, the architect of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America. A peace deal that Washington brokered with the Taliban and signed in February 2020 led to talks in Qatar with the government that began last September.
Under the Taliban, women were not allowed to go to school, work outside the home or leave their house without a male escort. And though they still face many challenges in the male-dominated society, Afghan women have increasingly stepped into powerful positions in numerous fields — and many fear the current negotiations could bargain away their gains.
The Taliban have promised women could attend school, work and participate in politics but stressed that would all be allowed in keeping with Islamic principles — without saying what that might mean.
In the agreement with the Taliban, the Trump administration committed to removing the last of its troops from Afghanistan by May 1. But the government blames the Taliban for the rising violence, and it’s uncertain whether the May 1 deadline will be kept.
U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, on his first visit to Afghanistan as Pentagon chief, said Sunday the Biden administration wants to see “a responsible end” to America’s longest war, but the level of violence must decrease for “fruitful” diplomacy to have a chance.
Lyons, the U.N. special representative who served as Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan from 2013-2016, cited slow progress in peace negotiations in Qatar’s capital Doha which she visited in early March, stressing “the incredible backdrop of extreme violence throughout the country.”
She said decades of conflict created grievances and a lack of trust on both sides and “we always knew that this would be a complicated peace.”
But Lyons said she was “happy to report” that after speaking to both parties in Doha and to Afghans from all walks of life “my experience … tells me that peace is possible.”
“Afghans are not just ready for peace: they are demanding it,” she said. “And all sides need to stop the violence and need the violence to stop.”
Lyons said she was “very sorry to report” that the rise in civilian casualties that began when peace talks started last September continued in January and February.
Already this year, she said the U.N. political mission in Afghanistan known as UNAMA, which she heads, has documented “brutal targeted attacks” that killed 80 Afghans including from the media, civil society, judiciary, religious scholars, and government officials.
For the peace process to succeed, Lyons stressed that “the parties must look not to Afghanistan’s past, but to its future.”
“Afghan women must be present in the room and at the table when the future of the country is decided on,” she said, and any peace settlement must take into account the views of all Afghans “not just those of an elite few.”
U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield echoed Lyons’ call for an end to violence and the targeted killings of civilians which the Biden administration condemns, and she said more must be done to support Afghan women and girls.
“Any agreement must preserve their gains if Afghanistan wants to ensure the international community’s continued political and financial support,” she said. “We will not give an inch on this point.”
Afghanistan’s U.N. Ambassador Adela Raz blamed the Taliban for the increasing violence against security forces and civilians, saying they are targeting “our young democracy,” and “those who strive for a better future.”
“These attacks are meant to dissuade the participation of women and youth in the peace process, create widespread panic, and crush our aspirations for peace,” she told the council.
Nonetheless, Raz said the government is “cautiously optimistic” about the early results of the Doha talks.
But she said it remains “adamant that a stronger and more genuine commitment to peace must be shown and translated into action by the Taliban.”
Raz, Thomas-Greenfield and Lyons expressed alarm at Afghanistan’s escalating humanitarian crisis.
The U.S ambassador said a record 16.9 million people are in acute need of food including 5.5 million at emergency levels, which means they are facing starvation. Yet, the U.N. appeal for $1.3 billion is only 6% funded.
Edith M. Lederer, The Associated Press