To spare Afghanistan, world must engage with Taliban, Lyons tells Security Council


“Six months of indecision … are eroding vital social and economic coping systems and pushing the population into greater uncertainty, said Deborah Lyons, who is the Secretary-General’s Special Representative and Head of the UN mission in Afghanistan, known as UNAMA

Thanking donors for generous humanitarian contributions since August 2021, when international forces left Afghanistan after a two-decades-long engagement, she said the worst possible outcome was averted thanks to their support.    

“As the winter season comes to an end, we have perhaps averted our worst fears of famine and widespread starvation,” she said. 

Economy in freefall 

Those short-term mitigation measures notwithstanding, however, the Special Representative told Council members that humanitarian relief is not the same as giving hope to the Afghan people or preparing a strong foundation for Afghan self-reliance. 

“It is imperative that we not find ourselves six months from now in the situation we faced six months ago – with millions of Afghans facing another winter of starvation and the only tool at our disposal being expensive and unsustainable humanitarian handouts,” she said. 

Today, the most critical challenge facing the country is a looming economic tipping point that will see more businesses close, more people unemployed and more falling into poverty. 

She also cited a cessation of all development assistance and restrictions on international payments, as well as lack of access to hard currency reserves, lack of liquidity and constraints on the Central Bank. 

While UNAMA has taken all conceivable measures to inject liquidity into the economy, she stressed that more international action is needed. 

People wait in line for food and oil being distributed by the World Food Programme in Andkhoy, Afghanistan.

© WFP/Photolibrary

People wait in line for food and oil being distributed by the World Food Programme in Andkhoy, Afghanistan.

Taliban ‘feels misunderstood’ 

Ms. Lyons recalled that, when UNAMA’s mandate was rolled over for six months in September 2021, it was still too early for the international community to react to the Taliban’s seizure of power.   

Today, it has become clear that truly assisting the Afghan people will be all but impossible without working with the de facto Taliban authorities.  

Acknowledging the enduring distrust between the Taliban and much of the international community, she said the group feels misunderstood and complains that international reports “do not reflect reality as they see it”. 

Above all, the Taliban want greater acknowledgement for the security that now prevails in Afghanistan, and often point out that since the fall of the previous Government the country has seen a 78 per cent decline in civilian casualties. 

They also cite reduced corruption and the re-opening of schools to girls and boys. 

“This clash of perspectives forms the basis of a serious distrust that must be addressed,” said the Special Representative. 

High stakes for UN presence 

For its part, she said, UNAMA, continues to report on what it sees on the ground, including concerning restrictions on fundamental rights, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention.   

Describing the country’s situation as complicated – with both positive and negative trends occurring simultaneously – she said the Mission can do more by working with the Taliban on the main issues facing Afghan society.   

Meanwhile, UNAMA’s main purpose must remain to ultimately see Afghanistan re-join the international community as a member in good standing. 

Against that backdrop, Secretary-General António Guterres has proposed a one-year UNAMA mandate renewal, after which the results of a sustained political engagement will be evaluated.   

“The mandate you adopt for UNAMA will send a signal from the international community to the Afghan people that they have not been forgotten, and to the Taliban that the world does not desire future conflict in Afghanistan,” said Ms. Lyons, adding that it should also emphasize the need to recognize basic standards of global citizenship in order to be accepted by the international community.   

“You are about to approach a critical moment in your relationship with Afghanistan,” she said, noting that the Council has the opportunity to build a more solid and relevant UN Mission that will avert the country’s further collapse.