A close-up photograph of Afghanistan from a desktop globe. Photo: iStock
A close-up photograph of Afghanistan from a desktop globe. Photo: iStock

Every three months the United Nations Secretary General (UNSG) issues a report on the situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace and security. Although available online, few outside UN spheres and foreign embassies in Kabul take the trouble to go through it from back to back.

Yet these reports are among the most reliable, comprehensive and insightful overviews on the complexities tearing apart  the country today. What you will find below is a journalistic digest of the latest UNSG report on Afghanistan.

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As the UN secretary general, Portuguese national António Guterres, points out, Afghanistan’s political dynamics are today marked by the announcement of July 7, 2018, as the date for parliamentary and district council elections. The already embattled national unity government faces renewed opposition from an array of political formations emerging in the run up to a poll that the UNSG hopes could contribute to democratic consolidation in Afghanistan.”

In his report, Guterres expresses concern about the highly volatile security situation in the country, as the government and the Taliban have exchanged control of several district centers. His briefing admits that the Taliban maintain their ability to contest territory across Afghanistan, which compels Kabul to devote significant resources to preserve the status quo, let alone make advances.

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A member of the Afghan security forces escorts alleged Islamic State fighters and Taliban being presented to the media at the police headquarters in Jalalabad on October 3, 2017.

Today the fundamentalists mainly control, or have an important presence, in the center and north of the country – in January the US government’s chief watchdog in Afghanistan indicated that Kabul has uncontested authority over only 57% of its territory. The UN report also notes that the operations of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan Province (ISIL-KP) remain mostly limited to eastern Afghanistan – the group has just claimed a suicide attack in Kabul.

During a recent a press conference in New York, Tadamichi Yamamoto, the head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), indicated that his mission had not observed any sign of collaboration between the Taliban and ISIL-KP, as the Taliban do not actually want  Islamic State to come into Afghanistan.

After a string of terrorist attacks against Shiite holy places and religious ceremonies in the country, the UN secretary general expressed concern  over the rise of sectarian tensions. In October this pattern was hardened by a pick-up of violence in which one attack alone in a Shiite mosque in Kabul left 65 people dead.

International observers believe that this escalation of assaults occurred in response to US President Donald Trump’s Afghanistan strategy, which pledges to send 3,000 extra troops to the country. Washington has already asked the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to shoulder this military surge by committing 1,000 additional soldiers, an increase of muscle that the UNSG report suggests may be necessary as “NATO troop deployment numbers remain significantly below the authorized levels.”

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A US marine looks on as Afghan National Army soldiers raise the Afghan National flag on an armed vehicle during a training exercise to deal with roadside bombs in Helmand province.

As a result of Taliban gains in rural areas, the 12-page briefing notes, the conflict has evolved because of the Afghan government’s decision to focus its resources on defending population centers and disrupting the consolidation of Taliban control over strategic areas, which “has led to an increasing number of clashes for control over lines of communication and vital infrastructure.”

As we can watch on our TV screens with distressing frequency, the civil population bears the brunt of violence in Afghanistan. Improvised explosive devices, suicide bombs, assassinations and abductions are for many Afghans an intolerable part of their landscape. In the first six months of this year, UNAMA documented 5,243 civilian casualties (1,662 deaths and 3,581 injured), on a par with the same period in 2016. The UN blames 43% of the casualties on the Taliban.

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Afghan activists pay tribute to the victims of a Taliban attack on an army base at a memorial on the Wazir Akbar Khan hilltop in Kabul on April 23, 2017.

The United Nations admits that no discernible progress has been made in fostering peace negotiations in Afghanistan. As Guterres notes, “The conflict has no military solution: peace can only be achieved through direct negotiations between the government and the Taliban, which must form part of an inclusive, Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process.”

The report highlights a little-known fact, that UNAMA carries out a formal dialogue with the Taliban in an effort to help find a political solution to the conflict.

The briefing also addresses the low morale of the Afghan army, an issue usually overlooked by analysts although it has a clear bearing on the ability of national-security forces to contain the threats tormenting the country. “The government continues to face increasing challenges owing to the high levels of attrition in the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police as a result of casualties and desertion as well as difficulties in securing new recruits,” states the world’s chief diplomat in this report.

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In addition to the above-examined security dimension, this UN overview of today’s Afghanistan glances into the country’s worst malaises (corruption, narcotics and landmines) and challenges (political strife, the need for further regional cooperation, slow economic grown and the protection of human rights). All ingredients of a convoluted and intertwined mix of hazards with no prospects of abating.

As Yamamoto lamented: “No one is winning and all of us, especially Afghan civilians, are losing.”

Javier Delgado Rivera

Javier Delgado Rivera is a New York-based freelance reporter covering the United Nations and international affairs. His articles have appeared in dozens of international outlets including Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, South China Morning Post, Huffington Post, Mizzima News Agency (Myanmar), North Korean News, The Jakarta Globe, The UB Post, Understanding China and Eurasia Review. You can contact him at editor@theuntimes.org