UNITED NATIONS, Aug. 6 (Xinhua) -- Afghanistan is at a dangerous turning point as the war has entered a new phase, said Deborah Lyons, the UN secretary-general's special representative for Afghanistan, on Friday.
"Afghanistan is now at a dangerous turning point. Ahead lies either a genuine peace negotiation or a tragically intertwined set of crises: an increasingly brutal conflict combined with an acute humanitarian situation and multiplying human rights abuses," she told the Security Council in a briefing.
She asked the Security Council to work to prevent Afghanistan from descending into a situation of catastrophe "so serious that it would have few, if any, parallels in this century."
"And let me assure you, such a catastrophe would have consequences far beyond the borders of Afghanistan. I do believe that the Security Council and the broader international community can help prevent the most dire scenarios. But it will require acting in unity and acting quickly," she said.
In the past weeks, the war in Afghanistan has entered a new, deadlier, and more destructive phase. The Taliban campaign during June and July to capture rural areas has achieved significant territorial gains. From this strengthened position, they have begun to attack the large cities, said Lyons.
The provincial capitals of Kandahar, Herat, and Helmand have come under significant pressure. This is a clear attempt by the Taliban to seize urban centers with the force of arms. The human toll of this strategy is extremely distressing, and the political message is even more deeply disturbing, she said.
Fighting has been especially severe in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province in the south. Since July 28, at least 104 civilians have been killed and 403 others wounded, as registered by the two main hospitals in the city. All roads leading to and going out of the city are closed by the Taliban. Hospitals have nearly reached full capacity and can no longer accept patients. The available food supply in the city is fast diminishing, which raises the possibility of an acute food shortage in the coming days, as well as shortage of medical supplies, she said.
Since the start of the offensive in neighboring Kandahar province on July 9, more than 460 civilian casualties have been registered. The United Nations has credible reports of over 135 civilian casualties from the onset of the Taliban offensive in and around Herat in the west, she said.
Homes, hospitals, shops, bridges and other infrastructure are being destroyed. In this dire situation, the United Nations and humanitarian partners continue to be present to assess needs and deliver assistance where there is access. But access is becoming increasingly difficult, said Lyons, who is also head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.
This is now a different kind of war in Afghanistan, reminiscent of Syria recently or Sarajevo in the not-so-distant past, she said.
To attack urban areas is to knowingly inflict enormous harm and cause massive civilian casualties. Nonetheless, the threatening of large urban areas appears to be a strategic decision by the Taliban, who have accepted the likely carnage that will ensue. Afghan government troops are defending these cities. But this defense will also undoubtedly cause civilian casualties, she said.
Urban warfare will also inflict daily miseries when basic infrastructure such as electricity and water networks are damaged. These tactics may amount to serious violation of international humanitarian law for which individuals can be held accountable and may quickly amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, warned the UN envoy.
The suffering caused by war comes on top of an already increasing humanitarian crisis, with severe drought affecting the country. Some 18.5 million people, or nearly half of the country's population, need humanitarian assistance. And yet, attacks on aid workers continue with more than 25 aid workers killed and more than 60 others injured in the first six months of 2021, she said.
Lyons expressed frustration over the lack of progress in peace negotiations.
"There had been an expectation when the U.S.-Taliban deal was signed in February 2020 ... that we would see a reduction of violence. We did not. There had been an expectation when the talks between the Afghan Republic and the Taliban began in September last year that we would see a reduction of violence. We have not. There had been an expectation that when international troops left that we would see a reduction of violence. We did not," she said. "Instead, despite significant concessions for peace, we have seen a 50 percent increase in civilian casualties with the certainty of many more as the cities are attacked."
"There is a striking contrast between the activity on the battlefield and the quiet stalemate at the negotiating table in Doha, where we should see the opposite: quiet on the battlefield and engagement around the negotiating table," said Lyons.
"In speaking to Afghans, the impression I have now is of a population waiting apprehensively for a dark shadow to pass over the brighter futures they once imagined. It is difficult to me to describe the mood of dread we are faced with every day. As one Afghan put it to us recently, 'We are no longer talking about preserving the progress and the rights we have gained, we are talking about mere survival.' Another woman told us that she sometimes regretted that she had educated her daughter as that had put the daughter in a more vulnerable position. For all of us who are parents of daughters, I can hardly think of a more despondent comment," said Lyons.
Afghans face this coming darkness with a sense of being abandoned by the regional and international community. They expect far greater engagement and visible support from the Security Council, which is tasked to maintain international peace and security, she said.
The Security Council must issue an unambiguous statement that attacks against cities must stop now, she said.
Those countries that meet with the Taliban Political Commission should insist on a general cease-fire, a resumption of the negotiations, as well as reiterate the position of the Security Council and that of the regional and international community that a government imposed by force in Afghanistan will not be recognized, she said.
The Security Council should give serious consideration to providing the United Nations with a mandate that allows it to play, when requested by both parties, a greater role in facilitating the negotiations, she said.
The travel ban exemption on Taliban members exists to allow them to travel for the sole purpose of peace negotiations. The exemption is to be renewed on Sept. 20. Further extension must be predicated on real progress in peace, she said.
The Security Council and those states who meet with the Taliban must urge them to grant humanitarian access to areas it controls and commit to humanitarian cease-fires in contested areas -- if it will not agree to the general cease-fire. At the same time, UN member states should contribute to the severely underfunded humanitarian appeal for Afghanistan. This humanitarian appeal right now stands at only 30 percent funded, she said.
Her mission strongly supports greater efforts by the United Nations and regional and international community to find ways to hold the perpetrators of the most serious human rights violations accountable, she said.
"We, as the members of the regional and international community so well represented by this council, must put aside our own differences on the question of Afghanistan and send a strong signal -- not only in our public statements but also in our bilateral communications with both parties -- that it is essential to stop fighting and negotiate, in that order. Otherwise, there may be nothing left to win," said Lyons.