The UN secretary-general's special representative for Afghanistan warned on Tuesday that the situation on the ground in the country is dire.
"I cannot overstate to the council my concern regarding the present situation in Afghanistan. All of the major trends -- politics, security, the peace process, the economy, the humanitarian emergency, and COVID -- all of these trends are negative or stagnant," Deborah Lyons, the top UN envoy for Afghanistan, told the Security Council in a briefing.
"If there is a sense of hope, it indeed resides in a fact that previous worse-case predictions did not materialize. But the relentless spirit of the Afghans and their incredible resilience is being severely tested and the possible slide toward dire scenarios is undeniable," she said.
What happens in Afghanistan remains of global consequence and the Security Council needs to be fully informed of the gravity of the present situation, she added.
The mid-April announcement that all international troops will be withdrawn in the coming months sent a seismic tremor through the Afghan political system and society at large. The withdrawal decision was expected. But its speed -- with the majority of troops now already withdrawn -- was not. All actors have had to adjust to this new, reality that is unfolding, she said.
The withdrawal is one of four parts of the February 2020 agreement between the United States and the Taliban. The agreement generated hope that it would create the space for a peace to be made among Afghans. The foreign troops would be gone, and therefore, rather than fighting one another, Afghans would have the opportunity to come together and find a path to peace. But instead, actions on the battlefield have been far greater than progress at the negotiating table, said Lyons.
"And at this critical time, the Afghan public and the diplomatic community in Kabul have been alarmed at the lack of political unity among Afghanistan's political elite. While some of the shortcomings in government are part of a legacy of putting politics above governance, the lack of unity must be addressed or risks contributing to further Taliban territorial advances."
The United Nations is "cautiously encouraged" by recent moves by President Ashraf Ghani and his government and the other political leaders to come together to discuss pressing security issues and demonstrate unity. The real test, she said, will be on whether unity in Kabul serves to further reinforce the peace process and strengthen state institutions.
The Taliban are making big gains on the battlefield as a result of an intensified military campaign. More than 50 of Afghanistan's 370 districts have fallen since the beginning of May. Most districts that have been taken surround provincial capitals, suggesting that the Taliban are positioning themselves to try and take these capitals once foreign forces are fully withdrawn, she warned.
"For the Taliban to continue this intensive military campaign would be a tragic course of action. It would lead to increased and prolonged violence that would extend the suffering of the Afghan people and threaten to destroy much of what has been built and hard-won in the past 20 years. It should be emphatically clear that any efforts to install a militarily imposed government in Kabul would go against the will of the Afghan people, and against the stated positions of the regional countries and the broader international community."
Even without the conflict dynamics, Afghanistan would be a country facing multiple crises. Almost a third of Afghans face emergency levels of food insecurity, while this year's drought worsens, and internal displacements increase. The World Bank has estimated that, as a result of the conflict and the severe third wave of COVID-19, the drought, the weakened social fabric, and other factors, Afghanistan's poverty rate could rise from 50 percent to more than 70 percent. This frightening prospect highlights the importance of humanitarian aid provided from all countries. However, despite recent contributions, the 1.3 billion U.S. dollar humanitarian appeal for 2021 is still only 30 percent funded, she said.
As always, it is ordinary Afghans who pay the heaviest price. Civilian casualties increased by 29 percent in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the same period last year. Notably and sadly, women casualties increased by 37 percent and child casualties by 23 percent, she noted.
Lyons called for international support for peace in Afghanistan.
"There is still time, barely but still time, to prevent the worse-case scenario from materializing. Enough has been built in Afghanistan to allow further building -- if only there can be peace," she said, adding the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), which she leads, is working with parties in Afghanistan and regional countries in this regard.
"One of UNAMA's key objectives during this period of uncertainty is to continue to work with all partners to ensure the continuity of those institutions that support the well-being of all Afghans. Any future government that results from a negotiation cannot start from nothing. It is my sincere hope that the Taliban understand this as much as the government in Kabul does," she said.
UNAMA is also working more closely and intensely with the regional countries, which share grave concerns about an extended and fragmented conflict in Afghanistan. These concerns include refugee flows, migrant movement, increased drug smuggling, terrorism, and lost opportunities for economic connectivity and mutually beneficial trade, she said.
"But these problems will not be relegated to the region alone. As we have all painfully learned, a fragmented conflict creates a more permissive environment for terrorist groups to recruit, finance, plan, and conduct operations with a global reach. We must accept the reality -- increased conflict in Afghanistan means increased insecurity for many other countries, near and far," she warned.
Any future government of Afghanistan will need, for itself and its citizens, international engagement and support. The contributions of donors will be essential to support the ongoing development and humanitarian needs. This is not the time to weaken the resolve of the international community, or, worse, to contribute even inadvertently to the ongoing signals of despair, she said.
"I have reassured Afghans that the UN will not abandon them and will stay the course. Certainly, every effort must be made now by all of us to avoid the country going down the path of more bloodshed and suffering. Surely there has been enough."
There is only one acceptable direction for Afghanistan: away from the battlefield and back to the negotiating table. The UN Security Council, with the support of the regional countries, must do all it can to push the parties in that direction, said Lyons.
"The tragic history of conflict needs not to repeat itself. But left to its own and our inertia it just might," she warned.