2021 will be pivotal for numerous conflicts around the globe. Donald Trump’s era of erratic foreign policy is ending. The economic aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic has yet to fully unfold. The state of the environment has become even more precarious around the globe. These and other political, economic, social, and environmental conditions are becoming reshaped, and, in turn, are reshaping current conflicts. Those conflicts’ outcomes are no longer so clear. The ongoing crisis in Afghanistan is a case in point.
In November, the United Nations organized the 2020 Afghanistan Conference in Geneva. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterrez called for an “immediate and unconditional ceasefire” to the conflict. The U.N. secured $3.3 billion USD. per year for the next four years to help Afghanistan rebuild, in anticipation of a successful peace process. According to Deborah Lyons, head of the U.N. Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (U.N.A.M.A.), this was a reassuring sign of the international community’s empathy towards the Afghan population. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani reiterated during this conference that he also wanted a ceasefire.
The United States and the Taliban made a deal in February 2020 that the withdrawal of American troops from Afghan soil would be conditional on meaningful peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Since then, the power of balance between the country’s main actors has been in flux. The first six months saw the prisoner exchange between U.S. and Taliban troops become slowly operationalized, as inscribed in the bilateral agreement. In mid-September, peace talks started in Qatar. However, the Afghan government’s commitment to meaningful negotiation was arguably weakened by top officials’ general reluctance to trust Taliban officials. On the other side, Taliban expectations for the peace talks were high. Delusions and low commitment led the parties to suspend peace talks until January.
These political and military reconfigurations, at the national and international levels, have come with a high price for civilians. In October, the U.N.A.M.A. reported a total of 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting from January to September 2020. 2,117 people were killed and 3,822 were wounded. More recently, several people were killed in the capital city of Kabul. On December 22nd, five people, including two doctors, were killed by magnetic bombs attached to their cars. ISIL claimed responsibility for the attack. A day later, an unknown gunman shot Mohammad Yousuf Rasheed, the head of an independent non-governmental organization. The incident also took place in Kabul.
The International Crisis Group warns that 2021 will be a crucial year for the conflict’s development. Afghanistan is the first country on the group’s “10 [sic] countries to watch in 2021” list. Unfortunately, the need to withdraw the U.S. military to ensure durable peace and the danger of retreating before the start of a meaningful peace process creates a tricky paradox. President-elect Joe Biden has already announced his intention to keep troops in Afghanistan, which risks alienating the Taliban from peace talks and pushing them to respond with violence.
For multilateralism to take its full meaning in 2021, the United Nations must replace the United States as the body monitoring Afghanistan. In addition to fulfilling its role as an independent mediator, the U.N. should continue to provide local long-term support to help Afghanistan regain legitimate governance.
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