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Opinion

Can the UN save Afghanistan?

After all military options have failed, it's high time for UN-sponsored roundtable talks in Afghanistan.

Last updated: 15 Mar 2014 11:21
Assem Akram

Assem Akram is author of five books on Afghanistan history and culture. He has a PHD in History from the Paris Sorbonne University.
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Military options have all failed, so it is high time for roundtables and negotiations to take centre stage, says Akram [AFP]

2014 is a high stakes year for Afghanistan. Presidential elections are due to be held in April and the US is withdrawing its troops by the end of the year. But looking closer, these actions are not entirely what they appear to be. The elections are being shunned by most armed opposition groups, particularly by the Taliban that controls areas just a few kilometres outside the capital Kabul, in places such as Wardak and Logar.

During the last presidential elections in 2009, accusations of fraud and ballot-stuffing seriously discredited the outcome and it took the mediation of Senator John Kerry, then Chair of the US Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, to settle the case between President Hamid Karzai and the then front runner up Dr Abdullah Abdullah.

NATO prepares full Afghanistan exit plan

Washington is in the process of withdrawing most of its troops by the end of this year, but it's very likely, per the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), that it will leave behind a significant contingent of around 10,000 troops, preserving the ability to engage in ground and air operations - in particular the capability to launch cross-border drone strikes.

Pivotal year

There is also a measure of theatrics displayed by Karzai, who initially pushed for the BSA agreement and gathered a Loya Jirga to get it approved, and now refuses to sign it - allegedly because the US is not setting up direct negotiations between his government and the Taliban leadership.

But Karzai is on his way out and all the major candidates, jockeying to replace him, have declared they have no qualms signing the BSA - which they view as a type of life insurance policy for their administration, should they win.

Whereas neither the US withdrawal nor the presidential elections are exactly what they appear to be, 2014 can still be viewed as a pivotal year for the war-afflicted Afghans. The US, which launched a full military intervention in that country in October of 2001 and, along with its allies, remained there for the past 13 years, is about to significantly downsize its military presence and consequently reduce - somewhat - its influence over the country's affairs.

And a new president, as imperfect as his election may turn out to be, could be viewed as a better partner for talks by the armed opposition groups than his predecessor.

This is why I believe 2014 presents a good opportunity for the United Nations - still perceived by most as a neutral entity and representing the good will of the international community - to initiate a crucial comeback and play once again a determining part in seeking a diplomatic/negotiated resolution to the conflict in Afghanistan.

In the past, following the Soviet Intervention of December 1979 and over the years, the UN played a key role in efforts to reach a negotiated resolution to the conflicts in Afghanistan while making sure that the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity were respected.

The UN struck a master coup with the successful negotiations that led to the Geneva Accords of 1988. In the following years, the UN remained involved every step of the way in a number of negotiation talks among Afghan, regional and other international concerned parties to bring peace and stability back to Afghanistan. At the same time, the UN worked to the best of its abilities to alleviate the pain and suffering of civilian population through the work of its many agencies.

[I]t is high time for the UN, in accordance with the fundaments of its mission, to make a strong comeback on the diplomatic/negotiations scene of the Afghan conflict.

UN sponsorship

However, since 2001, the UN has played a rather minor diplomatic role and has been subservient to a course designed in Washington that stressed on a military outcome. As we all know by now, that strategy simply did not work. Today we find ourselves almost where we started more than a decade ago; and we may very well go back to a situation in many ways similar to the one prevalent during the 1990s.

The reality is that the international community is better off with a peaceful Afghanistan than one that is unstable, one that constitutes a major threat to regional and international stability. It is also true that, at the end of the day, Afghans on all sides of the divide are above all Afghans, and need to be included in the process.

This is why I believe it is high time for the UN, in accordance with the fundaments of its mission, to make a strong comeback on the diplomatic/negotiations scene of the Afghan conflict.

In order to speed up the process, it is essential that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon moves in a way that shows his resolve and, through him, that of the international community, by inviting all Afghan parties/groups to participate in UN-sponsored discussions to reach a political resolution to the conflict, without preconditions.

Secondly, he should appoint a high profile personality - such as a former president or a former head of government - as his Special Representative for Afghanistan. And finally, he should set a date and a location for the first round of discussions.

I sincerely hope that Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon realises how 2014 can be an opportunity for the UN to revamp its policy and standing towards the Afghan conflict.

This is the time to energetically push, in accordance with the UN's core mission, for conflict-resolution through diplomatic means. All military options have failed. Afghans aspire for peace and they need hope. It is high time for roundtable talks and negotiations to take centre stage.

Assem Akram is author of five books on Afghanistan history and culture. He holds a PhD in History from the Sorbonne University. He also served as a diplomat. Recently, Akram taught a class at American University's School of International Service in Washington DC on the subject of "Afghanistan: Conflict and Society".

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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