Kubiš: progress in Afghanistan continues, although not without challenges and setbacks
17 December 2013 - “When last here three months ago, in September, I highlighted a positive trajectory as Afghanistan undergoes ambitious security, political and economic transitions. Today, I can reiterate that progress continues and efforts are, by and large, on track – although not without challenges and temporary setbacks, and at heavy costs of lives and limbs of Afghans.”
These were the opening words of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, Ján Kubiš, in his briefing to the Security Council at its quarterly meeting on the country, held at UN Headquarters in New York today.
In his remarks – which touched upon issues such as political developments, regional engagement, the protection of civilians and the illicit drugs trade, among others – the UN envoy highlighted that despite volatility and uncertainty in Afghanistan, the “fundamental elements to enhance stability” there and in the wider region were in place and being consolidated as the drawdown of international military forces, led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), continues.
Afghanistan is slated to hold Presidential and Provincial Council elections on 5 April next year. The Presidential poll will mark the transfer of power from one elected president to another for the first time in the country’s history. The political transition coincides with a security transition, with Afghan security forces being primarily responsible for ensuring the polls are held in a secure environment as they continue taking up security responsibilities from their international allies, who are ending their combat mission by the end of 2014.
“Over a decade of efforts by Afghanistan, supported by the international community, have transformed the country we see today. The Afghan people clearly recognise that in order to sustain their state, their security agencies, and their economy, international support will be required through at least the decade of transformation,” Mr. Kubiš said, referring to the so-called Transformation Decade, which covers 2015 to 2024.
He noted that UN Member States had pledged “extraordinary” continued levels of long-term assistance for Afghanistan at conferences held in Tokyo and Chicago over recent years, and that this assistance had been underscored by an increasing number of strategic partnership agreements around the world.
In the Japanese capital in 2012, 70 countries and international organizations committed $16 billion for Afghanistan’s economic and development sectors through 2015; and, at a NATO summit in the US city of Chicago last year, firm commitments were made by the international community to support the Afghan security forces.
The Tokyo conference – which led to agreement on a “a new reinvigorated development partnership” between the Government of Afghanistan and the international community in the form of the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework (TMAF) in which $16 billion through 2015 for the country’s economic and development needs – was held amidst fears within Afghanistan that international support to the country may wane after the majority of foreign combat troops leave the country in 2014.
Referring to the security arrangements between the United States and Afghanistan – in the so-called Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), which would set out a legal framework for NATO to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces after 2014 – the UN envoy noted that a recent endorsement by a Consultative Loya Jirga of the BSA had reinforced widespread expectations of the finalization of “this important framework for ongoing partnership, and, by extension, continuity in broader international engagement.”
On the issue of the Afghanistan’s political transition, the Special Representative flagged that the critical importance of holding credible polls on time and in full accordance with the Constitution was widely appreciated.
In this regard, he continued, technical preparations and political momentum for the agreed 5 April election day remained on track and are further advanced than in previous polls. As well, two key electoral bodies – the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC) and the Media Commission – had been established since he last briefed the Security Council in September.
“Together with the Independent Election Commission, this means that all three electoral management bodies are now in place and, for the first time, created under an agreed legal framework,” Mr. Kubiš noted, adding that the number of candidates for the polls clearly reflected widespread domestic interest in the elections.
The country’s electoral authorities recently confirmed 11 candidates who can stand in the Presidential polls and another 2,713 for the Provincial Councils elections. An ongoing voter registration top-up exercise has seen over 3.2 million new voter cards issued to date, with one-third of these issued to women.
Mr. Kubiš welcomed efforts amongst candidates to agree on ‘rules of the game,’ or principles, including acceptance of the eventual winner – and urged each candidate to commit themselves, and their supporters, to a fair, clean, issues-based race.
“These polls, and the surrounding political environment, should contribute to national unity and not enflame or exacerbate tensions, including ethnic or sectarian divisions. A legitimate process is ultimately in everyone's interest and should include equal access to state resources and balanced media coverage,” he added.
On the issue of Afghanistan’s regional relationships, Mr. Kubiš said the country’s establishment of its rightful place in a cooperative neighbourhood would be the best guarantor of future stability and sustainability of both Afghanistan and its neighbours.
He noted that, since September, President Hamid Karzai had visited Tajikistan, Iran, China and India, and that Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, had been received in Kabul. In addition, he noted the President’s participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Kyrgyzstan, at which he also met with that country's president and that of Russia.
“Such regular high-level contacts are important to generating increased momentum for mutually acceptable bilateral and multilateral approaches,” Mr. Kubiš said, adding that he particularly welcome “positive momentum” in relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The UN envoy has also been investing increased time and attention to regional engagement and outreach. The past three months has seen him travel to the Central Asian republics, and one of his deputies to Iran and China.
In his meetings with the leaders of Afghanistan's neighbours and regional partners, Mr. Kubiš noted that had heard concerns centred around current uncertainties in Afghanistan, including the potential for volatility after 2014, should there be a vacuum which could encourage the spread of Al-Qaeda-linked international terrorism and criminality with implications across the region.
Of immediate and grave concern, he told Council members, was another record-setting year of poppy cultivation and production in Afghanistan.
According to the 2013 Afghan opium survey released in November by the Afghan Ministry of Counter Narcotics and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan rose 36 per cent in 2013 – a record high. Opium production reached around 5,500 tons, up by almost a half from 2012 but lower than the record high of 7,400 tons in 2007, as the crop yield in the main cultivation areas of southern Afghanistan was affected by bad weather.
The area under cultivation rose to 209,000 ha from the previous year’s total of 154,000 hectares, higher than the peak of 193,000 hectares reached in 2007. Also, two provinces, Balkh and Faryab, lost their poppy-free status, leaving 15 provinces poppy-free in 2013 compared with 17 last year.
“This menace threatens the health, security and economic well-being not just of Afghanistan but also the region and wider international community,” Mr. Kubiš said, adding that there was increasing appreciation of the need to adopt regional solutions, both bilateral and multilateral.
“An excellent example of this is the recent meeting of ministers and counter-narcotic agencies hosted by Tajikistan, where the importance of regional cooperation based on shared responsibilities and joint responses was emphasized,” he noted.
On the issue of Afghanistan’s security transition, the Special Representative highlighted that the country had not experienced a catastrophic collapse in security as had been predicted in some quarters.
“The Afghan army and the Afghan police are stepping up to the challenge,” he said. “There are of course setbacks and casualty rates are of concern. I was pleased to hear from the Minister of Interior recently that the high rate of deaths amongst police personnel is now decreasing.”
However, the UN envoy noted that civilians continued to bear the brunt of the conflict.
Until the end of November, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) – which Mr. Kubiš heads – recorded 2,730 deaths and 5,169 injuries, a ten per cent increase on the same period in 2012. The Mission's data continues to show that armed opposition groups are responsible for the vast majority of such casualties.
While welcoming steps taken by Afghan and international forces to reduce the impact of the conflict on civilians, the Special Representative repeated a specific appeal to NATO member states to meet obligations in ensuring that vacated premises are fully cleared of potential explosive remnants of war in order to reduce the potential for accidental harm to civilians.
Noting that the assumption of responsibility for security by Afghan forces brings with it increased responsibilities in ensuring the protection of civilians, Mr. Kubiš stated that efforts to build understandings of human rights obligations, together with the promotion of transparency and accountability of Afghan security institutions, should be an important element of international training and assistance going forward.
“Indeed, there is increasing recognition that it is not simply the number of personnel that is important but their professionalism and sustainability which are ultimately central to institutional effectiveness,” Mr. Kubiš said. “I welcome the Minister of Interior's renewed emphasis on the civilian nature of policing and an increased focus on law enforcement functions, including commitment to increasing – and supporting – female personnel in the ranks.”
On the future role of UNAMA, the UN envoy flagged that it would likely be considered more comprehensively when there was greater clarity on the impact of the political and security transitions.
“By its very definition, transition is a time of managed change. There will necessarily be a reorientation of UNAMA's mandate in recognition of enhanced sovereignty and Afghan lead,” Mr. Kubiš said.
“While not seeking to in any way pre-empt Council discussions on a future mandate,” he continued, “I would, at this juncture, foresee the continued need for an integrated mission, streamlined around core areas, namely: good offices in support of Afghan led processes, leading development coherence amongst international stakeholders, and human rights monitoring and advocacy including a particular focus on the rights of women and children, as well as humanitarian assistance.
Click here for the full text of Ján Kubiš's briefing to the Security Council meeting