U.N. struggling to strike balance in Afghanistan amid humanitarian crisis

DOHA, Qatar — Twenty months after the Taliban returned to power, the United Nations is struggling to plot a course that, in part, would address Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis without running afoul of Western countries seeking to pressure the government in Kabul to moderate its policies.

Emerging from two days of talks with diplomatic envoys focused on Afghanistan, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres on Tuesday sought to portray a united front, saying that “to achieve our objectives, we cannot disengage” from Afghanistan. Guterres offered few details about what the future U.N. presence in the country would look like.

Just weeks ago, the United Nations suggested it might pull out of Afghanistan, and the Taliban’s latest crackdown on women’s rights, banning Afghan women from working for the organization, loomed large over this week’s meeting.

Increasingly, the world body finds itself at the center of an international debate about where to draw red lines in supporting Afghanistan and in an uncomfortable position as an intermediary between the West and the Taliban. No country has officially recognized the Taliban government, though some — including China and Russia — have allowed Taliban diplomats into their countries. The United States and other Western countries have been reluctant to do so and no longer maintain embassies in Kabul.

Women’s activists had called for a boycott of the Doha meeting, arguing that the United Nations should take a bolder stance against the Taliban. The Taliban, meanwhile, says the organization has already taken too strong of a stance.

Muhammad Suhail Shaheen, the head of the Taliban’s political office in Doha and the group’s designated U.N. representative, said he was not invited to the talks. Speaking in an interview, he said, “The U.N. is a world body — it should be neutral.” The decision to not include the Taliban will “harm their credibility,” he said.

Nor is there any international consensus about what the U.N. role in Afghanistan should be. While the Security Council in March extended the U.N.’s mandate to help the Afghan people, donor countries have so far only met about 6 percent of the funding target.

Finding a path forward on Afghanistan “is not an easy task — and it may be historically difficult and challenging for the U.N.,” said Mona Juul, the Norwegian ambassador to the United Nations in New York, whose country led the Security Council’s efforts on Afghanistan until recently.

The past few weeks may have illustrated how risky the balancing act can be. After deputy U.N. secretary general Amina J. Mohammed suggested that this week’s talks could allow for “baby steps” toward international recognition of the Taliban, the backlash was swift and strong.

The United Nations quickly walked back Mohammed’s comments, but the damage was difficult to undo. Over recent days, Afghan activists have shared videos on social media that appeared to show women staging a rare protest in Kabul over the weekend against international recognition of the Taliban. The public backlash may reflect a broader sentiment among Afghan refugees and activists that the organization should be taking bolder steps, said Hosna Jalil, a deputy minister for women’s and interior affairs under the previous Afghan government.

While the United Nations continues to employ female staff in Afghanistan, some women’s rights activists worry that making many of them work from home — which the organization had previously argued was because of safety concerns — signals an unacceptable level of adherence to Taliban orders.

If you want to counter the Taliban, said Jalil, women’s “work needs to be visible to the public.”

“If not the U.N., then who?” she said.

As the special envoys convened in Doha to discuss what a U.N. spokesman called a “durable way forward” in Afghanistan, the meeting’s location was a reminder of the wishful thinking immediately following the Taliban takeover in 2021. The United States and the Taliban had signed a peace agreement in Doha in 2020, prompting some optimism that the group would exercise more moderation than during its first time in power a generation ago.

The gulf between the West and the new Afghan rulers has widened in the 20 months since the Taliban took over, with both sides accusing each other of violating the Doha agreement. Guterres on Tuesday said the international community is concerned about Afghanistan’s role in terrorism and drug trafficking, as well as women’s and other human rights.

Western concerns over being seen as supportive of the Taliban may partly explain the steep cuts in humanitarian aid for Afghanistan. Hugo Slim, a humanitarian studies researcher, recently wrote a blog post advocating that aid groups suspend operations in Afghanistan rather than cooperate with the Taliban.

“There comes a point when humanitarians can’t go on running an effective sort of trusteeship where the deal is: Okay, we’ll run the welfare state, and you can screw up the politics of your country and commit political crimes,” he said in an interview.

But this week’s meeting in Doha suggests that the U.N. presence in Afghanistan will look much like the status quo. U.N. agencies and other aid groups appear to be focusing their energies on finding ways to circumvent the Taliban ban on female staff.

There is no alternative to delivering aid or to engaging with the Taliban, said Juul, the Norwegian U.N. ambassador, whose government hosted some of the first talks with the Taliban after the U.S. withdrawal.

“The Taliban themselves have given up on their own population and especially their own women. But we as an international community cannot do that,” she said.

Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

U.N. struggling to strike balance in Afghanistan amid humanitarian crisis