UN envoy optimistic about Afghan peace prospects

The top UN envoy for Afghanistan has expressed optimism about the peace prospects in the war-torn country, saying talks between the Kabul government and the Taliban could begin in July.

“I am cautiously optimistic that the talks between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban negotiation teams will indeed start in the next few weeks in Doha, during the month of July,” Deborah Lyons, the UN Ssecretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, told the Security Council on Thursday.

“As the two sides embark on what will likely be a long and complex series of talks, I have encouraged them to show the necessary flexibility and foresight, the commitment to peace and most importantly, compassion for their people, that will be needed to bring these negotiations to a successful conclusion,” she said.

The announcement of a three-day Eid al-Fitr ceasefire in May by the Taliban and the Afghan government led to a welcome and much-needed reduction in violence, which is essential to an environment conducive for peace talks and will pave the way for an eventual permanent ceasefire.

But the recent spiraling levels of violence threaten this process, she noted.

Lyons saw encouraging commitment by the two sides on the issue of prisoner releases, which is an important confidence-building measure that has created momentum toward the negotiations.

“As I am speaking to you now, we are in the final stages, and it is noteworthy that both sides have agreed that the (peace) talks could start within a week of the completion of the prisoner releases. But again, this must be commensurate with a reduction in violence,” she said.

Lyons recognized the efforts of the US, Qatar, and a number of other regional countries in bringing the Afghan government and the Taliban to this point.

“We all look forward to the formal commencement of the negotiations. The UN stands ready to support these direct talks, as required, and I have been in discussion with both sides to identify and address their needs going forward. We are working now very closely with a number of countries to build a network of support for the talks and for the parties, as needed.”

Lyons also voiced concern over the impact of COVID-19 on the livelihood of Afghans.

“At the same time as peace rises out there on the horizon, COVID-19 is casting a huge shadow over Afghan daily life,” she said.

The global pandemic also poses unique challenges for the operational posture of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, which Lyons leads, and has limited its ability to fully deliver on its mandate, she said.

In light of the scale of the crisis and the crippling economic consequences, the UN humanitarian response plan for Afghanistan has been updated to incorporate the COVID-19 requirements for 2020.

In total, $1.1 billion is now required, she added.