Report

U.N. Afghanistan Envoy Issues Desperate Plea to Avert Catastrophe

Deborah Lyons cites Syria and Sarajevo in her warnings of what could come as the Taliban turn their guns toward Afghanistan’s cities.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.N. Afghanistan envoy Deborah Lyons attends a meeting in Kabul.
United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan Deborah Lyons attends a meeting at the Afghan presidential palace in Kabul on July 28. Sajjad Hussain/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

A top United Nations official warned Friday that Afghanistan risks “descending into a situation of catastrophe so serious that it would have few, if any, parallels this century” as U.S. forces complete their withdrawal. The pullout ends a 20-year-long military campaign that has left the country at the mercy of a resurgent Taliban force, which has launched a violent offensive against major cities that is reminiscent of the siege of Sarajevo at the height of the Yugoslav war.

“This is now a different kind of war, reminiscent of Syria recently or Sarajevo in the not-so-distant past,” Deborah Lyons, the special representative of the U.N. secretary-general for Afghanistan, told the U.N. Security Council. The conflict, she said, has “entered a new, deadlier, and more destructive phase” as the Taliban transition from a campaign to seize rural communities to an all-out assault on major cities including Kandahar, Herat, and Lashkar Gah. The Taliban’s military tactics, she added, may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

“To attack urban areas is to knowingly inflict enormous harm and cause massive civilian casualties,” she said. “Nonetheless, the threatening of large urban areas appears to be a strategic decision by the Taliban, who have accepted the likely carnage that will ensue.”

A top United Nations official warned Friday that Afghanistan risks “descending into a situation of catastrophe so serious that it would have few, if any, parallels this century” as U.S. forces complete their withdrawal. The pullout ends a 20-year-long military campaign that has left the country at the mercy of a resurgent Taliban force, which has launched a violent offensive against major cities that is reminiscent of the siege of Sarajevo at the height of the Yugoslav war.

“This is now a different kind of war, reminiscent of Syria recently or Sarajevo in the not-so-distant past,” Deborah Lyons, the special representative of the U.N. secretary-general for Afghanistan, told the U.N. Security Council. The conflict, she said, has “entered a new, deadlier, and more destructive phase” as the Taliban transition from a campaign to seize rural communities to an all-out assault on major cities including Kandahar, Herat, and Lashkar Gah. The Taliban’s military tactics, she added, may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

“To attack urban areas is to knowingly inflict enormous harm and cause massive civilian casualties,” she said. “Nonetheless, the threatening of large urban areas appears to be a strategic decision by the Taliban, who have accepted the likely carnage that will ensue.”

The urgent U.N. briefing was part of a desperate appeal to prod the Security Council to take some action to rein in the Taliban and press them to pursue a power-sharing arrangement with the Afghan government. The developments underscore the terrifying future that awaits many Afghans after U.S. President Joe Biden decided to press ahead with the plan he inherited for withdrawing American forces from the country, leaving a major security vacuum in their wake. The U.S.-trained and equipped Afghan army has been unable to blunt the Taliban offensives.

Jeffrey DeLaurentis, a senior diplomat with the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, condemned the Taliban’s military advances and urged them to halt their offensive. “The Taliban must hear from the international community that we will not accept a military takeover of Afghanistan or a return of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate,” he said at the U.N. Security Council meeting.

Meanwhile, militias are forming to take up the fight against the Taliban as Afghan national forces have melted away, raising the prospect of a full-fledged civil war after the U.S. withdrawal even if the Taliban don’t topple Kabul. “If the Taliban win, the people will be armed, and we’re looking at a civil war scenario,” one human rights activist based in Herat in western Afghanistan, who did not want to be named as they feared reprisal, told Foreign Policy.

The battle for Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province where tens of thousands of civilians have been trapped, has left 104 civilians dead and 403 wounded since July 28, according to U.N. estimates based on hospital figures. The Taliban have shut off all road access leading in or out of the city, and food supplies are running short. Since the start of a Taliban offensive in Kandahar, more than 460 civilian casualties have been registered, according to the U.N. The U.N. has also cited credible reports of over 135 casualties since the onset of a Taliban offensive on Herat.

Lyons welcomed the Security Council’s statement this week condemning an attack on a U.N. office in Herat, but she said Afghans need to hear more from the 15-nation council. “Afghans [face] this coming darkness with a sense of being abandoned by [the] regional and international community,” Lyons said. “They expect far greater engagement and visible support from you.”

The latest offensive, Lyons added, provides a sobering reminder that the Taliban have shown little inclination to abide by commitments they made to the United States in February 2020 to promote a reduction in violence. “There had been an expectation that when international troops left, we would see a reduction of violence. We did not,” she said. “Instead, despite significant concessions for peace, we have seen a 50 percent increase in civilian casualties with the certainty of many more as the cities are attacked.”

Lyons pressed the council to put aside its differences and issue an “unambiguous statement” demanding that attacks against cities must stop. She said governments meeting with the Taliban’s political negotiators must insist on a general cease-fire and a resumption of negotiations with the Afghan government, and they must drive home the point that a “government imposed by force in Afghanistan will not be recognized” by the international community.

The secretary-general’s envoy also urged the council to play a larger role in facilitating negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government. To strengthen the U.N.’s hand, she asked that each of the five permanent members of the Security Council—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—propose an expert who would serve on the U.N. mediation team. A council diplomat said that the Taliban had previously objected to a U.N. role in peace negotiations. “We cannot wait,” Lyons said. “I am absolutely convinced that whatever happens on the battlefield—whether the Taliban take additional cities or whether the government regains districts—the result will only prolong Afghanistan’s agony.”

The latest wave of violence falls heavily on a country that was already struggling to recover from decades of warfare and the grim fallout of a severe drought that has left some 18.5 million Afghans, nearly half the population, in need of humanitarian assistance. Those delivering assistance have themselves been targeted. In 2021 alone, 25 aid workers have been killed, while 63 have been injured, and another 83 arrested or detained, according to U.N. figures.

Lyons urged the council to remind the Taliban Political Commission that exemptions to U.N. travel bans were predicated on the Taliban’s commitment to a peace process. She expressed concerns about “heartbreaking” reports of abuses, including “summary executions, beatings, and clampdown on media” in areas already under Taliban control. She also stressed the threat to women: “They tell us that they fear they will be killed if the Taliban return to power simply because they worked for the government or an NGO. They fear they will not be able to have access to medical or education services.”

Despite the wave of Taliban offensives that have swept through parts of the country, U.S. officials—at least publicly—are clinging to hopes for a negotiated peace between the Afghan government and Taliban. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday spoke by phone with Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan’s second-highest-ranking official, to “reiterate the U.S. commitment to seek a just and durable political settlement that ends the war in Afghanistan” and discuss “ways to accelerate peace negotiations and achieve a political settlement,” according to State Department spokesperson Ned Price.

But those commitments are ringing increasingly hollow to Afghans as the Taliban continue their military advance and the specter of a full Taliban takeover looms over the country. The same day Lyons addressed the U.N. Security Council, the Taliban captured the provincial capital of Nimroz province in western Afghanistan near the Iranian border, in a significant symbolic victory as they ramp up offensives against other provincial capitals.

U.S. officials have in recent weeks begun publicly conceding that the Taliban could be slow-rolling peace talks to make room for more military gains. “Maybe some Taliban think there is a military solution to the conflict although they tell us otherwise,” Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, said in an interview with Voice of America this week.

“But if some commanders or some military leaders think that, they are miscalculating, because there will be resistance. And even if they take over the country, there will be resistance and there will be international opposition,” he said. “They will become a pariah state.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.