Afghanistan’s U.N. Envoy Heads for the Exit

“He thought there [was] no government in Afghanistan for him to represent at the U.N.,” one Afghan diplomat said.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy., and , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Ghulam Isaczai speaks during a U.N. Security Council meeting.
Ghulam Isaczai speaks during a U.N. Security Council meeting.
Afghan representative to the United Nations Ghulam Isaczai speaks during a U.N. Security Council meeting on Afghanistan at the United Nations in New York on Aug. 16. Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United Nations resigned on Wednesday, three Afghan diplomatic sources confirmed to Foreign Policy. The diplomat left to take another position within the world body’s bureaucracy just four months after Kabul fell to the Taliban. 

Ghulam Isaczai was originally appointed Afghan ambassador to the United Nations in July by then-Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. The embassy, along with dozens of other diplomatic posts around the world, has continued to function since Ghani fled Afghanistan and his government collapsed, with diplomats performing consular functions and informally warning Western officials not to recognize the Taliban. 

But sources familiar with the move said Isaczai was losing confidence in the effort. “He thought there [was] no government in Afghanistan for him to represent at the U.N.,” one Afghan diplomat said. Isaczai did not immediately respond to Foreign Policy’s request for comment. 

Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United Nations resigned on Wednesday, three Afghan diplomatic sources confirmed to Foreign Policy. The diplomat left to take another position within the world body’s bureaucracy just four months after Kabul fell to the Taliban. 

Ghulam Isaczai was originally appointed Afghan ambassador to the United Nations in July by then-Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. The embassy, along with dozens of other diplomatic posts around the world, has continued to function since Ghani fled Afghanistan and his government collapsed, with diplomats performing consular functions and informally warning Western officials not to recognize the Taliban. 

But sources familiar with the move said Isaczai was losing confidence in the effort. “He thought there [was] no government in Afghanistan for him to represent at the U.N.,” one Afghan diplomat said. Isaczai did not immediately respond to Foreign Policy’s request for comment. 

Isaczai is expected to be selected for a top U.N. position on Ethiopia, two Afghan diplomats said. He had worked within the U.N. system for nearly a quarter of a century before becoming Afghanistan’s U.N. ambassador earlier this year. Isaczai also served as the United Nations’ resident coordinator in Azerbaijan and North Korea over the past decade, according to his biography, but he has not held a posting in Africa. 

A replacement has been selected based on the instructions of Mohammad Hanif Atmar, Afghanistan’s last foreign minister under Ghani. The veteran Afghan diplomat had used his perch at the United Nations to call on the U.N. Security Council not to recognize a government that claimed its power by force. The U.N. Credentials Committee deferred the decision over whether to recognize the Taliban government earlier this month

“We’ve witnessed time and again how the Taliban have broken their promises and commitments in the past,” Isaczai told the U.N. Security Council in August. “The U.N. Security Council and the U.N. secretary-general should use every means at its disposal to call for an immediate cessation of violence and respect for human rights and international humanitarian law.”

The departure of the Afghan envoy is unlikely to pave the way for the Taliban to take up Afghanistan’s seat at the United Nations, Pakistan’s U.N. ambassador Munir Akram told Foreign Policy.

“So far, you know, nobody has accorded formal recognition,” he said in an interview over Zoom. “So I think the first step would be a process of countries actually recognizing the new government and then thereafter proceeding to the issue of credentials.”

Isaczai’s departure comes at a moment of renewed tension over Afghanistan’s fate at the United Nations. China is holding up the U.S. and U.K. governments’ push to adopt a resolution exempting humanitarian assistance from sanctions in Afghanistan, according to sources familiar with the move and a draft resolution obtained by Foreign Policy

On Monday, Beijing blocked the approval of a U.S. draft resolution that would have provided a legal basis for aid organizations, banks, and other private firms to supply relief in Afghanistan for a 12-month period without risking punishment for working with Taliban officials, many of whom are the subjects of U.N. sanctions.

Chinese diplomats have offered a variety of explanations for why it objects to the U.S. initiative, diplomatic sources familiar with the closed-door diplomatic negotiations said. 

Initially, China argued the resolution needed to offer a broader exemption, one diplomat said, allowing Beijing to pursue further infrastructure projects in Afghanistan. In an effort to address China’s concern, the United States offered to include a provision exempting “any activity from the sanctions measures” on a case-by-case basis—as long as such activity was consistent with the resolution’s goal. 

A Chinese diplomat pushed back on that account, telling Foreign Policy that China never called for broadening the scope of sanctions exemptions to permit infrastructure projects, and it remains open to negotiating revised resolutions that address their concerns.

The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity given the confidential nature of U.N. Security Council negotiations, said China questioned the need for an exemption on the grounds that previous U.N. sanctions on Taliban members never restricted the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Afghan people. By adopting a humanitarian exemption to sanctions, according to the Chinese view, the council would be implicitly acknowledging that humanitarian aid was a violation of sanctions.

At the heart of the dispute are differing views between the United States and China over how sanctions should be implemented. The United States believes provision of assistance to the new Afghan government, which is led by multiple sanctioned individuals, can constitute a violation of sanctions, requiring an exemption. But China maintains that sanctions target individuals, not the government, and therefore should not be applied to government-backed projects.

In a briefing to the U.N. Security Council sanctions committee in late November, representatives of U.N. relief agencies said they would need legal assurances that humanitarian assistance could be provided to Afghans without risking a breach of sanctions.

During negotiations, the United States argued that a legally binding U.N. Security Council resolution would be required to give U.N. aid agencies and relief groups sufficient confidence to operate in Afghanistan without violating sanctions. China countered that a legally binding resolution was not necessary and the U.N. Security Council sanctions committee could simply issue guidance clarifying that entities providing humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan is permitted.

“We want the council to use every tool to facilitate humanitarian assistance,” the Chinese diplomat said. “As a neighboring country to Afghanistan, we are concerned about the humanitarian and economic situation on the ground. If Afghanistan is unstable, neighboring countries will be the first to take the brunt.”

The United States has also faced pressure from international aid groups to make the humanitarian aid exemption open-ended, but Washington pushed back, arguing a nine-month extension (later expanded to 12 months) would offer an opportunity to review the aid exemption’s effectiveness and make adjustments.

Any credible effort to forestall a humanitarian calamity will require more than a carve out of foreign aid, Akram said, noting there is a need for reviving the country’s banking system, supporting local businesses, and finding funds to purchase oil imports and other basic necessities. “Humanitarian assistance by itself does not entirely cover the gamut of support that is necessary to stabilize Afghanistan and prevent a humanitarian catastrophe,” he said.

The original U.S. draft included a number of shortcomings that were objectionable to Islamabad, Beijing, and Moscow, including the lack of an explicit reference to the rights of foreign governments to provide humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan, Akram added. It also, he said, failed to strike a clear enough distinction between U.N. sanctions’ individual targets and the government and country, which are not subject to sanctions.

“Under international law, humanitarian assistance is to be provided without conditions, Akram said. “Therefore, in my view, there is no need to give an exemption. If you say I’m giving an exemption to help the Afghan people, it means the sanctions apply to the whole Afghan nation.”

But Akram added the United States has been making adjustments to the draft in closed-door negotiations to address such concerns, and he remains hopeful that a compromise can be reached.

But even as China makes inroads with the Taliban, the militant group has become increasingly frustrated with Beijing’s failure to give humanitarian aid to the nascent government, as more than 23 million Afghans—more than half the country’s population—face severe hunger, with a harsh winter looming. 

“China is not contributing much, in my opinion, [and is] trying to shift the burden to the U.S. while waiting to see whether there is a viable path to a stable Afghanistan and who are the main players before deciding the parameters of its involvement,” said Haroun Rahimi, an economist and assistant law professor at the American University of Afghanistan. “Even if China decides to do more, it is likely to be structured as a business investment.” 

Isaczai joins just a small handful of ambassadors who have left their posts, but his high-profile resignation could be a blow to nascent efforts to keep Afghan Embassies running around the world, which face a financial crunch as the U.S. and other Western governments freeze Afghanistan’s foreign assets. One current and one former Afghan diplomat said China was coordinating with Russia and Pakistan in a bid to unfreeze those assets. 

Even with Ghani out of power and the Taliban controlling the government, much of Afghanistan’s diplomatic infrastructure remains in place, with more than 60 embassies operating around the world under the former government’s flag, and it continues to draw on funds allocated under Ghani to survive. Diplomats have mostly frozen out the Taliban’s requests to talk.

Staff writer Robbie Gramer contributed reporting for this article.

Update, Dec. 17, 2021: This story has been updated to provide an additional comment from Pakistan’s ambassador to the United Nations and an unnamed Chinese diplomat.

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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

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