UN Special Representative Deborah Lyons’ farewell statement to the people of Afghanistan
The world was a very different place when I took on this job, experiencing a once-in-a-century pandemic that altered our ways of working and shifted global priorities. I myself was prevented from being able to travel to Afghanistan until the end of May 2020, having started work in April. Afghanistan at that time was dealing with the implementation of the February 2020 Doha agreement and then the decision by the Biden administration in April 2021 to withdraw all foreign troops by the end of August of that year in accordance with the agreement.
There has already been much analysis of the effect of the Doha agreement on the collapse of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. There will undoubtedly be much more as historians begin to gather the evidence. To be the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) on the ground during the Republic’s final months was a humbling experience.
Our strategy at the time was to do everything possible to make the peace process in Doha work. This meant, above all, shoring up the Afghan state to preserve space for the negotiation. We met in Geneva in November to ensure continued funding for Afghanistan, with donors pledging around US$13 billion over a four-year period. We spent much time focused on reinvigorating the intra-Afghan negotiations, building confidence and regional consensus. Success would have been an agreement between the Republic and the Taliban on an interim government that included the Taliban but that preserved the wider inclusion of the Republic as well as the gains in human, civic, political, and women’s rights. This proved to be impossible, and the Republic fell even before the last international troops left.
As the collapse became more and more inevitable, and most embassies began evacuating their staff, UNAMA and the UN family resolved to stay and deliver. We were as anxious as millions of Afghans when we learned that President Ghani had fled, and that the Taliban were entering Kabul. We already had staff under Taliban control in our offices in Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif, Jalalabad and Faizabad. We were greatly relieved that there had been no loss of life among UN staff and indeed the Taliban honoured their commitment as the new de facto authorities to ensure their safety.
But the Taliban takeover created a whole new set of issues. Most immediate was the coming winter and the serious vulnerability of millions of Afghans who were already experiencing significant degrees of food insecurity in part due to the many years of drought. A reduction in violence allowed us access to many parts of the country that we had not been able to visit up to then. A conference convened by the Secretary-General in September in Geneva raised over a billion dollars to cover the humanitarian surge over the winter. But our counterpart was a government that was not recognized by the international community with many senior officials under United Nations sanctions and sanctions by other countries. These sanctions and the withdrawal of international financial support required immediate work to address the liquidity crisis in the banking sector, which we were able to do by importing cash for humanitarian operations. As a result of this nearly 20 million people received some form of assistance and the economy, while deeply weakened, did not entirely collapse.
Politically, UNAMA came to the conclusion that the only way forward was through political engagement, despite the extreme policies of the Taliban limiting women’s rights, freedoms of media, and inclusive political representation. The Secretary-General’s recommendations to the Security Council on UNAMA’s renewed mandate reflected this policy decision. We were gratified that the Security Council agreed. Our new mandate allows UNAMA to remain in Afghanistan and continue that engagement.
As I reflect on my over two years leading UNAMA in Afghanistan I am convinced that UNAMA’s presence is necessary for at least three reasons. First, we have a historical legacy. The United Nations has had a political, human rights, humanitarian, and development presence in Afghanistan since the late 1980s. We have had some successes and some failures and as a result of the latter we have a moral responsibility to remain. Second, we need to address the needs of the most vulnerable Afghans through humanitarian assistance and support to their basic human needs. Third, Afghanistan is too important to the international community to be forgotten. UNAMA will remain as a credible observer and reporter on events on the ground and a reliable link between the Afghan people, the de facto authorities, and the international community. As such it will also continue as a symbol that the Afghan people will not be abandoned again by the world.
I could not have imagined, when I accepted this job, the Afghanistan that I am now leaving. My heart breaks in particular for the millions of Afghan girls who are denied their right to education, and the many Afghan women full of talent who are being told to stay at home instead of using those talents to rebuild a society that now experiences far less conflict but in some ways as much fear as before. It is an irony that now that there is space for everyone to help rebuild the country half of the population is confined and prevented from doing so.
It was an honour as a woman to be selected to be SRSG in March 2020. It is that much more painful as a woman to leave my Afghan sisters in the condition they are in. I leave convinced, however, that the best hope lies in an engagement strategy that demonstrates to the de facto authorities that a system that excludes women, minorities, and talented people will not endure, and that at the same time it is possible to construct a polity that is both inclusive and Islamic.
It has been said that when a traveler visits Afghanistan, the country confiscates their soul, and they must return now and then to see themselves. I leave with that saying very much in my mind.