UNITED NATIONS: Near-record violence in Afghanistan in the last few weeks creates an atmosphere of mistrust and risks derailing the peace negotiations set to begin soon between the Afghan government and the Taliban, according to a top UN official in the war-ravaged country.
The planned negotiations stem from a landmark pact the US signed with the Taliban in February to promote a peaceful settlement to the Afghan war, the longest overseas military intervention by the American military.
"As I speak, Afghans representing the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan are preparing to sit with other Afghans representing the Taliban to discuss, at long last, a political settlement to the conflict.
This is truly a historic moment," Deborah Lyons, the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative for Afghanistan, said in a briefing to the UN Security Council on Thursday.
"After four decades of war, the people of Afghanistan have more reason than ever to hope that this devastating conflict, which has brought so much suffering, may finally come to an end, Lyons, also the Head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), said.
She, however, warned that this will be a long and challenging process and already, the pre-talks phase has raised difficult issues related to prisoner releases, which have taken five months to resolve.
"Eventually the negotiations will have to tackle a range of profound questions about the kind of country Afghans want. These can only be addressed by Afghans talking with other Afghans. Solutions will not be found on the battlefield, we know this, nor can they be imposed from the outside," she said.
Lyons cautioned that despite the air of cautious optimism, the level of violence on the battlefield remains deeply worrying and the last few weeks have seen near-record numbers of security incidents, including egregious attacks by spoilers targeting civilians involved in the peace process.
"We must keep in mind the terrible consequences of this violence. The conflict continues to kill and injure hundreds of Afghans every week And as we look towards the peace talks this violence also creates an atmosphere of mistrust that risks derailing negotiations," she said.
With the negotiations, hosted by Qatar, set to launch soon, she exhorted parties to place a humanitarian ceasefire atop the agenda, and pressed all countries to amplify this call.
"The coming days will hopefully bring the formal launch of intra-Afghan negotiations. I said the coming days, not the coming weeks,"she said thanking member states, including Qatar and the United States as well as many others "who have engaged in intensive diplomatic efforts to get us to this point. For our part, the UN will be working with international partners to support both parties and the host countries throughout the process."
She added that a peace process, and even a peace agreement, does not peace make.
"All of us must do our part to create a conducive environment for peace talks. In parallel, we must ensure that the ground is prepared for peace to flourish once an agreement is reached," she said.
Women's rights are also emerging as among the most difficult issues confronting the parties as they enter negotiations "and one around which any compromises will pose a difficult dilemma for member states," she said.
"This issue will be more central in the Afghan peace process than we have ever seen in any other peace negotiation in recent memory," she added.
Lyons said she has initiated a series of meetings with a countrywide network of Afghan women on the peace process, which is giving the UN important insights into their concerns, as well as possible avenues for greater engagement.
"But we all know that it is women's representation at the peace table that offers the best opportunity to ensure that their own rights are upheld, and that their vision for elements of a peaceful Afghanistan is reflected in all aspects of the talks," she said.
Lyons commended the women members of the Afghan negotiating team and other peace structures for their energetic outreach and substantive preparations for intra-Afghan talks.
"As of this moment, we are not yet aware of any women's representation on the Taliban side, but we remain hopeful that they, too, will find a way of meaningfully including women, the other 50 per cent of the population, in their negotiation team," she said.