The UN Security Council urged Afghanistan’s warring parties to heed a call from UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres for an immediate ceasefire to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic and ensure delivery of humanitarian aid throughout the country.
On Tuesday, the council issued a statement after a closed briefing by UN deputy special representative for Afghanistan Ingrid Hayden, who said the country “appears to be reaching a defining moment” over whether its leaders would “engage in meaningful talks with the Taliban to achieve a sustainable peace".
“The choice is made stark by the all-encompassing threat of Covid-19, which poses grave dangers to the health of Afghanistan’s population and, potentially, to the stability of its institutions,” she said.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and political opponent Abdullah Abdullah have been locked in a power struggle since last September’s election.
Both declared themselves president and held parallel inauguration ceremonies in early March.
The discord has prompted the Trump administration to say it would cut $1 billion (Dh3.67bn) in assistance to Afghanistan if the men could not work out their differences.
Ms Hayden said “with the onslaught of Covid-19, many donors are likely to turn inwards to meet the needs of their own population".
“Afghanistan needs to demonstrate a compelling case for the continued investment of international resources,” she said.
“Now is not the time for divisions. Now is the time for statesmanship, accommodation and inclusivity.”
The rivalry and political turmoil have impeded each step towards talks between the government and the Taliban, negotiations that were supposed to come next under a peace deal Washington signed with the insurgents in February.
The deal, which has been touted as Afghanistan’s best chance yet of ending the war, calls for the eventual withdrawal of all 13,000 US soldiers from the country in exchange for guarantees from the Taliban that they would fight other militant groups, including ISIS.
The council “called on the political leadership of Afghanistan to put aside their differences and put the interest of the country first".
Council members “commended the presentation of a negotiating team for the upcoming intra-Afghan negotiations, including several women,” and expressed hope that those negotiations would start “without delay, bearing in mind the challenge the Covid-19 situation poses".
Despite last week’s announcement of the negotiating team by Mr Ghani, the Taliban have continued attacks.
The most recent were carried out on Monday in the north and south of the country, killing at least 11 Afghan soldiers and policemen, according to the Afghan Defence Ministry and a provincial official.
The council “condemned the recent heinous terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and stressed the importance of sustained efforts to continue to reduce the violence and to ensure that the territory of Afghanistan will not be used by Al Qaeda, ISIS or other international terrorist groups to threaten or attack any other country".
Mr Guterres called for an immediate global ceasefire on March 23 so the world could respond to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Germany’s deputy UN ambassador, Jurgen Schulz, said the continuing Taliban attacks against security forces went against the February agreement with the US and must stop.
“As the coronavirus crisis has also spread to Afghanistan and we can’t even estimate its true extent there yet, an end to violence is even more urgent,“ he said.
“Afghan refugees are already leaving Iran without the necessary medical facilities to treat them in western Afghanistan.
“The same is likely to happen with Afghan refugees from Pakistan. This is bound to exacerbate the health crisis.“
France’s deputy UN ambassador Anne Gueguen said it was crucial to continue support for the Afghan people who had “been plagued by war, terrorism, poverty, and now a pandemic".
She said humanitarian aid was crucial, especially to help Afghans deal with “the risk of the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic".