UN chief calls for dialogue with Taliban

Antonio Guterres says world must avoid econonic collapse in Afghanistan

By: AFP      Published: 08:02 AM, 10 Sep, 2021
UN chief calls for dialogue with Taliban
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

UN chief Antonio Guterres pleaded for nations to continue dialogue with the Taliban, during an interview with AFP Thursday, as he expressed fears that the hardline Islamists' return to power in Afghanistan could embolden jihadists in the Sahel.

"We must maintain a dialogue with the Taliban, where we affirm our principles directly -- a dialogue with a feeling of solidarity with the Afghan people," he said. "Our duty is to extend our solidarity to a people who suffer greatly, where millions and millions risk dying of hunger," added the secretary-general.

Guterres said that the world must avoid an "economic collapse" in Afghanistan.

Without calling for the lifting of international sanctions or the release of Afghan funds frozen around the world, the UN head predicted that "financial instruments" would allow Afghanistan's economy "to breathe."

Guterres said there were "no guarantees" about what might come out of talks but that discussions are a must "if we want Afghanistan not to be a center of terrorism, if we want women and girls to not lose all the rights acquired during the previous period, if we want different ethnic groups to be able to feel represented."

"Until now, in the discussions that we have had, there is at least a receptivity to talk," added Guterres, who does not rule out going to Afghanistan one day if conditions are right.

What the UN wishes is "an inclusive government," where all components of Afghan society are represented, and "this first preliminary government" announced a few days ago "does not give that impression," he added, regretfully.

He said Afghanistan must be governed "in peace and stability, with the rights of the people respected."

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Guterres added that the Taliban wants recognition, financial support and sanctions to be abolished. 

"That gives a certain leverage to the international community," he said.

Asked about the risks of an Afghanistan-like scenario occurring in the Sahel, the secretary-general said he feared the "psychological and real impact" of what happened in recent weeks.

"There is a real danger. (Some) terrorist groups may feel enthusiastic about what happened and have ambitions beyond what they thought a few months ago," he warned.

He said he was worried about fanatical groups where death "is desirable," with armies "disintegrating in front of" these types of fighters.

"We saw this in Mosul in Iraq, in Mali during the first push towards Bamako, we saw it in Mozambique."

He said it was "essential to reinforce security mechanisms in the Sahel."

- Counterterrorism force for Africa -

"It is not only Mali, Burkina or Niger. Now we have infiltrations in Ivory Coast, in Ghana," Guterres added.

He noted that France will reduce its presence in the region and cited news reports that said Chad wants to withdraw some troops from border areas around Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali.

"I fear today that the response capacity of the international community and the countries of the region are not sufficient in the face of the threat," he lamented.

"This is the reason why I am fighting for there to be an African counterterrorism force with a mandate under chapter seven (which provides for the use of force) of the Security Council and with dedicated funds, which can guarantee a response to the threat level," he added.

The UN chief has been trying for several years to give the G5 Sahel force -- Chad, Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso -- a UN mandate accompanied by collective funding from the world body.

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France supports Guterres but the UN's leading financial contributor, the United States, has rejected the move.

"This blocking must be ended. It is absolutely essential," said the secretary-general.

Fear for Afghanistan's heritage

Bamiyan's cultural centre should have been completed last month, showcasing the remarkable heritage of a site that Afghanistan's Taliban desecrated two decades ago by dynamiting ancient statues of Buddha.

But the red carpet celebrations will have to wait. After the Taliban swept triumphantly into the capital Kabul, everything was put on hold.

"Everything is suspended," said Philippe Delanghe, from UNESCO, the UN's cultural agency, who said they are awaiting the decisions of the new regime.

Afghanistan once stood on the legendary Silk Road trade route, a crossroads of ancient civilisations.

Now in the hands of the hardline Islamist Taliban, there are fears its heritage is at risk.

In March 2001, the Taliban spent weeks using dynamite and artillery to blow up two giant 1,500-year old statues of Buddha, carved into a cliff at Bamiyan, some 175 kilometres (78 miles) west of Kabul.

Many consider the wanton destruction to be among the world's worst cultural crimes.

It was an act that brought the Islamist's radical ideology to global attention, just a few months before Al-Qaeda -- who the Taliban hosted in Afghanistan -- carried out the devastating 9/11 attacks on America.

"We judge by history, and 20 years ago there were terrible results," Ernesto Ottone, UNESCO's assistant director general for culture, told AFP.

- Crossroads of civilisations -

In February, the Taliban said that Afghanistan's relics were part of the country's "history, identity and rich culture" and that "all have an obligation to robustly protect, monitor and preserve these artefacts".

Among Afghanistan's top sites are the Buddhist shrines at Mes Aynak, and the 12th-century Minaret of Jam, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

But since seizing power, the Taliban have said nothing more.

There are worrying signs. In mid-August, residents in Bamiyan accused the Taliban of blowing up a statue honouring a Hazara leader -- an ethnic group persecuted by the Islamists -- who they had killed in the 1990s.

AFP could not confirm the reports, but social media images appeared to show a decapitated statue.

Philippe Marquis, director of the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan (DAFA), told AFP he remains cautious about what will happen.

"We have no declarations saying: 'We are going to destroy everything or erase everything from the non-Islamic past'", he said. 

Since 2016, it has become a war crime to destroy cultural heritage sites.

- 'Great concern' -

Many are worried for the National Museum in Kabul, which survived being ransacked both during the 1992-1996 civil war that followed the Soviet military withdrawal, as well as under the Taliban's first regime, from 1996-2001.

Some feared the prospect of mass looting, as happened following conflict in Iraq and Syria, where extremist fighters raised funds by selling ancient artefacts on the black market.

However, the Taliban's seizure of Kabul was achieved with barely a shot being fired, and the museum appears to have emerged unscathed. 

Only a third of the thousands of priceless objects in Kabul's museum have been catalogued.

Kabul museum director Mohammad Fahim Rahimi told the New York Times last month the Taliban had promised their protection.

But he added he still has "great concern for the safety of our staff and our collection".

- 'Smashed into pieces' -

International funding for cultural protection has also been suspended, and it is not clear when it would resume.

"We are holding our breath," Marquis said. "But I hope that soon we will be able to breathe a little lighter." 

Many Afghans who were working to protect cultural heritage have fled abroad, or are in hiding and too scared to speak out.

Those who do have warned that the Taliban promises of protection are empty rhetoric to win international support.

"As illiterate extremists, they are proud to destroy non-Muslim monuments," said Mustafa, a former UNESCO employee at Bamiyan, now a refugee in Germany.

An official who worked for the Bamiyan government said Taliban fighters smashed instruments and art objects belonging to the culture department after seizing the province in early August.

"I was sad, but I couldn't protest," the official said. 

"I had no guarantee that they weren't going to accuse me... of idolatry and turn their guns on me and kill me."