When the Taliban surged back into power in August 2021, Afghanistan was virtually cut off from the rest of the world, and decisions by the de facto authorities to further restrict human rights have only deepened the country’s isolation.
Since then, as international funding has stalled amid skepticism about the Taliban’s return, the UN has been acting as the world’s "eyes and ears" in Afghanistan. After shifting mainly to humanitarian work, UN agencies and partners are finding ways to help the long-suffering population meet basic needs and preserve hard-won development gains.
UN News was recently in the Afghan capital Kabul to learn more about what the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is doing to support national partners in addressing the needs of drug-affected communities and helping to backstop overstretched drug treatment facilities.
While there, we also spoke with Markus Poztel who serves as the Deputy Special Representative for the UN Assistance Mission in the country, known as UNAMA.
In this exclusive interview, Mr. Poztel talks about the Mission’s efforts to combat drug abuse and trafficking in Afghanistan as well as the work to restore and protect basic rights in the country, particularly the rights of women and girls.
He highlighted the UN’s role as a "bridge builder" in a very complex setting where the needs are as great as the challenges.
While acknowledging work with the de facto authorities in many areas, he tells UN News “there is no middle ground” on the issue of women and girls’ education and that broader human rights and the decrees banning women’s participation in society “should be reversed as soon as possible”.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Markus Potzel:Afghanistan is still the world’s largest producer [of opium]. We’ve recently seen a ban [enacted by the Taliban] on poppy cultivation, production, and trafficking. Initial field reports suggest that there has been a decline in poppy cultivation, which we commend.
We also see efforts to do more for drug rehabilitation centres. The de facto authorities could allocate more [budgetary funding] to equip these centres with medicine, food, and clothes. But, I also call on the international community to do more. We do cooperate with countries in the region who actually are willing to support the de facto authorities on drug rehabilitation.
In terms of livelihoods, there must be more support by the international community because it’s in all our interests – in the interests of Afghans, but also of donor countries in the West and regional countries, all of whom are suffering from drug abuse and trafficking.
UNAMA is addressing [this issue] with the political leadership here, and we are trying to find some common ground to fight drug abuse and drug trafficking and provide the means for alternative livelihoods.
UN News:How are you able to balance between the work that you need to do on the ground in Afghanistan and dealing with what is considered by many an illegitimate authority?
Markus Potzel: The basis of our activity here is the mandate that the Security Council has given us, which encourages us to interact with all political interlocutors, including the de facto authorities.
We have to face the realities on the ground. The Taliban control … almost all of the country.And that’s an opportunity for the Taliban to stabilize and pacify the country. It is also a responsibility because they have to provide services to the people. They have to provide good governance and the rule of law. This is where we see deficits. The authorities have an interest in talking to us because they see us as a bridge builder. We can help convey messages from Afghanistan to the outside world, and we do it the other way as well.
We have 11 field offices throughout the country. So, we are here. We are the eyes and ears, the antennae of the international community. We convey messages, and by talking to the de facto authorities, we also try to foster cooperation and help them get out of this isolation.
We think isolation is not an option, at least not a good option, for the future of Afghanistan.
UN News:The ban on women and girls’ education has been devastating for the country’s development. While we’ve been here, we have even heard this from people working in institutions that are run by the Taliban. How can a middle ground be found on an issue like this one?
Markus Potzel:There is no middle ground on this issue. Afghanistan is the only country in the world which doesn’t allow girls to go to school beyond grade six, or to university. There is no discussion about this; it’s not a bargaining chip. It has to be reversed.
I’m sure that most of the Afghan population, including the Taliban, are against these decrees. They are in favour of girls’ education. I have not met any officials from the de facto authorities who are in favour of the decrees banning girls from going to school or university.
[These decrees] are detrimental to economic progress. Girls should have a say. Women should have a say in this society. [The de facto authorities] should revoke the ban as soon as possible. Otherwise, there will always be a shadow on the relations Afghanistan has with the international community.
UN News:If the vast majority of Afghans disagree with this ban, including their own people, why do the Taliban authorities continue to implement it?
Markus Potzel:The Emir in Kandahar and his inner circle give a mix of religious arguments and cultural narratives [for implementing the decrees]. But, on the religious argument, Islamic countries around the world don’t have this ban. No other country in the world has this ban. The Quran says “Iqra” which means “read”. It encourages all people – men, women, boys and girls – to read, to write, to learn.
And in terms of culture, there is a tradition in this country that girls and boys learn. Under the Republic, not every girl went to school. In remote areas, they didn’t have the chance, but they were given the right, by the constitution and in law, which does not exist anymore.
UN News: Have you received any kind of cooperation from Islamic countries in helping you deliver this message to the Taliban?
Markus Potzel:Yes, of course. There was a delegation of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) that came here and tried to convince the decision makers in this country of the view that education is part of Islam. So far to no avail, but they will come back. These are scholars from Islamic countries, including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Qatar, and Indonesia. [During the earlier visit] a woman was part of the scholars’ delegation. Islamic countries probably have better access and are probably more convincing in talking to the Taliban. We hope that in the end, all our efforts will bear fruit.
UN News: Prior to the political change, the Taliban were the biggest threat to the UN’s work. After August 2021, what is the biggest challenge now facing the UN’s work in Afghanistan?
Markus Potzel:In terms of security, it’s definitely Da’esh, the Islamic State of Khorasan Province.
The circumstances for the UN are getting more difficult because Afghan women now are not allowed to work for non-governmental organizations (NGOs), nor are they allowed to work for the UN.This really complicates things because we rely heavily on women in our work. Without women, it’s very hard … to keep the aid organizations running. We need women to reach out to women.
There are tens of thousands of women-led households in this country because a lot of men in families have lost their lives in war. And without women, NGOs and UN organizations are not able to function properly [so] fewer people get access to aid.
Afghanistan needs international help.
UN News:What is your message to the de facto authorities?
Markus Potzel:I think that the de facto authorities in Afghanistan should let girls go to school beyond grade six. They should let girls go to university. They should let women work for international NGOs, for national NGOs, and for UN organizations. And they should let women participate in social life. If this happens, I can imagine that Afghanistan would be integrated into the international community again, and international donors would also rethink and probably reinforce engagement with Afghanistan. Afghanistan needs international help. And we, as the UN, want to help them help themselves.