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International flags fly outside the United Nations headquarters on Sept. 22. 2020.
International flags fly outside the United Nations headquarters on Sept. 22. 2020. (Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg)

The U.S., China and Russia are facing an early test of whether they can collaborate to keep Afghanistan from sinking even deeper into crisis as they negotiate the renewal of a long-running United Nations mission that's scheduled to expire next week.

The UN Security Council will meet Thursday to debate the situation in Afghanistan and how to extend the organization's operation there, which has a mandate through Sept. 17.

The mission has served as a critical link for humanitarian and human rights programs in Afghanistan, including support for gender equality efforts. That could be a flashpoint with the new Taliban-led government because the group has a long history of abuses against women and girls despite recent promises of moderation.

"We want to see human rights issues addressed in Afghanistan, and in particular, the rights of women and girls," Irish Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason, who's presiding over the Security Council this month, told reporters. "The measure of the Taliban and their plans for their new phase in Afghanistan will be how they treat women and girls, and we will absolutely hold them to account on that."

Early signs are that the mission will be extended despite differences among the Security Council rivals over how to deal with Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover, according to diplomats involved in the talks. China and Russia have made clear they're less inclined than the U.S. and its allies to pass judgment on the Taliban.

What happens after a temporary extension remains in doubt, with the longer-term presence of the UN and other aid organizations liable to become ensnared in a broader debate over how far to push the Taliban to uphold human rights. The group's previous rule in the late 1990s was marked by widespread brutality, including the stoning of women.

Now, Taliban leaders say they will let women work, attend school and exercise other rights within the structure of Islamic law, without giving details. But UN and other officials say rights abuses are already occurring and many women are worried about reprisals for exercising their basic rights.

"Every day we're seeing reports of rollbacks on women's rights," Alison Davidian, deputy country representative for UN Women in Afghanistan, told reporters on Wednesday. In some provinces, she said, "we're hearing that women are being prohibited from leaving their homes to go to work."

U.S. officials have criticized the Taliban's announcement of a caretaker government this week for not being inclusive: No women or members of the ousted government were named to posts.

"Any legitimacy, any support, will have to be earned," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday in Germany.

This week's developments and the debate over the UN mission highlight a broader challenge the West now faces in Afghanistan, as it tries to balance the need to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe there while refraining, for the time being, from backing or openly recognizing the Taliban.

There's little debate that aid needs to continue flowing, with one in three Afghans facing food insecurity. The UN is calling on donors to pledge about $600 million in new aid on Sept. 13, chosen as a day to announce commitments, amid warnings of drought and starvation.

"People are losing access to basic goods and services every day," UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said. "A humanitarian catastrophe looms."

The UN's aid chief, Martin Griffiths, met with Blinken this week in Qatar, where the top U.S. diplomat pledged to support the mission's renewal, Griffiths told reporters on Tuesday. Blinken and his staff have said that while sanctions must remain in place, aid should continue to reach the people of Afghanistan.

"Consistent with our sanctions on the Taliban, the aid will not flow through the government, but rather through independent organizations, such as UN agencies and NGOs," Blinken said in a reference to nongovernmental organizations. "And we expect that those efforts will not be impeded by the Taliban or anyone else."

Beyond immediate aid, Europe, the U.S. and allies are dangling the possibility of broader recognition if the Taliban can deliver on human rights, counterterrorism and an inclusive government. Although China and Pakistan, a longtime backer of the Taliban, have engaged the militant group's leaders, most nations seem to be in little hurry to take up the politically risky idea of recognition, focusing instead on establishing communications.

Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister, said Wednesday that discussions about recognizing the Taliban would be coordinated with allies because "we don't want the Taliban to play one against the other."

"We will probably not open up an embassy or consulate there, not until we see whether or not the Taliban is prepared to deliver on the public promises they have made," Thomas Pickering, a U.S. diplomat for four decades, told Bloomberg Television last week.

For the new Taliban government, much is at stake. Signs of an economic crisis are abundant, with prices of essential goods rising in Kabul while banks run short on cash. The U.S. has frozen about $9.5 billion in assets belonging to the nation's central bank, and the International Monetary Fund cut off the group from using fund reserve assets.

The European Union has also suspended more than $1 billion in development assistance pending talks with the Taliban.

For now, the Taliban are focused on consolidating control. UN officials say the group has yet to apply for its credentials at the world body, where an envoy from former President Ashraf Ghani's government is still at work.

And while the West holds back, analysts say China and Russia may be quicker to deepen their ties with the Taliban if their security concerns are met. Both nations want to ensure that the militant Islamism the Taliban espouse doesn't spread in their countries.

"China and Russia are arguing for a pragmatic approach in dealing with Taliban," said Richard Gowan, UN director for the International Crisis Group. "For them, regional security interests come first."

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