The Taliban, Afghanistan's new rulers for a matter of weeks, are challenging the credentials of their country's former UN ambassador and want to speak at the General Assembly's high-level meeting of world leaders this week, the international body says.
The question now facing UN officials comes just over a month after the Taliban, ejected from Afghanistan by the United States and its allies after 9/11, swept back into power as US forces prepared to withdraw from the country at the end of August.
The Taliban stunned the world by taking territory with surprising speed and little resistance from the US-trained Afghan military. The Western-backed government collapsed on August 15.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres received a communication on September 15 from the currently accredited Afghan Ambassador, Ghulam Isaczai, with the list of Afghanistan's delegation for the assembly's 76th annual session.
Five days later, Guterres received another communication with the letterhead “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” signed by “Ameer Khan Muttaqi” as “Minister of Foreign Affairs,” requesting to participate in the UN gathering of world leaders.
Muttaqi said in the letter that former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani was “ousted” as of August 15 and that countries across the world “no longer recognise him as president,” and therefore Isaczai no longer represents Afghanistan, Dujarric said.
The Taliban said it was nominating a new UN permanent representative, Mohammad Suhail Shaheen, the UN spokesman said. He has been a spokesman for the Taliban during peace negotiations in Qatar.
Senior US State Department officials said they were aware of the Taliban's request — the United States is a member of the UN credentials committee — but they would not predict how that panel might rule.
However, one of the officials said the committee “would take some time to deliberate,” suggesting the Taliban's envoy would not be able to speak at the General Assembly at this session at least during the high-level leaders' week.
In cases of disputes over seats at the United Nations, the General Assembly's nine-member credentials committee must meet to make a decision. Both letters have been sent to the committee after consultations with General Assembly President Abdulla Shahid's office.
The committee's members are the United States, Russia, China, Bahama, Bhutan, Chile, Namibia, Sierra Leone and Sweden.
Afghanistan is scheduled to give the last speech on the final day of the high-level meeting on September 27. It wasn't clear who would speak if the committee met and the Taliban were given Afghanistan's seat.
When the Taliban last ruled from 1996 to 2001, the UN refused to recognise their government and instead gave Afghanistan's seat to the previous, warlord-dominated government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who eventually was killed by a suicide bomber in 2011. It was Rabbani's government that brought Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of 9/11, to Afghanistan from Sudan in 1996.
The Taliban have said they want international recognition and financial help to rebuild the war-battered country. But the makeup of the new Taliban government poses a dilemma for the United Nations. Several of the interim ministers are on the UN's so-called blacklist of international terrorists and funders of terrorism.
Credentials committee members could also use Taliban recognition as leverage to press for a more inclusive government that guarantees human rights, especially for girls who were barred from going to school during their previous rule, and women who weren't able to work.