Afghanistan continues to be roiled by a violent Taliban insurgency, but reconciliation talks in Abu Dhabi have brought the warring parties a bit closer to peace, according to UAE officials. Photo: iStock.
Afghanistan continues to be roiled by a violent Taliban insurgency. Photo: iStock

A Taliban car bombing this week wounded more than a hundred people, according to media reports, and more than a hundred more lost their lives in an attack on an Afghan military base in Maidan Wardak province. A member of the US military was reportedly killed, which is expected to impact the Trump administration’s withdrawal plan.

About 2,400 US military personnel are estimated to have lost their lives in Afghanistan since American forces deployed in 2001 and around 14,000 troops remain in the country to train and advise local military forces and to conduct counter-terrorism operations.

While the successful Eid ceasefire in mid-June last year and Washington’s willingness to open direct peace talks with the Taliban in July raised hopes for peace, the Taliban have intermittently launched attacks to prove their resilience in a bid to enter the dialogue from a position of strength. The group launched attacks on August 10 with the objective of taking the city of Ghazni, 120 kilometers south of Kabul. They killed an estimated 100 security forces and 20 civilians.

The Afghan security forces remain too overstretched to take on the growing menace of the Taliban in different pockets of the country and their high casualty rates (even when militarily assisted by US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces) raise serious doubts about whether they can be an effective provider of security once the US withdraws half of its troops.

Some external state actors allegedly kept contributing to the strength of the Taliban in order to avert threats perceived from the American influence in Afghanistan. The Taliban and ISKP (the ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan also known as ISIS-Khorasan or Islamic State Khorasan Province) violently collided with each other in an effort to assert their supremacy, killing even more people.

Many civilians were killed as a result of armed clashes between the Afghan government and the Taliban and between the Taliban and the NATO and American forces, as well as Taliban attacks on government institutions and foreign diplomatic missions.

US and Afghan air strikes targeting the Taliban and ISKP also caused many civilian casualties. According to the UNAMA (United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan) Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict 2018 midyear report, the number of civilian casualties caused by air strikes in the first half of 2018 was 52% higher than during the same period in 2017.

UNAMA documented a total of 353 civilian casualties (149 deaths and 204 injuries) from aerial attacks, attributing 52% of the casualties to the Afghan Air Force and 45% to “international military forces” and the remaining 3% to unidentified pro-government forces.

The US is the only international actor reported to have conducted air strikes in Afghanistan. Last year, ISKP claimed responsibility for most of the most lethal terrorist attacks on Afghan soil. The primary targets for the Taliban remained Afghan government institutions and officials.

Their objective is to put growing pressure on the US and tilt the negotiations in their favor. They aim to sideline the Afghan government in the peace talks and target it in order to show that it is a vulnerable institution.

The Taliban made their aims clear last year during the parliamentary elections of October 20, which were disrupted by violence. The polls were postponed and canceled in some provinces and a provincial police chief, General Abdul Raziq, was killed.

The objectives of ISKP were more lethal and transnational. The group targeted civilians whom they believed did not conform to their religious doctrines.

Nevertheless, the Taliban were responsible for more civilian fatalities. A UNAMA report released last July 15 attributed 42% of civilian casualties to the Afghan Taliban and 18% to ISIS in the first half of 2018. According to the report, the Taliban claimed responsibility for 26 attacks with civilian targets resulting in 453 civilian casualties and ISIS claimed responsibility for 15 attacks with 595 civilian casualties in the first half of 2018.

The report further stated that the civilians killed during the first six months of 2018 were the highest over the last decade since the agency began documentation.

Most ISIS offensives targeted members of the Shiite and Hazara communities, as it considers those minority groups to be heretical. Religious communities such as Hindus and Sikhs were not immune to ISIS terror strikes, as an attack on July 1 indicated. Terrorist offensives by the group in the Afghan city of Jalalabad killed 19 people, including 17 members of the Sikh and Hindu communities.

Understandably, as the Taliban are pushing for recognition as legal and political actors in Afghanistan, they might not have claimed responsibility for all the mass-lethality attacks against Afghan civilians. On the other side, ISKP – a group with pan-Islamic objectives – openly claimed responsibility for the attacks it carried out against civilians they believed were heretics.

The second half of the last year witnessed many appalling terror strikes that killed many civilians and turned 2018 into one of the most violent years in Afghanistan’s recent history. For instance, on August 15, terror attacks by the group claimed the lives of nearly 50 young people, of whom 34 were students belonging to the Shiite minority who were preparing for university entrance exams.

The methods of torture adopted and the objectives pursued by ISKP were reportedly far more dreadful as it indiscriminately targeted civilians of religious minority communities and launched attacks on the Afghan Interior Ministry and the Finance Department last May, and the Education Department was attacked twice by the group in July.

The group made concerted efforts to spread anarchy by undermining the nascent democratic and peace processes in Afghanistan by targeting potential voters, children and religious minorities. For instance, there were successive terror attacks in Kabul on April 30 that reportedly took the lives of more than 40 civilians, including journalists and children. These strikes followed closely on the heels of a spate of serious attacks a week before in which more than 60 civilians were killed while they lined up to register to vote for the upcoming elections.

The car-bomb attack on a gathering of Taliban and Afghan forces, who had united to celebrate the Eid ceasefire last year, claimed at least 26 lives and left several others wounded in the eastern province of Nangarhar. The objective was clearly to sabotage the peace process and spread lawlessness in Afghanistan in order to radicalize and recruit emotionally tormented people.

This year has already seen despicable terror attacks by the Taliban amid the peace talks. Notwithstanding the death of the head of the ISKP, Abu Sayeed Orakzai, in a US counterterrorism offensive and the recent success of the Afghan special forces’ offensive against the group in eastern Nangarhar province that killed 27 militants, ISIS could still pose a credible threat to Afghan civilians and their desire for peace as the killings of the group’s leaders by the US strikes, such as Abu Sayed in July 2017, Abdul Hasib and Hafiz Sayed Khan in 2016, did little to diminish the strength of the radical group before.

Manoj Kumar Mishra

Dr Manoj Kumar Mishra has a PhD in international relations from the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad, India. Currently, he is working as a lecturer at the Department of Political Science, SVM Autonomous College, Odisha, India.

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