By S. Binodkumar Singh*
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) in its latest Midyear Report released on July 30, 2019, announced that the conflict in Afghanistan killed or wounded 3,812 civilians in the first half of 2019. From January 1 to June 30, 2019, UNAMA documented 3,812 civilian casualties (1,366 dead and 2,446 injured), a 27 per cent decrease from the same period in 2018 and the lowest total of civilian casualties for the first six months of the year since 2012. In the corresponding period, UNAMA documented 5,205 civilian casualties in 2018, 5,272 in 2017, 5,275 in 2016, 4,982 in 2015, 4,895 in 2014, 3,921 in 2013 and 3,138 in 2012.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least 109 civilians have died between July 1 and July 31, 2019. Some of the major incidents in July include:
On July 28, 2019, sixteen civilians were killed and 50 were injured in an assassination attempt targeting vice-presidential candidate Amrullah Saleh at Green Trend Office in the 4th Police District of Kabul City.
On July 25, 2019, nine civilians were killed and five were injured in a roadside mine blast in the Wazir area of Khogyani District in Nangarhar Province.
On July 18, 2019, nine civilians and two Policemen were killed and 80 others, including 40 Policemen, were injured in a coordinated attack by Taliban terrorists on the Kandahar Police Headquarters in Kandahar City.
On July 15, 2019, nine civilians were killed and 34 were injured in roadside bomb explosion in Darzab village in the Khakrez District of Kandahar Province.
On July 12, 2019, six civilians were killed and 14 were injured in a targeted suicide bombing conducted in the Pacher Agam District of Nangarhar Province.
On July 7, 2019, twelve civilians were killed and 179 were injured in a Vehicle borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) suicide attack by the Taliban in Police District 3 of Ghazni city.
On July 5, 2019, fourteen civilians were killed and 39 were injured in rocket attacks by Taliban militants in the market area of Khwaja Shabz Posh District of Faryab Province.
According to the latest Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) Quarterly Report released on July 30, 2019, fighting between the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) and militant groups in Afghanistan such as the Taliban and Islamic State (IS) has intensified in recent months, with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-led Resolute Support Mission registering a nine per cent increase in the number of enemy-initiated attacks (EIAs) between March 1 and May 31, 2019, compared to the previous quarter. Resolute Support mission reported 6,445 EIAs during the March – May period. The report also revealed that the Afghan troops were shorthanded. For the fourth consecutive quarter, ANDSF strength is reported at the lowest level it has been since the Resolute Support Mission began in January 2015. ANDSF strength decreased by 41,777 personnel since approximately the same period in 2018 and by 50,277 compared to the same period in 2017. The attrition rate had also increased from the previous quarter. Afghan National Army (ANA) monthly attrition rates averaged approximately 2.6 per cent over the quarter, a slight increase from the 2.2 per cent recorded over the previous quarter. Afghan National Police (ANP) monthly attrition rates this quarter averaged approximately 2.4 per cent, a slight increase from the 2.2 per cent recorded over the previous quarter.
According to partial data compiled by the SATP, since 2007, 16,889 Security Forces (SFs) personnel have died and 85,995 militants have been killed in Afghanistan (data till August 4, 3019). Meanwhile, according to the last District-stability data assessment reported by SIGAR in its January 2019 Quarterly Report, out of 407 Districts in Afghanistan, 229 Districts were under Afghan Government control, which is about 56.3 per cent of the total of Afghan Districts. On the other hand, 59 Districts, approximately 14.5 percent of all, were under Taliban control. The remaining 119 Districts, about 29.2 per cent, remain contested – controlled by neither the Afghan Government nor the rebels. According to Long War Journal, the number of Districts controlled by the Talban has increased. At present, 140 Districts (35 per cent) were under the Afghan Government’s control, 191 Districts (48 percent) are contested, and 66 Districts (17 percent) are under Taliban control.
Meanwhile, the 24th Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team that was submitted to the UN Security Council Al-Qaeda Sanctions Committee on July 15, 2019, noted that Al-Qaeda ‘remains resilient’ and continues to cooperate closely with Pakistan-based terror outfits like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Haqqani Network. Al-Qaeda considers Afghanistan a continuing safe haven for its leadership, relying on its long-standing and strong relationship with the Taliban, the report noted. The Sanctions Monitoring Team submits independent reports every six months to the UN Security Council on the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities.
Persistent insecurity has negatively impacted the Afghan presidential election campaign. So far, out of 18 candidates running for President in this year’s election to be held on September 28, 2019, only three candidates including incumbent President Ashraf Ghani, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah and Enayatullah Hafeez have started their campaigning at public gatherings. The campaign for the Afghan presidential election kicked off on July 28, 2019, and will conclude on September 25.
Expressing doubts over Afghan forces’ self-sustaining capacity,SIGAR, Inspector General John F. Sopko observed on July 29, 2019, “Afghan security forces cannot survive without external donor support, both financial and technical.” Earlier, the Civil Society Joint Working Group (CSJWG), a countrywide network of more than five hundred organisations, shared its finding at the 22nd Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board Meeting in Kabul on July 22, 2019, regarding Government’s accountability to the nation and international community. Speaking during a press conference, Nasir Temori, a member of the CSJWG told reporters that the international community has provided significant aid to Afghanistan, but the aid was not properly utilized. He described the lack of consultation with the Government and involvement of corrupt individuals as main factors that resulted in the waste of a major portion of the funds. Afghanistan ranks 172 out of 180 countries surveyed in the Corruption Perceptions Index 2018 prepared by the Transparency International.
Nevertheless, the US President Donald Trump has ordered Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to reduce the number of American troops in Afghanistan by the 2020 election. Referring to Trump’s directive, on July 29, 2019, Pompeo disclosed, “That’s my directive from the president of the United States. He’s been unambiguous: end the endless wars, drawdown, reduce.” Further, on July 31, 2019, President Trump reiterated, “We’ll continue to pull out troops from Afghanistan. Well, we’re going to see. We’re working on negotiating a deal right now, as you probably have heard, and you know, at some point, we want to get out as quickly as we can.” This comes as the US and Taliban representatives have held several rounds of talks in the Qatari capital of Doha, during which troop withdrawal has been a key issue.
The US-Taliban talks, which began in February 2019, were important for creating suitable conditions for an American exit from the country, with Washington hoping to have a peace deal in place before the Afghan presidential elections begin in September. The Afghan Government is also preparing for the intra-Afghan talks, as State Minister for Peace Affairs, Abdul Salam Rahimi, disclosed on July 27, 2019, that the much-awaited face-to-face talks between the Afghan Government and Taliban would start within the following two weeks and would be held in a European nation. Significantly, on July 31, 2019, the Government appointed a 15-member delegation for the talks with the Taliban group.
The Taliban has, however, rejected direct talks with the Afghan Government. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid, in a July 28, 2019, statement, declared that the Kabul Administration would engage as a political side in intra-Afghan negotiations, not as a Government. He added further, that the intra-Afghan negotiations would happen after the announcement of a timetable for the withdrawal of US Forces from Afghanistan. To this, Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib, who visited the northern province of Baghlan on July 29, 2019, responded that the Taliban was still dreaming of the return of an Islamic emirate, and the hard-line group was, consequently, not prepared to engage in direct talks with the Afghan Government.
Warning against a hasty withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, US Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on July 11, 2019, “I think pulling out prematurely would be a strategic mistake.” As of June 2019, approximately 14,000 U.S. military personnel were serving as part of the US Operation Freedom’s Sentinel mission in Afghanistan. An additional 10,648 US citizens who serve as contractors are also in Afghanistan. Of the 14,000 US military personnel, 8,475 are assigned to the NATO Resolute Support Mission to train, advise and assist Afghan security forces.
With a potential US drawdown looming and Afghan security forces losing troops at the fastest rate in years, the overstretched Afghan Forces are under pressure to halt a further deterioration in the security situation. Even if a peace agreement were to be arrived at, the state’s security forces would have to perform a critical role in maintaining order. The Taliban is not a monolithic entity. There are, moreover, other armed groupings in the country, including the Islamic State, unruly warlords and gangs, as well as a range of other threats. If a functioning Police and a functioning military are to be maintained, Afghanistan cannot do without massive foreign support.
*S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate; Institute for Conflict Management