Contrary to claims by the Afghan government and its supporters among North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) member states, the security situation in the country is not only becoming more complex but also creating anxieties among organisations associated with human rights. Inter-party disagreements and armed attacks on civilians as well as Afghan law and order personnel are making things rather uncertain.
On July 17 matters came to a head when Islamic State (IS) fighters attacked the house of Taliban commander in the northern Afghan province of Sar-e-Pul, killing at least 15 people as they were attending a prayer ceremony. This attack followed reports from local officials of growing resentment between Islamic State and Taliban militants in many other areas of Afghanistan's Northern Province.
Violence was repeated on July 23 when Afghan Vice-President Abdul Rashid Dostum returned to Kabul after more than a year of self-imposed exile. Fourteen people (including nine members of the security forces) died and another 60 were injured in a blast which rocked Kabul airport shortly after his arrival. Islamic State claimed that they had carried out the attack.
According to United Nations sources, civilian death toll in the long-running war in Afghanistan hit a record high in the first six months of 2018. About 1,692 fatalities were recorded till the end of June, with militant attacks and suicide bombs said to be the leading causes of death. The report came out on July 15, the day when at least seven people were killed in an attack on the rural development ministry in Kabul. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) stated that the number of recorded deaths rose by 1.0 per cent compared with the same period last year. This record high death toll came despite the unprecedented ceasefire by Afghan security forces and the Taliban in June, 2018.
This report acquired special significance as the continuing drama in Afghanistan was the subject of serious discussion among NATO leaders when they gathered for their summit in Brussels in the second week of July to discuss the conflict in Afghanistan.
It may be recalled that the US-led invasion in Afghanistan had driven out the hardline Taliban from power in 2001, as part of a crackdown on Islamist militants after the 9/11 attacks in the US. Tens of thousands of NATO troops were deployed and a long, bloody conflict followed as the ousted militants fought back. In 2014, NATO formally ended their combat mission, handing over this responsibility to Afghan forces, which it had trained. This process has however not worked satisfactorily. Since then, the Taliban have made substantial territorial gains across the country.
It may be noted here that the BBC carried out an exhaustive research exercise between 23 August 23 and November 21, 2017 to identify Taliban presence in Afghanistan, district by district. It was revealed that 30 per cent of the administrative areas were under full Afghan control and 4.0 per cent were under full Taliban control. Districts were also classified on the basis of open Taliban presence in government-held areas. Helmand, Herat, Jalalabad, Kandahar and Kabul came under careful scrutiny in this regard. Attention was paid to how many times they were subjected to armed attacks each week.
This upsurge in militant attacks in different cities and outlying districts persuaded Afghan authorities to concentrate on air operations to combat the growing militant presence and their operations. Since President Trump's announcement of his Afghanistan strategy and commitment of more troops in the Afghan conflict, the number of bombs dropped by the US Air Force has also surged dramatically. New rules of engagement have made it easier for US forces to carry out strikes against the Taliban, and resources have been shifted to Afghanistan as the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq winds down.
However, Kevin Ponniah of the BBC has drawn attention to the fact that the current deadly air campaigns carried out by US and Afghan air operations in Afghanistan against the Taliban is creating a spike in civilian casualties.
He has referred to the Afghan Air Force attack that took place on April 02 in the north-east Kunduz province. It killed at least 36 people and injured 71, according to UN sources. Witnesses later stated that there were some Taliban fighters and senior figures in the crowd and 30 of those killed were children. Hundreds of people had apparently gathered outside a Madrassa in the Taliban-controlled district of Dasht-e-Archi to watch a group of students have ceremonial turbans tied around their heads in a traditional ceremony to recognise their memorisation of the Koran. "I saw turbans, shoes, arms, legs and blood everywhere," one local resident told the BBC the next day, describing the aftermath. Everyone in the area knew the event was happening, and many children, he said, had turned up for the free lunch that was about to be served. This was indeed sad.
International media has reported that heavy bombing against the Taliban and IS has seen more Afghan civilians killed and injured from the air in 2017 than at any time since the UN began counting casualties in 2009.
The Afghan government responded to criticism by stating that the strikes had targeted senior Taliban leaders planning an attack on Kunduz city. This has however not been accepted. Helicopters mowing down children at a religious ceremony, has raised significant questions for both Washington and Kabul, and supplied unnecessary potent propaganda for the Taliban. In its report published on June 05, 2018, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission has termed the attack as a "war crime". The Human Rights Watch has also expressed its disappointment with the Dasht-e-Archi incident.
After initially denying that civilians had been killed, the Afghan government eventually apologised a month after the incident and offered compensation to victims' families. It also took this opportunity to announce an investigation and point out that as a legitimate government it was seeking forgiveness for mistakes. The NATO mission in Afghanistan, Resolute Support, aware of growing criticism has clarified that US and international forces had "no involvement" in the April 02 attack.
Strategic analysts have pointed out that the decision by the Afghan government to increase air operations has partially been influenced by the US decision to launch a five-year plan to massively expand and overhaul the Afghan Air Force, including providing it with 159 Black Hawk helicopters. Defence analysts monitoring the US Air Force Central Command have pointed out that compared to 2017 when the US Air Force had released 4,361 weapons, in the first four months of 2018, up to April, 1748 weapons were released during different attacks in Afghanistan.
It is true that most civilian casualties in Afghanistan are still caused by anti-government groups like the Taliban and the IS. However, if the government of Afghanistan has to win over the other side and create trust in them, they need to carry out their air operations with caution. Otherwise, it will strengthen belief among the civilian population that the entire strategy of pounding the Taliban militarily is misguided and will have little strategic effect.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.
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