'We are Not in the Battlefield, We Are Not Fighters, Why they are Killing Us?'
The Human Cost of the Quest for Peace in Afghanistan
Sayed Jalal Shajjan, based in Kabul, explores how the Afghan civilian population is living through a conflict which impacts ordinary people the most.
A Surge in Violence
Although cautiously optimistic for peace, civilian Afghans take the heaviest toll of violence in their country. They are not only killed and maimed, but they are also deprived of basic services such as health and education.
According to a recent UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) update, 1,366 civilians were killed in the first half of 2019, when pro-government forces were responsible for the majority of the deaths – 717 – and the Taliban and other groups were responsible for 531 civilian deaths. July 2019 was the deadliest month in the past two years, with more than 1,500 civilians killed or injured.
Although there has been an overall reduction of civilian casualties from suicide improvised explosive device (IED) attacks by the Taliban and other armed groups, the damage caused by aerial and search operations is alarmingly on the rise.
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The total number of civilian casualties from airstrikes both by the Afghan and US Air Force rose by 39% to 519. The US Air Force was responsible for more than 80% of those casualties, according to UNAMA – a stark increase from the 45% in the same period in 2018. Afghan forces were blamed for just 9% of civilian casualties from strikes so far this year.
This is the first time since 2015 – when the Afghan Air Force took over primary responsibility for air support – that the US has been responsible for more civilian harm from airstrikes. It has, however, rejected the finding.
“The surge in violence by the Afghan Government and the Taliban is to gain the upper hand in the battlefield, which will ultimately result in a more privileged position in the negotiation table,” political and security analyst Haleem Kausary told Byline Times.
The Afghan Peace Conundrum
The first round of peace negotiations was held on 26 January between the Taliban and the US Special representative Zalmy Khalilzad, who at the end of the talks tweeted “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” and “everything” must include an intra-Afghan dialogue and comprehensive ceasefire.
Both sides cannot reach an agreement on a framework for US troops’ presence in Afghanistan. Whereas the Taliban is demanding a complete withdrawal of US forces, the US demands a ceasefire before initiating direct talks with the Afghan Government. Until now, the Taliban has rejected direct talks with the Afghan Government calling it a “Western puppet”.
Recently, Zalmy Khalilzad met with representatives of Russia, Pakistan and China at the Four-Party Meeting on the Afghan Peace Process, held in Beijing on 10-11 July to garner their support in US peace efforts.
The Four-Party agreed “that violence needs to slow now and a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire should start with intra-Afghan negotiations”. They also “agreed we will expand and ask more international partners to join with the start of negotiations”.
However, the Taliban is in no mood to de-escalate the violence. After seven rounds of peace talks, the Taliban agreed to meet Government officials on 7-8 July, but only in a personal capacity. As the talks took place, there were several huge explosions in Kabul and other cities, where the majority of the victims were civilians and young students.
After the two-day peace talk, the Taliban representatives did not agree to a ceasefire, but the Afghan delegation claimed that the Taliban accepted to reduce violence. Nonetheless, the head of Taliban delegation in Doha Abbas Stanikzai in a video conference said: “There is no word of reducing violence, this is not violence… It’s a fight against foreign occupation.”
The Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief and Development (ACBAR) said that “Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) are committed to providing assistance as long as the Afghan people are in need, however, their services are impeded by… most troublingly, direct attacks by both the Government and Non-Government armed actors”.
When he reached there two days later, his wife and eight children had already been buried by the villagers.
The Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA) said that “it is deeply concerned about the continuing violence against civilians, especially its healthcare staff and facilities. The recent attack on one of SCA’s clinics by Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) the night between 8-9 July has cost lives of four people and one person is missing”.
In response to the attack, the Taliban closed down 42 of SCA’s 77 clinics in six districts of Maidan Wardak under its control. Over the course of this year, SCA has recorded 17 cases of violence against clinics and schools it supports. Most of these incidents took place by direct attacks by the ANSF and AOGs or exchange of fire between them.
Civilians Bear the Brunt of Violence
With no prospects and faced with growing unemployment in Afghanistan, Masihullah (pictured at the top of this article) had to smuggle himself from his home town Wardak to work as a labourer in Bandar-e-Abbas, Iran.
After, almost four years and three months, the 39-year-old was forced to surrender himself to Iranian border police and pleaded to be sent back to Afghanistan immediately.
He had last spoken to his wife three days earlier and told her of his decision to return to his family.
Masihullah recalls the night he received a call from his wife. “At 4 o’clock early morning she called and said our house was raided by Afghan Army and kids are very scared,” he told Byline Times. “That’s the last time I spoke with my wife, later on, I kept calling but nobody answered the phone.”
He continued to call for three days only to hear the answering machine telling him that the number was disconnected. On the third day, he received a call from his village, informing him to check on his family because their village had been bombed by the Afghan Forces. When he reached there two days later, his wife and eight children had already been buried by the villagers.
Mohammad Ihsan lost two of his family members in a recent attack in Kabul, which targeted the office of Afghanistan’s former spy chief.
“We are not in the battlefield, we are not fighters, why they are killing us?” he said.
No group claimed responsibility for the attack.
Ahmad Shah Rishad told Byline Times that last month he was informed that the Swedish-run clinic bombed by Afghan forces was where his uncle was in charge. When reached, he discovered that his uncle was alive, but four people were killed and his uncle Dr Wahidullah Mayar was detained by the Afghan Forces.
He said around 250 patients were visiting the clinic on a daily basis and that it is the only one in an area with almost 60,000 inhabitants. In all, 42 clinics were closed and hundreds of people deprived of healthcare.
“That’s the last time I spoke with my wife, later on, I kept calling but nobody answered the phone”Masihullah
A political analyst based in Kabul, who preferred to remain anonymous, told this newspaper: “Every time the Government has hit a civilian area, in most cases the intelligence has shown a trace of the Taliban fighters.”
However, Kabul-based attorney and managing director of Shajjan & Associates Saeeq Shajjan told Byline Times that “both sides should strive in protecting civilians and minimising the civilian casualties.”
He added that upholding international humanitarian law during extreme violence is not always an easy task and that striving for effective acquiescence remains imperative as every possible step must be adopted to protect civilian lives.
Main photo: Masihullah by Sayed Jalal Shajjan