According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) Mid Year Report released on July 15, 2018, the number of civilians killed in Afghanistan hit a record high in the first half of 2018. 1,692 civilians were killed during the first six months of 2018 – the most recorded in the same time period in any year over the last decade since the agency began documenting civilian casualties in 2009. There were 1,672 civilian deaths in 2017, 1644 in 2016 and 1615 in 2015 in the same time period.
Afghanistan's ‘ugly war’ took its toll in civilian lives in July as well. On July 1, 2018, 19 people were killed and 20 were wounded in a suicide bombing in Jalalabad city, the capital of Nangarhar Province. On July 11, 2018, 10 people were killed as terrorists stormed the Education Department Office in Jalalabad city and opened fire. On July 15, 2018, seven people were killed and 15 sustained injuries in a suicide attack close to the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development in the west of Kabul city. On July 22, 2018, 14 people were killed and 60 were wounded in an explosion outside the gate of the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul city. According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), 78 civilians have been already killed across the country in July (data till July 29, 2018).
The Taliban remains a resurgent force. According to the 39th Quarterly Report of Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released on April 30, 2018, since SIGAR began receiving population-control data in August 2016, Afghan Government control has decreased by roughly four percentage points, and the overall trend for the insurgency is rising control over the population (from 9% in August 2016 to 12% in January 2018). Another disturbing fact was the Afghanistan Living Conditions Survey 2016-17 released on May 6, 2018, by the Central Statistics Organization (CSO) in financial cooperation with the European Union, the World Food Program and the World Bank, showed that the extreme poverty line in Afghanistan has gone 21 percent up compared to what the parity had been a decade ago. At the national level, these headcount rates increased from 33.7 percent in 2007-08 to 38.3 percent in 2011-12, followed by a sharp rise to 54.5 percent in 2016-17.
Despite this escalation, in his address to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) heads of state summit in Brussels, Belgium, on Jul 12, 2018, President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani asserted that US President Donald Trump’s 2017 South-Asia Strategy had been a game changer, creating a window of opportunity for the Afghans to own their problems, fashion solutions tailored to context and to design outcome-based reform. Further, on July 27, 2018, asserting that peace would come to Afghanistan, President Ghani stated, “For the first time in 40 years, we realized the importance of peace during the ceasefire between Government and Taliban. You saw that Afghans accepted each other. The ceasefire was an experience, it also contained risks, but it proved that this great nation is a great nation under Allah's will.” On June 7, 2018, as part of his good-will gesture for peace, President Ghani had announced an unconditional ceasefire with the Taliban, coinciding with the end of Ramzan, the Muslim month of fasting, on Eid. On June 9, 2018, the Taliban responded, issuing a statement declaring it had ordered its fighters not to clash with Afghan security forces for three days.
As the Taliban ended this unprecedented ceasefire and resumed attacks in parts of the country, the People’s Peace Movement gathered in front of the US Embassy in Kabul on June 27, 2018, where, they chanted slogans in support of peace and national reconciliation. After they ended their 10-day sit-in protest outside the US embassy in Kabul, on July 6, 2018, the peace activists headed to the Russian embassy, where they were assured of support to the peace process. On July 12, 2018, the peace activists moved on to the Pakistani embassy, but no Pakistani officials met with them. On July 25, 2018, the peace activists handed over a bloodstained letter to the United Nations (UN) office in Kabul calling for an end to the war and accusing Pakistan of supporting the war. Further, on July 26, 2018, the peace activists moved their sit in protest to the Iranian embassy in Kabul and called on the people of Iran to put pressure on their Government to help Afghanistan in achieving peace. After submitting a letter to the Iran embassy on July 27, 2018, the peace activists took their sit-in protest to the UK embassy. Initially, eight peace activists had launched a sit-in protest in Lashkargah city, after a suicide bombing outside a stadium. They reached the capital Kabul on June 18, 2018, traveling about 700 kilometers over nearly 40 days. As they progressed, their numbers grew to an estimated 100.
Separately, as there has been no indication that violence would diminish, the Government of Saudi Arabia and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) jointly organized a two-day event entitled ‘International Conference of Muslim Scholars on Peace and Stability in Afghanistan’, commencing July 10, 2018. A 35-member delegation of Ulema (religious scholars) from Afghanistan, led by the head of the Ulema Council, Mawlawi Qayamuddin Kashaf, 200 representatives from 57 countries and 108 Ulema members from 32 countries attended the Conference. The head of the OIC Yousef bin Ahmad Al-Othaimeen stated, “The military operation is not the way out of war in Afghanistan. OIC is ready to cooperate with Afghanistan to reach to peace.”
Meanwhile, reiterating their call to the Taliban to engage credibly in the Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process, on Jul 12, 2018, NATO leaders during their summit meeting in Brussels, in their joint statement, declared, “The people of Afghanistan demand peace and we are encouraged by the momentum building in that direction. We remain united in our commitment to help Afghanistan attain it.”
On July 25, 2018, National Security Advisors of Afghanistan, United States, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, in a quadrilateral meeting discussed the details of direct talks with the Taliban and another ceasefire. A joint action plan on counter-terrorism, peace and regional cooperation was finalized between the four nations at the meeting. Afghanistan’s National Security Adviser (NSA) Spokesman Qadir Shah, after the meeting, observed, “The meeting focused on fighting terrorism, supporting peace talks and regional cooperation. And the joint action plan was approved after much discussion. It will be implemented once approved by the leaders of the four countries.”
Further, to explore ways to revive the Afghan-led peace talks, a delegation of US officials led by Alice Wells, the State Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia, met with the Taliban officials in Qatar on July 26, 2018. Confirming talks underway between US and the Taliban, Taliban’s former Finance Minister Mutasim Agha Jan observed, on July 28, 2018, “The Taliban political representatives and the American officials have met in Qatar. No other side was part of the negotiations. The talks are currently being held at the lower level, and both sides will proceed gradually. When negotiations start taking place on the highest level, we’ll reach an agreement. I’m confident that the Taliban and the US will continue dialogue and will reach a deal.”
On the other hand, on July 5, 2018, Pakistan and the US agreed to ‘remain engaged’ for peace in Afghanistan, during a meeting between Alice Wells and Army Chief Gen Qamar Bajwa at General Headquarters, Islamabad. Further, linking peace in Afghanistan to stability in Pakistan, Chairman of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Imran Khan (now the Prime Minister elect), stated, on July 26, 2018, "We want to work in every possible way to ensure peace in Afghanistan. I would love an open border system like the EU with Afghanistan. Afghanistan is that neighbor of ours that has seen the most human misery and damage in the name of wars. The people of Afghanistan need peace, and Pakistan wants peace in Afghanistan." Further, on Jul 27, 2018, in a televised address to the nation, after sweeping the general election, Imran Khan noted "Afghanistan has suffered a lot in the war on terror and before that in the jihad. Peace in Afghanistan means peace in Pakistan. I want both our countries to have open borders like countries in European Union have.”
On March 8, 2018, extending the mandate of UNAMA for another year, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) unanimously adopted UN Resolution 2405 reaffirming its strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and national unity of Afghanistan, as well as its continued support for the Government and people of Afghanistan as they rebuild their country and strengthen democratic institutions. Meanwhile, reaffirming their commitment to ensure long-term security and stability in Afghanistan, the Brussels Summit Declaration issued on July 11, 2018, during the NATO summit, agreed to extend funding to the Afghan security forces through 2024. Separately, to play an effective role in the Afghan reconciliation process, Turkish Ambassador Oguzhan Ertugrul stated, on Jul 14, 2018, that Turkey was ready to play a basic role as mediator between the Afghan Government and the armed opponent groups.
Expressing the hope for a continued process of reforms, US Central Command Commander Gen. Joseph Votel, while meeting President Ghani at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on Jul 14, 2018, assured continued US cooperation with the Government and people of Afghanistan. Separately, on July 25, 2018, the European Union Delegation to Afghanistan announced the allocation of €98 million (US$114 million) to Afghanistan aimed at helping the Afghan Government promote its reform, development and stabilization strategy.
Despite the flurry of ‘peace initiatives’ on Afghanistan, it is useful to recall that numerous earlier initiatives, prominently including the Kabul Process, the Qatar Process and the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) process quickly lost their way, even as violence escalated. Beyond good intentions, it is not clear what new element these fresh ‘peace initiatives’ bring to the persisting violence, even as a multiplicity of external powers continue to engage in cynical ‘great games’ to consolidate their own interest and influence in the AfPak region, overwhelmingly at the expense of the people of Afghanistan.