Civilians in Afghanistan were less likely to die in the first six months of this year than at any time since 2012.
But the reduction is not because of a lull in Taliban attacks, nor the performance of Afghan security forces. Rather, US-led international forces have tempered their offensive operations and the threat from Isis has beaten back, according to the latest United Nations report from the country.
Military operations by international forces accounted for only 3 per cent of civilian casualties while Isis attacks totalled 9 per cent. The Taliban and related groups made up for nearly half of all civilian attacks and government forces about a quarter, according to the UN report.
While civilian casualties are down 13 per cent, “Afghanistan remains one of the deadliest conflicts in the world for civilians,” said the report by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMI).
Afghanistan is at a crossroads. It has been in armed conflict for more than 40 years, with US-led international forces backing a shaky Kabul government for nearly two decades.
The US and the Taliban are edging towards a possible deal that would presage a withdrawal of international troops and the recasting of the extremist group, rooted in the country’s ethnic Pashtun plurality, as part of the Afghan political scene.
A halt to attacks on US forces and an overall reduction in violence are among the preconditions for peace. But bloodshed continues. On 13 July, the Taliban launched a multi-pronged attack on a government intelligence compound in the northern city of Aybak, southeast of Mazar-i-Sharif, killing nearly a dozen people. Government forces on 22 July killed 45 people, including civilians, in airstrikes on suspected Taliban fighters in the western province of Herat.
At least 1,282 civilians were killed in bombings and shootings between 1 January and 30 June of 2020, a rate of at least seven people a day, compared to 1,422 for the same period last year and 1,729 in 2018, a peak year of violence. Another 2,176 civilians were wounded in the same period, down from 2,551 a year earlier.
Analysts say protecting civilian lives is the key factor in bolstering the credibility of the Kabul government, preventing the continued migration from Afghanistan of the middle class and bringing a measure of stability and prosperity. But over the last six years, over 10,000 civilians have been killed in the country.
“The government’s inability to protect much of its population from the impact of war, even with foreign assistance, has long been as much of a driver as it is a result of the conflict there,” said Andrew Watkins, senior analyst for the Crisis Group, a Brussels-based advocacy organisation.
“Do casualties and violence need to come down, in order to achieve peace?” he said, “The atmosphere in Kabul is terrible for peace talks now, and a serious reduction in violence would go a long way to assuaging Afghans’ fears about the process.”
Adding to the country’s misery, it is also suffering through a burgeoning outbreak of the novel coronavirus. At least 36,157 people have been infected and 1,259 people have died of Covid-19, including 53 healthcare workers, according to the health ministry statistics cited by the World Health Organisation.
Prospects for peace in Afghanistan remain fragile. Taliban’s political chief warned Sunday that the Taliban would resume attacks on US forces if the government in Kabul refused to release thousands of prisoners or if Washington reneges on removing troops.
“If the foreign forces do not leave Afghanistan on schedule, the Islamic Emirate will make the necessary decisions,” Abdul Ghani Baradar said in an interview with an Iranian news agency. “The release of all 5,000 Taliban prisoners is the precondition for the start of intra-Afghan negotiations.”
Washington dispatched Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad on a diplomatic mission late last week to Afghanistan, Qatar, and Pakistan in an attempt to press for direct talks between the Taliban and the Kabul government of President Ashraf Ghani.
International officials have urged both Kabul officials and the Taliban to hammer out a deal to end the war, which has been ongoing since the Taliban formed in the 1990s and took over almost all of the country before being toppled by US-led forces and Afghan militias that now make up the government.
“At a time when the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban have a historic opportunity to come together at the negotiating table for peace talks, the tragic reality is that the fighting continues inflicting terrible harm to civilians every day,” Deborah Lyons, the UN special envoy to Afghanistan, said in a statement.