Elusive Afghan Peace: Between Fire and Ceasefire
In an interesting development while Afghan government announced four days cease fire on Eid eve, Taliban refused to assume a cease fire posture and took their operations to Kabul, at least notionally, where they fired rockets on Presidential palace; though rockets missed the mark. The ensuing hours-long battle involving insurgents’ rocket attacks and military airstrikes ended with the death of two insurgents. “Two attackers were involved. The enemy was firing mortars,” General Murad Ali Murad, commander of Kabul´s garrison, told a press conference. Taliban assault coincided with President Ashraf Ghani’s conditional offer of a three-month ceasefire on first day of Eid.
If Americans are looking for good news from the battlefront, then Afghanistan is not the place to look. Taliban are having success after success against the best equipped army in the world. District Faryab has fallen, and fate of over 100 Afghan troops hangs in balance; just miles from Kabul, battle is raging in Ghazni with predictions of its fall. Americans had been begging for Eid ceasefire during three rounds of their direct talks with the Taliban. Afghan government has also been contacting the local leadership for the ceasefire. Some Muslim states and other countries had also approached Taliban for accepting ceasefire proposal.
Earlier reports had Taliban in control of the bulk of Ghazni city and surrounding districts on the outskirts. While the Interior Minister was claiming that Taliban were being pushing back to just small pockets of resistance. The Taliban, by contrast, maintain that they remain in control of most of the city. US military statements, unsurprisingly, continue to downplay what they called an “inconsequential fight”, saying they view the Taliban in the area as “isolated and desperate,” and insist that control of the city remains with the government. NATO’s command in Afghanistan has been intentionally misleading the public about the status of seven of Ghazni’s districts. Three additional districts have also been overrun by the Taliban. Resolute Support claimed these seven districts were under government control. In reality, the Taliban physically controlled the terrain while the Afghan government operated them remotely from Ghazni City.
Battle for Ghazni has been quite fierce. Over 100 security force members were killed during a recent Taliban attack. The city hospital was reported overcrowded with hundreds of wounded people and dozens of bodies and people desperately searching for relatives among the dead and wounded. The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was providing dressing packages and oral and intravenous medicine to treat wounded at the provincial hospital. The ICRC also sent fresh water and electricity generators for trauma surgeries and delivered material for the management of remains. The ICRC is organizing emergency water supplies by trucks to cover the needs of about 18,000 people. “They were facing severe shortage of food and drinking water and the power supply”. Fleeing citizens reported. A humanitarian crisis may just be in the making.
In the Faryab province, the Afghan forces surrendered after a 48 hour siege; the Afghan Army base in Ghormach District was surrendered outright to the Taliban. Security forces ran out of ammunition and badly needed reinforcements, which never came. Government troops apparently had no choice but to give up. Over 40 surviving troops were taken prisoner in the surrender.
For the second time in the week, Taliban insurgents attacked and overran an Afghan Army base in the country’s north, this time in Baghlan Province. The offensive lasted for about five hours, and left the Taliban in control of the military base and a nearby police checkpoint; Taliban killed nearly 50 Afghan police and soldiers and took 36 prisoners. Taliban have overrun large parts of another army base in northern Afghanistan. The insurgents had captured tanks and ammunition in Chenayeeha army base, in Ghormach district of Faryab province, in an offensive that began on August 12. “We have not been able to enter the base. Large parts of the base are still under the Taliban control,” a local spokesperson said.
The Ministry of Public Health confirmed the death toll had risen to 48 in the suicide bombing in a classroom at an education academy in Dasht-e-Barchi, in Kabul. Government sources reported that over 70 security force members had been killed and dozens more wounded in battles on several fronts around the country including Baghlan, Zabul and Kandahar provinces.
Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) reported on August 15 that more than 64,000 Afghan civilians were either killed or wounded during the past nine years, with the Taliban causing 70 percent of the casualties. A similar UN report indicates that more than 5,100 Afghan civilians had suffered casualties in the conflict over the first six months of the ongoing year which indicated that a large number of Afghans continued to be victim of terrorism.
Presumably the US led occupation forces are in the process of abdicating their responsibility in the rural Afghanistan and have decided to even handover some of the urban districts to Taliban as a part of preliminary bargain. Taliban have risen from the ashes and are now a force to reckon with. Afghan government is under tremendous pressure as Taliban threaten new districts. Hundreds of people have been killed or wounded, on several fronts, in clashes during the last two weeks.
Contrast this bloodbath with what the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during an unannounced visit to Kabul on July 09 that there was “now hope” for peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. “An element of the progress is the capacity that we now have to believe that there is now hope,” Pompeo told a press conference. “Many of the Taliban now see that they can’t win on the ground militarily. That’s very deeply connected to President Trump’s strategy”, he added.
Earlier in January this year, President Ashraf Ghani had offered the Taliban peace talks without conditions. United States has dropped its previous refusal to talk to the Taliban; and both have spoken directly in Qatar, where they maintain a political office. Systematic retreat indicates that while maintaining a state of denial, Americans may have actually covered a substantial space for reaching a political deal with Taliban. Now America is contemplating addition of Zalmay Khalilzad, as Presidential Special Envoy on Afghanistan. Zalmay, a former US ambassador to Afghanistan, is known for his anti-Pakistan and anti-Taliban leanings. His appointment is meant to impress upon Taliban and Pakistan that the US is serious about talks to end its longest war. The US military commanders now openly acknowledge a stalemate in the fighting. Afghan peace continues to be as elusive as it had ever been.