Afghanistan

Bloody tailspin

Print edition : June 22, 2018

At the site of a blast in Kandahar province on May 22. Photo: Ahmad Nadeem/Reuters

An injured man being taken to hospital after a blast at a voter registration centre in Khost province on May 6. Photo: Farid Zahir/AFP

President Ashraf Ghani. Photo: Jeenah Moon/Reuters

A wave of suicide attacks and threats from the Taliban ensure that people stay away from the voter registration process for elections scheduled in September even as the Donald Trump administration targets the Taliban with more lethal firearms.

THE recent spate of suicide attacks in Kabul and other Afghan cities is a further illustration of the bloody chaos that Afghanistan finds itself in, 17 years after the American invasion. Ominously for the region and the international community, Daesh (Islamic State) has been in the forefront of the most vicious terror attacks, many of them specifically targeting the Shia minority. In the third week of April, the long-oppressed Hazara Shia community was once again the target of attack. More than 60 people, including women and children, were killed after a suicide bomber owing allegiance to Daesh carried out the heinous act. Most of those who were killed had lined up to get their voter registration cards for the upcoming parliamentary elections.

In early May, a suicide attack on a mosque in the eastern province of Khost killed 17 people and injured more than 30. The mosque was being used as a voter registration centre.

During the same time, seven Indian engineers, working with an Afghan company that operates power generation stations in the northern province of Baghlan, were kidnapped by gunmen outside the provincial capital, Pul-e-Khomri. The Indians were travelling without armed escort through a Taliban-controlled area. There is no news about what happened to them. More than 150 Indian engineers and technical experts are currently working in Afghanistan on large infrastructure projects. Kidnapping of foreign workers for ransom is common in Afghanistan. In 2016, an Indian citizen working for an international organisation was abducted. She was freed after six months in captivity. With fanatical groups such as Daesh more active on the scene now, things have become more unpredictable. In 2011, 12 Iranian and Afghan engineers working on a road project in western Afghanistan were abducted and freed after local tribal elders intervened.

After the second of two suicide attacks in Kabul on April 30, in which nine journalists covering the first attack were killed.   -  Omar Sobhani/Reuters

On April 30, Daesh carried out two suicide attacks in the capital, Kabul. First, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the vicinity of the building housing Afghanistan’s National Security Agency, close to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation headquarters in Kabul. As soon as the media and rescue workers arrived on the scene, another suicide bomber blew himself up, killing nine journalists—the worst single attack on the Afghan media so far. In all, 29 people were confirmed dead as a result of the twin terror attacks. On the same day, a Taliban suicide bomber targeted a convoy of Romanian soldiers near a mosque and a school in Kandahar province. Eleven pupils travelling in a school bus died in the explosion. The government came in for criticism from the United Nations in the wake of an air attack on an outdoor religious function in April. Thirty-six people were killed, 30 of them children. Seventy-one people were wounded, 51 of them children. The U.N. questioned the Afghanistan government’s “respect for the rules of precaution and proportionality under international humanitarian law”.

Elections in Afghanistan have been delayed for more than three years and are now scheduled to be held in September. Voter registration centres in various parts of the country have been attacked on a regular basis since the middle of April. In January, a suicide bomber owing allegiance to the Taliban drove an ambulance loaded with explosives into a crowded Kabul street, killing around 100 people and injuring 175. That attack came a few days after the 15-hour siege of the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul in which 22 people, including 15 foreign nationals, died.

Elections in Afghanistan have been farcical affairs so far. The recent attacks, coupled with a general apathy towards the electoral process, have ensured that until late April only around 1,90,000 Afghans registered to vote. Another important factor for the low voter registration is that the Taliban, which now holds sway over substantial tracts of Afghan territory, has warned Afghans to stay away from the electoral process. The Taliban still views the central government in Kabul as an “illegitimate” one installed by the “occupation forces”. Last year, more than 10,000 Afghan army personnel were killed, mostly at the hands of Taliban insurgents, and some 16,000 soldiers were wounded. A truck bomb attack near the German embassy in Kabul resulted in the deaths of more than 150 civilians in May 2017.

Many of the suicide attacks last year were specifically aimed at Shia congregations. In recent years, the Afghan Taliban has tried to project an image of being above the sectarian divide. The Taliban leadership is known to be talking to representatives of the governments of Iran, China, Russia and other countries, indicating that it is no longer guided by purely sectarian goals. The turnaround is remarkable, considering that Iran and Afghanistan were on the verge of a war when the Taliban was in power in Kabul in the late 1990s. The two countries share a long border.

Trump’s pressure tactics

The Donald Trump administration in the United States has ordered the Pentagon to use more lethal firepower against Taliban targets in the hope that the group will be induced to start negotiating for peace. The U.N. estimates that around 10 Afghans were killed every day in last year’s bloodletting. The Taliban has also lost many of its fighters. Another round of bloodshed may be round the corner. The Afghan Taliban announced in the last week of April that it had begun its annual spring offensive, spurning President Ashraf Ghani’s offer of talks. The Taliban, however, said that the military offensive would be focussed on U.S. troops in the country.

“It’s primary target will be American invaders and their intelligence agents. Their internal supporters will be dealt with as a secondary target,” the Taliban statement said.

In February, Ghani had offered peace talks without any preconditions. The Taliban rejected the offer as “a conspiracy” and said that the talks were meaningless.

The Taliban said that the main purpose of the Kabul government’s offer was “to deviate public opinion from the illegitimate foreign occupation of the country, as the U.S. has no serious or sincere intentions of bringing the war to an end”. The Taliban has consistently stated that it will only talk to the government after the departure of all foreign forces. It controls much of the countryside, despite the Trump administration’s claims that the U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan has paid immediate dividends.

On the campaign trail two years ago, Trump called for the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. Now, he has given U.S. soldiers “the authority to target the terrorist and criminal networks that sow violence and chaos throughout Afghanistan”. Under the Barack Obama administration, U.S. troops were only authorised to act in self-defence or in coordination with the Afghan army. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said during a visit to Afghanistan in December last year that the new military surge had put the Taliban “on the defensive”. He told U.S. troops in Afghanistan that their courage on the battlefield was responsible for “new victories against the terrorists, no matter what they call themselves or where they try to hide”.

General John Nicholson, Commander of the Resolute Support forces and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, during an official visit in Farah province on May 19.   -  James Mackenzie/Reuters

The report of the U.S. Defence Department Inspector General, however, notes that there was “no significant progress” in reclaiming territory by the Afghan security forces in 2017. The U.S. expects the military situation to worsen this year. The Trump administration is contemplating a further increase in the number of troops to be deployed in Afghanistan. Already there are 15,300 regular U.S. troops and around 30,000 U.S. “contractors”. While campaigning for the presidency, Trump had rhetorically asked whether U.S. troops were going to be in Afghanistan for the “next 200 years”.

Under the influence of his generals, Trump did a volte-face, avowedly after he “studied Afghanistan in great detail from every conceivable angle”. Despite the latest troop surge, the fifth so far since 2002, Defence Secretary James Mattis admitted that there would not be any decisive “military victory” in Afghanistan and that a “political reconciliation” was the only way out of the quagmire that the U.S. was in.

After almost 17 years of occupation, the U.S. has nothing much to boast about in Afghanistan. Billions of dollars in American and international aid have not helped poor Afghans; Afghanistan remains at the bottom of almost all social indicators. An estimated six million people out of a population of 35 million have no access to health care. Most Afghan medical and nursing professionals have voted with their feet and left the country. The British Red Cross has reported that 770 hospitals have been closed down.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has stated that 60 per cent of all child deaths and disabilities in the country are caused by respiratory and intestinal illnesses. Measles, which is easily curable, has claimed the lives of many children. Afghanistan’s infant mortality rate, estimated to be between 167 and 257 for every 1,000 live births, is among the highest in the world. Seventeen mothers die in childbirth for every 1,000 live births. Babies are generally delivered at home, with no experienced midwives present to assist in the delivery.

The WHO estimates that half the children under five suffer stunted growth or brain damage caused by chronic malnutrition. Ten per cent of Afghan children experience acute malnutrition and only 40 per cent get life-saving vaccinations. A study sponsored by the U.S. State Department revealed that the widespread use of opium has impacted an unprecedented number of children as young children are passively exposed to opium smoke in their homes. One in nine Afghans, including children, uses illegal drugs. Many children also become victims of unexploded landmines in what is the most heavily mined country in the world. Among the 8,00,000 disabled Afghans, a significant percentage comprises children.

The U.S. invasion has brought only misery and strife. When the U.S. intervened militarily, the country was experiencing a brief period of tranquillity, albeit of the Taliban variety. The warlords were subdued and people could travel in relative safety within the country, which seemed to be recovering from the ravages of the civil war of the 1980s and the warlordism that followed.

During its last years in power, the Taliban significantly curbed the production of opium. Now, opium production has once again reached record levels. The U.N., in its annual “Afghanistan Opium Survey” released at the end of last year, reported that 9,000 tonnes of opium were produced in 2017, an 87 per cent increase over the previous year’s production.

The global heroin market is heavily dependent on the opium illegally grown in Afghanistan. The Trump administration believes that revenues from the illegal heroin trade prop up the Taliban financially. Therefore, the Pentagon has ordered U.S. forces to focus on the Helmand province, where a lot of poppy cultivation takes place. It is also a Taliban stronghold.

The U.S. military has bombed many alleged opium production centres, but there are no signs of any decrease in poppy cultivation or opium production.

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