As civilian deaths in the Afghan conflict touch record figures, international stakeholders, especially the U.S., have been forced to consider different options to find an end to the 17-year-long war.
A report released last week by the UN Assistant Mission in Afghanistan recorded a substantial rise in deaths due to the ongoing conflict. This is despite the relative success of the first-ever brief ceasefire observed last month between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
The alarmingly high numbers illustrate the growing complexity of the war. More specifically, the expansion of Islamic State insurgency in the region has raised concerns among locals and international stakeholders alike.
A total of 5,122 civilian casualties — 1,692 deaths and 3,430 injuries — were recorded in the first half of this year, and at least 18% of them were attributed to the IS that is gaining ground in Afghanistan. For instance, 95% of all civilian casualties in Kabul were caused by suicide and complex attacks, and more than half of those were claimed by the IS.
Meanwhile, a New York Times report published a day after the UN report claimed that the U.S. was willing to engage in direct talks with the Taliban, a long-standing demand of the insurgent group. If it materialises, it would mark a drastic shift in the current approach of encouraging an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process.
Many Afghans see this as a positive development, but remain sceptical. “I think the overall perspective is changing, and that is a good thing,” said Mohammad Ilyas Kamavi, a political activist from eastern Afghanistan. “It is a good sign that the U.S. is willing to negotiate directly with the Taliban and it has raised hopes for people,” he said.
He, however, added: “It is also important to note that any direct talks between the U.S. and the Taliban will undermine the credibility of the Afghan government and state. It will show that all the power lies with the U.S. and we are nothing.”
Mr. Kamavi hopes that the U.S. will play the role of a mediator, by facilitating talks that represent the Afghan will. “Afghans are wary of the intentions of the Taliban and their demands, such as changing our Constitution.”
‘No direct talks’
However, to the relief of Mr. Kamavi and other Afghans, the U.S. forces’ commander in Afghanistan has refuted claims of direct talks. In a statement, General John Nicholson, who also leads the Resolute Support, the NATO’s operation in Afghanistan, said: “The United States is not a substitute for the Afghan people or the Afghan government.” Lt. Col. Martin L. O’Donnell, a spokesperson of the Resolute Support, added that the U.S. will extend its support to the Afghan government in possible peace talks. “The U.S. is exploring all avenues to advance a peace process in close consultation with the Afghan government. But this remains an Afghan-led process,” he said.
The Taliban, on the other hand, has not yet commented on the possibility of negotiating with the U.S. It has, however, denounced the UN report and called it “one-sided and according to American assent”. While Zabaihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesperson, didn’t deny the casualties attributed to the group, he accused the UN of using civilian deaths “as propaganda items against the mujahideen and the ongoing jihad”. Shortly after he made his remarks, the militants released their own report, which attributed 83% of the civilian deaths and injuries to “invaders and stooges”, referring to the U.S. and Afghan forces.
Ruchi Kumar is a freelance journalist based in Kabul