LAST week Afghan forces pulled out of bases in Musa Qala, a strategic district of the southern province of Helmand.The commander of the Afghan army’s 215thCorps, Mohammad Moeen Faqir, said troops had been ordered to pull back from Roshan Tower, their main base in Musa Qala, as well as other checkpoints to reinforce Gereshk, straddling the main highway, one which links Kabul with the south and west. “Now that the government has withdrawn its forces from this district, we will see Kajaki, Gereshk and Sangin collapsing very soon,” said deputy provincial council member Abdul Majid Akhundzada.
A spokesman for NATO’s Resolute Support mission in Kabul said its aim remained to train, advice and assist and referred questions on Afghan troop movements to the defence ministry. US officials estimate the Taliban dominate or threaten almost a third of the country and has full control over at least four districts. Although Helmand has been one of the provinces most at risk, the Taliban have been pushing forward across the country, putting severe strain on government troops, fighting alone since international forces ended most combat operations in 2014.
According to the United Nations (UN), the rate at which civilians are being killed by the US airstrikes in Afghanistan is now at its highest point since 2008.The UN began recording civilian casualties in Afghanistan in 2009, ever since, it has documented nearly 59,000 deaths and injuries. In its latest annual report. United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) says there were 103 civilian deaths from US air actions in Afghanistan in 2015. Although these deaths are slightly more than the 101 recorded in 2014, they came from a third as many airstrikes. While there were 1,136 airstrikes in 2014, this number fell to 411 in 2015. The sudden increase after so many years of falling casualty rates has raised concerns that military targeting is becoming less accurate or that there might have been an unannounced change in the rules of engagement. During 2015, the Taliban pressed forward, capturing towns and killing large numbers of Afghan security forces, there was mounting pressure on the US to increase the number of air attacks in Afghanistan to push back the Taliban.
Chris Woods, director of the monitoring group Airwars, says “hard-won” lessons from 2009 onwards, when serious efforts to reduce the civilian casualty rate from international airstrikes began, are being lost. “What [the UN data] indicates to me is that they are not taking the same care…This is not just about accuracy, it’s about politics,” he says. Sahr Muhammad Ali from the Centre for Civilians in Conflict, a nongovernmental organization, warns that Resolute Support needs to ensure its systems are ready for what lies ahead this year. “I think it’s going to be a difficult year,” she says. “In 2016, the fight’s going to be ugly…. RS has to ensure that all policies and guidance have been disseminated and are being adhered to by all troops.”
Overall civilian casualties of the war in Afghanistan rose to record levels for the seventh year in row in 2015, as violence spread across the country in the wake of the withdrawal of most international troops. At least 3,545 non-combatants died and another 7,457 were injured by fighting last year— 4percent increase over 2014. “The harm done to civilians is totally unacceptable,” Nicholas Haysom, the head of the UNAMA said in a statement. Pattern indicates that more non-combatants are being caught in the crossfire. Heavy fighting in the northern city of Kunduz, which briefly fell to the Taliban in late September 2014, and a wave of suicide bombs which killed and wounded hundreds of people in Kabul last year were the main factors behind the rise, while elsewhere casualties fell. Ground engagements were the leading cause of civilian casualties at 37 per cent, followed by roadside bombs at 21 percent and suicide attacks at 17 per cent. Women and children were hard hit, as casualties among women spiked 37 percent and deaths and injuries increased 14 percent among children.Casualties attributed to pro-government forces jumped 28 percent compared to 2014 to account for 17 percent of the total.
While at the same time, a statement from President Ashraf Ghani accused the Taliban of violating international law. It said Afghan security forces underwent regular training to ensure the protection of civilians and were liable to investigation if any breaches occurred. Taliban were blamed for most civilian deaths and injuries, which stood at whooping 62 percent. Investigators accused insurgents of using tactics that “deliberately or indiscriminately” caused harm to civilians. Taliban have rejected the report, describing it as “propaganda compiled at the behest of occupying forces” and said the government in Kabul and its US ally were the major causes of deaths and injuries.
UN officials have said that pledges from both sides to limit casualties had not been backed up.” The report references commitments made by all parties to the conflict to protect civilians, however, the figures documented in 2015 reflect disconnect between commitments made and the harsh reality on the ground,” Bell said. She said the expectation of continued fighting in the coming months showed the need for both sides to take immediate steps to prevent harm to civilians.
Less than half of victims who report incidents of violence or crime in Afghanistan do so to the police, and citizens rated the judiciary as the most corrupt institution in the country. Judicial decisions frequently appear biased in favour of government and parliament and there are allegations of government officials, politicians and other powerful figures blocking police investigations involving their associates. The overall result is a dysfunctional justice system in which corruption largely goes unpunished, and those with power enjoy impunity. People prefer Taliban to adjudicate their disputes.
Srirak Plipat, Regional Director for Asia Pacific, Transparency International said: “the state is failing to deliver basic services to citizens. Corruption is largely to blame”. But it is also the result of a systematic failure to ensure staff are recruited on merit and skills, rather than their connections, and widespread corruption. In 2012, half of Afghan citizens paid a bribe while requesting a public service. The total cost of bribes paid to public officials amounted to US$ 3.9 billion.
The United States has spent more than $7 billion in the past 14 years to fight poppy production. Tens of billions more went to governance programmes to stem corruption and train a credible police force. As of now, poppy cultivation not only is tolerated, but is a source of money. Officials have imposed a tax on farmers cultivating poppy. Some of the revenue is kicked up the chain, all the way to officials in Kabul, ensuring that the local authorities maintain support from higher-ups for keeping the opium growing.
The outgoing commander of Operation Resolute Support and American troops in Afghanistan, General John F Campbell, paid a farewell call on Army Chief General Raheel Sharif on February 18. Campbell paid rich tributes to the professionalism and phenomenal achievements of Pakistan Army in Operation Zarb-e-Azb. He also acknowledged Pakistan Army’s efforts towards regional stability. General Raheel thanked Campbell in particular for his efforts to bring about stability in Afghanistan! Two generals reviewed the ongoing reconciliation process in Afghanistan and discussed the way forward. Though generals may think that worst of the Afghan conflict is far behind them, from a commoner’s perspectives, Afghanistan faces numerous daunting challenges.
— The writer is consultant to IPRI on policy and strategic response.