Violence in Afghanistan has intensified since January 2018, with experts predicting a further upswing. The increased attacks may reverse the hopeful trend of last year which saw a nine percent decrease in civilian casualties. In the month of April 2018, a strike carried out by the nascent Afghan Air Force attacked civilian targets, including a religious school (madrassa).
Himal Southasian asked Thomas Ruttig, noted analyst and founding director of Afghanistan Analysts Network, to comment on recent developments.
Update: A UN report released on 7 May 2018 has confirmed that 30 children were killed and 51 injured in an Afghan air strike in April 2018 in the northeastern province of Kunduz.
Himal Southasian: After a significant decline in civilian casualties last year, attacks in March and April seem to suggest an upsurge in violence. Do you see this as presaging an increase in violence?
Thomas Ruttig: Unfortunately, yes. Usually, after the Afghan New Year on 21 March, the fighting picks up with better weather. This is despite the fact that one can’t really talk about a winter lull anymore. In winter, activity keeps up in the cities, including Kabul. The winter weather does not disrupt urban terrorist networks. We already have large-scale activity in provinces such as Farah in the west, Kunduz and Jowzjan in the north and Ghazni in the southeast. Not much of this is reported abroad. In Kandahar and Helmand, in the warmer south, there was larger scale fighting over the winter months.
Also, unfortunately, it was more or less clear that the drop in civilian casualties in 2017 would remain an exception. After the US government had announced its (not so) new Afghanistan strategy last year, with its focus on increased military pressure on the Taliban, in order to force them to the negotiating table (even Trump does not expect they can be defeated), they replied in kind. It started in December and January with a series of attacks. The responsibility for the individual attacks was shared by the Taliban, but also the local chapter of Daesh, called ISKP (Islamic State Khorasan Province). Between 28 December 2017 and 29 January 2018, there were eight attacks in Kabul, Jalalabad and Kandahar with at least 230 people killed. On the days of the two biggest attacks alone, 20 and 27 January, fighting in at least seven other provinces went underreported.
Both warring sides know that more fighting always brings about more civilian casualties. This clearly shows to us that they both accept ‘collateral damage’ to people they both insist to defend, and that they will try to lie and hide what is happening in such circumstances as the madrassa attack on 2 April this year or the Taliban’s ambulance bomb earlier on. It also does not matter much that the Taliban still cause much more civilian harm than the Afghan government and allied forces. In the first quarter of 2018, the UN attributed 1500 of the 2258 civilian casualties over this period to the Taliban and Daesh, a six percent increase.
HSA: For long the uptick in Taliban violence has also been viewed by some as a strategic tactic to give them a better negotiating position. Indeed, President Ashraf Ghani is continuously renewing calls for peace talks. But in your recent analysis you have said that this increased violence will push the possibility of a negotiated settlement further away. Why do you think so and what minimum conditions are required for such a settlement?
TR: Let’s face it, even talks about possible negotiations always lead to an increase of violence. This is because all sides want to enter them from a position of strength – as if killing more people, including uninvolved civilians, has anything to do with strength. Secondly, such ideas also always bring out spoilers, people who reject any negotiated settlement. Usually they are a minority, but one that makes the most noise. Those intending to talk should not be deterred by this. But this is obviously difficult because public opinion is so much more influential nowadays, although there is also doubt as to who and how many those vocal on social media – to which we give so much attention – really represent.
There is a mix of different interests on the issue of negotiation with the Taliban: there are those who are really appalled and angry about their terrorist attacks (no one suggests talking to ISKP) because they are losing their relatives and friends. Some of them (much more in the West) do not want to acknowledge that the Afghan and Western forces often do not behave much better than the anti-government forces, a factor which allows the Taliban to accuse them – not fully incorrectly – of using different yardsticks.
But there are also those who are not interested in an end to the conflict because peace would make their dealings more complicated, if not impossible, in the illicit spheres of drugs, weapons and human trafficking, for example. Peace might decrease the flow of foreign financial resources, that which is paid directly into the state budget and aid programmes, but also the individual, direct payments to politicians, and the money siphoned off from official funds. These are strong interests. And there is another factor: those political elites that are governing in Kabul – and this includes the ‘camp’ of President Ghani – are clearly not willing to really share power. That they are incapable of it is evident even now – look at the dismal performance of the so-called National Unity Government that is endlessly squabbling over positions, i.e. access to resources and power, while they forget to look over the blast walls around their palaces where the majority of the real people suffer.
So, what are the minimum requirements for genuine peace talks? Political willingness, and the assurance by donors that they will continue helping Afghanistan after a peace deal and not walk away, while, at the same time, being more careful that their payments do not end up feeding the corrupt interests.
HSA: Air strikes by international forces in support of the Afghan government have been held responsible for a large number of civilian casualties, and the attributed reason has been the inadequate safeguards in their SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) as well as their lack of familiarity with Afghan culture (weddings for example have been bombed because of the failure to distinguish between celebratory gatherings and gatherings of fighters). Yet the nascent Afghan Air Force seems to be operating in a similar fashion in the first few weeks of operations.
TR: Well, indeed, the Afghan pilots, those who identify the targets by surveillance, and their commanders should be aware of their own Afghan culture. I assume that their careless behavior has to do with the breakdown of values and of the social fabric as a result of more than four decades of internal armed conflict and an internationalised war. Simply speaking, they are dehumanising the ‘enemy’. Also, all the Afghan factions that ever took part in this and the earlier conflicts have clearly revealed their foot soldiers and civilians do not count for much with them. Even Ghani, in one of his outbursts before diplomats, has said that Afghans were ready to sacrifice thousands. That’s easily proclaimed, as it is usually not the sons of the elite who do the fighting.
The Afghans’ Western allies are part of this. They have time and again set the wrong precedents. The most striking one was their denial, and then threadbare justification, of an airstrike against the hospital run by the INGO Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), also in the unfortunate province of Kunduz in October 2015. This is relevant because it happened under the new US-led, NATO-driven Operation Resolute Support mission, whereas the preceding ISAF mission (International Security Assistance Force) had learnt and changed the rules of engagement and their practice, and we saw progress in reduction of civilian casualties. This has now been unlearnt.
HSA: Of course, the Afghan government, after the 2 April attack in Kunduz province, has claimed that it was attacking a military target, as Taliban fighters were present there.
TR: Indeed, the Afghan Ministry of Defence’s spokesman, for example, insisted there were no civilians present at this madrassa at all, and it was a “Taliban training centre,” even though the provincial governor’s spokesman had already given figures of civilian casualties: allegedly five killed, 55 injured. Even though eyewitnesses had described how helicopters first shot and then fired rockets into a crowd consisting largely of religious scholars (below the age of 18) and their parents and teachers, who were gathered for the turban-binding ceremony and lunch outside, and the Afghan media broadcast video footage showing the injured civilians, including minors.
Mind you, even if Taliban commanders had been present in the ceremony – and this has been confirmed as fact now – and had held a war council nearby, hiding among civilians – firing at such a crowd does, according to the Geneva Conventions, amount to the disproportionate use of force and possibly a war crime. It must be avoided under any condition. But, as said, the nations the trainers belong to have set wrong examples themselves and they won’t be very convincing to Afghans under these circumstances when they teach how civilians need to be protected.
HSA: Have the Afghan Forces – trained, supplied, equipped and paid for by the international forces, currently the US-led Operation Resolute Support – been able to establish their own independent operating procedures?
TR: Yes, it seems that the Afghan Air Force works on the basis of its own independent operating procedures. But there also seems to be a certain amount of joint US-Afghan airstrikes, or a degree of coordination, and possibly the use of US intelligence by the Afghan forces during their operations, so protecting civilians is an issue in their cooperation as well.
Since the Operation Resolute Support is about training, advising and equipping, its leaders – i.e. the US and NATO – are also under the obligation to make the protection of civilians a priority. A recent Pentagon report on this stated: “Preventing civilian casualties remains a major concern of the ANDSF, the Afghan Government, and U.S. and coalition forces. U.S. and coalition advisors continue to work closely with the Afghan Government to reduce civilian casualties by raising awareness of the importance of civilian casualty prevention and mitigation.” But the question is, how convincing and effective such a training is. The 2 April incident shows that it doesn’t seem to work sometimes. And once is once too often.
HSA: How accurate or complete are the figures relating to civilian casualties? Given the difficulty of counting in a conflict zone, is there a significant underestimation?
TR: There is a general understanding that there is underreporting. The UN indirectly admits to this, as they only report cases confirmed by three sources independently of each other. (This method was introduced in the early days to fend off initial US complaints that accusations of civilian harm caused in their operations were Taliban propaganda.) To what extent casualties are underreported is difficult to say.
HSA: The Taliban had adopted a code of conduct (layha) in 2010 that was to be binding on their fighters and included not targeting civilian targets. It was hoped at that time that this would decrease civilian casualties. While the layha has obviously been breached right from the time of inception, do you think that the code is completely meaningless now?
TR: The layha has been updated several times by now, and the injunction to protect civilian life and property has always been kept. In practice, it very often looked different, though. You’re right. The issue is that there are no known instances where the Taliban leaders or their courts have disciplined or tried anyone on the count of violating this rule. After the use of the explosives-rigged ambulance – another war crime – they claimed that all victims were interior ministry staff, although it was clear that the car bomb exploded near a busy civilian crossing and in front of one of the largest hospitals in Kabul. Video footage of this incident also clearly showed that civilians were harmed. If the Taliban want to play any role in running the country in the future, even if they win by violent means, they will need to respect international humanitarian law all the time. So, on their side too, the vow to protect civilians looks like lip service, unless they prove otherwise.
HSA: How has the advent of Daesh and its increasing operational ability changed the strategic balance?
TR: Not much. ISKP is strategically insignificant. It has been confined to some corners of some districts mainly in the eastern province of Nangarhar. Small groups elsewhere in the country, who have declared themselves IS-affiliated, do not carry much weight either. They often are former Taliban who use the fright factor of the Daesh flag for opportunistic reasons. For example, Qari Hekmat, the self-declared IS leader in two districts of Jowzjan Province, who has recently been killed in an airstrike, had been expelled from the Taliban for disobedience and not sending collected taxes to the Taliban leadership. His killing also shows that these small groups are very vulnerable. It is unlikely that Hekmat’s group will survive after his death. IS in Afghanistan missed its big chance when the Taliban split after the death of their founder Mullah Muhammad Omar was declared in 2015 (a split that has been largely overcome by now). They were unable to attract any significant number of Taliban. And it was not that they did not try. Even the most gung-ho Taliban dissidents that had left the movement at this point refused to join Daesh. There is a deep ideological and religious gap between both groups, although these intricacies are often lost on us outsiders.
HSA: With three parties to the conflict now, can there be any way forward?
TR: As I said in response to the earlier question, ISKP does not have much strategic strength and no one is suggesting talks with them. (The people who should be talked to are those locals who support them, often from local disadvantaged tribal or sub-tribal groups – which, by the way, is the same recruiting pattern the Taliban often use.) Talks to find a negotiated end to the Afghan war need to concentrate on the Taliban and their leadership, through their liaison office in Qatar, which is their only declared channel for negotiations. So, this office should be taken seriously, not least because, there, Taliban there are outside the often counter-productive Pakistani influence. Plans to close down the office, as repeatedly suggested also by Ghani, would be dead wrong, apart from the fact that this attitude is more the result of anti-Qatar pressure from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, reflecting their own issues and not real Afghan problems. Of course, Saudi Arabia is – not very openly – one of the major donors for the Afghan government.