US exit should not be allowed to destabilize Afghanistan
Evidence is mounting that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan — before a peace deal can take hold — is destabilizing the country. Armed groups are seeking to increase their territorial control at the expense of the internationally recognized government, attacking officials, security forces and political rivals, as well civilians, including women, children and minorities.
On June 1, the UN Security Council released a report on Afghanistan prepared by its Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team. The 22-page document paints an alarming picture about the worsening security situation in Afghanistan, just as US forces drawdown ahead of their planned final exit date in September. The report draws correlations between escalating fighting, the pace of peace negotiations, and the US decision to depart.
Despite coronavirus disease restrictions and expectations of a reduction in violence, the report documents how 2020 emerged as the most violent year ever recorded by the UN in Afghanistan, exceeding 25,000 incidents — a 10 percent increase on 2019. Violence surged from September onwards, coinciding with intra-Afghan talks and the US decision to leave. Incident rates for the winter season, which typically sees a lull in fighting, were higher than those of the spring or summer, when heavier fighting is expected. Unprecedented violence over the winter carried into 2021, with 7,177 security incidents recorded countrywide between Jan. 1 and March 31, representing a 61 percent increase over the same period in 2020.
Armed groups, especially the Taliban and its affiliates, have increased their scope of control. According to the UN report, as of the end of April, the Taliban contested or controlled an estimated 50 to 70 percent of Afghan territory outside of urban centers, while also exerting direct control over 57 percent of district administrative centers. Other armed groups, foreign fighters and terrorist organizations are also active. Al-Qaeda maintains its base in the country and Daesh is upping its activities.
The UN reported a wave of violence and killings targeting government officials, as well as women, human rights defenders and journalists, among others, since last fall. It recorded a significant rise across all categories of security incidents in 2020, with an increase in reported assassinations from 780 in 2019 to 996 last year, a growth of 28 percent. During 2020, targets for assassinations broadened from government and security personnel to civil society activists, healthcare workers, journalists, judges, prosecutors, religious scholars, intellectuals, and prominent women. According to Afghan officials, at least 14 senior religious scholars were assassinated during 2020, despite the formation of a protection committee for them in 2019. While responsibility for most assassinations went unclaimed, the UN believes that about 85 percent were carried out by the Taliban and its affiliated groups. In many cases, victims had been outspoken against the Taliban or were advocates of the peace talks.
The first quarter of 2021 suggests this trend is continuing. In Kabul alone, between Jan. 25 and Feb. 8 there were 33 major incidents reported, including three assassination attempts against security and government officials, 16 improvised explosive device (IED) detonations, and the identification on Feb. 2 of a cache containing nine remote-controlled magnetic IEDs, which are frequently used in assassinations.
The US and NATO military withdrawal adds to the security challenges faced by Afghan government forces, as it limits their air and logistical support.
Armed groups are largely self-financed, which dulls the impact of sanctions on their leaders. The primary sources of financing include criminal activities — such as drug trafficking and opium poppy production — extortion, kidnapping for ransom, and mineral exploitation. Of all mining locations, government control extended to only 281 zones across 16 provinces. A further 148 zones in 12 provinces were under the control of local warlords, while armed groups reportedly hold the remaining 280 zones dispersed among 26 provinces.
A major source of revenue for armed groups is poppy-based drugs and methamphetamine, which are in turn smuggled into the Gulf and Europe, while the industry is having destabilizing and corrupting effects within Afghanistan.
While the UN report is based on information collected up until the end of April 2021, press reports since then have shown that the escalating trend has continued. Armed groups are consolidating their grip on more areas of the country as the date of the final US troop departure gets closer.
Despite expectations of a reduction in violence, 2020 emerged as the most violent year ever recorded by the UN in Afghanistan.
Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
Attacks on civilians have also intensified. On May 8, a bomb blast near a school in western Kabul killed about 90 people and injured 150, many of them schoolgirls. On May 10, several terrorist attacks were reported, including one in which 11 people were killed and 29 wounded when a bus struck a roadside bomb in Zabul province. On May 15, a Kabul car bomb killed at least 12 people and injured another 15. On May 19, three terrorist incidents were reported: In western Afghanistan, militants stopped a bus and killed three passengers from an ethnic minority; a roadside bombing in central Ghor province killed a family of four; and a bomb struck a car carrying a family of 12 in southern Helmand province. On May 29, a minibus exploded in Parwan province after hitting a roadside bomb, killing at least four people and injuring 13. On June 1, bombings left 10 people dead and another 12 injured in Kabul.
The deteriorating security situation is compounded by the economic devastation of the country. It threatens to get much worse if the US carries out its plan to fully withdraw before peace talks bear fruit, just as Afghanistan descended into chaos after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. Then, the country became a haven for international and local terrorist groups, including Al-Qaeda, with disastrous results.
After 20 years in Afghanistan, there is a moral imperative for the US to redouble its peacemaking efforts and wait a bit longer to ensure a peaceful transition. If the US leads, the international community will follow. Most nations have a keen interest in restoring peace, stability and prosperity for the great people of Afghanistan.
- Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent the views of the GCC. Twitter: @abuhamad1