Following a week of reduced violence, with as much as an 80 percent drop in major attacks, fighting quickly resumed in Afghanistan. Having recently been in Kabul, I observed the countless ways that years of fighting have impacted the lives of individuals who want peace. Resumed violence so soon after the U.S. and the Taliban signed a peace agreement does not bode well for hopes the deal might pave the way for an end to over 40 years of nearly constant conflict in Afghanistan.
For the past six years, we have seen at least 10,000 civilian casualties annually. With the initial success of seven days of reduced violence, I was cautiously optimistic that 2020 could be the first year we see this number drastically reduced. But a week of respite means little if attacks resume, especially with spring around the corner.
Spring in Afghanistan often is referred to as the “fighting season.” Winters spent recruiting, training and reorganizing — coupled with melting snow and increased funds from poppy harvesting — allow the Taliban to resurface with new strength. And if history is any indicator, this year’s fighting season will not be put on hold for peace talks. Last year the Taliban announced the start of their spring offensive in April, despite ongoing arrangements for another round of peace negotiations.
It’s also a fact that impending peace talks more often than not increase violence, and thus civilian casualties, as the parties try to gain leverage. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) documented record-high levels of civilian casualties in the third quarter of 2019 as talks progressed between the U.S. and Taliban in Qatar throughout July and August.
While leaders take their seats at the negotiation table and the trees begin to bloom, attention needs to be on the people who have the most to gain or lose from the proceedings. There are practical steps each side could take to show they mean it when it comes to reducing the violence.
The U.S. should make it clear that their agreement to gradually withdraw troops will hold only if the reduction of violence initially observed is extended. And the Taliban should abide by their belated acknowledgement that “the maiming and killing must stop” through clear and public guidance to their fighters, rather than through a column in the New York Times.
The government of Afghanistan should make public its landmark 2017 national civilian casualty mitigation and prevention policy and put resources toward implementing it. It should intensify its training for security forces on civilian protection, especially during the tense negotiation period and months following a deal. More difficult, but also important to show its commitment to the population, the government should hold perpetrators of abuses against civilians accountable.
Problematic Afghan agencies such as the National Directorate of Security need to be brought back into the regular chain of command. International Military Forces should apply their most stringent safeguards to avoid civilian casualties if they need to engage in military operations. The killing in a U.S. airstrike of nine civilians returning from a picnic on Feb. 14, the day the U.S. and Taliban agreed on a deal to reduce violence for a week, is not an encouraging sign.
Afghan communities need their say, too. In 2017, my organization, Center for Civilians in Conflict, piloted the creation of Community Civilian Protection Councils (CCPC) in several provinces of Afghanistan. Led by respected community leaders, the councils represent their communities’ protection needs to armed actors and the government. We’ve seen firsthand how community participation can lead to positive outcomes. For example, in January 2019, CCPC members in Nangarhar Province successfully negotiated with a local Taliban commander to halt the planting of improvised explosive devices along public roads and refrain from using civilian homes and properties as bases to attack Afghan forces. A year later, that deal remains in effect.
Afghans have been through more than enough and their protection must top the agenda. When the time comes for intra-Afghan talks, meaningful participation of affected communities will be vital to their success. However, ongoing violence not only would jeopardize the peace process, it also would give Afghan civilians another legitimate reason to lose faith that they ever will get what they desperately need: safety for them and their families.
Federico Borello is the executive director at Center for Civilians in Conflict. He previously was director of investments at Humanity United, and has worked with the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and the International Center for Transitional Justice. Follow on Twitter @fborello1.