Politics, Security, Peace Talks and Prospects
Afghanistan has spent another year in the shadow of volatile security situation, crumbling economic conditions, unpredictable political environment and scarcity of resources, as well as some new developments that have created hopes for a comparatively stable Afghanistan in the year 2019.
Among those few new developments, the most important one is the holding of parliamentary elections in the month of October 2018, through biometric voting process. In response to long delays and widespread operational difficulties, the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan extended voting in some polling centres for an additional day. These elections, however, witnessed violence at its peak on the polling day, resulting in the highest number of civilian casualties in a single day in 2018. Due to severely unstable security situation, elections in Kandahar province were delayed for one week following the death of two high-ranking security officials in an attack claimed by the Taliban. Leaders of different political parties and independent candidates began negotiations to nominate their candidates for the upcoming presidential elections, which were originally scheduled for April 2019, but were later postponed to July 20.
Appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad as the United States Special Representative on Afghanistan Reconciliation reinvigorated peace efforts wherein the Taliban finally agreed to hold direct talks with the United States. The Russian Federation also hosted an international meeting on Afghanistan which was attended by representatives of different countries, the High Peace Council of Afghanistan and the Taliban political office. Moreover, relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan remained comparatively cordial.
Preparations on governmental level accelerated ahead of the Geneva Ministerial Conference on Afghanistan that was held on 28th November 2018. But, the situation remained still grave, characterized by high levels of displacement, an increase in conflict-related trauma cases, and drought-like conditions, raising the level of food insecurity for millions of Afghans throughout the war-torn country. The return of refugees from the Islamic Republic of Iran continued at a greater pace, putting further pressure on scarce resources in western Afghanistan.
In political arena, Afghanistan’s pursuit of a negotiated peace settlement with the Taliban received an added impetus when Mr Khalilzad visited Afghanistan, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with a mission to muster regional support for the Afghan peace process. However, Afghan government seemed reluctant to support direct contact between the United States and the Taliban. On 5th November, President Ghani announced that a national consultation board on the peace process would be formed with representatives nominated by civilian and military authorities in all the 34 provinces. The Taliban spokesperson also confirmed that Mr Khalilzad had met with the Taliban Political Commission in Doha, Qatar.
The security situation in nook and cranny of the country remained volatile, with incidents continuing at consistently high levels. While the number of security incidents in some categories decreased slightly, the overall number of casualties rose owing, mainly, to an increase in the severity of certain attacks. The Eid al-Adha and the first day of the parliamentary elections, i.e. 20th October, were recorded as the most peaceful and the most violent days, respectively. The southern region saw the highest number of incidents, followed by the eastern and south-eastern regions. Armed clashes continued to comprise the largest number of security incidents. In the first nine months of the year, UNAMA documented 8,050 civilian casualties (2,798 people killed and 5,252 injured) between 1st January and 30th September 2018, the highest number of civilian deaths recorded in the first nine months of the year since 2014. The internally displaced persons due to armed conflicts were counted 289,866 in 2018 (60,720 women, 167,342 children and 61,804 men). As on 31st October, drought had affected 229 out of 401 districts across the country. In western Afghanistan, more than 250,000 people have now been forced from rural areas to migrate to urban centres since the beginning of the year. According to the United Nations, nearly 3.5 million people are severely food insecure a result of the drought and are in need of life-saving food and livelihood assistance, while according to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification analysis – conducted in October – nearly 10.8 million people are at emergency or crisis levels of food insecurity.
The presence of ISIL-KP or Daesh Khurasan Province remained significant in the eastern region, where the group claimed responsibility for three suicide attacks in Nangarhar province besides six attacks in Kabul. Daesh continued to fight against the Taliban, with armed clashes between the two groups reported in Nangarhar and Kunar provinces. International security forces continued to target Daesh, conducting a series of air strikes against targets in Deh Bala, Achin, Khogyani, Nazyan and Chaparhar districts of Nangarhar Province.
On political front, Afghanistan and Pakistan continued efforts to improve their bilateral relations following the inauguration in August of the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan. On September 15, the Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, visited Kabul, held meeting with President Ashraf Ghani, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah and his counterpart Salahuddin Rabbani. Nevertheless, the blame game continued and on 22 October, President Ghani publicly stated that the assassination of the Kandahar Chief of Police, Gen. Abdul Raziq had been planned in Pakistan.
The 2018 report of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) on opium cultivation and production in Afghanistan was finalized and released in November. Its findings show a moderate decrease in opium cultivation and production compared with 2017, with significant decreases in cultivation and production noted in the northern and western regions owing to the drought.
To conclude, one may predict the near future of Afghanistan keeping in view the developments in the year 2018. Ashraf Ghani administration has to be changed in July, provided the situation remains suitable and the international community remains committed to its vows and promises. The peace dialogue if continued with same pace and rhythm may come to a fruitful end which will undoubtedly be a great achievement on the part of stakeholders. Pakistan’s commitment to Afghanistan’s development and stability is time-tested. Donald Trump’s letter to the Prime Minister of Pakistan for playing a role in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table is the acknowledgment of Pakistan’s importance and services in War on Terror. In this case, not only Pakistan but all the regional actors should utilize this golden opportunity and restore peace, stability and prosperity in Afghanistan. This will, in turn, ensure prosperity and development of the neighboring and regional states.