According to the United Nations, civilian causalities from fighting in 2016 in Afghanistan hit their highest level since the organization began systematically gathering such information eight years ago.
A report released on 6 February by the UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan reported that civilian causalities in the conflict between government forces and insurgents went up by 3% from 2015 and included 3,498 dead and 7,920 wounded. The report disclosed that the increase of causalities amongst children was 24%, with 923 deaths and 2,589 wounded. The report went on to say that antigovernment elements, mainly the Taliban, were responsible of 61% of the civilian causalities in 2016, while government forces were to blame for 20% and pro-government armed groups and international military forces, 2% each. According to the report, the remainder could not be attributed to any side or were caused by unexploded ordnance. The Taliban, which has been fighting the central government since 2001, called the UN findings biased, with spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid stating “the Kabul government and the invading forces are the cause of the civilian causalities. Javid Faisal, an Afghan government spokesman, meanwhile blamed the militants for most of the causalities, adding that the government has taken many measures to avoid civilian causalities.
Most foreign troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ended its combat mission in support of the Kabul government at the end of 2014. However since then, the security situation in the country has deteriorated significantly, particularly in provinces where the country’s largest insurgency, the Taliban, have attacked more densely populated communities.
This year, American air strikes in Afghanistan have already significantly surpassed the total number of strikes that were carried out last year, in what is a stark indicator of the United States’ struggle to extricate itself from the conflict and to stick to its declared “non-combat” mission.
According to US military officials, between 1 January and 20 October this year, American warplanes conducted around 700 air strikes compared to about 500 in total carried out last year. Furthermore, about 240 were under rules that were approved by President Barack Obama in June, which effectively allowed US forces to more actively support Afghan troops during strategic combat operations. Also a similar number were conducted against “counter terrorism” targets, including about fifty against al-Qaeda and 190 against the so-called Islamic State (IS) group. Other air strikes can be conducted in defense of US and international military advisors, as well as some Afghan troops. American air strikes have been credited with helping to prevent Taliban forces from completely overrunning cities like Lashkar Gah, the capital of embattled Helmand province. However despite the air strikes, militants continue to contest or control as much as a third of the country.
This rise in strikes signals a deeper role for American forces that is expected to continue for the foreseeable future. While ending US involvement in Afghanistan was one of President Obama’s signature promises, with him going on to declare the combat mission over at the end of 2014, in the last year of his presidency, however, rising violence has led President Obama to keep more US forces in the fight, both to target a growing IS presence, but also to back up Afghan troops who have been struggling to combat IS and Taliban militants. This year, top American military commanders in Afghanistan successfully pressed the president to reverse an earlier restriction on the use of air strikes, therefore clearing the way for a rise in attacks on IS and Taliban targets.
In a statement, US military spokesman Brigadier General Charles Cleveland disclosed that “the increase in strikes is due to the additional authorities US forces received and due to the Afghan change in strategy to offensive operations.” The statement goes on to say that “the new authorities have allowed the US to be more proactive and deliberate in supporting this year’s Afghan offensive operations and in aggressively targeting (Islamic State).”
With no end in sight for one of America’s longest wars, any decisions on the future of the I strikes, and the nearly 9,000 US troops who will remain in Afghanistan, will be up to the winner of the 8 November American presidential election. In a report release in October outlining challenges for the next president, a dozen former US military commanders and ambassadors to Afghanistan wrote that “it will be important to ask if the relaxation of rules of engagement that President Obama provided to American/NATO forces in Afghanistan in 2016 should go further, allowing even more substantial use of their air power against the Taliban.”
On 17 May, Finland tightened its restrictions on giving residence permits to asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, stating that it was now largely safe for them to return to their war-torn home countries.
Authorities in Helsinki, where anti-immigration political groups have been on the rise, disclosed that security had improved to such an extent that refugees would generally not be at risk in any parts of the three countries, despite ongoing conflicts. While there was no immediate reaction from refugee agencies, the statement released by the Finnish Immigration Service comes in the face of a string of international assessments of the scale of the ongoing bloodshed and refugee crisis. In its statement, the immigration service disclosed that “it will be more difficult for applicants from these countries to be granted a residence permit,” adding, “it is currently possible for asylum seekers to return to all areas in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia without the ongoing armed conflicts of such presenting a danger to them only because they are staying in the country.” Under the new rules, asylum seekers will only be allowed to stay if they can prove that they are individually at risk. In 2015, around 32,500 people applied for asylum in Finland. This was up from 3,600 in 2014. Most of those applying for asylum were from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. This year, the numbers have declined significantly.
Somalia has been slowly recovering from more than two decades of war. The internationally-backed government, which is based in Mogadishu and which has little control outside the capital, continues to fight an Islamist insurgency by the militant group al-Shabab, which regularly launches gun and bomb attacks in the capital and in other areas of the Horn of Africa country. In Iraq, the so-called Islamic State (IS) group continues to hold key cities and vast swathes of territory in the northern and western regions of the country, which it seized in 2014. Furthermore, despite battlefield setbacks over the past year, IS militants have continued to attack civilians in areas that are under government control. This includes a string of attacks that occurred earlier this month in and around the capital, which killed more than 100 people. In Afghanistan, the Taliban launched a spring offensive last month, vowing to drive out the Western-backed government in Kabul and restore strict Islamic rule.
Yesterday, October 15th, the governor of Afghanistan’s strategically crucial Logar province was assassinated as he was due to make a speech marking the holiday of Eid al-Adha. This killing is one of few major assassinations of prominent government officials this year; however it highlights the continued goal of insurgents in Afghanistan to deprive the coalition-backed government of competent officials in light of coming elections and the withdrawal of ISAF forces in 2014.
Governor Arsallah Jamal was preparing to give a speech at a mosque in Logar province, when a bomb apparently planted inside the microphone he was due to use was detonated, killing him instantly. At least 15 others were injured, 8 of whom remain in a critical condition. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, however a faction of the Taliban insurgency is almost certainly responsible.
Though Arsallah Jamal had only been appointed as governor of Logar in April, he had previously served as governor of the province of Khost, which shares a border with Pakistan’s tribal region of Waziristan. He was an expert in rural development, and had worked for numerous NGOs, most recently in Canada. He was a close friend of President Hamid Karzai, and managed his 2009 election campaign. Arsallah Jamal had also survived assassination attempts in the past.
The attack took place in Logar’s provincial capital, Pul-e-Alam, a mere 37 miles south of Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. Logar is a strategically vital province sometimes referred to as the “gate to Kabul”, lying as it does directly to the south and controlling many of the major road approaches to the capital. Insurgents have stepped up their campaign in the province this year, which has seen violence skyrocket and large swathes of Logar fall under Taliban control. Taliban control of Logar would make it far easier for them to launch attacks in Kabul.
Logar province is also the location of the world’s second biggest copper mine, Aynak, the mining rights to which were awarded to a Chinese firm in 2009. Getting the mine up and running was one of Jamal’s major priorities, and may have contributed to his death. Alternatively, Jamal also made the news recently when he revealed that the US military had recently arrested Latif Mehsud, a senior commander in the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), something else that may have made him a target.
Insurgents in Afghanistan have also waged a long running campaign targeting government officials, in hopes of reducing the ability of Hamid Karzai’s government to function. Over 1000 mid-level officials have been assassinated in the past ten years, while several high profile officials, including numerous provincial governors, have also been murdered. With the state bureaucracy and military of Afghanistan weak, the removal of competent officials, leaders and managers could have serious long-term implications on the sustainability of state institutions. Leadership of provincial governors is also regarded as a key factor in delivering next year’s presidential election.
Interpol has issued a global security alert linked to a suspected al-Qaeda involvement in a string of recent prison outbreaks that have taken place in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan. The alert comes just days after the United States State Department issued a global travel alert and closed a number of Embassies because of fears of an unspecified al-Qaeda attack.
Citing prison breaks in three countries, Interpol has requested that its members examine whether or not al-Qaeda militants were behind the prison breaks. The police agency is also asking that member countries “swiftly process any information linked to these events.” In a statement that was released on Saturday, the French-based agency stated that “with suspected al-Qaeda involvement in several of the breakouts which led to the escape of hundreds of terrorists and other criminals, the Interpol alert requests the organizations 190 member countries‘ assistance in order to determine whether any of these recent events re coordinated or linked.” It also calls for Interpol to be informed “if any escaped terrorist is located or intelligence developed which could help prevent another terrorist attack.” The most recent escape occurred in north-west Pakistan, in which 248 prisoners escaped from a jail. On 30 July, Taliban militants used automatic weapons and bombs in order to break down the walls of the jail in Dera Ismail Khan. At least thirteen people, including six police officers, were killed during the attack. Authorities have since indicated that thirty of those who fled were “hardened militants” who were jailed for their involvement in a number of suicide bombings and other serious attacks. Meanwhile on 22 July, hundreds of inmates escaped from two jails in Iraq: Abu Ghraib, located to the west of Baghdad; and Taji, located to the north. Bombs and mortar fire were used to break into those two prisons in which al-Qaeda members were amongst those being housed in the facility.
US Extends Embassy Closure
Meanwhile the United States has announced that it will keep a number of embassies in northern Africa and in the Middle East closed until Saturday, due to a possible militant threat. After an announcement on Friday pertaining to a possible threat, twenty-one US embassies were closed on Sunday. On Monday, the State Department in Washington indicated that the extension of closures were “out of abundance of caution,” and not in reaction to a new threat. With the State Department announcing that the potential for an al-Qaeda-inspired attack being particularly strong in the Middle East and North Africa, the global travel alert will be in force until the end of August. Although US diplomatic missions in Algiers, Kabul and Baghdad remained open on Monday, its diplomatic posts in Abu Dhabi, Amman, Cairo, Riyadh, Dhahran, Jeddah, Doha, Dubai, Kuwait, Manama, Muscat, Sanaa and Tripoli will remain closed until Saturday. African missions including Antananarivo, Bujumbura, Djibouti, Khartoum, Kigali, and Port Louis are also on the list of closures. The US embassy in Tel Aviv, along with two consulates in Jerusalem and Haifa, were also closed on Sunday.
It is evident that security at US diplomatic facilities remains a concern following last year’s attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where the US ambassador, along with three other Americans, were killed. Officials in the United Kingdom also announced over the weekend that its embassy in Yemen would remain closed until the Muslim festival of Eid which will occur on Thursday. The UK Foreign Office is also advising against all travel to Yemen and is strongly urging British nationals in the country to leave. Several other European countries have also temporarily closed their missions in Yemen.
The embassy closures and US global travel alert came after the US reportedly intercepted al-Qaeda messages suggesting that they were between senior figures within the militant group who were plotting an attack against an embassy. While the details of the threat have remained unspecified, it is evident that those members of Congress who have been briefed on the intelligence, seem to agree that it amounts to one of the most serious in recent years, effectively pointing to the possibility of a major attack which may coincide with the end of the holy month of Ramadan, which ends this week.
In recent years, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, which is known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has attempted to carry out several high profile attacks, including one on Christmas Day in 2009 in which a man attempted to blow up a trans-Atlantic jet over Detroit, using explosives that were sewn into his underwear. Months earlier, the militant group had also attempted to assassinate the Saudi intelligence chief by using a bomb that was attached to the attacker’s body.