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Most foreign troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ended its combat mission in support of the Kabul government at the end of 2014.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.
The Afghan Taliban have announced a new leader to replace Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who was killed in a US drone strike on 21 May.
In a statement, the Taliban acknowledged Mansour’s death for the first time and named his successor as Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada. The statement disclosed that “Hibatullah Akhundzada has been appointed as the new leader of the Islamic Emirate (Taliban) after a unanimous agreement in the shura (supreme court), and all the members of shura pledged allegiance to him.” The statement further indicated that Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, son of Mullah Omar, would become a joint deputy head of the movement, alongside current deputy leader Sirajuddin Haqqani. Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is much more well known, is leader of the Haqqani network, which has been blamed for some of the most violent attacks inside Afghanistan.
The group is known for its daring raids on Western and Afghan targets, particularly in Kabul. Taliban sources have reported that Mansour named Akhundzada as his successor in his will, in what may be an attempt to legitimize the transition. Analysts have reported that it is unlikely that the group will change direction under hardline religious scholar Akhundzada. Mansour was killed in a strike, which targeted his car in Pakistan’s Balochistan province on Saturday. Last year, the Taliban was plunged into turmoil when Mansour replaced the group’s founder Mullah Mohammad Omar. Under his stewardship, the Taliban refused to take part in peace talks and instead, militant attacks increased and became more daring. Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada, a former head of the Taliban courts, was a deputy leader to Mansour.
Profile of New Taliban Chief
The Afghan Taliban’s new leader Hibatullah Akhundzada is a hardline religious scholars from Kandahar. The fact that he comes from the Taliban’s traditional stronghold is likely to please rank-and-file fighters.
Born in Panjwai district in Kandahar, during the 1980’s, Akhundzada was involved in the Islamist resistance against the Soviet military campaign in Afghanistan. He was quick to join the Taliban, however his reputation is more that of a religious leader as opposed to a military commander.
He served as a deputy to previous Taliban chief Akhtar Mohammad Mansour. According to Gharzai Khwakhogi, a political commentator who worked in intelligence for a while under the Taliban: “(Hibatullah Akhundzada) has lived most of his life inside Afghanistan and has maintained close links with the Quetta Shura.” When the Taliban captured Afghanistan’s western Farah province, he was put in charge of fighting crime in the area. Later, he was appointed to the Taliban’s military court in Kandahar and then as head of its military court in eastern Nangarhar province. As the Taliban consolidated its grip on power in Afghanistan, Hibatullah Akhundzada became the head of the group’s military court and deputy head of its supreme court. When the Taliban was toppled by the US-led coalition in 2001, he became the head of the group’s council of religious scholars. He is a member of the Taliban’s leadership council and has been responsible for issuing most of the Taliban’s fatwas. He also reportedly ran a madrassa (religious school) near Quetta. Experts have indicated that Hibatullah Akhundzada maintained close links with the Quetta Shura, which is understood to make the Taliban’s main decisions as well as appointing its leaders.
The new Taliban chief is not as controversial as his predecessor, who led the militants for two years before news emerged that Taliban founder Mullah Omar was actually dead. Hibatullah Akhundzada was appointed by senior Taliban figures who are said to have met somewhere near Quetta in Pakistan. However, not all members of the shura (council) were there, with many not appearing over fears of being attacked.
While the Taliban has called the new appointment unanimous, they did the same when Mullah Mansour took over last summer. Shortly after his appointment, splits emerged, with sources disclosing that this time, there could still be some disagreements, however they will probably be not enough to challenge the new leader’s authority.
The United Nations reported that the number of civilians killed or wounded in Afghanistan last year was the highest recorded since 2009, with children paying a particularly heavy price.
In its annual report on Afghan civilians in armed conflict, the UN disclosed that there were 11,002 civilian casualties in 2015, including 3,545 deaths. This is a four percent rise over the previous high in 2014. The report stated that fighting and attacks in populated areas and major cities were described as the main causes of civilian deaths in 2015, underscoring a push by Taliban militants into urban centres “with ah high likelihood of causing civilian harm.” The UN began compiling the annular report in 2009. Including Taliban-claimed attacks, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan assigned responsibility for 62 percent of total civilian casualties in 2015 to anti-government elements. However the report also noted that a 28 percent year-on-year surge in the number of causalities caused by pro-government forces, including the Afghan army and international troops. The report stated that seventeen percent of all casualties in 2015 were caused by such forces. It was not possible to say which side caused the remaining 21 percent of casualties. One in every four causalities in 2015 was a child, with the report documenting a 14 percent increase in child casualties over the year. While fighting and improvised explosive devices were the top two killers of children, unexploded ordnance picked up and played with by curious and unsuspecting youngers also claimed a heavy toll, killing 113 children – an average of two a week – an injuring 252 more in 2015. Women also paid a heavy price, with a 37 percent surge in female casualties. According to the report, one in every ten causalities recorded was a woman. The document also highlighted an increase in women being targeted for alleged moral crimes, calling the executions and lashings a “disturbing trend,” and adding that the UN plans to release a separate report on such incidents soon. Chillingly, the report documented a doubling of civilian causalities due to the deliberate targeting by militants of judges, prosecutors and juridical institutions. There were 188 such cases last year, of which 46 involved fatalities. The Taliban claimed 95 percent of such targeted attacks. While ground engagements were the largest cause of civilian causalities, improvised explosive devices came second, with the report adding that the use of such weaponry violated international law and could constitute war crimes. The report also criticized Afghan forces in particular for their reliance on explosives in populated areas. The UN’s special representative for Afghanistan, Nicholay Haysom, has disclosed that “the harm done to civilians is totally unacceptable…We call on those inflicting this pain on the people of Afghanistan to take concrete action to protect civilians and put a stop to the killing and maiming.”
Speaking at a press conference on Sunday, Haysom stated that the statistics in the report do not “reflect the real horror,” adding that “the real cost…is measured in the maimed bodies of children, the communities who have to live with loss, the grief of colleagues and relatives, the families who make do without a breadwinner, the parents who grieved the lost children, the children who grieved the lost parents.” On 1 January 2015, US and other international troops moved from a combat to a training, advisory and assistance role in Afghanistan, effectively leaving Afghan forces to take the lead in fighting the resurgent militants as they targeted towns and cities.
Afghan security forces have launched a major counter-offensive to take back Kunduz, a day after Taliban insurgents seized control of the northern city. The insurgents reportedly launched a surprise dawn attack on the city on Monday and by evening had succeeded in capturing the provincial police headquarters and the governors compound. After driving Afghan forces back to an airport on the outskirts of Kunduz, the insurgents raised their white standard over the city’s central square and freed hundreds of Taliban fighters imprisoned in a nearby gaol. It is the second time this year that the Taliban have attacked Kunduz, a strategically important city defended almost entirely by Afghan forces since 2013, when security for the region was transferred to them by NATO. it is also the first time in fourteen years that the Taliban have managed to gain control of a major urban centre.
Ayoub Salangi, Afghanistan’s deputy interior minister, has announced that security forces are ready to retake the city. Heavy fighting has since been reported, with Afghan soldiers reclaiming strategic parts of the city. In support of these efforts, US forces have also conducted an air strike against entrenched Taliban positions. Casualties on both sides are believed to be high but precise numbers have yet to be disclosed.
In a message issued earlier today, the Taliban’s new leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour said that President Ashraf Ghani’s unity government should admit defeat. “These conquests are result of almighty Allah’s support and the mujahideen (fighters) sacrifices,” he said. “Therefore, officials in Kabul have to admit their defeat with courage.” The Taliban leader’s comments coincided with the first anniversary of Ghani’s administration, which is likely to experience further setbacks as it attempts to revive the stalled peace negotiations.
A strategically important transport hub connecting Kabul in the south, Mazar-e-Sharif in the west and Tajikistan to the north, Kunduz was a key Taliban stronghold before the 2001 invasion. It is considered a gateway to the north and a known transit point for opium and heroin smuggling to Central Asia.
Last week, years of fierce speculation over the whereabouts of Mullah Mohammed Omar ended when the Taliban leader was declared dead by the Afghan government. After initially denying the claim, the Taliban named his successor, Mullah Mohammad Akhtar Mansoor. A founding member of the Taliban, Mansoor knew Omar and Osama bin Laden personally, has a reputation for being a moderate and is known to have lent his support to the peace process. Many see this as a positive move for the group, a decision that will help bring more than a decade of war to an end. There are, however, numerous problems which he will need to overcome in order make this a reality.
Mansoor is believed to have joined the Taliban in 1994, after the insurgent group gained control of Kandahar province. In the late 1990s he served as the Taliban’s aviation minister and fled to Pakistan after the US invasion in 2001. He was appointed deputy to Mullah Omar in 2013. As secretive as his notoriously camera-shy predecessor, no picture or video of the new Taliban chief has made its way into the public domain.
As Omar’s deputy, Mansoor has had years of experience managing the Taliban, experience which should have stood him in good stead for his new leadership role. However, the announcement that he would be taking over from Mullah Omar has shaken the Taliban to its core. To begin with, there has been much criticism over the way that Omar’s death was covered up, not just from the rank and file but from senior members of the Taliban. Omar’s former personal secretary, Tayeb Agha, has resigned from his position as head of a political office in Doha in protest, saying that the coverup was a “historical mistake”. In a statement issued at the time of his resignation, Agha implied that he had not been made aware of Omar’s death until very recently, an indication of how closely guarded this secret was and how deeply it has effected the Taliban’s core followers.
Another factor that will have to be considered is the effect that Omar’s death will have on the insurgency. Although Omar hasn’t made a public appearance since the fall of his government in 2001, his reputation as Amir al-Momineen (leader of the faithful) has played a vital role in preserving the group’s unity and sense of overall direction. Without it, Mansoor will have to find another way of holding the group together, a task made more difficult by the seductive appeal of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, which has in recent months succeeded in luring away many disenfranchised members of the Taliban.