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Most foreign troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ended its combat mission in support of the Kabul government at the end of 2014.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.”
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.
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.
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.