Latest Activist Assassinated Complicates Afghan Peace Deal

At least two people, including the head of an independent elections watchdog, were killed in a shooting and bomb attack in Afghanistan on the morning of December 23rd. The attack is the latest in the troubled Asian state’s recent spate of killings, and provided further challenges for peacemakers, who have been negotiating a peace deal since September.

On December 22nd, five civilians, three of whom were doctors, were killed in an attack claimed by the Islamic terrorist group ISIL. Shortly before 9:00 AM the next day, Mohammad Yousuf Rasheed, the executive director of the Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan, and one other person were murdered by unknown gunmen in Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul. (The Free and Fair Election Forum is a non-governmental organization which seeks equal rights and participation in an Afghan democracy.) No one has stepped forward to claim responsibility for this latest attack, although both terrorist groups and Taliban insurgents have been behind recent killings of this nature.

Peace and stability in Afghanistan have stuttered since 2001, when the United States began a prolonged and violent war – America’s longest ever – by invading the country during Operation Enduring Freedom. Following five years of civil war between the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents, the September 11th attacks prompted then-President George W. Bush to attempt to topple the new Taliban rulers, who the U.S. accused of providing refuge to al Qaeda and its notorious leader, Osama bin Laden. After bin Laden was successfully assassinated, fighting continued against a defeated Taliban government, which waged a brutal and erosive guerilla warfare campaign against Afghan and allied forces.

A peace deal was negotiated in 2016, before a fresh promise in early 2020, which would have seen the remaining U.S. troops withdrawn in exchange for Taliban cooperation in dealing with al Qaeda. Though China, Russia, and Pakistan supported the deal, Reuters notes that the Taliban mounted more than 4,500 attacks in the 45 days after the agreement was struck, bringing the number of people killed in the war to 157,000 since 2001. (More than 43,000 of those have been civilians, according to the Watson Institute.) Although talks resumed in September in Doha, progression has been hampered by deals to swap prisoners on either side and may not resume until early 2021.

For Afghan peace brokers, the December 23rd shooting was another reminder of the continuing ravages of this war. Attacks like the shooting have increased since the United States and the Taliban agreed to a fresh peace deal in February 2020, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (U.N.A.M.A.), which reported 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting from January to September. The Taliban was responsible for around 45% of these.

Although U.N.A.M.A. also reports that wider civilian casualties in the war have dropped from previous years, there has been a worrying rise in assassinations of high-profile democracy and freedom advocates. In the December 23rd shooting’s aftermath, Shaharzad Akbar, Chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, tweeted that “these incidents don’t seem to be accidental… [they] have something in common: they have voice [sic] and platforms and speak against violence and totalitarianism.” Recent victims of similar attacks have included Kabul’s deputy governor, prominent female journalists, and high-profile doctors.

The American-led February peace deal’s failure to quell the discriminatory attacks against Afghanistan’s civil rights leaders is a stark reminder of how difficult it is to negotiate the peace. Donald Trump’s recent promises to bring all American troops in Afghanistan “home by Christmas” might appear to ease tensions with the insurgent group, but rushing to withdraw the remaining soldiers could negate years of struggle to bring stability and democracy to Afghanistan. It is in American interests to ensure that the country does not become a haven for Islamist extremists again, but the U.S. must also be seen as willing to oversee a successful peace deal before withdrawal as a signal of intent to its allies.

For that peace deal to be successful, the Afghan government must be more involved. The government has been a high-profile absence in discussions about the future of the country it will inherit, and this cannot continue if the country is to achieve stability. U.S. allies in the region, like Pakistan, may be required to commit to preventing the region’s terrorism from growing again as well.

Mohammad Yousuf Rasheed is one in a long line of prominent officials and peace advocates killed in Afghanistan’s prolonged conflict. American negotiations with the Taliban can only face setbacks like this for so long, and with Donald Trump eager to withdraw the last of the west’s forces before leaving office, prospects for stability in a post-occupied Afghanistan hang in the balance.

Shane Ward
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