The Taliban continued its deadly attacks on pro-government areas in Afghanistan while commencing ceasefire talks with government officials in Moscow last weekend. Al-Jazeera reported that the fundamentalist armed group launched attacks on pro-government militias, security checkpoints and army bases, killing at least 47 people and wounding dozens of others. These attacks triggered hours-long firefights with local villagers among those killed. These attacks are concurrent with a two-day meeting in Moscow between Taliban and Afghan officials, although officials from the administration of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani have been excluded. Opposition figures in the Afghan government participated instead, including former Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Karzai, according to The New York Times, stated that the weekend talks were successful, claiming that progress was being made towards “peace, stability and an Afghanistan free of foreign forces.” Officials in President Ghani’s government have pushed back against this claim, however, insisting that a successful and substantive peace process must include the current administration in its negotiations. The Afghan officials present, many of them former or opposition members of the government, evinced hope that the talks could be successful. The Times reported former cabinet minister Omar Zakhilwal saying that the Taliban representatives showed “a genuine desire for peace” and “flexibility in their positions.” A general statement released on Wednesday by the talks’ participants called for expanding the peace talks but provided no specific timeline for the withdrawal of the American military – a prominent condition of the Taliban. It also did not address the role of President Ghani’s government in the continuation of the peace process.
While an end to this decades-long conflict, and the 17-year American military presence, is imperative, the ongoing violence within the country imperils the viability of the peace process as it currently exists. In addition, about 15,000 U.S. troops remain in the country. The New York Times reports that attacks on the Taliban by the U.S. military have ramped up during the peace negotiations, while the Taliban have continued their attacks on government forces and allied militias, killing civilians in the process. The irony of continuing – or in the case of the U.S., escalating – attacks, while trying to simultaneously engage in substantive peace talks, is glaringly obvious. A peaceful Afghanistan, one with a stable government and guaranteed fundamental rights for all, was the vision espoused in Wednesday’s statement, a vision which should be embraced by all sides as the ultimate goal of the peace process. However, a disjointed peace process, excluding the sitting government and civilian representatives, seems unlikely to lead to such an outcome. Destabilizing violence on the part of the Taliban and the U.S. military that catches civilians in its crossfire may be a considered strategy to gain leverage in negotiations, but a lasting and trustworthy end to the violence cannot be attained by the protraction of violence.
Conflict has raged in Afghanistan on and off for forty years, but the past year has seen an increased push towards peace, from grassroots Afghan movements to government and Taliban leaders. A Watson Institute study found that tens of thousands of Afghan civilians have died violent deaths since U.S. intervention in 2003 and millions more affected by the indirect effects of war on the healthcare system and civil infrastructure. 2018 saw a march for peace that traversed hundreds of miles through war-torn southern Afghanistan, protesting the war that has engulfed the Afghan populace in a cycle of killing and retribution. Several months of peace talks, conducted with the Taliban, various Afghan government officials and the U.S., have shown signs of progress and commitment from the parties involved. However, Taliban attacks on government and civilian targets alike have continued, from bombing military bases to election rallies. The Taliban militant group continues to vie for control of the country with the government seen as ineffectual and propped up by the U.S.
The years of conflict in Afghanistan have left its citizens with few good options, as the line between civilian and fighter is blurred by those who feel forced to take up arms to avoid being killed for not doing so. The Taliban, while claiming commitment to peace talks, continue their attacks killing scores of people and often claiming the lives of civilians either through directly targeting them or catching them in the crossfire. The newest round of peace talks, which has not come with a lasting cessation of hostilities on the part of the Taliban or the government, has the potential to expand in scope and make significant strides, but it must include all parties to the conflict and prioritize the survival and welfare of Afghan citizens if it intends to fully realize its stated goal of peace.