War-Weary Ghazni Desperate For Another Ceasefire

The first humanitarian convoy finally arrived in Ghazni on August 18, 2018, following nearly a week of heavy fighting between Taliban militants and allied armed forces. This is after UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs spokesperson Jens Laerke noted that several roads leading into Ghazni were found littered with IEDs (improvised explosive devices) thus making it exponentially difficult for humanitarian workers and civilians to safely enter/exit the city. The Afghan Red Crescent Society aimed to reach up to two thousand families with aid and sustenance by Monday.

The Taliban have been at war with the U.S.-backed Afghan government for nearly two decades. The Ghazni offensive occurred only two months before Afghanistan’s 2018 parliamentary election and was reportedly part of a complex and coordinated strategy whereby many Taliban militants hid stashes of weapons inside homes and even collected taxes from Ghazni residents. Many civilians had expressed concern that they are preparing to attack the city. Yet, despite reassurances of the Ashraf Ghani-led government by August 15, the offensive had resulted in major assaults against government compounds, and destruction through arson of infrastructure, private buildings, courthouses, and marketplaces.

It took allied armed forces more than five days to drive Taliban militants out. Insurgents retreated in the face of airstrikes by U.S. and Afghan air forces and drones but reportedly continued fighting in the outskirts of the city. Various official and non-official sources currently put the death toll at 300 civilians, including more than 100 security forces personnel. However, at least 16 of these civilians were killed by an errant airstrike meant to target the Taliban. By August 23, key informants claimed more than 7,500 civilians fled their homes to neighbouring villages. Regrettably, over the last week, continually disrupted water and electricity sources grew that number to 21,000.

During his visit to Ghazni on August 18, President Ghani pledged $20 million to help rebuild the city and strengthen local defenses to prevent further Taliban attacks. However, many are skeptical that the promise will be fulfilled in light of the apparent unpreparedness of government to acknowledge and act on intel regarding the Taliban offensive on Ghazni in the first place. The crisis exposes both the Afghan government’s continuously mishandled counterinsurgency responses and the cracks in the Afghan Armed Forces, beset with desertion, low morale, and corruption. It also raises important questions of whether the government is equipped—and willing—to protect civilians against possible disturbances during the upcoming parliamentary elections. At the moment, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs states, “The situation in the city has returned to how it was prior to the attack on 10 August.”

The deadly surge in violence in Ghazni came after the nationwide three-day ceasefire brokered in June between the Taliban and government forces. During the Independence Day address, President Ghani unveiled a new proposal for a three-month ceasefire. His office asserts they have cleared “all obstacles” to peace after having consulted religious scholars, political parties, and civil society groups. The U.S., NATO, and the UN also welcome the proposal. “This plan responds to the clear and continued call of the Afghan people for peace,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an official statement. Whether this ceasefire, if accepted by the Taliban, will also wind up in renewed violence and civilian displacement remains to be seen.

Mridvika Sahajpal