Locals might say that Kabul’s sky reverberates strongest with the echo of air strikes and night raids—but the truth is that the violence and destruction extends far beyond the Afghan capital city. Since 2001, the Taliban have only increased in strength, and the influence of the Islamic State (IS) on the political and social context in Afghanistan has grown exponentially. Recurrent ideological impasse among the United States’ government, Afghan government officials, and the Taliban has protracted the unrest and exacerbated the carnage.
August was a month of unending conflict. On the first day of Eid—during which all parties were supposed to respect an unofficial and temporary ceasefire—13 people died. August 18th saw the deaths of 234 people, at least 92 of whom were in attendance at a wedding bombed by IS. The massacre on Tuesday the 27th marred the end of the month, with 162 people confirmed dead. In total, 473 civilians were killed in August, with an additional 786 injured. Actual death tolls are likely higher than reported.
The Afghan government disputes the records, asserting that a more thorough and “research based” inquiry is necessary. But Human Rights Chief for the UN mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) Fiona Frazer has declared that “United Nations data strongly indicates that more civilians are killed or injured in Afghanistan due to armed conflict than anywhere else on Earth.” In fact, she asserted, “The published [death] figures almost certainly do not reflect the true scale of harm.”
Small-weapons, close-range conflict claims the most deaths; these armed clashes accounted for approximately 844 deaths during the month of August. Air strikes are not far behind, followed by target and sniper shots, explosions, shellings, and ambush attacks. This violence cloaks the entire Afghan nation in a thick layer of recurring ruin. Regardless of province, Afghan citizens are living in environments of extreme uncertainty and ever-present threat.
For forty years the war in Afghanistan has plowed ahead, earning the title of “most lethal conflict in the world for battle-related deaths.” Accusing the Taliban of harbouring Osama bin Laden and other senior al-Qaeda leaders related to the 9/11 attacks, the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Shortly thereafter they removed the Taliban from power, in effect pushing the armed group into insurgency. Initially, the war cost the US government around $100 billion a year. As US personnel steadily shipped back home and new operational programmes dwindled, costs fell. Yet, official Pentagon figures list the current total cost of US military and reconstruction expenditures in Afghanistan at a whopping $900 billion from 2001 to 2019. That figure does not even include Washington’s related expenditures in neighbouring Pakistan, which US personnel used as a strategic hub.
Two Taliban-claimed vehicle bomb attacks in the first week of September took hundreds of lives, including two victims from the NATO-led Resolute Support mission: one Romanian and one American. Later that week, US President Donald Trump cancelled the unfinished peace talks with Taliban leaders that had been in progress for over a year. “As far as I’m concerned, [the talks] are dead,” Trump announced.
With the US option on the fritz, two different Taliban delegations travelled first to Moscow to discuss peace and reconstruction efforts and then to Beijing to cover the same topic with Chinese officials. Both countries—though reaffirming their support of the Washington-Kabul talks—have strong development- and policy-related interests in Afghanistan.
Since 2002, the European Union has provided €3.66 billion to Afghanistan in development and humanitarian aid. Afghanistan is also the largest beneficiary of EU development assistance—the EU and its Member States have contributed more than €1 billion per year in development assistance to Afghanistan. Toward the end of last year, the European Commission approved a €474 million financial aid package to support state building, public sector reforms, health, justice, and elections, and address the dual challenges of migration and displacement in the country.
Last week, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice President of the European Commission Federica Mogherini spoke over the phone with President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani, expressing condolences over yet another attack in Afghanistan—this time in the northern province of Charikar. With the country’s fourth presidential vote set to occur this Saturday, the 28th of September, Mogherini rightfully referred to the US evacuation from the peace negotiations as a “setback” and emphasised that free and fair elections are needed now more than ever in order to reinstate an effective government—whether interim or long-term—for the Afghan people.
Particularly at issue going forward is the need to develop and implement a peace process that is marked by the full and complete participation of women, youth, and other civil society groups at all forthcoming stages. It is also absolutely essential that the Taliban have a role in the ongoing transition to a more stable form of governance—the ability of Taliban and IS fighters to reintegrate into society is entirely contingent upon their inclusion in the negotiations, however controversial their presence may be.
Arbitration among Afghanistan’s oft-opposed political and social factions cannot guarantee a complete and total end to the conflict. Any form of lasting peace for the Afghan people must be first and foremost crafted, implemented, and monitored by Afghan citizens and leaders. But continued pressure and structured assistance from the EU, UN, and the US—who simply cannot “drop out” of its ongoing role in the perpetuation of violence in Afghanistan—is a vital component.
Another month like August, with its 473 people killed and 786 injured, is simply off the table. The EU must continue to use its diplomatic and political bargaining power to demand the final and full acquisition of peace and justice for Afghan citizens.