More Afghans Killed During Peace Talks

A new report released by the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) reveals that the Taliban attacks increased when the intra-Afghan peace talks began in September of 2020. The report also indicates that the overall number of Afghans being killed in 2020 had decreased by 15% compared to 2019. In contrast to the past 12 years since UNAMA began recording the death toll in the country, the attacks intensified this past winter with the formal opening of the Afghan peace talks.

UNAMA has recorded a total of 8,820 civilian deaths and injuries, 1,146 of which are women and 2,619 are children in 2020. Based on the report, the Taliban and Islamic State, known as ISKP in Afghanistan, are responsible for 62% of the casualties. The remaining 25% are caused by the Afghan government, United States and NATO forces as well as other armed groups supporting the Afghan government. According to UNAMA’s 12 years of records, the total number of civilians killed and injured since 2009 now stands at 110,893, of which 35,559 were killed. This report does not include the military’s casualties resulting from insurgent attacks.

Although there is a 15% decrease in the overall killings of Afghans in 2020, there was a sharp increase in the targeted assassinations of civilians, including public servants, lawyers and judges, health workers, professors, leaders and members of civil society, journalists, NGO workers, human rights defenders, and anyone who spoke against violence and terror in the country. Civilian family members of the police and army were disproportionately targeted as well. Attackers used explosive devices, magnetic bombs attached to vehicles, and targeted killings. The report shows that there was a 69% increase in casualties resulting from explosive devices and a 62% increase in targeted killings compared to the same period in 2019. October and November were the deadliest months since UNAMA began recording in 2009.

The Taliban and other groups did not take responsibility for much of the attacks, but the UNAMA report suggests that the Taliban was responsible for two-thirds of the targeted attacks. The targeted attacks and the resulting casualties, while it might be perceived as small in number compared to 2019, the impact of these attacks were significant and created an “environment of fear and paralyzed many parts of society.”

The signing of the agreement between Afghanistan and the United States under President Trump’s leadership and the Taliban had given hopes to the Afghan people that it would lead to a quiet period and peace in the country. However, the agreement, as it was later revealed, only prevented the killing of Americans by the Taliban and vice versa. In the agreement, the Taliban side was not obligated to refrain from attacking the Afghan people and the Afghan forces, giving them the opportunity to use violence as the major leverage at hand during the intra-Afghan peace talks.

According to several reports, the Afghan people believe that negotiations with the Taliban are the only way to end the conflict in Afghanistan. However, they warn that the Taliban must know that they cannot return to power like they did prior to 2001. Afghans want to live under a republic in which they have equal rights, have the right to express themselves and hold authorities accountable – none of which the Taliban has shown to believe in these basic democratic values.

Source: UNAMA Feb. 2021

Afghanistan Study Group Warns Against U.S. Troop Withdrawal

A new report released by the Afghanistan Study Group has concluded that removing U.S. troops will lead to a civil war in Afghanistan. The group suggests changing the date, currently set for May 1 this year.  “A precipitous U.S. withdrawal is likely to exacerbate the conflict, provoking a wider civil war,” the report reads. It also warns that “A withdrawal would not only leave America more vulnerable to terrorist threats; it would also have catastrophic effects in Afghanistan and the region that would not be in the interest of any of the key actors, including the Taliban.”

The Afghanistan Study Group is mandated by the U.S. Congress and led by former Senator Kelly Ayote and General Joseph Dunford. The group of experts and former U.S. leaders were charged with the examination the Doha Agreement, signed by the U.S. and Taliban leadership in Doha in February of 2020. Over a period of ten months, the group examined the situation in Afghanistan and concluded that the “possibility of civil war is high in the wake of a precipitous troop withdrawal.” 

At the launch of the report, co-chair of the group, General Joseph Dunford said, “We believe that the U.S. withdrawal will provide an opportunity to the terrorists to reconstitute and in our judgement that reconstitution will take about 18-36 months.” The group suggests that the withdrawal be linked to Taliban adherence to the agreements and a reduction in violence, not a deadline set in the Doha Agreement. 

General Dunford stated that, “We don’t believe that the Taliban are meeting the conditionality of the Feb. 2020 agreement.” He said that the group examined the conditionality in three areas, “One, the progress towards a peace agreement; secondly, a genuine broad reduction in violence; third, to demonstrate the will and capacity to prevent Al-Qaeda and ISIS from using Afghanistan as a platform for terrorism.” 

The third point has been supported by reports from the UN and a recent US Treasury report that highlighted the continued relationship between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and the benefits that the Taliban derives from that relationship. The Treasury Department wrote in their report that “Al-Qaeda is gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate with the Taliban under the Taliban protection.” 

The Study Group advocated strongly for a renewed diplomatic engagement in Afghanistan, highlighting regional roles, and saying that “a responsible withdrawal of U.S. troops will demonstrate America’s fidelity to its foreign policy objectives and the benefits of diplomatic engagement.” 

While the intra-Afghan peace talks have been on hold for the past month, on several occasions the Taliban has warned that if U.S. troops are not withdrawn by May 1, they will further increase the violence inside the country and renew attacks on the U.S. and NATO troops as well. Based on the agreement between the US and the Taliban, the Taliban avoided targeting international troops but has increased its attacks on the Afghan security forces as well as the Afghan people. 

In speaking with members of civil society and the media, the Afghan government and its delegation in Doha criticized the Taliban for not attending the peace talks. Since news of the review of the agreement was announced by the Biden administration, Taliban leaders have traveled to Russia, Iran, and Pakistan and have been meeting with the leadership of these countries. The Afghan government’s delegation says they have been waiting for the Taliban negotiators to return to Doha to resume the process. 

In January, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the Biden administration will review and assess the agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban. While the review is underway, intra-Afghan peace talks are on hold in Doha. Many Afghans and allies await a renewed direction in the Afghan peace talks. 

 

Biden Administration to Review US-Taliban Agreement

In a conversation with Afghan National Security advisor Hamdullah Mohib, President Biden’s National Security advisor Jake Sullivan once again relayed that the Biden administration will review and assess the Doha Agreement, signed by the Trump administration and the Taliban. Sullivan also ensured US support “for protecting the extraordinary gains made by Afghan women, girls, and minority groups.” 

A White House statement about Sullivan’s call with Hamdullah Mohib says that Sullivan “made clear the United States’ intention to review the February 2020 US-Taliban agreement, including to assess whether the Taliban was living up to its commitments to cut ties with terrorist groups, to reduce violence in Afghanistan, and to engage in meaningful negotiations with the Afghan government and other stakeholders.”

The review of the agreement and the Biden’s administration’s intention of “consulting closely” with the government of Afghanistan, NATO allies, and regional partners has been welcomed by Afghan women’s human rights groups, Afghan politicians, and the media at large.

In a cabinet meeting, the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, welcomed the Biden administration’s review and called it “a new chapter”  in the US and the Afghan government’s relationship. President Ghani and his government were sidelined under the Trump administration and were not part of the negotiations between the US and the Taliban. While welcoming the news, Ghani said, “Our relations will be at the level of government-to-government.”

During his confirmation hearing last Tuesday, Antony Blinken told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he will review the Doha Agreement between the US and the Taliban and emphasized protecting and supporting the hard-won gains of Afghan women.

The Doha Agreement was signed by Taliban leadership and Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation in February of 2020. The agreement was followed by negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban, as part of the deal between the US and the Taliban. 

The Intra-Afghan talks began September 12th of 2020 and lasted for 84 days. During that period, the two sides only agreed on procedural matters. The Afghan government’s negotiators as well as the Taliban are back in Doha since January 7th to resume the second round of talks. However, the teams have not met over the last two weeks.

 

Antony Blinken: Taliban Cannot Be Trusted with US Security and Gains Must be Protected

In his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, Antony Blinken promised to protect the hard-won gains of Afghan women and girls if confirmed as Secretary of State. He stated that the Taliban cannot be trusted with US national security, policing Al-Qaeda and ISIS attacks on the US, and that a further withdrawal of US troops will be conditions based.

 
“Any agreement that trusts the Taliban to police Al-Qaeda and ISIS without us having any say in that would be a bad deal,” Blinken said in response to Senator Lindsey Graham’s questions. 


In response to questions from Senator Jeanne Shaheen Blinken stated that, “I don’t believe that any outcome that they might achieve, the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban, is sustainable without protecting the gains that has been made by the women and girls of Afghanistan over the last 20 years, when it comes to access to education, healthcare, and to employment.” 


Blinken affirmed that “I think we have a strong interest, if there is an agreement, if it is going to hold up, to do what we can to make sure that those rights are preserved.”

 
While acknowledging the challenges ahead, he promised to review the agreement between the US and the Taliban and assess what promises were made and met so far. Blinken told the senators that, “we have to look carefully at what has been negotiated. I haven’t been privy to it yet, particularly with the agreement that was first reached between the US and the Taliban to understand fully what commitments were made or not made by the Taliban and then to see where they get with their negotiations with the government of Afghanistan.”


Recently, in an interview with the BBC, the first Vice President of Afghanistan, Amrullah Saleh, called the Taliban “terrorists” and stated that they cannot be trusted. “The Taliban were terrorists. They are terrorists today. They are killing women, activists, civil rights activists. You [US] want to negotiate with terrorism, it’s your choice. But we are telling you, don’t be deceived,” he said.


Under the Trump administration the US and the Taliban signed an agreement, also referred to as the Doha agreement, in February 2020. Although the Afghan government was not a party to the agreement between the US and the Taliban, the Afghan government was forced by US officials to release more than 5,000 Taliban prisoners, as part of the deal that the US had agreed to with the Taliban.


“The US delegation came to us and swore on every Holy Scripture that if you release these 5,000 Taliban prisoners there will be no violence. We told them at the highest level that our intelligence indicated otherwise, and if we do this violence will spike. Violence has spiked,” Mr. Saleh added. In the last two months alone, many members of civil society, women’s rights activists, and several journalists were murdered in targeted killings.

 
The first round of the Intra-Afghan peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban ended early December 2020 for a month-long break, after 84 days of negotiations in Doha. In the first round of talks, the negotiators agreed on the procedures of the process only. The second round of talks has been on hold, awaiting a decision from the Biden Administration. It will focus on substantive issues, at the top of which are the future of the Afghan government and a ceasefire. 

Two Female Afghan Supreme Court Judges Assassinated as Violent Terrorist Attacks Increase

On Sunday, in yet another targeted attack by the Taliban, two women judges on the Supreme Court of Afghanistan were shot and killed in Kabul. Two other employees of the Court were wounded in the same attack. The judges, along with their colleagues, were on their way to work in the morning when two gunmen killed and wounded the judges. Targeted assassinations have been at peak levels for the past three months in Afghanistan. Journalists, human rights activists, Afghan women leaders, Afghan government leaders, religious scholars and young human rights activists have been the target of these attacks.

 
The US and the Taliban signed an agreement in February 2020 in which the US committed to a possible complete withdrawal of troops by May 1st of this year if certain conditions are met. One of the conditions was that the Taliban would reduce violence and stop attacking US and allied troops and interests. Although the Taliban avoided attacking US troops, the group increased its attacks against the Afghan people and the Afghan government. For the past 20 years, the US has supported the Afghan government and has been an ally and a reliable partner. However, the Taliban has refused to acknowledge the Afghan government and increased its attacks on the Afghan people and the Afghan government. 


The US has entered several agreements with the government of Afghanistan, including the U.S.–Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement and the Bi-Lateral Security Agreement signed by former President Obama, in which the Afghan government is viewed as an ally and partner. Both of these agreements are legally binding and obligate the US to a longer commitment to Afghanistan, especially to the security of Afghanistan as well as supporting the economy of Afghanistan “until 2024 and beyond.”


This month, Afghanistan’s national director of intelligence, Ahmad Zia Siraj, told Afghan parliamentarians that the Taliban had carried out more than 18,000 attacks against the Afghan people in 2020, while they were negotiating peace in Doha. 


The Afghan government and women’s rights groups have been voicing their concerns that the Taliban has not met the conditions of ceasing or “reducing” violence. Multiple officials of the Afghan government said the Taliban and its affiliates are behind the attacks, however, the Taliban has denied their role in the targeted killings of the Afghan civil servants and prominent human rights advocates. 


Many Afghan officials believe that the Taliban denial is a new strategy they are employing while engaging in the peace talks. For the first time since the peace talks, US armed forces spokesman in Afghanistan Colonel Sonny Leggett blamed the Taliban for the increased attacks too. He tweeted that, “The Taliban’s campaign of unclaimed attacks and targeted killings of government officials, civil society leaders & journalists must … cease for peace to succeed.”


Negotiators from the Afghan government’s team as well as the Taliban, are back in Doha to resume the peace talks. According to Reuters, the second round has been slow as both sides wait for a decision by the incoming Biden Administration on Afghanistan. While the teams await a decision, they have met a few times to discuss an agenda and to keep the process active. President-elect Biden and his team have largely remained silent on their Afghan strategy.

Strong Bipartisan Support in Stopping US Troop Reduction in Afghanistan

With overwhelmingly bipartisan support, Congress overturned President Trump’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2021. It states emphatically that the president alone cannot decide to reduce the number troops in Afghanistan. The Act also includes that the human rights of women and girls and minority populations must be protected in Afghanistan.  The House voted 322 – 87 and the Senate voted 81 – 13 in favor of overriding the President’s veto of the bill. The NDAA was enacted into law on new year’s day despite Trump’s veto.


Section 1213 of the Act states that “it is in the national security interests of the United States to deny terrorists safe haven in Afghanistan, protect the United States homeland, uphold the United States partnership with the Government of Afghanistan and cooperation with the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, and protect the hard-fought rights of women, girls, and other vulnerable populations in Afghanistan.”

For Afghan women’s rights groups, the overriding of President Trump’s veto of the bill is a step towards ensuring that the ongoing efforts for peace are not rushed and that the US troops will not leave prematurely. The US and the Taliban signed an agreement in February of 2020 which obligates the Taliban to reduce violence in Afghanistan. The Taliban, however, has increased violence against the Afghan people and the Afghan government. Targeted killings have been at its peak, killing members of civil society, journalists, and women’s rights leaders. In the last two months alone, 11 journalists have been assassinated throughout the country. This bill comes at an important time to assess the level of violence perpetrated by the Taliban and to hold the terrorist group accountable for indiscriminately killing members of a vibrant civil society.

The provisions in the NDAA authorize Congress to withhold funding for further troop reductions until reports from several agencies indicate, among several other issues, how a withdrawal will not “compromise” the US counterterrorism mission as well as not “increase the risk of the expansion of existing” or new terrorist groups. According to the Act, these reports come from offices of the Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, the Director of National Intelligence, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Commander of United States Central Command, the Commander of United States Forces, Afghanistan; and the United States Permanent Representative to NATO is submitted to the four different committees of the House and Senate.  

The overriding of President Trump’s veto of NDAA 2021 by Congress was received with sigh of relief by many, including Afghan women rights leaders and groups who were concerned that the troop reduction was too early and too severe given the level of violence in Afghanistan perpetrated by the Taliban. In December, Trump announced that he was going to further reduce the troops before leaving office to fulfill his 2016 campaign promise to end the war in Afghanistan. The Act orders that the current number of troops may not be reduced from 8,000 or the number of troops at the time of the enactment of the Act or below 4,000. Currently, there are about 4,500 US security forces serving in Afghanistan. 

Malala Maiwand: Journalist and Women’s Rights Activist Assassinated

Today, on World Human Rights Day, journalist and women’s rights activist Malala Maiwand was assassinated on her way to work in Jalalabad city in Afghanistan. Malala worked at a private tv and radio network and her driver, Tahir, was assassinated in the attack as well. 


In addition to her full-time journalism job, Malala worked on promoting women’s rights too. She worked on women’s access to education, employment and information. Her mother, a local leader, was assassinated 12 years ago. This report, Forgotten Heroes, highlighting some of the assassinations of activist and leader women, including Malala’s mother, Belqis Mazlomyar, quoted Malala for following in the footsteps of her mother to continuing her legacy of activism. As the eldest child of her late mother, Malala was left to raise her four siblings, all of whom she made sure were educated. Her father was assassinated by the Taliban too. No one has claimed responsibility for her assassination yet. 


Since the beginning of the so-called Inter-Afghan peace talks, targeted assassinations have been at their peak. Malala is the third journalist and human rights activist to have been killed by armed men in daylight in the past month and a half. In an interview with Tolonews, she had mentioned receiving death threats for her work. 


While leaders continue to condemn each attack on civilians, the Afghan people are losing hope on what the peace process means for them, unprecedented killings of the civilian people. In continuing with condemnations from global allies and Afghan leaders on the increased violence, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution in support of the Afghan people, calling out Taliban violence and a commitment to supporting Afghan’s human rights. 

Sources: Twitter 12/10/2020, Relief Web 12/12/2012, Tolonews 12/10/2020

U.S. House Committee Hearing Warns Against Troop Reduction in Afghanistan

The House Armed Services Committee held a hearing on the Hill last Friday at which a panel of three foreign policy experts, and most members of the Committee, expressed their concerns about the ongoing peace process and the impending Trump-backed troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. The three experts called it a “mistake,” “dangerous” and changing “the balance of power in favor of the Taliban and other terrorist groups.”

On the panel, former ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, who also served as ambassador to Iraq and Pakistan, testified alongside Dr. Stephen Biddle, Professor at Columbia University and Dr. Seth Jones, Director of Transnational Threats Project at Center for Strategic & International Studies. All three unanimously told the Committee that without U.S. military support, the Afghan forces will not win the war against the Taliban and other terrorist groups in the country.

Ambassador Crocker stated that the troop reduction sends the Taliban a signal that “you win – we lose. Let’s dress this up the best way we can.” Ambassador Crocker called the ongoing negotiations “surrender talks,” agreeing to the Taliban’s long-time demand to speak with them and not include the Afghan government. He argued that with a continued U.S. engagement and strategic patience “with an educated population and girls and women playing the role they deserve is the best way to ensure our long-term security.”

Dr. Biddle called President Trump’s announcement of a 50% troop reduction a “mistake” and said, “our interests are best served by no further withdrawal.” He believes that “we should not give away more concessions without being requited” by the Taliban. He referred to the Taliban slowing down the peace talks in hope that the U.S. will make further concessions. He asked, “Why should the Taliban make any concessions when the U.S. keeps giving away what they want for free, step by step, gradually over time?”

Dr. Jones argued that “absent a peace deal and the further withdrawal of U.S. forces will likely continue to shift the balance of power in favor of the Taliban and other militant groups including Al-Qaeda and their supporters which include Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and other countries and outside actors.” Dr. Jones recommended that the U.S. continue to build “political consensus, support peace talks, and to at least prevent the overthrow of the Afghan government by the Taliban.”

The experts also stated that the Taliban group continues to threaten human and civil rights in Afghanistan. Ambassador Crocker warned, “they have not become kinder and gentler”, while Dr. Jones made clear references to the “deeply troubling” treatment of women today in areas under their control. In his latest research paper, published the same day of the hearing in the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, he writes that the “Taliban’s persecution of women is particularly concerning. Women who are victims of domestic violence have little recourse to justice in Taliban courts, and the Taliban discourages women from working [employment outside the house], denies women access to modern healthcare, prohibits women from participating in politics [or entering politics], and supports such punishments against women as stoning and public lashing.” He also highlighted the fact that the Taliban’s negotiating team includes no women.

Dr. Jones told the lawmakers that, “Congress has a very important role to keep this as a front burner issue. There has been a major progress on women’s issues in the past 20 years and a Taliban takeover will eliminate that virtually immediately.”

The hearing took place just a few days after President Trump announced that he will reduce the current number of troops to 2,500 from 4,500 by mid-January. The announcement drew criticism domestically and globally, including from Trump’s own party and allies, calling it a “mistake” and “dangerous.”

Sources: House Armed Services Committee 11/20/2020; West Point 11/20/2020; Academy of Diplomacy 11/20/22; CSIS 11/20/2020; Columbia University 11/20/2020; Feminist Newswire 11/18/2020

Trump’s Order to Withdraw from Afghanistan Draws Ire Domestically and Abroad

On Tuesday, President Trump ordered the withdrawal of more troops from Afghanistan and Iraq. Leaders within his party, as well as global allies, shared their concerns that leaving “too soon” could have a high cost.

In a statement to CNN, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned that, “the price for leaving too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high.” He stated that global security continues to be at risk from international terrorist groups who might organize attacks from Afghanistan.

Trump’s announcement has been met with opposition from his strong supporters in the Republican party as well. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called it a “mistake” and warned against “any earth-shaking changes in regards to defense and foreign policy.” Another top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mac Thornberry also voiced his opposition to the move, calling the troop reduction “unjustified” and that it ignores “dangers on the ground.” 

Stoltenberg went on to say that NATO went into Afghanistan to support the U.S. after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and not to allow Afghanistan to become a safe haven for terrorist groups again. He also called on NATO allies to honor their commitment to withdraw at the right time saying, “We went into Afghanistan together. And when the time is right, we should leave together in a coordinated and orderly way.” He asked his NATO allies to “live up to this commitment, for our own security.”

Despite several warnings from security experts and allies, including from his own party, Trump is set to further reduce U.S. troops from Afghanistan from 4,500 to 2,500. While withdrawing from Afghanistan was one of Trump’s campaign strategies, on his way out from office he is insisting on withdrawing more troops without regard to the reality on the ground.

In a memo to the White House, recent former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper also objected to the U.S. troop withdrawl. He warned that it was the “unanimous recommendation of the chain of command” that the U.S. does not reduce or withdraw troops from Afghanistan. Several sources have indicated that this might have been the reason for Esper’s removal from office by Trump. Soon after Trump fired Esper in a tweet, he installed his apparent loyalists in the Department of Defense.

The Afghan people, especially Afghan women, do not want the U.S. to stay in Afghanistan  “forever”. Women’s rights groups and civil society as well as the Afghan government do not want the U.S. to leave now. They demand that the U.S. leave when things improve domestically and in a timely order.

The Afghan government has also expressed their concerns about the existence of several terrorist groups and that they “need help from the U.S. to defeat them.” Since the intra-Afghan peace talks began in September, violence has been at its peak in the country. The Taliban, while still engaging in the peace talks, increased their attacks on the Afghan people. The group has specifically targeted what is referred to as “soft targets,” including women leaders, members of civil society, public servants, and journalists.

The Taliban use of violence as leverage at the peace talks has been condemned by Afghans and global allies, including the U.S. However, the U.S. has not been able to convince the group to agree to a comprehensive ceasefire or reduction in violence. The two sides have yet to agree on the ground rules of the negotiations. The talks have been frozen for weeks.

The Taliban demands to use the U.S.-Taliban agreement as the base for their political negotiations and the Hanafi Jurisprudences as the base for Islamic issues. The Afghan government refuses to accept the U.S.-Taliban agreement on the grounds of not being party to the agreement. The Afghan government also disagrees with only basing Islamic issues on the Hanafi Jurisprudence while ignoring all other religious minorities in the country.

In February of this year, the Taliban and the U.S. signed a peace deal in which the Taliban agreed to not attack the U.S. and allied troops but refused to agree to not attack the Afghan people and the Afghan army.

Sources: CNN 11/17/2020; CNN 11/13/2020; WashingtonPost 11/14/2020; BBC 11/18/2020; Twitter 11/09/2020; Tolonews 11/18/2020; U.S. News 11/17/2020

Despite Warnings, Trump Pushes for Afghanistan Withdrawal

Soon after President Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper in a tweet, he appointed his apparent loyalists and strong opponents of US presence in Afghanistan; Retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor has been appointed as the senior advisor to the new acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller, who has been against US troops’ presence in Afghanistan. Macgregor has advocated for a complete withdrawal of the US troops and even the removal of the US Embassy in Kabul. Along with the firing of Mark Esper, three other senior civilian officials either resigned or were fired.

The changes in the leadership of the Defense Department worried many in the US and Afghanistan. These changes also come at a time that many top generals and security officials have repeatedly warned against a rushed and a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan. A number of current and former both security and civilian officials have repeatedly called a complete withdrawal “reckless” and dangerous. US security officials have also repeatedly warned of the existence of terrorist groups and leaving a security vacuum in Afghanistan.

Sources close to CNN have told the TV station that the changes in the Defense Department were prompted by Esper disagreeing with Trump on a “premature” and complete withdrawal from Afghanistan. Esper and his aides advocated for two major conditions to be met before the US withdrew its troops from the country: the Taliban cutting its ties with Al-Qaeda, and agreeing to come to an agreement with the Afghan government. Both conditions are not met. Several reports of the UN and other sources indicate that the Taliban continues to enjoy strong support from Al-Qaeda, and the group has been vocal on not recognizing the Afghan government or making any progress in the ongoing peace talks in Doha, Qatar.

Despite the lack of progress in peace talks and the deteriorating security situation on the ground across Afghanistan, the Trump Administration continues to push for a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan, something that has worried many Afghans and allies across the world. France’s Foreign Minister recently said that in an upcoming meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, he will make it clear to Pompeo to not withdraw from Afghanistan or Iraq because of the continued presence of terrorist groups, threatening global security. NATO Secretary-General made similar statements, on considering the reality on the ground.

Afghans and experts on Afghanistan hope that with the departure of Trump, there will be a change, more clarity, and accountability on Afghanistan in the Biden Administration. Afghan negotiator and a former Member of Parliament, Fawzia Kofi, hopes that the new administration will consider the reality on the ground and will have better clarity so that the Afghan government can be better prepared for any reduction in numbers of troops. Biden and his team have yet to announce a strategy on Afghanistan, but there is hope that he will not create a complete security vacuum in Afghanistan or the Middle East.

On the other hand, the Taliban has increased its attacks on the Afghan people and uses the increased violence as leverage in the peace talks. The group warned that if the new administration in the US does not abide by the Doha agreement, signed between the US and the Taliban in February of this year, they will further intensify their war against the Afghan people. In the last two months since the negotiations began on September 12 in Doha, the Taliban has increasingly targeted women leaders, members of civil society, students in educational centers and a university, and recently assassinated two well-known journalists.

There is no progress reported on the Afghan government and the Taliban peace talks in Doha. The Taliban argues to base their negotiations on the agreement signed between the group and the US. However, the Afghan government was not a part of the Doha agreement, is not a signatory to the agreement, and refuses to accept the Doha agreement as the base for the negotiations. The Afghan government has suggested to the Taliban to respect the will of the Afghan people and the several bilateral agreements between the Afghan government and its international allies, including the US.

Sources: CNN 11/12/2020, Reuters 11/13/2020, Tolonews 11/13/2020, Politico 11/12/2020, Twitter 11/09/2020, BBC 10/29/2020, Tolonews, 11/12/2020, , BBC 11/08/2020, AP 11/12/2020

Taliban Uses Increasing Violence as Leverage in Peace Talks

In a series of targeted killings across Afghanistan, Afghan journalists and members of civil society have become the biggest targets. Today, in yet another violent attack, Afghanistan lost a beloved and experienced journalist and a member of the civil society in Helmand, the southern part of the country. The killing of Elyas Dayee comes a day after the Afghan vice president warned that intelligence reports revealed that members of civil society are being targeted. 

Elyas Dayee was a regional reporter for one of the highly respected radio station, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Afghanistan, supported by the US. Dayee, at age 33, was recently awarded the Courageous Journalist Award of the year and is survived by a toddler daughter and his wife. He worked as a journalist for 12 years in several of the frontlines across the country. His assasination has been condemned by many, including US officials in Kabul.

The killing of Dayee comes only a few days after another highly respected journalist, Yama Siawash, was assassinated in Kabul. On Saturday, three people, including former TOLO News news anchor and journalist Yama Siawash, were killed in an explosion on their way to work. Siawash was in his late 20s, led a major news program that was critical of the Taliban, other terrorist groups, and at times had heated debates with Afghan officials too. He had received threats, leading him to leave his job for his own security, but was still assassinated.

Afghan journalists and members of the civil society call it a “systematic murders of Afghan journalists” who are reporting on realities from the ground. Many of the latest assassinations happened through exploding a magnetic IED attached to the vehicles of these targets. No groups have taken responsibility for the targeted assassinations but Afghan officials and members of the Afghan civil society believe that the Taliban is responsible for these attacks. The Taliban leadership, residing in Doha, Qatar, often claims that they are the only group behind attacks and violence.

In less than one month, the Taliban group has launched major attacks against what are called “soft targets” across the country. In October, the group targeted an educational center in the West of Kabul, killing 43 high school students who were taking additional classes to prepare for university exams. Later that week, the group attacked Kabul University, killing 22 students all between the ages of 17 and 23.

The Taliban group has increased violence in Afghanistan despite continuing to be part of the peace talks in Doha. The group says they use violence as leverage at the negotiating table. The US and the Taliban entered a peace deal in February of this year, in which the Taliban agreed to not attack US and allied forces. However, the Taliban has intensified their attacks against the Afghan people more than ever before. The Afghan people, especially women’s rights groups, have repeatedly asked the Taliban for “a comprehensive ceasefire,” a demand the group refuses to agree to. While the US officials often condemn the attacks and the rising level of violence, they have not been able to push the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire or to not target Afghan civilians.

Sources: Radio Free Europe 11/12/20; Tolo News 11/12/20

Members of Congress “Urge” Pompeo to Withdraw from G20 Summit

In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, 45 members of Congress “urge” the Secretary to withdraw from the G20 summit, which will take place in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in November. In the letter, the members expressed their concerns about the continued violations of human rights and the repression of the voices of civic groups by the Saudi Arabian government. The effort led by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) is urging Sec. Pompeo to “publicly demand that the Saudi government take clear and immediate steps towards ending its record of human rights violations, reckless foreign policy, and environmental destruction.” The members are specifically demanding accountability for the killing of the late journalist Jamal Khashoggi and ending the war in Yemen. Additionally, they demand the release of human rights advocates from prison, the freeing of women’s rights activists and to stop violating their rights.

Ahead of the G20 summit, Saudi is hosting the B20 next week, with women’s empowerment at the top of the agenda. Human rights groups call it a “sham” and share their concerns on the violations of women’s rights and human rights in Saudi Arabia. Among several others, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also raised concerns on the violations of human rights and women’s rights, and urge participants to “raise the women’s cases.”

The B20 is the official forum in which business leaders have the opportunity to present policy recommendations to the G20 summit. Although many major businesses have withdrawn from the B20, many major corporations remain. These include representatives from HSBC, Mastercard, PwC, McKinsey, CISCO, ENI, Siemens, Accenture and BBVA.

The Saudi government continues to systematically silence dissent and target teachers, clerics, writers, activists, and human rights advocates who call for change. Just before announcing some changes, including granting women the right to drive in 2018, Saudi authorities arrested human rights defenders, including those who advocated for the right to drive. There are now 13 women’s rights defenders on trials, five of which remain in detention, facing charges of speaking to the foreign media or international organizations. Some are accused of “promoting women’s rights” and “calling for the end of the male guardianship system.”

Earlier this month, Members of the Parliament of the European Union also passed a resolution to “downgrade” its participation in the upcoming G20 meeting on the basis of the violations of human rights and concerns over impunity.

The G20 is the forum for economic cooperation and brings together leaders of developed and developing countries from all continents. The G20 countries, all together, represent 80% of the world’s economic output. The presidency of the G20 rotates among its members and this year, Saudi Arabia is presiding over the Summit.

Sources: Freedom Forward 10/21/20; Amnesty International 10/23/20; Al Monitor 10/09/20; G20

War in Afghanistan Has “No Islamic Justification”

In an interview, the president of the International Union of Muslim Scholars said that the war in Afghanistan has no Islamic justification. Sheikh Ahmad Al-Raissouni said that the killing of Muslims is a “great sin” and that carrying out suicide attacks against Muslims is “prohibited” in Islam.

He said, “I told some of the Taliban that there is no justification and Islamic reason for the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Even the killing of a single person in the current war is against Islamic law.”

The Taliban often justify their war against Afghans and the Afghan government by calling it “Islamic,” arguing it’s for the liberation from their western oppressors. In recent years, however, this issue has sparked reactions from several global Islamic scholars. He also stated that while negotiations are proceeding, there is a need “to stop the war,” referring to a ceasefire, something that the Afghan people really demand.

Speaking on the rise of violence, he said, “I can say categorically that the killing of a person will send someone to the bottom of hell. Killing is a crime, the current murdering and killing is a crime.”

In his address to the Parliament, the President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani made a similar statement that there is “no religious justification” for the Taliban’s war against the Afghan people. President Ghani stated that “The Taliban do not have any Islamic reason for war.” He continued on to say that the Afghan religious scholars asked the Taliban to settle the issues based on the Quranic verses and the teachings of the Prophet, but the Taliban insists that the base should be their agreement with the U.S. You can judge now who really represents Islam.”

In the last two months, Afghans have been bearing witness to one of the most horrific increases in violence in their country to date. The Taliban signed a deal with the United States on February 29th of this year in which the Taliban agreed to not attack American allied forces in Afghanistan. In contrast, the Taliban increased its attacks against the Afghan people and Afghan security forces, leaving dozens of women, children and men murdered and wounded every day.

The Afghan government’s armed forces have been fighting back against the Taliban fighters but they are not committing offensive attacks against the Taliban since the U.S-Taliban deal. The Taliban is using their attacks as leverage at the peace talks.

Sources: Tolonews, 10/21/20, Tolonews 10/21/20

Violence in Afghanistan Rises While Peace Talks Resume

More than a month after the Afghan peace talks began in Doha, Qatar, the Taliban has increased its attacks on both Afghan civilians and the Afghan army. While the Taliban continues to engage in the peace talks with the Afghan government, the group continues to use violence as leverage in the Intra-Afghan Talks. The war is taking the lives of many Afghan civilians and army personnel.

The Taliban attacked Helmand province seven days ago and continues to fight, forcing nearly 40,000 locals to leave their homes. The Taliban has also been actively fighting in three other provinces and several other districts. In counterattacks, the Afghan forces have caused heavy casualties on the Taliban’s fighters too.

The ongoing violence has caused tremendous damage and people continue to suffer. Afghan officials as well as Afghan civilians have been demanding a comprehensive ceasefire, a demand the Taliban refuses.

The Taliban and the US signed a deal on February 29th of this year in which the Taliban committed to not attacking American and its allied forces. However, the deal did not include the same protection for the Afghan civilians and the Afghan army. In contrast, the Taliban has increased its attacks in Afghanistan, aiming to use its violent power to sway the peace talks in its favor.

Peace talks began with the Taliban and the Afghan government’s team on September 12 in Doha, a day after the 19th anniversary of 9/11. The talks were stalled for weeks because the Taliban demanded to negotiate on the basis of the agreement between them and the US. The Taliban-US agreement, referred to as the Doha agreement, generously favors the Taliban. The agreement does not recognize the Afghan government as an official body in the talks, giving the Taliban a more powerful position in the talks.

The Afghan government rejects to base the talks on the Doha agreement, a document to which they were not a party to and are not recognized as the legitimate representative of the Afghan people. The Afghan government believes the talks should be based on the framework agreed to by the Afghan people at a recent inclusive consultation as well as other agreements, especially the US and the Afghan government’s joint statement on the peace process.

The Taliban and the Afghan government met on Wednesday to restart their talks in Doha. The Taliban continues to call the Afghan government a “puppet government” and does not recognize the team representing the state of Afghanistan. The group also refuses a ceasefire or reduction in violence, despite the continuous demands of the Afghan people. In response to the rise in violence, the US Envoy to the Peace Talks said, “Attacks have been on the rise in recent weeks – threatening the peace process and alarming the Afghan people and their regional and international supporters.” He continued to state that he and other American officials have been in touch with the Taliban on reducing the violence.

Sources: Tolo news 10/16/20 Twitter, 10/15/20 NPR 10/13/20

Afghan Women Leaders: The Taliban Must Recognize Today’s Afghanistan

At an event held yesterday at the United States Institute of Peace, the Afghan Minister for Women’s Affairs, Hasina Safi, stressed that we must build on the achievements of the Afghan people, especially Afghan women.

In her remarks, Minister Hasina Safi said, “There have been significant gains in all sectors. Today when we speak of the peace process, I believe it is very critical that we have to keep all the achievements. 20 years ago, we started from zero. We have made great achievements and we are all talking about the progress with much pride.”

Safi mentioned that right after the Taliban was removed from power, “We started from awareness, moved to capacity building, moved to participation, and today we are talking about responsibilities and meaningful participation which will definitely take us even further.” She recalled the early days after the collapse of the Taliban that, “We were looking for literate women but today, 29% of the civil servants are women and 28% of the parliament seats are occupied by women. We almost had no women judges and today we have around 261 women judges and 643 prosecutors.” These achievements are in addition to many other areas, including education, health, trade, and the economy.

Safi asks the international community to have “confidence” in the women of Afghanistan as they “have proven themselves and have been taking each step very responsibly towards entering the negotiations.” While praising Afghan women and her nation, she also urged the international community to take their share of the responsibility in the peace process too.

Dr. Habiba Sarabi another panelist and a woman member of the Afghan government’s negotiation team said that “after much pressure from Afghan women’s rights groups and our international allies, the Taliban group is now willing to talk about women’s rights but only according to Islam.” She clarified that their “willingness does not mean that the Taliban themselves want to talk about women’s issues.” She gives much credit to the Afghan women’s rights groups and the international allies who have been speaking up for the rights of Afghan women in the peace process.

She believes that the “Taliban must accept women. Women are part of the society. The Taliban must face today’s women and today’s situation. Today’s situation is not the same as it was in 1996 when the Taliban took over or for that matter in the late 1990s when they ruled.” During the Taliban rule, all human rights of the women of Afghanistan were taken away and women were forced to stay home.

Sources: USIP 10/7/20

Supporting the Advancement of Women in Afghanistan

Since the fall of the Taliban, and with the assistance of the international community, Afghan women have secured incredible gains in education, health, civil society, and government — all in a short period of time.  As Afghanistan moves through a new period of transition, we must work together to help sustain and expand on these gains. In this blog series, we learn about Afghan women’s experiences – as told in their own words – and remember that we must stand Shoulder-to-Shoulder with Afghan women in their fight for equality and for the peaceful redevelopment of Afghanistan. Share these stories, and your own, on Twitter using #ShoulderToShoulder; you can also take our pledge today to stand with Afghan women.


I have been asked numerous times to share what it was it like for me as an Afghan woman during and after the Taliban. These years have been critical and eventful for me, as well as many other Afghans, but one thing has become clear during this time: Afghan women are both resourceful and resilient. We have overcome extraordinary obstacles and have become strong voices for rebuilding our society, but we cannot create sustainable change alone. We need the support of the international community, including the United States.

Pal Teravagimov / Shutterstock.com
via Pal Teravagimov and Shutterstock

During Taliban rule, I lived as a refugee with my family in Peshawar, Pakistan and attended a school that was specifically designed for refugees. The funding for the school was provided by multiple sources, and the source of the funding always determined the curriculum. For instance, in the beginning, most of the funding was received from the Government of Saudi Arabia. Thus the curriculum was mainly and strictly based around religious studies and the language of Arabic. As the funding sources changed, the curriculum changed too.

I visited Afghanistan during the Taliban regime and spent two of my long summers Mazar-e-Sharif in Balkh province, located in the north. Although I was 14 years old, I was not allowed to walk outside like my younger siblings did, and none of us attended school.

Girls’ education was not allowed during the Taliban. Nevertheless, my parents hired a female teacher to come to our house to teach three of my younger sisters, ages 3, 5, and 7. The teacher could not come for the classes regularly, though, because she feared for her life.

Unlike boys, who enjoyed most or all of their day in front of their gates with their neighbors’ kids, the girls spent all of their time at home doing little to nothing. All my family members could visit famous sites, including the Blue Mosque, but my mom and I could not because we were “grown up women” who had to stay at home all the time. The main activities for girls comprised of house chores including cleaning, cooking, and washing the dishes and clothes. The only profession women and girls could learn from one another was sewing women’s clothes and weaving carpets. From these two professions, they could earn a living and contribute to the economy of their families.

At the time, if I wanted to go out of the house, I had to be accompanied by my mother, father, and/or mother and brother, and I had to wear a burka, a blue cloth that covers women from head-to-toe. To avoid wearing a burka, I spent all of my two summers at home. But, to avoid beatings from the Taliban, I had to wear a burka when traveling from Kabul to Mazar -e- Sharif. Twice, however, I fell two times because of the cumbersome covering and remained dizzy for the rest of the day.

With the fall of the Taliban regime, I returned home to Kabul with my family. I finished my last two years of school and participated in the entry exam to university to continue my higher education. This was not something I could have done in Afghanistan during the Taliban, nor in Pakistan had I stayed in Peshawar. Higher education opportunities were very limited for Afghan refugees. I passed the entry exam to Kabul University and four years later, graduated from the Journalism Faculty. Upon my graduation, I joined the work force and worked in different organizations in as a journalist.

This has been the case for a majority of the young girls living in the major cities: they graduates from schools, continued their higher education, and are now working. They are not only independent, but they also contribute to and support their families. More importantly, they are aware of their position and rights in the society. But, the situation is much different for many women living in the provinces where a majority of the international troops have already left and some international funding has stopped or been reduced considerably – cutting some projects that were designed to support women. In Afghanistan, international assistance is still crucial for the educational and economic advancement of women.

Meanwhile, the international news on Afghan women is a litany of depressing, heartbreaking stories. Terrible stories about domestic violence, a husband who has cut off his wife’s nose and ears, or acid attacks on girls’ trying to make their way to school. These are severe cases. But, there are other stories of hope, courage, and resistance. Stories about women demanding to be heard, stories about girls excelling in school, about families supporting their daughters, wives, and mothers as they make their way to becoming police officers, business owners, or whatever else they desire to be.

It is true that Afghanistan is not the best place for a woman to live. Violence against women has not ended and is nowhere close to ending. Eighty-seven percent of Afghan women experience some form of violence in their lifetime; 62 percent experience multiple forms of violence, including forced marriage and sexual violence. We are still very far from where we want to be. But, above all, with all the challenges, Afghan women still go forward and thrive in their day-to-day struggle.

Afghan women have come a long way over the last decade. We have made significant achievements, many of which would have not been possible without the generous support of the international community, especially the United States.

Before the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Afghan women did not exist in the public sphere. Women were restricted to their own homes and were not allowed to earn an education or to work. The Taliban banned women from going outside without a close male relative, and whipped women in public for even the tiniest infractions. There was not a single school for girls, but today, according to the Afghan Ministry of Education, out of 7 million students, 37 percent are girls, and in addition to 24 public schools and higher education institutions, there are 82 private higher education institutions across Afghanistan where both young women and men can achieve their dreams of higher education. Some, like me, can even chase their dreams of quality education in the West.

These stories of change do not always reach the US public, but the change is palpable. Now out of 170,000 teachers in Afghanistan, 30 percent are women. Women occupy 28 percent of the seats in the Afghan parliament. Women can participate in any sport – from football to cricket – and not only in Kabul. Women travel to participate in international games too. There are thousands of women doctors, nurses, pharmacists, some engineers, many politicians, police officers, soldiers, even a few pilots, civil society activists, and last but not least, many journalists.

Twelve years ago it was absolutely unimaginable for women to see themselves as news anchors; but that is not the case today. Today, there are female anchors and reporters on almost every radio and TV network. Women not only read news and host various shows, but they have no restrictions on discussing women’s issues. Afghan women have, therefore, been strongly advocating for their rights through the media.

I cannot overstate how enormous these accomplishments are in Afghanistan. Where only thirteen years ago, women were hidden from view and denied basic human dignity, today women, together with men, are leading the charge in Afghanistan for human rights, economic development, peace, and security.

But the situation is fragile. Afghan women and civil society activists have come a long way and are now able to move forward, but they need international support in order to extend their work, especially to women living in the far corners of the country. As an Afghan woman, I hope that the US continues to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with us, so every Afghan can live in a peaceful, free, and equal society. To lose what has been achieved so far for women would be a catastrophe for all.

Election Process Agreement Creates Hope for Some in Afghanistan

Just when the success of the election process seemed to be in doubt, US Secretary of State John Kerry went to Afghanistan to once again play a mediator’s role, meeting with the two presidential candidates and with outgoing president Hamid Karzai to help broker a solution to the disputed election process. After two days of intense negotiations, Kerry succeeded in getting the two sides to agree on an audit of all of the runoff election votes as well as the creation of a national unity government.

via Canada in Afghanistan
via Canada in Afghanistan

The news was welcomed by most Afghans as well as the local media, bringing an overwhelming sense of relief among Afghans and creating hope that the final results will be fair. Under the agreement, the exact terms of which have not been made public, all votes cast in the June 14 runoff election will be audited in the presence of international observers, and fraudulent votes will be excluded. After a complete audit, both candidates will accept the results, and both will form the next government together.

Although the details of the national unity government are not yet spelled out, most people believe that the agreement may remove the dangers of exclusion and rivalries. Some also believe that the formation of a national unity government will reduce tensions between ethnic groups and help create a peaceful and hopeful environment for ordinary Afghans.

After the announcement, both candidates put aside their rivalries and appeared happily at a press conference with the US Secretary of State. This showing was in contrast to the presentation of the candidates after the runoff election results were announced by the Afghan Independent Election Commission in July when both candidates claimed to be the rightful next president of Afghanistan. Some people had taken to the streets and gathered to protest the election results, claiming that the process had been marred by fraud. One of the candidates even announced that he would form a parallel government. These actions created tense feelings among Afghans, and people feared the situation would create chaos and animosity between the different ethnic groups in the country.

But with the current agreement creating a government of national unity, both camps will be included in the next government. This has opened a window of conversation between the presidential candidates and among all Afghans as a whole.

Neither the audit process nor the creation of a unity government will be quick or easy. As John Kerry wrote in an op-ed for Afghan ToloNews, “Afghans took an enormous step on the road toward a stronger democracy in April and June when millions of people went to the polls to choose the country’s next president. Every vote was a courageous endorsement of democracy, and an expression of hope for the future.” Yet, he continued, “the road to democracy is bumpy and the journey is not completed overnight.”

>