The sluggish peace talks ongoing in Doha of Qatar have seemingly hit a snag that the negotiating sides refuse to acknowledge and are trying to put a positive spin on the lag that is proving deadly for Afghans. In the meantime, the situation on the ground in Afghanistan is gravely worrying. In a fresh bout of violence, the Taliban have launched a coordinated attack on different parts of Helmand province, inflicting and suffering heavy casualties, reclaiming parts of the province, and scaring many households out of their homes. As many as 5,000 families are said to have been forced to flee the conflict areas as intense fighting is still ongoing in Lashkargah city, the provincial capital of Helmand. Meanwhile, the US despite being critical of the Taliban’s intensified attacks across Afghanistan has stopped short of calling the group’s actions a breach of their agreement signed in Doha last February because, in actuality, it’s not a breach on the Taliban’s part.
The American authorities only condemn such attacks, and see the spike in violence inconsistent with the Doha pact, but wrongly so. Recently, the US Chargé d’Affaires, Ross Wilson, has echoed Gen. Miller’s, commander of NATO’s Resolute Support Mission, call upon the Taliban to stop its offensive in Helmand – for the reason that it’s not consistent with the US-Taliban agreement. The irony is that there was no mention of a reduction in violence (RiV) in the pact – unless it’s part of the secret annexes that were never revealed – and thus, there is no mechanism to hold the insurgents accountable. There have only been informal fragments of reports suggesting that the Taliban group agreed it would not attack major population centers.
In response to such violence and to be a deterrent to it, the US portrays that it retains the right to come to the help of Afghan forces with air power – which they did in the Helmand case. This situation signifies a loophole in the agreement. Because a deterministic and decisive avenue wasn’t adopted that could have avoided such ambiguity, it seems RiV, which the Taliban were expected to live up to, has been merely a castle in the air, or perhaps part of improbable backdoor promises, which couldn’t be pinned down and honored. Meanwhile, the Taliban hide behind their stance of saying that they are only reclaiming areas lost to security forces a few months back and that the escalation of violence isn’t something new.
Although in the wake of the ongoing peace talks and the US-Taliban agreement RiV is hoped to serve as a prelude and something to have been exercised by the sides to show goodwill, it’s not something that should precisely happen, and so it no way risks or violates the agreement. Judging from the circumstances and the stepped-up Taliban attacks, Afghanistan is going to witness such horrendous instances of violence for the next few months until a ceasefire comes up for discussion in Doha talks – which haven’t even made considerable progress on finalizing working principles, let alone the much-needed agenda. The war is steering towards climax until a descent occurs in the upcoming winter, a season when the insurgents usually reduce attacks, at least if experience from past years is something to go by. However, all this while, the Afghans will bear the ongoing conflicts’ massive share of the brunt – just because RiV has been an expectation not a compulsory provision in the agreement.
While violence rages on, the negotiating teams engaged in intra-Afghan talks for the past one month in Doha notify about another meeting on Monday evening among contact groups to discuss contested issues. The Afghan sides’ negotiator Nader Naderi and the Taliban Spokesman Naeem Wardak both concurred such meetings would continue but there has been so far no consensus on working principles.
But RiV being a grey area is costing Afghans many lives. Through the Afghan Peace Watch (APW)’s RiV-monitoring initiative, as many as 11,607 deaths and 8,022 injuries inflicted on both sides of the conflict have been tallied since the supposed RiV period that has started since February 22. Unfortunately, among the dead are about 1,191 innocent civilians serving as collateral damage to the perpetrated violence.