Kabul: The US will continue airstrikes in support of Afghan forces fighting the Taliban, a top US general said on Sunday. Violence has surged across the country in recent months after the Taliban launched a sweeping assault just days after the US-led foreign forces began their final withdrawal.
Speaking to reporters in Kabul, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of the US Army Central Command, said, “The United States has increased airstrikes in the support of Afghan forces over the last several days, and we are prepared to continue this heightened level of support in the coming weeks if the Taliban continue their attacks.” McKenzie acknowledged the Afghan government will face tough days ahead.
“The Taliban are attempting to create a sense of inevitability about their campaign. They are wrong,” he said. “Taliban victory is not inevitable,” he said, adding that the US military will continue giving logistical support to the Afghan Air Force even after its foreign forces are expected to leave the country on August 31.
“We will continue to support the Afghan forces even after that August 31 date, it will generally be from over the horizon,” McKenzie said. The US military carried out two strikes against Taliban targets on Thursday in support of Afghan forces in the Kandahar province, multiple defense officials said. Three of the last four strikes by the US targeted captured equipment, one defense official said. This included US equipment transferred to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces that the Taliban then captured as it advanced throughout the country.
The airstrikes come amid a heightened Taliban push to seize territory and a parallel bid to reignite diplomatic moves for a negotiated end to the war. A Taliban spokesperson on Friday condemned US airstrikes in Kandahar and Helmand provinces as “barbaric attacks” that “will have consequences.” The spokesperson said, “The Islamic Emirate condemns these barbaric attacks in the strongest terms.”
McKenzie on Sunday vowed to support the Afghan Air Force going forward, and said the US Air Force will also retain the ability to “strike into Afghanistan” against two other groups, ISIS and al Qaeda. McKenzie said it will be clear in the next “days and weeks” if the Afghan government will be able to defend the country from the Taliban.
He added: “I don’t think it’s going to be an easy path … [but] I do not accept the narrative that there is going to be a civil war of necessity.”
In fact, President Ghani also met with US CENTCOM Commander General McKenzie at the Presidential Palace on Sunday evening and discussed support for and ANDSF’s priorities, and improvement in the security situation, the Palace reported.
On the other hand, the HAG quarterly report, which analyses access restrictions encountered by humanitarian workers in Afghanistan in the second quarter of 2021, was released on Sunday. Humanitarian partners in Afghanistan continue to deliver much needed services to people in need despite a continuously challenging access environment.
As per the report, in Q2 2021, the HAG recorded 593 access impediments, compared to 508 in Q1 2021; the increase was driven by an increase in access constraints and movement restrictions as a result of military operations and kinetic activity; the Taliban initiated most access constraints in Q2 2021 (461), followed by community members (51), ANDSF (33) and ACG (22); interference attempts, levy requests and acts of violence against humanitarians decreased as a result of limited humanitarian footprint and operations and Q2 was the deadliest quarter for humanitarians on HAG record, with 16 humanitarians killed.
The HAG report also submitted some recommendations to improve the situation on ground, which include- partners operating in Taliban controlled, or influenced areas require a coherent, well-developed access strategy, including on strong and principled engagement with local Taliban; while local implementing partners and community elders can play an important role in facilitating engagement with Taliban, the HAG cautions against attempts to fully outsource outreach to external partners and advises to consider direct engagement at a local level; the HAG advocates to find local solutions for local issues and only elevating issues to the TPC in Doha as a last resort when district and provincial-level engagement proved unsuccessful; humanitarian negotiations should be guided by the Humanitarian and Joint Operating Principles; humanitarian negotiations, including on levy exemptions, are more likely to succeed when carried by a collective of humanitarian partners, as we are stronger when we speak in a joint and unified voice rather than trying to resolve issues on our own; unprincipled humanitarian action by individual organizations has negative impacts for the broader humanitarian community and, ultimately, the people we aim to serve and humanitarian partners are encouraged to report access incidents to the HAG to help understand broader access dynamics.
Also, the UNAMA too prepares regular reports in accordance with its UN Security Council mandate, undertaking a range of activities aimed at minimizing the impact of the armed conflict on civilians. And as per its latest report, it says that civilian casualties are set to hit unprecedented highs in 2021 unless urgent action to stem violence is taken.
In a new report issued today, the United Nations warns that without a significant de-escalation in violence Afghanistan is on course for 2021 to witness the highest ever number of documented civilian casualties in a single year since UNAMA records began. UNAMA’s Afghanistan Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict Midyear Update 2021 documents 5,183 civilian casualties (1,659 killed and 3,254 injured), a 47 per cent increase compared with the same period in 2020.
Of serious concern is the acute rise in the number of civilians killed and injured in the period from 1 May, with almost as many civilian casualties in the May-June period as recorded in the entire preceding four months. The number of civilian casualties during May and June – 2,392 in total (783 killed and 1,609 injured) – was the highest for those months since UNAMA began its systematic documentation in 2009. The period January-April 2021 saw 2,791 civilian casualties (876 killed and 1,915 injured).
“I implore the Taliban and Afghan leaders to take heed of the conflict’s grim and chilling trajectory and its devastating impact on civilians. The report provides a clear warning that unprecedented numbers of Afghan civilians will perish and be maimed this year if the increasing violence is not stemmed,” said Deborah Lyons, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan. The UN envoy, who is also the head of UNAMA called on the Taliban and Afghan leaders to, “Intensify your efforts at the negotiating table, stop the Afghan against Afghan fighting. Protect the Afghan people and give them hope for a better future.”
Much of the battlefield action during the deadliest months of May and June took place outside cities, in areas with comparatively low population levels. The UN is gravely concerned that if intensive military action is undertaken in urban areas with high population densities, the consequences for Afghan civilians could be catastrophic.
“The pursuit of a military solution will only increase the suffering of the Afghan people,” the report says. The UN reminds the parties of their obligations under international law to protect civilians, and in particular highlights their stated commitment to do so, most recently expressed in the joint statement issued on 18 July 2021 by representatives of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, when they agreed to prevent harm to civilians. Particularly shocking and of deep concern is that women, boys and girls made up close to half of all civilian casualties in the first half of 2021. Comprising 46 per cent of all civilian casualties, 32 per cent were children – 1,682 in total (468 killed and 1,214 injured) and 14 per cent were women – 727 in total (219 killed and 508 injured). It is sickening to report that more women and more children were killed and injured than ever before recorded by UNAMA for the first half of any calendar year.
The leading causes of civilian casualties in the first half of 2021 were the extensive use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by AGEs, ground engagements between parties, targeted killings by AGEs, and air strikes by the Afghan Air Force. The main cause of civilian casualties –the Taliban and ISIL-KP use of non-suicide IEDs –amounted to 38 per cent of all civilian casualties, nearly triple that recorded for the same period in 2020. The use of pressure-plate IEDs, nearly all by the Taliban, resulted in 42 per cent more civilian casualties than during the same period in 2020. Pressure-plate IEDs, which can be triggered even by a child stepping on them, may violate international humanitarian law and UNAMA reiterates its call on the Taliban to permanently ban the use of these indiscriminate devices.
Ground engagements caused 33 per cent of civilian casualties, with nearly all of these civilian casualties attributed to the Taliban and Afghan national security forces. Civilian casualties from ground engagements increased by 41 per cent compared with the first six months of 2020. Targeted killings by AGEs were the third leading cause, responsible for 14 per cent of all civilian casualties. Airstrikes, attributable to the Afghan Air Force, accounted for eight per cent of civilian casualties. Compared with the first half of 2020, the total number of civilians killed and injured in airstrikes increased by 33 per cent.
UNAMA remains deeply concerned about the continuation of AGE attacks deliberately targeting civilians, particularly through the use of IEDs and shootings, including targeting of civilian government workers, human rights defenders, media workers, religious elders, and humanitarian workers, and sectarian-motivated attacks. Children were on at least one occasion deliberately targeted. The most shocking incident being the 8 May attack outside the Sayed ul-Shuhuda school in Kabul, which resulted in more than 300 civilian casualties, mostly school girls, including 85 killed, for which no AGE claimed responsibility.
UNAMA recorded a resurgence of deliberate sectarian-motivated attacks against the Shi’a Muslim religious minority, most of whom also belong to the Hazara ethnic minority, nearly all claimed by ISIL-KP. These included a string of non-suicide IED attacks and shootings, including at least eight IEDs in May-June alone that targeted buses or similar vehicles carrying members of the Hazara community. In total, between 1 January and 30 June 2021, UNAMA documented 20 incidents targeting Shi’a/Hazara, resulting in 500 civilian casualties (143 killed and 357 injured).
UNAMA is also concerned about the increasing number of reports of killing, ill-treatment, persecution and discrimination in communities affected by the current fighting and its aftermath. It is particularly important, especially during times of heightened conflict, that all parties respect the human rights and dignity of people and prevent such abuses and violations.