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Conflict Reader
Afghanistan: The recent surge in targeted killing vs the troops withdrawal

  Abigail Miriam Fernandez

During the recent weeks, there have been a series of developments. Taliban has insisted that the US sticks to the deal it had signed last year, and ensure troops withdrawal. The US has been insisting on the reduction of violence; there has been no letdown until now. Also, inside Afghanistan, there has been a series of targetted assassinations attacking media and human rights activists. 

Given these recent developments, three issues continue to persist in Afghanistan. 

First, the question of troop withdrawal
Presently, there are roughly 8,000 NATO troops and nearly 2,500 US troops in Afghanistan. While the Taliban has voiced its strong opposition to the presence of international troops in Afghanistan, the Afghan government expects the continued support of the alliance in its train, advice and assist mission. However, as the new US administration under President Joe Biden is reviewing the Doha agreement signed with the Taliban in February 2020, according to which the US pledged to withdraw all international troops by May 2021 in return for conditions including cutting ties with Al-Qaeda and opening peace talks with Afghan sides. However, the question of complete troop withdrawal remains in question with the Pentagon accusing the Taliban of not meeting their commitment to reduce violence as agreed in the Doha deal as well as a bipartisan study group assigned by US Congress who called for the slow withdrawal of American troops, remove the 1 May exit deadline and to reduce the number of forces only as security conditions improve in the country. Conversely, the Taliban has accused the US of breaching the agreement and insisted it will continue its “fight” if foreign troops do not leave Afghanistan by May.

Second, the surge in violence and targeted killing
Despite the ongoing negotiation, violent conflict continues unabetted across Afghanistan. Apart from the recent UNAMA report, there has been a report documenting the steady rise of violence in Afghanistan. Tolo News, a local news agency has stated that 340 people were either killed or wounded in security incidents in Afghanistan since the start of February 2021 as a result of magnetic IEDs, roadside bombs and targeted killings.

According to reports released by the UNAMA in 2020, violence has surged across Afghanistan, with ground fighting causing the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops. The reports cited that nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace. The Taliban was accountable for 45 per cent of civilian casualties while government troops were responsible for 23 per cent and the United States-led international forces were responsible for two per cent. Further, most of the remainder that occurred in the crossfire were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements. Further, the UNAMA report claimed that violence has also failed to reduce since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban. 

Recent Developments

15 February 2021

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in a pre-ministerial press conference reiterated that the presence of the alliance’s troops in Afghanistan is “conditions-based,” saying “we will not leave before the time is right.” Following the NATO Defence Ministers meeting on 18 February, Stoltenberg said “At this stage, we have made no final decision on the future of our presence, but, as the May 1 deadline is approaching, NATO Allies will continue to closely consult and coordinate in the coming weeks.” Similarly, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin stated that an end to the US military involvement in Afghanistan hinges on a reduction in Taliban attacks.

the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) released a report in which it stated that 65 journalists, media professionals and human rights defenders were killed in Afghanistan between 1 January 2018 and 31 January 2021, with 11 losing their lives since the start of negotiations in September 2020. Further, the report also documented a “changing patterns” of attacks as it identified the recent killings as an intentional, premeditated and deliberate targeting of individuals with perpetrators remaining anonymous.

17 February 2021

Taliban published an open letter urging the United States to remain committed to the Doha agreement regarding the withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan. The letter signed by Taliban’s deputy leader Mullah Abdullah Abdul Ghani Baradar stated, “We are fully confident that the Afghans themselves can achieve the establishment of an Islamic government and enduring peace and security through intra-Afghan dialogue.” Similarly, in a message to the NATO leaders, the Taliban said, “Our message to the upcoming NATO ministerial meeting is that the continuation of occupation and war is neither in your interest nor in the interest of your and our people.” Conversely, Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, stated, “At this moment, the Taliban has taken a hard stance, which unfortunately is not helping the situation.”

19 February 2021

The US President Joe Biden while addressing the Munich Security Conference said, “We remain committed to ensuring that Afghanistan never again provides base for terrorist attacks against the United States and our partners and our interests,” adding, “My administration strongly supports the diplomatic process that is underway and to bring an end to this war (Afghan war) that is closing out 20 years.”


According to the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) quarterly report released in January 2021, “high levels of insurgent and extremist violence continued in Afghanistan despite repeated pleas from senior US and international officials to reduce violence in an effort to advance the peace process. According to U.S. Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A), the Taliban this quarter has carried out a “campaign of unclaimed attacks and targeted killings” of Afghan government officials, civil society leaders, and journalists. Nor is it evident, as SIGAR discusses in this report, that the Taliban has broken ties with the al-Qaeda terrorists.”

Third, the stalled intra-Afghan negotiations
The negotiations in Doha been stalled for almost four weeks as both sides have not held meetings on the agenda of the second phase of the Intra-Afghan dialogue which resumed on 5 January 2021. The main reason for the deadlock is the Taliban’s missing presence in Doha with the Afghan Government accusing the Taliban for stalling the negotiation, however, the Taliban seem to have other priorities in mind. Since the resumption of talks the Taliban has been on a diplomatic spree with multiple visits to Iran and Russia, Turkmenistan and Turkey seeking support for the Doha Agreement. As a result, the Afghan government’s negotiating team warned that if the Taliban failed to resume the talks, the government would recall its team from Doha.

The above would mean, ‘Peace’ still remains far-fetched 
The issues that continue to persist in Afghanistan can imply the following: first, the presence of international troops has not curbed the surge in violence, however, this does not mean that the troops should leave. The continuing presence of the US and NATO forces has helped prevent the Taliban from tilting the balance of power on the ground in its favour. Further, it has also helped curb hard-line armed groups from exploiting the security vacuum that may arise. Thus, the Biden administration will have some difficult decisions to take, however, it is unlikely that there will be a complete withdrawal of troops given the situation in Afghanistan and the status of the negotiations.

Second, violence is a manifestation of the stalled negotiations that have seen limited progress and vague statements from both sides. Further, it shows that the two sides have failed to reach a consensus on the most important and first agenda of the talks which is the call for a reduction in violence.

Third, the US-Taliban agreement and intra-Afghan negotiations provide a singular opportunity to bring peace to war-torn Afghanistan. However, with the Taliban prioritising the Doha agreement over the intra- Afghan talks the opportunity seems to be slipping away.

About the author
Abigail Miriam Fernandez is a Project Assistant at the School of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore. As part of her research focus, she looks into gender, minorities and ethnic movements in Pakistan and peace processes in South Asia.

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