US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad (L) and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (R) shake hands after signing the peace agreement between US, Taliban, in Doha

Khalilzad restarts shuttling between Doha and Kabul as violence intensifies

US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, has restarted traveling to Doha and Kabul aimed at discussing implementation of the US-Taliban peace deal signed on February 29 as the violence have drastically increased, particularly in major Afghan cities, between Afghan security forces and the Taliban in recent days.

“In Doha, Ambassador Khalilzad will meet with Taliban representatives to discuss implementation of the U.S.-Taliban agreement and press for steps necessary to commence intra-Afghan negotiations, including a significant reduction of violence,” said a statement issued by the Department of State on Monday, May 18. The statement added that Khalilzad will also meet senior Afghan government officials in Kabul to explore the needed steps for starting intra-Afghan negotiations.

This comes amid an unexpected hike in violence across Afghanistan which have inflicted huge casualties on the warring parties and civilians. According to the US-Taliban peace deal, the Taliban had agreed to reduce attacks in major cities and avoid plotting offensives on major military bases of Afghan security forces. The US military officials in Afghanistan have repeatedly asserted after the deal was signed that the Taliban leaders in Doha had made an oral commitment to reduce the violence by 80 percent.

The situation on the ground, however, went fully in reverse to those alleged commitments with the militants increasingly multiplying offensives against Afghan security and defense forces in all across Afghanistan, particularly in countryside areas. Major cities also came under attacks but the Taliban rejected involvement. The Afghan government kept its forces on high security alert to respond against any possible attacks but avoided launching offensive operations.

Things got worse since last Tuesday, May 12, when two deadly attacks hit the capital, Kabul, and the eastern province of Nangarhar simultaneously. In Kabul hospital attack, 24 civilians, who were mostly women expecting their children birth, were shot dead in the hospital’s maternity ward by the assailants. In a deadly explosion targeted funeral ceremony of a former pro-government commander inside a mosque in Nangarhar, 24 civilians, including a member of Nangarhar provincial council, were killed and 68 others wounded.

The Taliban refused involvement in the two deadly incidents but the Islamic State Khurasan Province claimed responsibility for Kabul hospital attack.

Despite Taliban refusal, mostly national and international reactions, including that of the US, against the two incidents pointed fingers to the Taliban either directly or indirectly accusing the militant group of paving space for such brutalities.

In a virtual meeting held with the Second Vice President Sarwar Danish on May 13, US Deputy Chief of Mission in Kabul Decker said that the Taliban were responsible for the attacks in Kabul and Nangarhar because the militant group paved the ground for violence.

In reaction to the two attacks, President Ghani ordered Afghan security forces late that Tuesday, May 12, to launch offensive operations against the Taliban. In his latest remarks about the hospital attack, he said in a meeting with the leadership of the Ministry of Interior on Monday night, May 18, that remaining silent against those who kill children is a sin.

But later the US peace envoy, Khalilzad, said in a tweet that “the USG has assessed ISIS-K conducted the horrific attacks on a maternity ward and a funeral earlier this week in Afghanistan.” He added that the ISKP also opposes an agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban, advising the two sides not to fall into the ISIS trap and delay peace. “No more excuses, Afghans, and the world, deserve better,” this last sentence of him seemed much like a direct reaction against Ghani’s order of launching offensive operations against the Taliban.

Latest series of violence

Around 20 Afghan security forces have been killed in latest attacks launched against them over past 24 hours in Kunduz, Takhar, and Kandahar provinces.

The Taliban fighters launched attacks from three directions on Kunduz city last night. In the meantime, the militants also attacked outposts of Afghan security forces in Aliabad, Khanabad, Imam Saheb, and Chahar Dara districts of the province.

Acting defense minister, Asadullah Khalid, who has traveled to the province along with special operation forces to contain the situation, told reporters today in Kunduz that eight government forces have been killed in Taliban attacks and a number of them were wounded.

According to a statement issued by the Ministry of Defense, 40 Taliban militants were killed and 50 others wounded in counterattacks by the Afghan security and defense forces. The minister, however, claimed that the Taliban fatality toll is more than 50.

In the southern Kandahar , government spokesperson, Baheer Ahmadi confirmed to Kabul Now that five police forces were shot dead and seven others were wounded by three assailants in their outpost in Maruf district of the province. According to him, the two assailants were killed but the third one managed to flee the area. He, however, said that it was not yet cleared whether or not the attackers were Taliban infiltrators.

The Taliban, however, claimed that the attack was carried out by an infiltrator of the group killing 18 policemen along with their four commanders.

In the northern Takhar province, spokesperson for the provincial police chief, confirmed that six People Uprising Forces – a pro-government militia – were killed in Taliban attack in Baharak district of the province last night, May 18.

On the other hand, four civilians were killed and nine others wounded as the result of a roadside bomb explosion in Mezan district of the southern Zabul province, according to local security officials.

UNAMA calls for ceasefire

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has called for halt in fighting and start of intra-Afghan negotiations.

“Rising numbers of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, with a disregard for international law aimed at protecting civilians from harm, underscore the urgent need for parties to halt the fighting and to re-focus on starting intra-Afghan peace negotiations,” the UN mission said in a statement released today, May 19.

According to UNAMA’s preliminary figures which it says is subject to further review, the Taliban were responsible for 208 civilian casualties which suggests 25 percent increase comparing to April 2019. Civilian casualties attributed to ANDSF numbered 172 which shows an increase of 38 percent than the April month of 2019.

“I call for a halt to the fighting and for parties to respect humanitarian law that is there to protect civilians,” said Deborah Lyons, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan.

“Parties have committed to finding a peaceful solution and should protect the lives of all Afghans and not jeopardise people’s hope for an end to the war,” said Lyons, who is also head of UNAMA. “Intra-Afghan peace negotiations need to start as soon as possible.”

UNAMA statement further reveals that since April 01, the Taliban have abducted 15 healthcare workers and Afghan forces have confiscated some medical supplies. It warns that such threats and actions against health workers could have grave consequences, particularly during the covide-19 crisis.

Reacting to Ghazni attack and Zabul, US Chargé d’Affaires to Afghanistan Ross Wilson also urged today on twitter for an end to violence and start of peace talks.