Afghans expect more bloodshed in 2019

Civilian deaths hit a record high in the first half of the year, while the Taleban are slaughtering Afghan forces in greater numbers than before.
Civilian deaths hit a record high in the first half of the year, while the Taleban are slaughtering Afghan forces in greater numbers than before.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Slashing of US troops, further threats by militants kill hopes for end to 17-year-old conflict

KABUL • After a year of record bloodshed, Afghans are bracing themselves for an even deadlier 2019 with the threat of a United States drawdown and a looming presidential vote likely to fuel violence.

President Donald Trump's plan to slash the number of US soldiers in Afghanistan before negotiators have struck a peace deal with the Taleban has crushed hopes among many Afghans for an end to the 17-year conflict.

The news, which the White House has not confirmed, capped an annus horribilis for the war-weary country.

Ordinary Afghans, who have long borne the brunt of the relentless fighting, told Agence France-Presse they felt increasingly despondent about the future as the Taleban and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group adapt to ramped-up security to carry out almost daily attacks on civilians and security forces.

Mr Zabihullah Shirzad, who owns a garbage-collecting company in the Afghan capital Kabul, said he could not remember a bloodier year than 2018 and predicted that next year would be even deadlier. "We will see more killing and bloodshed," the 42 year old said. "I am not optimistic about the peace talks."

His gloomy comments reflect the findings of a Gallup poll published in October, which showed an unprecedented level of pessimism among Afghans. And an Asia Foundation study this month suggested that more than 60 per cent of Afghans thought the country was moving in the wrong direction - unchanged from a year earlier.

Several key indicators show Afghan security locked in a downward spiral.

LIFE GOES ON

Many Afghans have learnt to live with the chronic pain of war. That pain does not stop them pursuing a normal life.

MR DAVOOD MORADIAN, director-general of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies, on Afghans being more resilient now.

Civilian deaths hit a record high in the first half of the year, while the Taleban are slaughtering Afghan forces in greater numbers than before.

This year was also marked by some of the deadliest suicide attacks since the start of the war in 2001, including an ambulance bomb blast that targeted a crowded street in Kabul in January, killing more than 100 people and wounding hundreds more.

The bloodshed was exacerbated by Mr Trump's more aggressive strategy for Afghanistan, which he reluctantly announced in August last year, putting thousands more US boots on the ground and giving its air units greater leeway to go after the Taleban and ISIS.

One estimate puts the number of conflict-related deaths at more than 40,000 this year - almost equal to the combined total for Syria and Yemen - according to data compiled by the US-based Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.

  • 40,000

    Estimated number of conflict-related deaths this year, according to data compiled by the US-based Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.

"It was a very bad year - the situation has not improved at all," said Mr Thomas Ruttig, co-director of Afghanistan Analysts Network.

Some observers saw positive signs that, if the circumstances are right, could translate into good news in the new year.

An unprecedented three-day ceasefire in June was widely celebrated by Afghans taking selfies and sharing ice cream with Taleban fighters, seemingly underscoring the desire for peace on both sides.

 
 
 
 

And the insurgents' apparent willingness to hold talks with US officials as part of a push for peace talks in recent months could bode well for a deal, said Mr Lotfullah Najafizada, director of Afghanistan's largest private broadcaster Tolo News.

The Taleban, however, has refused to hold formal talks with the Western-backed Afghan government, a member of the Taleban's decision-making Leadership Council told Reuters yesterday.

"I think Afghanistan will pass 2019 with some success. I hope it will be a historic year," Mr Najafizada said.

But slashing US troop numbers - which many fear would be a harbinger for a full withdrawal - before any deal is struck could trigger a civil war "with a regional dimension", warned Mr Davood Moradian, director-general of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies.

Mr Ruttig said that Washington should put Afghanistan's need for peace ahead of its own desire to pull out troops and save money.

Another spoiler in 2019 could be Afghanistan's presidential election, originally scheduled for April 20 but now likely to be pushed back to the summer.

The vote, which President Ashraf Ghani plans to contest, could unleash a similar wave of violence that marred October's shambolic and bloody parliamentary election.

But after so many years of war, Afghans are "more resilient" and the country would survive, said Mr Moradian.

"Many Afghans have learnt to live with the chronic pain of war," he said. "That pain does not stop them pursuing a normal life."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 31, 2018, with the headline 'Afghans expect more bloodshed in 2019'. Print Edition | Subscribe