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Civilians Are Losing the War in Afghanistan

Unprecedented Violence and Failed Reforms Signal Dangerous Political Crisis

People flee after an ambulance rigged with explosives detonated in central Kabul, killing 103, January 27, 2018. © 2018 Andrew Quilty

Who’s winning in Afghanistan?

That’s not the right question. The important one is who’s losing.

The answer: Ordinary people trying to get to work, kids in school, worshippers in their neighborhood mosque.

Thousands of Afghan civilians are losing their lives, their loved ones, or suffering devastating injuries in bombings, gunbattles, and other violence. Since January, the United Nations documented the highest number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan since it started keeping track in 2009. At least 1,692 civilians died in the first six month of 2018 and over 3,400 were injured. A quarter of these were children. Given the difficulties of collecting information from remote areas of conflict, the number is likely higher.

Suicide bombings and other insurgent attacks caused most of these deaths and injuries. The Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), the Afghan branch of the Islamic State, has targeted voter registration centers, public gatherings, and schools, singling out Afghanistan’s Shia community for attack. At the same time, people living in areas where these groups hold sway have experienced airstrikes by US and Afghan government forces that killed and injured more than 350 civilians between January and June.

Donors who appropriately condemn insurgent attacks seldom raise any concerns about the 7 percent of civilian casualties caused by airstrikes by Afghan or US government forces. These donors are preparing for a ministerial meeting in Geneva in November that the UN has called “a crucial moment for the government and international community to demonstrate progress.”

What progress will they point to? Parliamentary elections should have taken place by then, and donors who footed the bill may say that while the elections were “flawed,” maybe the presidential ones next April will be better. Don’t count on it. With highly suspicious voter registration numbers, a flood of fake ID cards, and infighting among political elites over the spoils of power, contested elections are one symptom of Afghanistan’s governance crisis.

Here are some others: the government’s failure to prosecute violence against women and torture, and the fact that long-touted gains in terms of girls’ education and media freedom are slipping away.

Between parliamentary elections this year and the upcoming presidential vote, Afghanistan is facing not just an escalating war, but also an unprecedented political crisis, though one long foreseen. Donors need to stop checking boxes blindly and hold the government to account.

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