Ruchi Kumar is an Indian journalist based out of Bombay and Kabul.
Dr. Bina Najeeb grew up during the civil war in Afghanistan, a period of extreme bloodshed and destruction in his country. He graduated from medical school when the fundamentalist Taliban regime was in charge, in the late 1990s. He has served as the one of the country’s finest pediatric surgeons for more than 15 years at the French Medical Institute for Children (FMIC) in Kabul.
And yet, despite these years of being a firsthand witness to the awful consequences of the violence that has plagued his country for nearly four decades, Dr. Najeeb called the horrors of May 12 the “most brutal attack” he’d ever seen.
On the same day that an assault on a funeral in the eastern province of Nangarhar claimed 24 civilian lives, armed gunmen stormed a Kabul maternity hospital run by Médecins Sans Frontières in an area populated by the persecuted Shia minorities, killing nearly 24 people, including babies, pregnant women and health workers. “They’ve targeted hospitals before," Dr. Najeeb said, "but now they brought the front line to a hospital for babies.”
While the Taliban has denied it was involved, the Afghan government has blamed the insurgency for these civilian deaths. Ashraf Ghani – whose presidency had itself been troubled after his rival Abdullah Abdullah disputed last year’s election results, with the turmoil culminating in a power-sharing agreement between the two, which was signed last week – ordered his military to switch from an “active defensive” to an “offensive” in their fight against the Taliban.
The Taliban had previously agreed with the United States on Feb. 29 to reduce the violence in the country up to 80 per cent and prepare to start negotiations with the Afghan government, who were not signatories to the deal nor participants in the two years of talks that preceded it. That agreement included a clause for the Afghan government to release Taliban prisoners – a plan that Mr. Ghani has since suspended. And with that, efforts to start an intra-Afghan peace negotiation between the two parties were thrown into upheaval.
Regardless of who is to blame for the galling hospital attack – the U.S., for its part, has declared that the Islamic State insurgency, rather than the Taliban, is responsible – the fact remains that in the short period since the deal was signed, the Taliban have not shown resolve in pursuing peace. Despite lofty promises made to the U.S. administration in Doha meetings, the group has done little to reduce the violence perpetrated by their foot soldiers in Afghanistan. If anything, the violence has only risen since the deal, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).
The Taliban has also explicitly refused to adhere to a global call for ceasefire to allow for pandemic programs to battle COVID-19 in Afghanistan. The group has repeatedly targeted health workers, despite having promised to provide safe passage to them; UNAMA says 15 health care workers have been abducted since April.
Still, the U.S. seems optimistic that their agreement with the Taliban can be sustained. Seeing that the Islamic State could serve as a convenient mutual enemy, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged the Afghan government and Taliban to work together after the attack to “bring the perpetrators to justice." Even the withdrawal of American troops is likely to continue as scheduled as part of the Taliban peace deal, the Pentagon said on May 15.
This ignores some of the realities of and working dynamics within the regional insurgencies. For one, Afghanistan’s intelligence agency has repeatedly insisted that the country’s ISIS presence operates in a close nexus with the Haqqani Network, an ally of the Taliban that has been party to the current talks. If proven true, such an alliance could ensure that violence in Afghanistan continues even after a deal is struck with the Taliban. Other insurgencies also seem eager to replace the Taliban flags with their own, with some fighters possibly drawn from the same pool being allegedly trained in Pakistan.
This might be a good time for the U.S. administration to re-evaluate the efficacy of the deal they made with an active insurgency, and hold the Taliban accountable for violations.
In its rush to get out of Afghanistan, the U.S. appears to be turning to Band-Aid fixes for regional security problems – and they already look like they’re falling apart at the seams. Donald Trump may not want the U.S. to be a “police force” in Afghanistan, but any compromise with insurgents that the U.S. initiates cannot be at the expense of Afghan lives – especially those still in the cradle.
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