Why 2019 was Afghanistan’s best and worst year since US invasion

While the country came closest ever to peace in its 18 years of war, this year also saw unprecedented violence.

Afghan Civilians Suffer In Attacks From All Sides
The year, which saw the biggest push for peace in Afghanistan, also witnessed a spike in violence [Getty Images]

The year 2019 began with hopes for peace in war-torn Afghanistan, the first time since the 18-year conflict in the South Asian country started following an invasion by the United States.

In January, expectations of a peace agreement between the US and the Taliban were high after the two sides agreed in principle to its framework.

The deal stated that the Taliban will not allow foreign armed groups and fighters to use Afghanistan as a launchpad to conduct attacks outside the country, a complete withdrawal of US and NATO forces, an intra-Afghan dialogue, and a permanent ceasefire between the US and the Taliban.

Afghans believed that their country, which has suffered through decades of conflict in which tens of thousands have been killed, would finally see peace this year.

US-Taliban meetings in Qatar‘s capital Doha continued for the next few months against the backdrop of continuing attacks by the armed group across Afghanistan and US-led air attacks.

In another significant move towards peace, Doha, in July, hosted a two-day intra-Afghan meeting between Taliban and Afghan officials. A call to reduce civilians casualties to “zero” was made at the meeting even as the death toll continued to rise.

“At first we had really high hopes for peace, but then we realised there are a lot of hurdles,” Abdul Wali Sadiq, 23, from Afghanistan’s Kunar province told Al Jazeera. 

In September, just as the US-Taliban talks were believed to have reached the final stage, US President Donald Trump abruptly announced the deal was “dead”, citing an increase in violence in which a US soldier was killed.

The Taliban said the announcement came as a “shock”.

Afghan women arrive to cast their votes in the presidential election in Kabul, Afghanistan September 28, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
Afghan women arrive to cast their votes in the presidential election in Kabul, Afghanistan [File: Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

Landmark elections

Two weeks after Trump’s decision to freeze the talks, on September 28, Afghanistan went to the polls to elect a new president.

The Taliban threatened to target election rallies and polling stations, while US-backed Afghan forces stepped up air and ground attacks.

Abdul Wali Sadiq, who considered the elections a stepping stone to peace, headed to the polling station despite threats by the Taliban.

“My house was caught in conflict between the Taliban and the Afghan forces. I lost my 19-year-old brother Mohammed Wali and my 12-year-old sister Nadia,” Abdul Wali said, adding that he still voted.

Abdul Ghani, 43, a driver also from Kunar, lost his daughter and son after their house was caught in heavy fire on the voting day. The children were home while he had gone out to vote.

“There was intense fighting between the security forces and the Taliban, but I still went out to vote, so that we have peace in our country and a good future for our children,” Ghani said.

Afghan security forces inspect the site of a car bomb blast in Kabul, Afghanistan January 15, 2019.   REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
Afghan security forces inspect the site of a car bomb blast in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

Year of record casualties

The year, which saw the biggest push for peace in Afghanistan, also witnessed a spike in violence.

The United Nations said the months of July, August and September this year saw “an unprecedented number of civilian casualties”.

Between January and September, there were more than 8,200 civilian casualties – 2,563 people killed and 5,676 injured – according to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).

July was documented as the bloodiest month on record, with more than 1,500 civilians killed or wounded.

In a report published in April, the UN said Afghan and US forces had killed more civilians in Afghanistan than the country’s armed groups had. Some 717 civilians were killed by Afghan and US forces, compared with 531 by rebel fighters.

In October, a UNAMA report said the September election campaign saw nearly 460 civilian casualties, including 85 deaths.

The report blamed more than 80 percent of those casualties on the Taliban’s campaign to disrupt polling.

“I think the existence of foreign troops in Afghanistan is the main reason of this never-ending war in our country,” Abdul Wali said.

“The Taliban have also killed many people. They need to work for peace because the act of killing has never brought peace.”

Zalmay Khalilzad, The US peace envoy leading the peace talks with the Taliban [Sorin Furcoi/ Al Jazeera]
The renewed Doha talks focused on steps that could lead to a ceasefire that would end the 18-year conflict [File: Sorin Furcoi/ Al Jazeera]

Peace talks revived

On Thanksgiving Day this year, Trump made a surprise visit to the US troops in Afghanistan and declared that the peace talks with the Taliban had been resumed.

The November 28 announcement came a week after two Western hostages were swapped for three Taliban commanders, an exchange partially brokered by the US.

On December 4, US special envoy for peace, Zalmay Khalilzad, arrived in Kabul, three days before he met a Taliban delegation in Doha for a fresh round of talks.

The renewed Doha talks focused on steps that could lead to a ceasefire that would end the 18-year conflict.

“The US rejoined talks today in Doha. The focus of discussion will be reduction of violence that leads to intra-Afghan negotiations and a ceasefire,” a US State Department spokesperson said on December 7.

The Taliban has so far refused to engage with the Afghan government, calling it a “US puppet”.

On December 11, the armed group launched a suicide attack outside a hospital near the Bagram military base in Parwan province, north of the capital Kabul, killing two civilians.

Khalilzad expressed “outrage” over the attack and said the Doha talks would resume after the Taliban “consult their leadership” on continuing violence.

Afghanistan's incumbent President Ashraf Ghani, speaks after he won a slim majority of votes in preliminary results of presidential election, in Kabul, Afghanistan December 22, 2019. Picture taken Dec
President Ashraf Ghani after he won a slim majority of votes in preliminary results of presidential election [Handout via Reuters]

Delayed election results

On December 22, Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) announced the preliminary results of the presidential polls after a two-month delay, which the electoral body blamed on technical issues, allegations of fraud and protests from candidates.

In the results, incumbent President Ashraf Ghani was seen on track for a second five-year term after preliminary results showed him winning 50.64 percent of the votes.

Ghani’s nearest rival, Abdullah Abdullah, was second in the race with 39.52 percent of the 1.9 million votes in an election marred by protests and allegations of fraud.

“I don’t know what the next year will bring for us, but I am at least hopeful because of the push for peace and elections in our country,” Waris Ghamgin, 43, a resident of Ghani Khel village, southeast of Jalalabad, told Al Jazeera. 

“These are two good signs despite so many innocent people losing their lives. We have sacrificed enough for our nation, peace should come now.”

Additional reporting by Zabihullah Ghazi in Jalalabad

Source: Al Jazeera