As violence flares in south Afghanistan, key questions answered

Days of intense fighting in Helmand prompt mass displacement and raise doubts about prospects for peace despite ongoing negotiations.

As the fighting intensified and security situation deteriorated, tens of thousands of people fled to Lashkar Gah city in Afghanistan [Watan Yar/EPA]

Afghanistan has seen an uptick in violence over the past week, with the Taliban launching attacks in several provinces even as negotiators from the armed group and the Afghan government are still in Qatar’s capital for talks aimed at bringing peace to the country.

A major Taliban assault last week on Lashkar Gah, capital of the southern Helmand province, sparked days of intense fighting and prompted the United States to launch air attacks in support of its allied government forces.

Tens of thousands of people are estimated to have since fled their homes to escape the violence, which has stretched hospitals in Lashkar Gah to capacity.

Fighting continued on Monday in some areas of Helmand’s Nad Ali and Nawa districts. Besides Helmand, the Taliban in recent days has also carried out attacks in Badakhshan, Kunduz, Farah and Kandahar provinces.

Faced with a surge in violence and delays in the start of the historic negotiations in Doha, many Afghans say peace is far from guaranteed.

Here is what we know so far:

How did it start?

On October 11, the Taliban launched a major offensive from different directions in a bid to capture Lashkar Gah, Omer Zwak, spokesman for the provincial governor in Helmand, told Al Jazeera. The group’s fighters overran security checkpoints, while a number of districts – Babaji, Cha-e-anjir, Nad-e-Ali/Marja and Nawa-e-Barakzaiy – also came under attack.

Two days later, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Afghanistan said the highway between Kandahar and Lashkar Gah was inaccessible due to the presence of improvised explosive devices.

Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem told Al Jazeera that the group’s fighters were recapturing districts that were previously under their control but were retaken by Afghan security forces a few months ago.

The Taliban controls most of Helmand province and in recent years has conducted several attacks to capture Lashkar Gah – but its fighters have been pushed back by Afghan security forces each time.

How have civilians been affected?

As the fighting intensified and the security situation around Lashkar Gah deteriorated, tens of thousands of people fled to the provincial capital.

Afghan authorities estimate that 35,000 people (some 5,000 families) have been displaced by the fighting. The OCHA office in Afghanistan, however, told Al Jazeera that assessment teams from a number of organisations were still verifying these figures, with 5,000 people confirmed so far.

“Yesterday, around 300 families or approximately 2,100 people from Nawa-e-Barakzaiy have been newly displaced within Nawa district,” it said on Monday.

OCHA also said the deployed teams were catering to the needs of those sheltering in different parts of Lashkar Gah who may require immediate food, water and temporary spaces for living.

Health facilities have also been affected due to the clashes, with some operating in a reduced capacity and others being completely shut.

OCHA said seven health facilities in Nad-e-Ali/Marja, Nahr-e-Saraj, Lashkar Gah and Nawa districts closed down on 14 October after healthcare workers received threats.

Medical charity Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) told Al Jazeera that with the main trauma hospital in Lashkar Gah remaining “under pressure”, its focus has been “on ensuring continuity of services in MSF-supported Boost Provincial Hospital, for the wounded, but also for those in need of access to their regular services”.

MSF Afghanistan said that between October 11 and 16, it received 56 people – including pregnant women and children. Some of the patients were wounded by shelling, blasts and gunshots, while others had suffered fractures.

“Additionally, in our ER, we admitted 33 people who have been displaced by the fighting, but these people were admitted for medical conditions that were not related to direct injuries sustained from the fighting,” said MSF Afghanistan.

Overall, at least 200 people, including women, have been killed and wounded, according to OCHA.

US-Taliban blame each other; why?

Following the Taliban’s push on Lashkar Gah and the seizure of security checkpoints, the US launched air attacks against the group’s fighters in support of the Afghan security forces.

This was a rare military intervention by the US since the signing of an agreement in February with the Taliban on troop withdrawal in exchange for security guarantees from the armed group.

The document inked in Doha also included a pledge from the Taliban to sit down with the Kabul administration to find a peaceful settlement to decades of war.

Soon after the air raids, Colonel Sonny Leggett, a spokesperson for the US military in Afghanistan, said on Twitter that the recent Taliban attacks in Helmand were “not consistent” with the US-Taliban agreement and undermined the ongoing peace talks in Doha.

He insisted the air raids did not violate the February agreement – a position rejected by the Taliban.

“All contents of the US-Islamic Emirate agreement are unambiguous, but the opposite side has violated its commitments on numerous occasions, are engaging in provocative actions,” the Taliban said in a statement on Sunday, warning that “all responsibility and consequences from continuation of such actions shall fall squarely on the shoulders of the American side”.

The US military swiftly dismissed the Taliban’s accusation.

“U.S. airstrikes in Helmand and Farah have been and continue to be solely in defense of the ANDSF as they are being attacked by the Taliban,” Leggett said on Twitter, referring to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF).

“The entire world has witnessed the Taliban’s offensive operations in Helmand – attacks which injured and displaced thousands of innocent Afghan civilians,” Leggett added.

Under the agreement, the Taliban said it would not attack cities while the US said it would refrain from assaults on the fighters except to defend the Afghan forces.

Afghan officials accused the Taliban of breaching the agreement with the assault on Lashkar Gah.

Naeem, the Taliban spokesman,  told Al Jazeera that the US has “bombed places where there wasn’t any conflict going on. Also they are bombing the places where the fighting is already stopped”.

On Friday, the Taliban said it would stop its operations if the US halted its air raids in Helmand.

What is happening at intra-Afghan peace talks?

The escalation in violence comes more than a month after Taliban representatives and Afghan government delegates arrived in Doha for the intra-Afghan talks.

A “contact group” comprised of six members from each side was established to set the “terms and conditions”, paving the way for the start of formal negotiations between the two sides.

But the discussions appear to have stalled due to disagreements to establish a basic framework for negotiations.

On Monday, Naeem said that the contact group met to discuss “disagreements and it was emphasised that a final understanding on the peace process should be reached as soon as possible”.

However, Bashir Ahmad Shakir, a former member of the provincial council in Helmand, told Al Jazeera that Afghans have doubts about the Taliban’s seriousness towards peace.

“They [Taliban] are talking about peace in Doha but are doing the opposite by attacking houses, properties, roads and spreading fear among people. Afghan people – especially people of Helmand – don’t want the Taliban presence here any more,” he said.

“We doubt their sincerity towards peace talks.”

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001. Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

US President Donald Trump, who is seeking re-election on November 3, said earlier this month that all US troops in Afghanistan should be “home by Christmas”.

His statement came hours after his national security adviser said Washington would reduce its forces in Afghanistan to 2,500 by early next year.

Additional reporting by Mohsin Khan Momand in Kabul.

Source: Al Jazeera