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The Afghan people: Observing nearly 40 years of violent conflict

The Afghan people: Observing nearly 40 years of violent conflict
Over 70 per cent of the Afghan population has been born amidst violent conflict. Afghanistan is home to Asia’s youngest population: the median age is just 18.6 years. Photo:U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Kevin Wallace/RELEASED


On Friday 29 September, an Islamic State suicide bomber disguised as a shepherd attacked a Shiite mosque in Kabul as worshippers were leaving. They killed five people and wounded at least 20 others. It was one of numerous attacks in Afghanistan this year.

Over 70 per cent of the Afghan population has been born amidst violent conflict. Afghanistan is home to Asia’s youngest population: the median age is just 18.6 years. For many of the Afghan people, conflict and insecurity taint daily life. This has been the case since late 1979–nearly 40 years by now.

In the 1980s, during the Soviet war, rural Afghanistan suffered the most. In the first half of the 1990s it was urban Afghanistan’s turn, particularly Kabul, as different factions battled for power during the country’s three-year civil war. Kabul was shelled fiercely and indiscriminately.

Relative order, albeit through draconian measures, returned during the Taliban’s reign in the second half of the 1990s. Yet, financial, socio-ethnic and physical insecurity prevailed–more so among the country’s multitude of ethnic minorities. The most secure and hopeful period, arguably, were the 3–4 years that followed the toppling of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda cells by the US-led intervention in late 2001. But hope slowly faded and physical insecurity rose again.

Since around 2005 the frequency of terrorist attacks, most notably by the Taliban, the Haqqani network and Islamic State (known as Islamic State Khorasan in the region) have grown structurally. Kabul, a city built for some 700,000 inhabitants and now home to about one-sixth of the country’s estimated 34 million population, has become a preferred target. Attacks have become much more frequent, bold and creative–as the shepherd’s attack last week shows.

The fighting season–typically running from early spring to late fall due to rather harsh winter conditions in most of Afghanistan and the closure of mountain passes between the country and Pakistan–has become year-round. Even festive days are targeted now. The fighting season is characterized by suicide bombings, assassinations, attacks on security forces, and clashes between these forces and the insurgency. Sometimes, even entire cities are overrun, as was the case in Kunduz in 2016, the country’s fifth largest city.

No individual is spared: not the ‘whitebeard’–as Afghan seniors are colloquially referred to–nor the juvenile. No location is spared: hospitals, cemeteries, supermarkets and mosques–such as in Herat in August this year–have all been attacked. And no event is spared, including peaceful demonstrations, and funerals.

These terrorist attacks intend to inflict as much damage and suffering as they can, and consequently attract much national and international media coverage. In the age of social media, it amplifies people’s fear. How does it make an Afghan feel to know that an estimated 11.000 terrorists entered their country in 2015-16? Or that 3,498 civilians died and 7,920 civilians got injured as a result of conflict in 2016 alone? Or that 26 per cent of these fatalities were children? Every new year sets new records.

Irrefutably, Afghanistan was an economically impoverished state before conflict commenced; insecurity over finance, food and health was common. Yet, physical insecurity was a marginal concern.

Typically, Afghan daily life is therefore conducted behind walls. Indeed, this has been the case in the country’s rural areas for a long while–particularly for women–but many urban dwellers are increasingly forced to act likewise due to protracted insecurity. Kabul, for instance, is a city–or rather a cluster of fortresses–where concrete walls, blast barriers, barbwire, gated communities and military are ever-present.

People are constantly on edge as common activities such as meeting up in a restaurant or commuting have turned into risky undertakings. Mothers and fathers off to earn a living or to buy a loaf of bread for the family, have no guarantee that they will make it back home.

Take the massive sewage truck suicide bombing in central Kabul during morning rush hour on 31 May this year. It left 150 dead, and more than 460 people injured. In fact, it was so powerful that blast barriers–structures of metal and concrete specifically built to protect against such attacks–crumbled down. Some described it as an earthquake.

Sadly, such atrocities on Afghan civilians will continue. It is highly likely that the Afghan people will observe 40 years of violent conflict and insecurity in late 2019. The battle between the Afghan security forces and the insurgency is in a deadlock: neither side has a feasible chance of overthrowing the other. A self-perpetuating combination of weak institutions of governance, a dismal economy, political bickering, foreign intervention, and geopolitical scheming helps sustain conflict.

Therefore, calls for a political settlement with the Taliban, among Afghans, as well as among a number of international stakeholders, including the US and China, are growing stronger. Yet, this process is going to be cumbersome and slow–and may not result in an actual settlement. As the Taliban once stated: 'you have the watches, but we have the time'.


Richard Ghiasy was an Associate Researcher in the SIPRI China and Global Security Programme.