Afghanistan has seen an increase in violence over the past week. The Taliban have launched attacks in several provinces, although negotiators from the armed group and the Afghan government are still in Qatar’s capital to hold talks on peace in the country.
A heavy Taliban attack on Lashkar Gah, capital of southern Helmand Province, last week sparked days of intense fighting and prompted the United States to launch air strikes in support of its allied government forces.
It is estimated that tens of thousands of people have fled their homes since then to escape the violence that has overburdened hospitals in Lashkar Gah.
Fighting continued in some areas of Helmand’s Nadand and Nawa districts on Monday. In addition to Helmand, the Taliban have also carried out attacks in the provinces of Badakhshan, Kunduz, Farah and Kandahar in recent days.
With violence and delays starting the historic Doha negotiations, many Afghans say that peace is far from guaranteed.
We know the following so far:
How did it start
On October 11, the Taliban launched a major offensive from various directions to capture Lashkar Gah, Omer Zwak, spokesman for the provincial governor in Helmand, told Al Jazeera. The group’s militants overran security checkpoints while a number of districts – Babaji, Cha-e-anjir, Nad-e-Ali / Marja and Nawa-e-Barakzaiy – were also attacked.
Two days later, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Afghanistan announced that the Kandahar-Lashkar Gah highway was inaccessible due to the presence of improvised explosive devices.
Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem told Al Jazeera that the group’s militants are retaking districts that were previously under their control but were retaken by Afghan security forces a few months ago.
The Taliban control most of Helmand Province and have launched several attacks in recent years to capture Lashkar Gah – but their fighters have been pushed back by Afghan security forces each time.
How are civilians affected?
As the fighting intensified and the security situation around Lashkar Gah worsened, tens of thousands of people fled to the provincial capital.
The Afghan authorities estimate that 35,000 people (around 5,000 families) were displaced as a result of the fighting. However, the OCHA office in Afghanistan informed Al Jazeera that assessment teams from a number of organizations were still verifying these numbers. So far, 5,000 people have been confirmed.
“Yesterday, around 300 families or around 2,100 people from Nawa-e-Barakzaiy were newly displaced within the Nawa district,” it said on Monday.
OCHA also said the teams deployed are responding to the needs of those seeking shelter in different parts of Lashkar Gah who may need food, water and temporary living space immediately.
Health facilities were also affected by the clashes, with some operating at reduced capacity and others completely closed.
OCHA said seven health facilities in Nad-e-Ali / Marja, Nahr-e-Saraj, Lashkar Gah and Nawa districts were closed on October 14 after health workers received threats.
Médecins Sans Frontieres (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) told Al Jazeera that the main trauma hospital in Lashkar Gah remained under pressure and focused on “ensuring the continuity of services at the MSF-backed Boost Provincial Hospital, for the wounded, but also for those who need access to their regular services ”.
Médecins Sans Frontières Afghanistan said they admitted 56 people between October 11 and 16, including pregnant women and children. Some of the patients were injured by fire, explosions, and gunfire, while others sustained fractures.
“In addition, we admitted 33 people displaced by the fighting to our emergency room, but these people were admitted for illnesses unrelated to direct injuries from the fighting,” said MSF Afghanistan.
According to OCHA, at least 200 people, including women, were killed and wounded.
US Taliban accuse each other; Why?
After the Taliban’s attack on Lashkar Gah and the seizure of security checkpoints, the US launched air strikes against the fighters in the group in support of the Afghan security forces.
This was a rare US military intervention since the signing of a troop withdrawal agreement with the Taliban in February in exchange for security guarantees from the armed group.
The document signed in Doha also included a commitment by the Taliban to sit down with the Kabul government to find a peaceful solution to decades of war.
Shortly after the air strikes, Colonel Sonny Leggett, a US military spokesman in Afghanistan, said on Twitter that the recent Taliban attacks in Helmand “are inconsistent with the US-Taliban deal” and undermine ongoing peace talks in Doha.
He insisted that the air strikes did not violate the February accord – a position that the Taliban rejected.
“All the contents of the agreement between the US and the Islamic Emirate are clear, but the other side has repeatedly violated its obligations and carried out provocative actions,” said the Taliban in a statement on Sunday and warned: “All responsibility and consequences of continuing. ” such actions will fall directly on the shoulders of the American side ”.
The US military quickly rejected the Taliban’s allegation.
“US air strikes in Helmand and Farah were and are solely in defense of the ANDSF as they are under attack by the Taliban,” Leggett said on Twitter, referring to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF).
“The whole world has seen the Taliban offensive operations in Helmand – attacks that have injured and displaced thousands of innocent Afghan civilians,” Leggett added.
Under the deal, the Taliban said they would not attack cities, while the US said it would not refrain from attacking the fighters except to defend the Afghan armed forces.
Afghan officials accused the Taliban of violating the agreement by attacking Lashkar Gah.
Naeem, the Taliban spokesman, told Al Jazeera that the US “bombed places where there was no conflict. They also bomb the places where the fighting has already stopped. “
On Friday, the Taliban said they would cease operations if the US stopped air strikes in Helmand.
What happens in intra-Afghan peace talks?
The escalation of violence comes more than a month after representatives of the Taliban and Afghan government delegates came to the intra-Afghan talks in Doha.
A “contact group” of six members from each side was set up to set the “conditions” and pave the way for formal negotiations to begin between the two sides.
However, discussions seem to have stalled due to disagreements over establishing a basic framework for negotiations.
On Monday, Naeem said the contact group had met to “discuss disagreements and stressed that a final understanding of the peace process should be reached as soon as possible”.
However, Bashir Ahmad Shakir, a former member of the Helmand Provincial Council, told Al Jazeera that Afghans have doubts about the seriousness of the Taliban towards peace.
“You [Taliban] talk about peace in Doha but do the opposite by attacking houses, land, streets and spreading fear among people. The Afghans – especially the people in Helmand – don’t want the Taliban here anymore, ”he said.
“We doubt their sincerity towards peace talks.”
The Taliban have been fighting the Afghan government since it was ousted from power in a US-led invasion in 2001. Washington accused the then Taliban rulers of hosting al-Qaida leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al Qaeda has been accused of planning 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 advisor said Washington would reduce its armed forces in Afghanistan to 2,500 by early next year.