With the sharp rise in Taliban activities in recent months, the militant group and other militants have been increasingly targeting innocent civilians. This is worrisome sign for safety and security of civilians in Afghanistan as the ongoing insurgency is far from being resolved in the near future. According to the reports, the Taliban stopped passenger vehicles and kidnapped dozens of passengers in Paktia province. The Taliban have claimed responsibility saying that they are searching for government workers. Last Wednesday, 14 civilians, including nine foreigners, were killed in a gruesome attack by gunmen in Park Palace Hotel in Kabul.
With the increasing incidents involving abduction of passengers, kidnapping of civilians is now becoming a trend and being used by the Taliban and other militants as a war tactic. The kidnapping of 31 passengers, 19 of whom released recently, was the most shocking incident of its kind perpetrated by the Afghan militants in recent years. The kidnapping appalled the nation and sparked widespread condemnations which culminated to release of about two third of the hostages. Previously, in two occasions, the militants abducted some demining workers in eastern Afghanistan and 11 laborers in Sar-e Pul province and released them after local elders negotiated for their release. The fate of six passengers who were abducted on March 16 on Herat-Kandahar highway remains unclear.
The Taliban is alleging that the group’s formal policy is to protect civilians and show compassion towards civilians particularly for elders, women and children. However, it seems that this is all claims and the the militants are not committed to their own or common principles. The Taliban consider their struggle a legitimate fight for restoring Islamic Emirate. However, the Taliban and other new-emerging militant actors is increasing turning into a criminal group inspired by their interpretation of Islam. The militant groups launch attacks discriminately and inflict heavy casualties by roadside bombing and attacks on government offices and public places.
As the militant groups are waging a deadly campaign in the country, they are visibly adopting criminal approaches that are common for many terrorist groups in the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. In fact, the insurgency in Afghanistan is increasingly turning into policies of not differentiating between civilians and combatants. This, however, will have repercussions for the insurgent groups on the long run. In past fourteen years of war, the Taliban have also been somehow trying to capture minds and hearts of the Afghan mainstream through posing themselves as provider of security and justice in local areas where government has limited access. Civilian casualties and kidnappings by the militants would further alienate the public from the Taliban.
On the other hand, the militants have recently been adopting approaches that are largely viewed based on ethnic and sectarian lines. Most of civilians abducted by insurgents in recent months have been Hazaras. While the Taliban have usually been discouraging ethnic or sectarian violence in Afghanistan in last fourteen years, the recent incidents of kidnappings targeting Hazaras suggest the group’s – or of their affiliated ones – of desperation in the war efforts. Even if the Islamic State has been responsible for some abductions, the kidnappings could not have happened without Taliban consent in areas that are mostly controlled by the Taliban. Pursuing sectarian based approach in the war and targeting civilians put the Taliban on a sliding slope that could gradually turn the militants into criminal-terrorist groups.
In last fourteen years of war, the Taliban’s formal stance on civilian casualties has been to denounce deaths of civilians and blame the government for incidents of civilian casualties. The Taliban have been somewhat avoiding to target and alienate civilians in non-war situations. Many times, the Taliban have been trying to enforce social order through strict policing in areas where government agencies have no or limited presence. But the group’s discriminatory bombing campaign and terrorist attacks have been carried out without considering safety of civilians. In many instances, in order to target government workers and security personnel, the Taliban launched attacks on crowded areas such as stadiums and queues at banks.
The militants’ recent war tactics clearly indicate that they will continue to target civilians in different ways such as kidnaping and bombing populous areas. The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) needs to effectively protect the public and minimize civilian casualties by the militants. One of the objectives of the Taliban is to show the government unable of providing security to the public. If the government fails to protect civilians, its credibility to the public will decline and the Taliban will take advantage of it. The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) has largely been successful in gaining public trust on its capability to provide security for the public. The ANSF should redouble efforts for winning the hearts and minds of the people.
With emergence of Islamic State group, there is also a high chance that the militant groups take ethnic-sectarian based approach in the ongoing war and target ethnic and religious minorities. This will virtually enter the crisis into a new phase. Development of ethnic or sectarian divisions is highly a dangerous prospect for the future of the country. Afghanistan is highly susceptible to ethnic-sectarian tensions as it is neighboring Pakistan, a country hard hit by sectarian violence, as well as the current Shia-Sunni tensions in the Muslim world. The rise of the Islamic Stage groups is coming as an alarm for Afghanistan. The Syria-originated group is a potential threat to the harmony and coexistence of Afghan ethnic groups.
The government needs to plan for a long-term strategy for protecting civilians. The UN has had unsuccessful efforts in the past to persuade the Taliban for protecting the civilians. Any such efforts are beneficial. The United Nations still can influence the parties of the war to respect civilian safety and security. The Afghan government should ask the UN and other parties to negotiate with the Taliban over the issue. The anti-insurgency campaign should be combined with direct or non-direct talks with the militant groups for providing protection to civilians by all sides of the war.