Mid-Year Update: World 10 Conflicts to Worry About in 2020


In February 2020, the US and the Taliban finally signed a long-awaited peace deal in Afghanistan amid a decline in violence.

The US had initially withdrawn from peace negotiations following a period of lethal battles from June 2019 to September 2019.

The February peace deal provided for the gradual withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, as well as an end to Taliban attacks against the US.

Image: ACLED

The agreement also entailed a prisoner exchange between the Taliban and Afghan government in order to start intra-Afghan talks (for more, see ACLED’s report on the US-Taliban peace deal).

In accordance with the peace deal, the US reduced the number of troops in Afghanistan from 13,000 to 8,600 and pulled out from five bases.

Further withdrawals are expected by November. However, the withdrawal could be slowed by an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

The amendment would block the removal of further troops if the Trump administration does not provide clarification about an alleged Russian bounty program, which claims that Russian intelligence paid the Taliban to kill US soldiers in Afghanistan (The Hill, 1 July 2020New York Times, 26 July 2020).

Meanwhile, the Taliban ceased operations against US and NATO forces, yet continues to target Afghan forces. Taliban attacks against Afghan forces significantly increased in March 2020, even as the Afghan government reduced its offensives against the Taliban.

By May, however, the Taliban announced a three-day truce during Eid Al Fitr, reopening space for the stalled intra-Afghan negotiations.

While Taliban attacks resumed after the truce, prisoner exchanges continued — even during one of the deadliest weeks, from 15 to 21 June, where over two hundred Afghan security forces were killed by the Taliban.

These developments indicate that both parties still desire to end the decades-long war. This was further evidenced by the Taliban’s decision to announce another three-day ceasefire for Eid al Adha, starting on 31 July.

Immediately following the truce, prisoner exchanges were completed, though the Afghan government refused to release some prisoners due to their criminal records. However, Afghanistan’s assembly of elders (Loya Jirga) ruled for the release of remaining prisoners, paving the way further for the intra-Afghan talks.

Meanwhile, the political landscape of Afghanistan has also changed significantly since the start of the year. In May 2020, President Ashraf Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah signed a power-sharing agreement, eight months after the controversial presidential election that was marred by allegations of fraud.

The agreement gives Abdullah and his coalition half of all cabinet appointments and names him the chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, the group which will take charge of the peace negotiations with the Taliban (Reuters, 23 March 2020New York Times, 17 May 2020).

Still, despite signs of progress toward peace, civilians have often faced the brunt of the violence, as ACLED projected at the start of the year.

Fighting between Taliban and Afghan forces resulted in hundreds of civilian casualties during the first half of the year, with both parties blaming the other for targeting civilians. From January 1 to August 1, armed groups or Afghan forces targeted civilians over 280 times; over 370 of these events involved civilians being killed by roadside bombs, shelling, airstrikes, or suicide attacks.

The two ceasefires around Eid al Fitr and Eid al Adha led to a decline in the number of civilians killed over several days.

However, the number of overall civilian fatalities remains at similar levels to the same period in 2019. Going forward, a potential peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban could lead to a further decrease, whereas a re-escalation of hostilities will likely reverse these trends.

At the same time, the Islamic State Khorasan province (IS-K) — the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan that was dealt a significant defeat last year in Nangarhar — has claimed responsibility for multiple attacks, particularly targeting Shiite Muslims.

Civilians, including religious scholars, government workers, judges, and lawyers, were also attacked by unidentified actors, almost twice as often as the same period of 2019. IS-K may be conducting such attacks, as the group still retains significant capacity for violence around the country, albeit at a smaller scale oriented around sleeper cells. Moreover, the group’s capabilities could also be boosted by the possibility of disgruntled Taliban fighters, who oppose the peace deal, joining IS-K (PBS, 26 February 2020).

The latest attack of the group on 26 July aimed to release IS-K inmates from Jalalabad Prison and continued for 20 hours, proving that the group still has the capacity to launch complex attacks and seeks to reinforce its fronts.

However, if intra-Afghan talks progress, it is likely that both sides — along with the US — would unite against IS-K as they have in the past, with all parties viewing it as a major threat to peace.

Lastly, the humanitarian situation in the country has been further complicated by the coronavirus pandemic. As the country lacks sufficient medical infrastructure and testing capacity, the low number of confirmed cases likely obscures the scale of the problem (The Diplomat, 3 June 2020).

Partial border closures with neighboring countries have disrupted imports, increasing essential food prices (Reuters, 1 April 2020). The crisis has also provided the Taliban an opportunity to present itself as a legitimate actor by launching a campaign to combat the pandemic (for more, see this spotlight report from ACLED’s COVID-19 Disorder Tracker).

The campaign includes raising awareness, providing medical and protective material, and cancelling gatherings in areas under its control — although the group refused to declare an outright ceasefire amid the pandemic.

Additionally, clashes between Afghan forces and the Taliban continue to inflict collateral damage to medical facilities and personnel. Meanwhile, the coronavirus has reportedly spread through the Afghan army, potentially undermining its capacity to respond to Taliban assaults (VOA, 4 July 2020).

The international community has increasingly been providing medical support since the beginning of the crisis, but as the ongoing violence keeps Afghan society vulnerable to such emergencies, the virus is unlikely to be contained in the near future.

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ACLED / Balkantimes.press

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