Peace talks between the US and the Taliban have seen some progress in 2019, most notably a draft agreement on the timeline for US troop withdrawal and the Taliban’s commitment to prevent militants from attacking US targets from Afghanistan (Reuters 26/02/2019; DW 13/03/2019). Conceding to a potential ceasefire agreement would likely undermine the Taliban’s favourable negotiating position, for which military gains have seemingly been crucial in the past (Reuters 19/08/2018; ICG 19/06/2018; Al Jazeera 25/04/2018; NYT 18/07/2018; AAN 25/06/2018). Targeted attacks to exert pressure on negotiations have occurred from both sides and are likely to continue (NYT 01/03/2019). Furthermore, the premature withdrawal of foreign forces risks leading to (non-state) armed groups expanding their offensives (Guardian 21/12/2018).
There is a general perception that the current talks are focused on lowering US financial and military involvement rather than on finding sustainable peace. This perception is reinforced by the absence of the Afghan government from talks and a lack of clarity over the content, as well as unclear discussion on the possibility of an interim government in the run up to the elections which have been postponed from July to September. If elections proceed without including the Taliban, the group is likely to violently disrupt the process.
A new escalation of hostilities will likely spark temporary and prolonged displacement and maintain the record-high levels of civilian casualties as seen in 2018. Major Taliban assaults on the strategic cities Farah, Ghazni and Kunduz in 2016 and 2018 led to the displacement of tens of thousands of people and several hundred civilian casualties, and these are in particular remain at risk of future assaults (DI 11/10/2016; AAN 16/12/2018).
A spike in conflict will likely hamper access in a country where the humanitarian space is already limited. Uncertainty about the outcomes of peace negotiations and the upcoming Presidential elections – likely to be heavily contested – add to the extremely uncertain operating environment.
Protection is a major concern for the civilian population. IDPs will also likely have urgent shelter, food, NFI and health needs. New displacement will add a strain to limited host community capacities. Resources will be further stretched due to high numbers of undocumented returnees that continue to return from Iran. Humanitarian needs will be exacerbated by decades of conflict, protracted poverty, and a severe drought in 2018 that left 13.5 million people severely food insecure (FAO March 2019).