Opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan decreased 19% in 2015, compared to the previous year, according to the latest Afghanistan Opium Survey figures released Oct. 14 by the Afghan Ministry of Counter Narcotics and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The area under poppy cultivation in 2015 is estimated to be 183,000 hectares, compared with 224,000 in 2014. This marks the first time the area under cultivation has decreased since 2009. Indeed, in 2014 and 2013, record-breaking highs in opium production were reported. "I hope the survey will serve to inform policies and efforts to build on these hard-won achievements," said UNODC executive director Yury Fedotov. He added that sustaining progress "depends on the resolve of the Afghan Government, and on the international community, which must devote the needed resources and make a long-term commitment to addressing a threat that imperils all our societies."
The discrepancies between the US and Afghan accounts of the US-led bombing that struck a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, last week call for an independent investigation by a never-before-used international body, said Joanne Liu, president of Doctors Without Borders (MSF), in a speech on Oct. 7. Twenty-two people were killed in the MSF-operated hospital that was hit by the US bomb, and dozens more were injured. MSF seeks an investigation by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission, a permanent body created by the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions and officially constituted in 1991, but has not yet been used because it requires a signatory state to sponsor an inquiry.
The fall of Afghanistan's northern city of Kunduz to the Taliban is making headlines—the first major city to be taken by the insurgents since the US invasion of 2001, and well outside their traditional stronghold in the country's south. A pitched battle to retake the city is now raging, and the US has launched air-strikes, causing God knows what carnage among the civilian inhabitants. But while the world media have been paying little attention, this didn't come out of nowhere. Kunduz city had been under siege for a month, and the Taliban have taken control of nearly all of Kunduz province, as well as much of the neighboring province of Takhar. This resurgence comes as the Taliban have broken off talks with the government under the new more hardline leadership of Mullah Akhtar Mansour. On the same day as the fall of Kunduiz, a suicide blast amid spectators at a volleyball match in Paktika province left nine dead and many more wounded. And hundreds of fighters claiming loyalty to ISIS attacked military checkpoints in Nangarhar province, in a coordinated assault that has left at least two soliders dead (probably many more).
The UN on Aug. 5 said that a new report (PDF) shows a significant increase in the number of women and children being hurt or killed in Afghanistan's war with the Taliban and other insurgents. The number of total casualties in the conflict rose by approximately one percent in the first half of this year, but the number of women casualties has risen by 23% and the number of child casualties has risen by 13%. The director of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), Danielle Bell, stated that she believes the increase in casualties is due to ground fighting, and attributed 70% of the deaths to insurgents. Out of the over 4,900 civilian casualties in the first half of 2015, there have been 559 women casualties (164 deaths and 395 injuries) and 1,270 child casualties (320 deaths and 950 injuries).
Fighters loyal to ISIS have seized substantial territory in Afghanistan, according to an ominous Reuters report June 29. Witnesses who fled fighting in Nangarhar province told reporters that hundreds of ISIS fighters in convoys of pick-up trucks mounted with machine guns seized several villages that were held by the Taliban—and put local opium fields to the torch. "They burned poppy fields in Shadal village and banned shops from selling cigarettes," said tribal elder Malek Jan. Taxing opium production is a key source of Taliban revenue, but Reuters reports that ISIS loyalists in Nangarhar appeared to have other sources of money. Witnesses said they had plenty of cash. It is unclear where the money is coming from, but it frees ISIS to stigmatize the Taliban as soft on drugs.
Chicago documentary collective Kartemquin Films announced that it will make director Brent E. Huffman's new release Saving Mes Aynak available for free to the people of Afghanistan on the digital platform VHX. The film follows Afghan archaeologist Qadir Temori as he races to save the remains of Mes Aynak from imminent demolition by China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC), a Chinese state-owned mining company that wants to develop a mammoth copper project on the site. Located in Afghanistan's Taliban hotbed of Logar province, Mes Aynak was built 2,000 years ago by the ancient Buddhist civilization—on top of a Bronze Age site dating back some 5,000 years. Only 10% of the site has so far been excavated, and time is running out. Laws protecting antiquities apparently go unenforced due to official corruption. Meanwhile, the Taliban continue to plunder the site, selling the artifacts on the black market to fund their insurgency. Huffman received death threats from the Taliban for his filiming work at the site. (Al Jazeera, Newsweek, July 1; Inside Pulse, June 25)
The Guardian reports May 29 that women are being officially denied the vote in "the most socially conservative regions" of Pakistan, where local elections were held over the weekend. In races for district and village council seats in Hangu and Malakand districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, deals have been struck with village elders barring women from voting—and not for the first time. In a parliamentary by-election in KP's Lower Dir district earlier in May, none of the eligible 50,000 women in the constituency turned out to vote. Reporta said mosques broadcast warnings to women, and polling stations were guarded by "baton-wielding men" who blocked the few women who did show up to vote. A court in Peshawar threw out a petition brought by 12 women from Lower Dir who demanded the election be re-run. The case was dismissed in just 15 minutes. Siraj-ul-Haq, leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, argued that the women of Lower Dir had chosen to respect local traditions by not voting. Jamaat-e-Islami governs KP in coalition with the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), led by the former cricket star Imran Khan.
Afghanistan's Primary Court in Kabul sentenced four men to death on May 5 for the mob killing of a 27-year-old woman. Farkhunda was killed March 19 after being accused of burning a copy of the Koran, although an investigation later determined she never did. The attack was captured on cell phone cameras as Farkhunda was beaten, thrown from a roof, run over by a car and dragged to a river bank. The nationally-televised trial had 49 suspects, including 19 police officers, charged with murder, assault and encouraging others to engage in assault. Four were sentenced to death, eight defendants were sentenced to 16 years in prison, and several others still await sentencing. Judge Safiullah Mojadedi dismissed the cases against 18 of the defendants. Mojadedi also ordered another police officer arrested for allegedly freeing a suspect in this case. The trial began just four days ago.