Last week in Central Asia and the Caucasus, violence continued between Afghan forces and the Taliban in Afghanistan, while civilians were targeted by the Islamic State, unidentified groups, and a militia in Herat. The United States proposed a plan to the Afghan government that would alter the peace negotiations and plans for the withdrawal of US troops in the near future. In the de facto Republic of Artsakh, remnant landmines inflicted civilian casualties for another week. In Armenia, opposition and pro-government demonstrations continue amidst the ongoing political crisis fueled by the government’s handling of the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict. In Georgia, a large environmental protest took place against the construction of a hydropower plant. In Kazakhstan, opposition protests in support of political prisoners were held across the country.
In Afghanistan,1ACLED is currently conducting a review of sourcing and reporting of the conflict in Afghanistan since 2020. Nangarhar and Kandahar provinces were the main battlegrounds for many operations involving Afghan forces and the Taliban. Arghandab district of Kandahar, where many Afghan air and ground operations have taken place, were home to especially high levels of activity last week, similar to recent weeks. In the Nijrab district of Kapisa province, another active battleground last week, an Afghan army operation targeted the Taliban and Al Qaeda members, killing dozens and recapturing some areas from the Taliban. Meanwhile, civilians continue to suffer from ongoing violence. Dozens of civilians were wounded in Herat city during clashes between police forces and gunmen of Habibullah Ghoryani, who has formed a militia accused of harassing and murdering locals (Khaama Press, 4 March 2021). Ghoryani managed to flee as 14 policemen were wounded in the gunfight. The Islamic State also claimed two attacks in Jalalabad city of Nangarhar province, killing three female journalists in one attack and a female health worker in another. In Nangarhar, at least seven Shiite Hazara workers were also shot and killed by unknown gunmen in the Surkh Rod district. In addition, Afghan forces exchanged fire with Iranian forces along the Helmand river in Nimruz province, near the Iranian border. Iranian forces had allegedly fired on Afghan civilians, though no casualties were reported.
Meanwhile, amid the stalled intra-Afghan talks, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called for a 90-day reduction of violence and the formation of a transitional unity government in a letter to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (BBC, 8 March 2021). Blinken also emphasized that the US has yet to decide about the withdrawal of its troops by 1 May 2021. The letter was revealed along with the draft of a new peace agreement prepared by the US envoy to Afghanistan that includes the roadmap to a new peace process, which will sideline or annul the current one (Afghanistan Analysts Network, 7 March 2021). President Ghani has already rejected calls for a non-elected transitional government, but expressed a willingness to consider fresh elections (Anadolu Agency, 6 March 2021; Al Jazeera, 6 March 2021). How the Taliban will approach this proposal from the US is to be seen in the coming days. However, critics fear that this new plan may be a ‘quick fix’ rather than an efficient solution, as it tends to undermine the Taliban’s capacity to leverage violence and the Afghan government’s reactions to power-sharing with the Taliban (BBC, 9 March 2021).
Along the Armenia-Artsakh-Azerbaijan Lines of Contact, remnant landmines continue to cause casualties among Azerbaijani civilians. Yet another civilian was injured by a landmine in the Agdam region, in the Azerbaijani-controlled part of the de facto Artsakh Republic.
In Armenia, the political crisis continues to unfold, with both opposition and pro-government demonstrations taking place, mainly in Yerevan. The largest protests were held by the opposition Homeland Salvation Movement on 1 March; Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s My Step Alliance party held concurrent counter protests. The date has a symbolic meaning in Armenia. On 1 March 2008, 10 people, including eight civilians, were killed by the military during demonstrations against the outcome of the 2008 presidential elections (Human Rights Watch, 25 February 2009). In the demonstrations last week, some of the opposition demonstrators clashed with police and stormed a government building in Yerevan, where they chanted slogans against Pashinyan (Caucasian Knot, 1 March 2021). Meanwhile, a new political movement, the National Democratic Axis, demonstrated against both the current government and the Homeland Salvation Movement. The National Democratic Axis proposes forming a transitional government to implement a crisis plan, then hold early elections (A1+, 28 February 2021; Ajbever, 2021). As the deadlock continues, these demonstrations are likely to continue in the coming weeks.
In Georgia, thousands of activists gathered in Kutaisi to protest against the construction of the Namokhvani hydropower plant (HPP). The protests at the site have been ongoing sporadically for months; however, this was the first demonstration involving thousands (Civil Georgia, 28 February 2021). According to the demonstrators, including civil society organizations, the hydropower plant would cause severe environmental damage in the region (Agenda.ge 28 February 2021). Since the beginning of 2018, ACLED records nearly one hundred demonstration events against HPPs across Georgia due to environmental concerns. Georgia’s increasing need for electricity has led authorities to invest in new HPP construction in an effort to ensure energy security, despite locals’ concerns about drinking water quality and the irrigation of riverside pastures (JAM News, 2 May 2019).
In Kazakhstan, demonstrations were organized across the country by opposition activists and the Democratic Party of Kazakhstan in support of political prisoners last week. During the demonstrations, dozens were detained. The Kazakh government has been criticized by civil society organizations for using coronavirus measures to suppress opposition protests (Amnesty International, 22 June 2020). Last week, a new regulation limiting pedestrian activity was announced hours before a protest in Nur-Sultan was set to begin, citing the pandemic as the reason for the new regulation (Eurasianet, 1 March 2021). Before the opposition protests last week, a car owned by Kazakh activist Serik Kayapkaliev was set on fire in Uralsk city. According to the victim, the attack may be linked to his political activism.
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