Since Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani signed the September 2014 Bilateral Security Agreement between his country and the United States, intra-Afghan fighting has continued with warring factions including the Taliban, the regional branch of ISIS, and Al-Qaeda.
The Taliban, the formerly governing fundamentalist Islamic organisation, was overthrown by the US-led invasion of 2001 in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, but fought back against the US-supported government and allied NATO forces.
The 2014 agreement authorized a considerable international force to remain in the country after the US and NATO formally ended combat activities on December 28 that year.
The Ministry of Defence indicates that, as at July 23, 2015, a total of 454 British forces personnel or MOD civilians had died while serving in Afghanistan since the start of operations in October 2001, 405 having lost their lives as a result of hostile action.
Also, following a helicopter crash on October 11, 2015, two further UK personnel died while serving in Afghanistan.
Many more were seriously or very seriously injured from all causes excluding disease.
Indeed, as Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Totten, while Padre for 16 Air Assault Brigade, said back in 2011, many soldiers from across the island of Ireland were serving across Task Force Helmand.
Padre Totten is a former Church of Ireland curate in Newtownards and in 2016 was appointed an honorary chaplain to the Queen.
Hopes for a more stable peace in Afghanistan have been boosted following a meeting between representatives of the Taliban and of the US-backed Afghan government.
Both sides were brought together on July 7-8 in a German/Qatar sponsored peace conference in Doha, Qatar, but the Afghan government representatives were acting only in a personal capacity as the Taliban would not talk directly to the government.
Subsequent talks between the Taliban and the US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad and his team reportedly have seen further progress, with a phased US withdrawal to be met by a Taliban commitment not to allow Afghanistan to be used as a base by any group to attack US targets and to negotiate with the Afghan government.
Also present at the conference were representatives of Afghan civic society, including women.
The significance of the presence of women at the Doha conference cannot be underestimated because of the Taliban’s record of adherence to Islamic Sharia law in a manner harshly oppressive of women.
According to an EU External Action Service report, while since 2001 Afghanistan has made advances on women’s rights, with attention focused on the prospects for a peace deal there are concerns regarding the preservation of such gains.
However, the two sides at the Doha conference agreed a ‘roadmap’ intended to lead to peace and it is the hope of the United States in particular that a formal peace agreement with the Taliban can be reached as soon as September 1.
The projected way forward is for the Taliban to form a joint government with US supported President Ghani who, at least until recently, the Taliban has regarded as a US ‘puppet’.
It is precisely the involvement of the Taliban in such a new joint government that gives women in particular cause for concern about how their rights might fare in any upcoming agreement.
Another of the big problems is the fact that there are reportedly many hard-line Islamists within the Taliban who could well defect to Islamic State if the Taliban leadership agrees to a joint government with President Ghani.
President Donald Trump is keen to disengage. No doubt, a US withdrawal from Afghanistan would go down well with American voters as a presidential election fast approaches in 2020.
Speaking following a recent meeting with Pakistan prime minister, Imran Khan, Mr Trump expressed his wish for the US to “extricate” itself from Afghanistan where America is acting as “policemen”, a role which he said the US did not want to play.
The purpose of Mr Khan’s visit to Washington was to create a new alliance between Pakistan and the US to further Mr Trump’s goal of an orderly US departure from the scene.
It would be a considerable turnaround. Last year, the US withdrew military funding to Pakistan and applied damaging sanctions against Pakistani companies over concerns about the development of tactical nuclear weapons and the country’s alleged support for Islamists in Afghanistan.
Mr Khan clearly wants to put things on a better footing as far as his own country’s situation is concerned, so co-operation with the US could be a key to the success of any Taliban-Afghan government peace agreement.
I’m sometimes asked about the point of praying for peace when there is such relentless evil in the world.
Nonetheless, prayer is not only about asking God but is also about shaping one’s own will and conscience by the help of God and about witnessing for such higher purposes to the world around.
Despite the view of the US conservative-leaning National Review’s Andrew McCarthy that the recent peace efforts will only lead to the Taliban soon “ruling Afghanistan again, just as it did in those years before 9/11”, it does seem possible that at least some standstill can be achieved by September 1, but prayer for the country and its war-weary people can only help towards that end.
Canon Ian Ellis is a former editor of The Church of Ireland Gazette.