Few actions induce as much self-loathing as walking away from desperate children. Close to the West Kabul bazaar where I was being taken by an Afghan social worker, 34 pupils were killed last month while taking their exams at school. My guide told me she had seen the number of working children in the city rise over the years as violence continued, institutions collapsed and warring groups proliferated.
The deaths of these children are among more than 1,700 civilians killed in Afghanistan during the first half of the year – the highest recorded number compared to the same period for the past decade. While many of the attacks that take place in remote parts of Afghanistan go unnoticed, cities have become the focus of terror campaigns.
With national elections scheduled for June 2019, Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission has cited security as the most pressing concern.
In the latest in a spate of attacks by insurgents, civilians in a wrestling club were targeted on Wednesday in a twin bombing, two days before US Defence Secretary James Mattis met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to discuss the flatlining peace process, despite an unprecedented ceasefire in June, backed by the UN. Yet despite talks between American negotiators and the Taliban, little progress has been made.
We must look beyond the current security conditions to gauge the growing appetite for reconciliation in the nation and across the region.
No detente between the Afghan government and the Taliban can ever lead to peace without protecting the nation's most vulnerable population, its children. Securing their long-term trajectories will determine the scope of any peace deal. It would be the best investment that the US and its allies could make.
But presently the daily lives of Afghan citizens are beset by chronic violence and increasingly unpredictable attacks.
Many of them target public spaces and buildings occupied by civilians, including children, and deliberately so, according to the UN. Attacks on schools have become part of this alarming trend.
More than 1,000 schools across Afghanistan remain closed for security reasons and at least 86 have been destroyed by militant attacks this year. These targeted attacks on schools have contributed to a ubiquitous reluctance among parents to prioritise education for their children.
Meanwhile, the US has increased the number of troops in the country and is focusing on tackling “green-on-blue” attacks, where Afghan soldiers turn their weapons on foreign troops they are working alongside. Afghan military forces are struggling to defend half of the country’s provinces against Taliban fighters.
Observers point to the latest fighting in Ghazni, where Taliban fighters killed at least 100 Afghan soldiers, as a case in point. But the recently retired US General John Nicholson, who led Nato forces in Afghanistan, expressed "cautious optimism", calling the summer ceasefire a tactical manoeuvre that could advance his country's South Asia strategy. Without clear red lines for both sides, however, all diplomatic efforts will fail.
Another ceasefire could provide much-needed respite, but without concrete action to secure the long-term safety of civilians, especially children – those inside classrooms and those working on the streets – it would be merely symbolic.
The US and its allies must also recognise the growing Afghanvcivilian-led mobilisation and its engagement with local leadership in the provinces.
They have diverse views on solutions to the conflict. Having outlasted several governments, the Taliban leadership and its local manifestations also have varying mandates.
So, instead of viewing the opposition as a monolith, negotiators should enlist willing allies within its ranks, who support dialogue that fosters the interests of their constituents.
Civilians in all provinces have implored the international community and national leaders, including the Taliban, to protect their children.
Their priorities must take precedence and pledges be secured that guarantee the safety of children. Attacks against schools must be rendered an explicit red line by all sides, including the Afghan government, which uses schools as military outposts, despite signing the “Safe Schools” declaration.
The US, while leading peace efforts, is conspicuously absent on this list as well. If they want to make a peace deal, they must lead by example.
Securing schools as impenetrable safe havens can pave the way for a comprehensive Children’s Act as part of Afghan national law, which humanitarian agencies have already proposed as a concrete measure.
Greater co-operation between the Afghan government and Taliban will also weaken ISIS, which has carried out many of the attacks against schools in Nangarhar Province and most recently in West Kabul.
Funding is another core issue that warrants prioritisation during this period. Despite Nato claims of progress with the education of Afghan children, a report by the Norwegian Refugee Council laments the dearth of funds for education.
This is directly “threatening their futures”, according to William Carter, the head of programmes at the NRC. A mere 12.5 per cent of promised aid has reached crisis-affected areas of Afghanistan.
The children roaming the bazaar we visited are the result of cumulative neglect and long-term instability. They are also part of the 3.7 million children who remain out of school.
Many work on the streets, exposed to incessant violence, their aspirations stunted by the daily game of chance that dictates their safe return home. But this is no game for a child.
Preethi Nallu is a migration analyst and the founding editor of Refugees Deeply