In an attempt to regain power from the Afghan government, the Taliban has announced its plan to launch its annual spring offensive today.
According to a statement by the militant group, the offensive, dubbed “Azm” meaning “resolution”, will start from Friday, April 24.
The announced annual spring offensive is the first one since President Ashraf Ghani assumed office in September.
“Although the foreign occupying forces announced late last year the end of their war mission in Afghanistan, still they control the land and air space of the country and the command of war is in their hands,” the statement said, adding that if the foreign occupiers want the end of war in Afghanistan, they should withdraw completely.
In the statement, Taliban militants also called upon Afghan civil and military servicemen to desert government ranks and join the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” (the name of the Taliban ousted regime) which had ruled the major part of the country before its collapse in late 2001.
The combat mission in Afghanistan led by the US and NATO-led troops ended late in December 2014. This allowed the Afghan national security force to shoulder the security responsibility of their conflict-riven country from January 1 this year.
However, more than 13,000 US-led troops under the name of Resolute Support (RS) mission still remain in Afghanistan to train and advise Afghan forces.
The previous spring offensive “Khyber” launched by the Taliban on May 12, 2014 in the shape of suicide attacks and roadside bombings, failed to capture any major city or district in the country although thousands of people, including militants, military personnel and civilians were killed and injured.
According to a report of the UN mission in Afghanistan released here in February this year, more than 6,800 people were injured and at least 3,700 civilians were killed and in the Taliban-led militancy and conflicts in 2014.
Militancy and cases of conflict typically rise in spring and summer in Afghanistan, commonly known as the fighting season among Afghans.
The consequences of Afghanistan’s increasingly deadly war are weighing heaviest on the nation’s civilians, with women bearing the brunt of the violence. The Taliban banned music and girls education, and restricted outdoor activities of women when the group was controlling most of Afghanistan.
But violence and social pressures have not deterred members of the country’s nascent orchestra of mostly young girls from using music to “heal wounds” and promote women’s rights in the strictly conservative Muslim society.
The ensemble, known as Zohra, was founded in 2014 as part of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) in Kabul, where suicide bombings lately have become routine.
Hope and music
Students and trainers are not losing hope and regularly come to the city’s only institute to rehearse and learn new lessons, says Ahmed Naser Sarmast, the director of ANIM and the founder of the orchestra. Zohra is the name of a music goddess in Persian literature, he explained.
The musicologist spoke to VOA while visiting neighboring Pakistan earlier this month with the young ensemble to perform in Islamabad as part of celebrations marking the 99th anniversary of Afghanistan’s Independence Day. Kabul’s embassy in Islamabad organized and arranged for the orchestra’s first visit to Pakistan.
Despite the many challenges in Afghanistan, Sarmast said, student enrollment has consistently grown and more parents are bringing their children to the institute to study music. Around 300 students are studying not only music at the institute but other subjects, including the Quran, he said.
Advances for women
Negin Khpolwak, the orchestra’s first woman conductor, says Afghanistan has made significant advances in terms of promoting women’s rights in the past 17 years. She says there is a need to sustain the momentum irrespective of rising violence.
“We need to stand up to protect those gains and we need to open the doors for other Afghan girls,” Khpolwak said when asked whether deadly attacks around the country are reversing the gains women have made.
But violence alone is not the only challenge for women and girls, especially those who want to study music, she said.
“When you are going in the street with your instrument to the school and they are saying bad words to you and if you are giving a concert in public they are telling the bad words to you. But we are not caring about it,” Khpolwak said.
Ethnic groups help each other
Sarmast says that girls and boys in the orchestra come from different Afghan ethnic groups and they help each other when needed.
“It’s hope for the future,” he said.
Ethnic rivalries have been a hallmark of hostilities in Afghanistan and continue to pose a challenge to efforts promoting peace and stability.
“I strongly believe without arts and culture there cannot be security and we are using the soft power of music to make a small contribution to bringing peace and stability in Afghanistan and at the same time using this beautiful, if I can call it a beautiful weapon, to transform our community,” the director said.
Some of the members of the Afghan orchestra were born and brought up in refugee camps in Pakistan, which still hosts around 3 million registered and unregistered Afghan families displaced by years of war, poverty, persecution and drought.
“We are using the healing power of music to look after the wounds of the Afghan people as well as the Pakistani people. We are here with the message of peace, brotherhood and freedom,” Sarmast said.
Afghanistan and Pakistan have experienced years of terrorist attacks, including massive casualties on both sides of their long shared border. Bilateral relations are marred by mistrust and suspicion.
The countries blame each other for supporting terrorist attacks. Afghans allege that sanctuaries in Pakistan have enabled Taliban insurgents to sustain and expand their violent acts inside Afghanistan. Pakistan rejects the charges.
The Islamist insurgency controls or is attempting to control nearly half of Afghanistan. (VOA)