Kabul has suffered devastating attacks throughout the past 38 years of the Afghan conflict, but the three recent suicide bombings had a particularly deep impact as these happened in quick succession.
As Afghanistan’s fabled capital, Kabul has been the prime target for adventurers, coup-makers, tribal warriors and militants throughout its history. All those seeking to conquer Afghanistan have always targeted Kabul the most as this has political implications.
This was precisely the reason that the Afghan Taliban carried out two major attacks in Kabul recently. Not to be left behind, the Islamic State group, also known as Daesh, struck once in Kabul and another time in Jalalabad, the capital of the eastern Nangarhar province where it has gained a foothold in at least three districts bordering Pakistan.
Though many other attacks, mostly by the Taliban, were carried out in the rest of Afghanistan, the four mentioned above made headlines worldwide as these caused huge human and material losses and raised questions about the future of the Afghan government and the soundness of the new US strategy announced by President Donald Trump for winning the Afghan war.
In the course of just one week, the three suicide bombings in Kabul and one in Jalalabad resulted in the death of nearly 200 persons. If one were to consider figures all over Afghanistan for January 2018, the attacks by the militants killed about 1,000 persons.
The targets for the attacks were carefully chosen. Taliban conducted suicide bombing on January 20 at the state-owned Intercontinental Hotel, located high at the Bagh-i-Bala hill and frequented by foreigners and government officials. The death toll was more than 20, including 14 foreigners, among them mostly Ukrainians working for the private Kam Airlines and also four Americans. This was the second time that this hotel had been attacked, but its security was still inadequate and vulnerable to attacks.
The second Taliban suicide attack was even more horrible as it killed 103 persons and wounded many more. This took place near the old Interior Ministry building and engulfed a busy marketplace. While claiming responsibility for these two attacks, Taliban defended the choice of targets by arguing that those targeted at the Intercontinental Hotel were foreigners and government officials.
They claimed the second bombing occurred beyond the first security checkpoint, close to the second checkpost where security personnel were deployed and didn’t have any civilians. However, the fact remains that many civilians including women and children were killed in this bombing carried out by a suicide bomber driving an explosive-laden vehicle.
The IS targeted a compound housing the international non-governmental organisation (INGO), Save the Children Fund, and certain other offices in Jalalabad. According to the Save the Children Fund, it lost four of its employees in the suicide attack. Predictably, it suspended its operations in Afghanistan.
A number of other INGOs too have stopped working in the country due to the deteriorating security situation. This will obviously make those Afghans suffer who depend on these INGOs for their healthcare, educational and other needs.
The second IS attack was also lethal as the suicide bombers struck at a military post near the Marshal Qasim Faheem Military Academy in Kabul. The government conceded the loss of 11 soldiers and 16 others were wounded.
It was obvious the attacks would cause outrage. The Afghan government came under pressure at home from the families of those killed and injured, and also the opposition politicians who pounce on every opportunity to take political advantage from the situation. There were calls for resignation of the government, particularly the defence and interior ministers and the head of the intelligence agency, National Directorate of Security (NDS), all of whom are responsible for handling security matters.
In turn, the national unity government led by President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Dr Abdullah tried to deflect the pressure by blaming Pakistan for hosting the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network leadership who have been ordering the attacks in Afghanistan. It reiterated its demands that Pakistan take action against the Taliban and the Haqqanis if they cannot be brought to the negotiations table and are continuing to refuse to join the peace process.
To reinforce this point and squarely put the blame on Pakistan, the Afghan government quickly dispatched its two high-ranking officials to Islamabad to present evidence of the involvement of Pakistan-based militants in the recent attacks in Afghanistan and to demand action against them. Interior Minister Wais Ahmad Barmak and the country’s top spymaster Masoom Stanekzai, who is head of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), spent a day holding meetings with Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal, Director General of the Interior-Services Intelligence (ISI) Lt Gen Naveed Mukhtar and certain other Pakistan Army officials.
On their return to Kabul, they told a press conference that they had handed over a dossier to the Pakistan government containing accurate information based on the confessions of captured militants and would-be-suicide bombers about the role of Pakistan-based terrorists in the recent attacks in Afghanistan and also the existence of training centres of Taliban and other terrorist groups in the country, particularly in the border town of Chaman in Balochistan. Barmak and Stanekzai said they wanted Pakistan to dismantle the terrorist training centres and take practical action against these elements. They said Pakistan had promised to act on the information made available by the Afghan government and share findings about it during the proposed visit by a Pakistani delegation to Kabul on February 10.
The reaction by the Afghan government wasn’t unexpected. It declared a day of national mourning and President Ghani called the Taliban terrorists and agents of aliens, which was a not so veiled reference to Pakistan. He warned Taliban of revenge and asked them to choose between war and peace.
The US too reacted promptly and as usual blamed the countries harbouring terrorists for the rise in attacks in Afghanistan. It was clear Kabul and Washington were working closely together to apply more pressure on Islamabad to do more in the war against terrorism so that Afghanistan could be returned to normalcy. Pakistan denials weren’t given any weight by the Afghan and the US governments.
As for the Taliban, they refused to be overawed by the US warnings and made it clear they would fight until all the foreign forces withdrew from Afghanistan. With Trump declaring that there would be no more peace talks with Taliban, the stage was set for more fighting and less talking. With the approach of warmer weather, this summer could see an escalation in fighting and reduced chances for peace in Afghanistan.