Talking and Killing in Early 2012
A series of suicide attacks have left dozens of people killed and injured in the last few days in southern Afghanistan. There was inevitable carnage among civilians when suicide bombers blew themselves up in a crowded bazaar in Helmand on Wednesday (18 January) and at the entrance to the NATO base in Kandahar on Thursday. On the ISAF side, the war is also still full steam ahead, although its recent press releases have highlighted more (alleged) insurgents captured, than killed. That is good, writes Kate Clark – prisoners can survive a war, dead people cannot. And with talks now apparently a serious possibility, the need to find ways to end the bloodshed feels more urgent than ever.
When news of attacks like the ones in Kajaki and Kandahar come, I think of English graveyards where you can find, shaded by old trees and covered with wild flowers, the multiple graves of young men from a single village who fought and were killed during the First World War. Especially poignant are the gravestones of those who were killed in the last days of this most pointless and savage of conflicts.
In Afghanistan, we have the first faint stirrings of what appears to be a serious peace process, which makes news of the slaughter in the south doubly distressing. Two policemen and 12 civilians (numbers vary slightly) were killed and dozens of others injured when a suicide bomber, apparently targeting a police patrol vehicle in Kajaki, blew himself up in the crowded bazaar on Wednesday. The following day, another suicide bomber detonated his bomb at the entrance to the Kandahar air base. This attack was claimed by the Taleban as having killed foreign troops, although, according to government spokesmen, seven civilians were killed and, said ISAF, none of its soldiers were hurt. (For press reports on this, goÂ here,Â here,Â hereÂ orÂ hereÂ and for Taleban reportsÂ here.) Other recent attacks (not all carried out by the Taleban) have included:
– 20 January, Jalalabad (Nangahar): fuel tanker hits IED near the airport, wounding at least four civilians;
– 18 January, Nad Ali (Helmand): NDS chief killed by an IED, along with another NDS official, a local elder and another civilian;
– 18 January, Kunduz: one person killed by an IED planted on a buzkashi field – just imagine if a game had been on;
– 17 January, suicide attack in Shinwar (Nangrahar): 3 wounded;
– 12 January, district governor of Panjwai (Kandahar), along with two sons and two guards, killed by a car bomb;
– 10 January, multiple suicide attack in Sharana (Paktika) 4 civilians and 3 policemen* killed.
The Taleban view assassinations of government officials as legitimate, although they are a clear breach of the laws of war. But their regulations do concur with the Geneva Conventions in outlawing attacks on military targets which are reckless of civilian life. Rules on this in theÂ Talebanâ€™s Code of Conduct, were strengthened by Mullah Omarâ€™s most recent orders to fighters in hisÂ Eid message. â€˜If it is irrefutably proven that the blood of innocent Muslims is spilled by the negligence of Mujahedin [ie Taleban],â€™ Omar said, â€˜then a penalty should be implemented in accordance with Shariah after extensive investigation and all steps should be taken to seek the pardon and pleasure of the inheritors and affectee.â€™ For those who persistently kill civilians, said Omar, â€˜then more Islamic penalties should be handed out, in addition to his termination from post.â€™
News of disciplinary measures against whoever planned the attacks in Kajaki and Kandahar this week, would, as always, be welcome.
The ISAF commander,Â General Allen, has also calledÂ for Mullah Omar to condemn the Kajaki attack, but also used the opportunity to gloat over what he believes is the Taleban leaderâ€™s weakened hand on the movement:
‘Mullah Omar has lost all control over Taliban insurgents, otherwise he would immediately denounce these attacks and order his ‘forces’ to stop attacking innocent Afghan civiliansâ€¦ This latest act of violence further confirms that the insurgency has declared outright war on the people of Afghanistan and will stop at nothing to continue to use terrorism and intimidation to advance their own malign and selfish ends.’
Degrading the Taleban remains one of the US/ISAF war aims. So it seems a bit rich to then crow over evidence that the insurgency is fragmenting and becoming more brutal. If Afghanistan is to find peace, it needs a coherent Taleban which is able to order fighters on or off the battlefield.
As for ISAFâ€™s own recent operations, according to its daily updates, these have mainly managed to net insurgents, rather than killing them. But it has also now launched an investigation into civilian casualties during a night raid in Kunar on the night of the 16 January â€“ when, it is alleged, a woman and two children were killed.
2012 has begun in bloodshed and with what appears to be the most serious chance for an end to the bloodshed since the insurgency began. The opening of a Taleban political office in Qatar is the first necessary step if negotiations is to happen â€“ although it does not make it inevitable. Much can go wrong along the way and there are many potential spoilers. Nevertheless, it seems that, this time, the US and the Taleban are both serious. It has been noticeable in recent weeks, for example, how they have issued â€˜helpfulâ€™ comments â€“ US Vice President Joe Bidenâ€™s declaration that the Taleban are not â€˜our enemyâ€™, the Talebanâ€™s fierce condemnation of the Ashura massacres and Mullah Omarâ€™s declaration, again at Eid, that Afghanistan is â€˜the shared home of its many ethnicitiesâ€™. In the last week, we have seen the Taleban decide not to use the pissing Marines debacle to score political points, but adroitly sidestep it, describing the scandal as not â€˜politicalâ€™ and therefore something that would not affect talks or the prisoner exchange. Even theÂ Talebanâ€™s declaration of victoryÂ which was obviously premature was also a smart political move â€“ once you declare victory, however far-fetched that boast might be, you can officially also get on with organising for peace.
General Allen, by contrast, seems to be either off-message or still holding out for a military solution, if his final, strained comment on the Kajaki attacks is anything to go by: â€˜These attacks against the people of Afghanistan have no effect on the progress we are together making here with our Afghan partners and will only further isolate the Taleban from the process of peace negotiation.â€™ A peace negotiation process [sic] without the Taleban â€“ what would be the point of that? (Diverging assessmentsÂ of the war and what to do next between different parts of the US state have become all too evident in recent weeks.)
Few expect the war to let up while the parties talk – which means more civilians and combatants will be killed. Indeed, the threat of peace often has the effect of inducing spoilers to more violence to try to throw the process off-track. This means that, along with the helpful comments and the opening of the office in Qatar and the probable prisoner exchange, it would be good to see some other confidence building measures, which might also reassure those in Afghanistan who distrust the talks option. A mutual agreement to end targeted killings, for example, or indeed a ceasefire, would be measures that would start saving lives immediately – of both Afghans and foreigners, civilians and combatants.
* Under the laws of war, police and NDS officials would be considered civilian unless their duties mean they are engaging in the conflict.