War & Peace

The attack in Kargha: Return of the Taleban Puritans?


In a rare night-time attack, Taleban gunmen stormed a popular lakeside resort. Kargha, in the outskirts of Kabul, with its ice cream parlours and pedalo boats is frequented by Afghans of all walks of life. Overnight on Thursday/Friday, the gunmen took a number of civilians hostage in the night to Friday. The action dragged on for twelve hours, after which all attackers and a number of civilian customers of the resort were dead. Thomas Ruttig, a Senior Analyst at AAN looks at what this attack on a purely civilian target signifies

The attack against HotelSpuzhmai (‘Moon’) on the shores of Kargha lake, actually a reservoir that provides drinking water for Kabul, was the latest incident in a long string of similar attacks. These attacks appear designed not to give the Taleban a military victory, but to catch the eye of the international public, to counter NATO claims that the Taleban have been weakened and are no longer able to pull off attacks, to throw dirt on the glossy picture of a smoothly progressing transition and to deepen the uncertainty among Afghans about their future. This uncertainty is already there, evidenced by the growing numbers of Afghan asylum seekers arriving in the industrial countries and increasing capital flight.

But there is also something new in this attack. For the first time in many months(1), the Taleban have attacked a target that is almost exclusively used by Afghan civilians, while statements by their leader Mulla Muhammad Omar and their code of conduct (the layha, see an AAN report about it here) suggested a desire to protect civilians as much as possible. In the past, when causing civilian casualties, Taleban spokesmen often argued that they had actually been attacking a military target (like a convoy, a checkpost or another military installation) and that they had not planned to harm civilians. This time, such an excuse would have sounded ridiculous. Instead, in a statement under the name of their spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed they called the hotel a ‘hub of obscenity and vulgarity frequented by the lusty foreign and local top-level military and officials to satisfy their impure lust especially on Thursday nights’ and where ‘anti-Islamic meeting are usually being held’ (sic).

Equally ridiculous was their claim that it was mainly foreigners who had been targeted at Kargha. In the statement already quoted they claimed that their fighters had killed and wounded ‘several dozens of the top-level foreign diplomats and military figures and high-ranking puppets’. But everyone in Kabul knows that many foreigners are not even allowed to go to most of the restaurants in the city centre, particularly ‘top-level diplomats’. Kargha, well outside the city, is off limits for all foreigners except those few who do not have strict security rules. Instead, Kargha, with its little restaurants (which Afghans tend to call ‘hotels’), ice cream parlours and even cottages furbished in Swedish style and a few pedalo boats to rent, is a typical weekend retreat for Kabulis from all walks of life, from the young and well-off to rather ordinary people who enjoy the only accessible lake in the vicinity of the capital. To target such an area is not only a clear deviation from recent stated Taleban policy, if not practice, it is also an outrage.

That the Taleban tried to justify their attack by claiming that it was a venue of ‘anti-Islamic’ behaviour also shows that the old puritan tendency in their movement is alive and kicking, to which all kind of temporal amusement are anathema, especially if men and women are attending without being strictly separated. This approach is similar to that during the Taleban regime in the mid- to late 1990s when the length of beards (for men) and the completeness of veil (for women) were more important than feeding the population. This approach caused their regime’s international isolation, very much to the consternation of those Taleban who were more pragmatic and understood how the outside world (and other Afghans, for that matter) would react to it.

The Taleban leadership has tried hard to get rid of being identified with anti-modernist and puritan values. It has introduced various measures, from allowing schools, even for girls – although this is handled differently in different areas as the latest events in Ghazni showed -, to a stated commitment to protect civilians. The Kargha attack is definitely a step back. Although it would go too far to draw the conclusion yet, that this was the Taleban’s ‘no’ to talks, it is definitely another concerning sign of diverging opinions and tactics within the movement. Those responsible for the attack should be reined in by their superiors in the ‘Quetta shura’ if the leadership is serious about protecting civilians and finding a political solution to which they committed themselves by opting for the liaison office in Qatar, even if the talks have stalled recently.

(1) In early 2011, Taleban fighters stormed a branch of Kabul Bank in Jalalabad executing customers, and in late June last they stormed the restaurant of the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, killing civilian customers. Also the attacks on Shia shrines in Kabul and Mazar-e Sharif in December 2011 killed many civilians, however, these attacks were not claimed by the Taleban.

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Thematic Category: War & Peace