War & Peace

A Black Week in Kabul: Terror and protests


Screen Shot of the terrorist attack at the 3 June funeral of Salem Ezadyar, one of the victims of police shooting during protests in Kabul. Source: Tolo

It has been an incredibly difficult week for Kabul. In four days, over a hundred people were killed and several hundreds injured – most of them in a massive terrorist attack in central Kabul on 31 May 2017. Two days later, as angry protests threatened to become violent, the police opened fire killing and injuring several more people. The next day, during the funeral of one of the victims, a triple suicide attack tore through the rows of the mourners just as they started their prayers – miraculously leaving most of the gathered Jamiat leaders unharmed. The situation in Kabul remains tense, but there have been no further protests yet, as politicians mull their options. AAN’s Martine van Bijlert and Thomas Ruttig describe how the events of the past few days unfolded and quickly became highly political (with input from Obaid Ali and Ali Adili).

This dispatch will be followed by one discussing the possible perpetrators of the 31 May and 3 June 2017 attacks.

The German news agency dpa, that has an office in Kabul, reported a total of 117 people killed and 586 injured over the last four days – to which one probably should add “at least.” There were media reports quoting Afghan officials as saying that some bodies will probably never be recovered due to the enormous strength of the explosion, which indicates that there might be a number of unknown, and uncounted, victims.

The massive truck bomb (31 May 2017)

The carnage started on 31 May 2017 when a wastewater tanker packed with an estimated 1500 kg of explosives detonated at a junction between Kabul’s Sherpur and Wazir Akbar Khan neighbourhoods, during the morning rush hour. There, the road forks off to the nearby German embassy – the most exposed building of which was destroyed beyond repair (personnel had earlier been relocated from here; there had also been warnings of a possible imminent attack) – and further on to Resolute Support’s military headquarters, the US, UK and other embassies, as well one of the presidential palace’s entrances.

The truck had reportedly been turned away from another entrance into what some foreigners call Kabul’s ‘Green Zone’ where many embassies, international organisations and leading Afghan politicians’ villas are situated. Alert policemen had reportedly not recognised the driver and had sent him away, even though he drove a truck with the sign of the company that normally services the area and had carried (false) papers that would have allowed the vehicle in. From there, the truck apparently drove to near the German embassy, was stopped again and detonated (a Tolo report has the name of the police officer who stopped the truck and was killed together with eight colleagues.) Footage from nearby surveillance cameras show the enormous strength of the explosion.

The way the events unfolded has led the German authorities to preliminarily assume, according to the same report, that the target was not their embassy in particular, but rather a ‘high-level target’ inside the Green Zone, in general.

The corner where the tanker exploded was the last point that was still accessible for general traffic before entering this part of town (see this footage). The area is usually crowded at that time of the day. As a result, not only police and security company personnel that manned the nearby check-post, but large numbers of Afghan civilians were harmed – an estimated 90 people killed and further 460 injured, some so badly that it will affect them for the rests of their lives. The explosion also badly damaged properties of banks, companies and shops in a radius of around a kilometre. This included the nearby Emergency Hospital where many injured were transported to – fortunately, only minor damage was sustained and it was able to continue operating. (1) As often after similar attacks, Kabulis flocked to hospitals in large numbers to donate blood.

There was no claim of responsibility for the attack, from neither the Taleban or Daesh’s local ‘Khorasan’ chapter (ISKP), but the Afghan intelligence (NDS), already on the same evening, accused the Haqqani network of having organised the blast, in cooperation with the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI (Tweet in Dari here; see also this report). On 2 June 2017, the Taleban, in response, released a second statement (quoted here), this time explicitly stating that “None of our Mujahideen including those of Haqqani Sahib had any role in this event, neither does the killing of civilians benefit the Islamic Emirate.” (2)

President Ashraf Ghani, in response to the attack, ordered the execution of eleven Haqqani and Taleban prisoners – a fact that was reported but has not yet been effected. The Taleban, as in the past, responded by threatening that if prisoners were executed “all offices of the Kabul administration” would come under attack.

Vigils and debates (1 June 2017)

After the trauma of the massive blast, that was felt all over Kabul and affected almost everybody, there was a clear desire to act: take a stand against the perpetrators, but also express frustration and to make demands from the government. The grief and rage sought an outlet and was aimed in different directions: at the attackers, whoever they were, at Pakistan who was accused of having had a hand in it, and at the government and its security apparatus, who people felt should have prevented the attack.

On 1 June 2017, in an initial response, dozens of mainly young Kabulis gathered at the blast site for a vigil. Among other slogans, the protestors demanded the execution of “Daesh prisoners.” But there was hope that the outrage over the carnage would lead to more peaceful, pro-peace protests, as had been the case after earlier events (for instance after the attacks on a lake-side restaurant in Kargha in late June 2012 and the Serena Hotel in March 2014). But the debates on whether to organise a mass demonstration the next day, already held forebodings of what could happen. Several civil society groups pulled out, fearing that the protests could turn violent, would possibly be hijacked for political means, or could be targeted for further carnage – and all three did indeed happen.

Protests and more deaths (2 June 2017)

When demonstrators returned the following day, on 2 June 2017, in large numbers, the mood was more much tense and anti-government, and there was an array of agendas on display. There were calls for the government to resign in favour of an interim government. Some demonstrators carried anti-Hekmatyar posters (protesting the return and political inclusion of the Hezb-e Islami leader after a peace deal with the government, see here and here for background), as well as the green-white-black flags of the Islamic State of Afghanistan, the mujahedin government of 1992-96 (photo here; there had also been earlier anti-Hekmatyar protests immediately after his arrival in Kabul using the same insignia, organised by the Green Trend, a movement of mainly former and young Jamiatis, led by former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh). There were even placards denouncing one of Ghani’s international advisers, saying that “Ghani dances to the orders of this man.”

At least part of the crowd wanted to march on to the presidential palace; they were stopped by the police which was out in the streets in strength. The situation turned tense as the security forces used water cannons, tear gas and batons and, at some point, live ammunition, killing a number of protestors. Figures still differ, from two dead according to Kabul’s police chief to at least seven, according to the BBC, or eight, according to Jamiati MP Hafiz Mansur, and some 30 others injured. The police chief alleged that protesters had been carrying weapons and had fired at the police, wounding four officers. Photos were circulated on social media claiming to show armed protestors.

It was a tense and confusing day, particularly as news of the deaths started coming in and being confirmed. One of the dead was Salem Ezadyar, the son of a leading Jamiati politician and current deputy chairman of the Meshrano Jirga, or Senate.

After the protest, a smaller group of demonstrators set up a tent near the Emergency Hospital (an area between the blast side and Kabul’s Shahr-e Naw) to stay in the area and keep the spirit of the protest alive. Zia Massud, who was dismissed as the president’s special representative for government reform in April of this year, who joined them later, was quoted as saying that “the people have decided to change the system and set up a temporary [interim] government” (which has been his demand, ever since he was dismissed from the government). (3)

Funerals and more carnage (3 June 2017)

On Saturday 3 June 2017, with people still reeling from the events of the day before, debates on whether to continue and possibly escalate the demonstrations were ongoing. Afghan police and intelligence officials however urged Kabul’s inhabitants to stay indoors, citing a threat of possible attacks that could target large gatherings of people (see here and here). There were no demonstrations, but people did gather for the funerals.

One of the main funerals, attended by leading politicians (mainly but not exclusively from Jamiat), was the one of Ezadyar’s son. It took place at the same cemetery where former Jamiati leader Marshal Fahim was buried, in Kabul’s northern Saray-e Shamali area. While the mourners lined up for prayers, three explosions tore through the second or third row (see dramatic footage here), killing at least 20 and injuring 119. According to the NDS the attackers had used explosive-rigged shoes. (4) This explains the relatively small casualty toll, given that the explosion took place in the midst of the mourners, as the shoes contained a relatively small amount of explosives and probably no ball bearings or other forms of shrapnel. Leaders, who had stood close by the scene of the explosions, including Chief Executive Dr Abdullah, Foreign Minister and interim Jamiat leader Salahuddin Rabbani and Amrullah Saleh remained unharmed. (5)

Emotions obviously ran high, as the crowds dispersed in disarray and anger. Smaller groups at the site reportedly started attacking the police, trying to disarm them and setting fire to two police Rangers, but were calmed by their elders, as local people told AAN. There were accusations against the government and the security organs for failing to protect the mourners, if not of conspiring with the attackers. In particular Balkh governor Atta Mohammad Nur called the 3 June attack a “cowardly conspiracy and a direct attack on a specific political current [Jamiat] [which] furthers the speculations about the hand of circles within the establishment in orchestrating these attacks.” Others on social media labelled the (Ghani part of the) government as ‘fascist’ and demanded its resignation.

Chief Executive Abdullah, who had been present during the attack, appeared live on Tolo TV from his home late that afternoon appealing for calm, while the Jamiati leadership gathered in Rabbani’s house (Abdullah had recently not been re-elected into the extended party leadership). Rabbani, in contrast, announced that he would soon make a statement about the “terrorists inside the system”, also hinting at alleged government officials’ involvement in funeral attack. The statement however never came. In the meantime, the Jamiat leadership continued to debate their course of action, while the city held its breath to see how they would respond.

Where we are now: A lull (4 June 2017)

This morning, Sunday 4 June 2017, all main routes to the palace and the site of the attack remained closed. Protestors continued to camp out in their tent close to the Emergency hospital, with reports of plans to erect more tents elsewhere. The city is not in lockdown, but it is eerily quiet in many areas, with many people opting to stay at home (several schools apparently sent the children home again, based on threat warnings).

The traditional three days of mourning after the latest deaths – those shot by government forces and those killed at the funeral – will end by Tuesday. The Jamiat leadership, which did not come to a consensus on how to act yet, has asked its supporters to refrain from protests or rioting until they have reached a decision.

The Jamiat council has reached out to other groups, some of whom had joined Friday’s protests, in the hope of forging alliances, but has so far not been very successful. Groups that were approached include Jombesh-e Melli (whose leader and First Vice President General Abdul Rashid Dostum has long been sidelined and had been bundled off to Turkey in May 2017 for ‘medical treatment’), the Protection and Stability Council headed by Abdul Rab Sayyaf, the well-organised Hazara pressure group Jombesh-e Roshnayi, as well as several civil society groups. There were also contacts between Hezb-e Wahdat and Jamiat.

All of these groups have grudges of their own and have been highly critical of the current government and its inability to meet their demands. Several of these groups, moreover, share Jamiat’s suspicions towards what they consider a Pashtun-nationalist agenda of parts of the government. But none of them seem keen to join protests that could easily turn violent and that threaten to be hijacked by groups and personalities who seem intent on (or at least give the impression they wouldn’t mind) toppling the government.

The Jamiat leadership council – that was just expanded from 9 to 60 members – is divided on how to proceed. Some want to continue protests regardless of whether they turn violent or not. Others only want protests if they remain peaceful, while some are in favour of negotiating with the government first, and reverting to protests only if the negotiations fail to bring results. The latter group seems to have lost out for the moment, as today’s invitation to come to the palace to talk was apparently refused. Governor Atta further said they had sent a delegation to Abdullah to make him clarify his position: whether he stood “with the people” or with the government. Abdullah spokesman, though, later denied that there was such ultimatum.

At the same time, in the afternoon of 3 June, Dr Abdullah was quoted by Voice of America’s Dari service as saying he was ready to step down “if it could heal the pain of the people.”

Chief Executive Abdullah, according to Mitra TV, urged the Jamiat delegation when they came to him to end the protests so that the planned international Kabul Process conference – a new regional peace initiative of the government – could go ahead and to postpone any demands that security officials be dismissed until after it . With regard to his own position, he said he would decide after the conference. (The regional conference, scheduled for 6 June was to be participated by the US, Pakistan India, Saudi Arabia, Japan, the United Kingdom, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Turkey, Germany, France, China, the EU and the UN – see also here).

Looking ahead

The events of the last days have again showcased the deep vulnerability of the National Unity Government. Part of this vulnerability is due to the impractical structure of the current government that was negotiated by John Kerry, then US foreign minister, after the contentious elections of 2014. Part of it is due to the deep divisions and lack of trust between the government’s two camps (those of Abdullah/Jamiat and of Ghani) and their supporters. Another part is due to the fact that many of the political factions can mobilise armed people and that in particular Jamiat has used the threat of large demonstrations that may or may not turn violent, as a political pressure tactic.

Mass demonstrations in Kabul, in particularly in response to highly emotive events, are generally met with great anxiety by the sitting government. Critics argue that this illustrates how the government is out of touch with its people, cannot acknowledge their emotions or recognise legitimate demands and does not know how to respond in ways that would defuse a tense situation. Those close to the government, on the other hand, point to the massive risks involved in the demonstrations, including that of mass casualties if the crowd is targeted (as happened earlier with this Jombesh-e Rushnayi demonstration on 23 July 2016) and the threat that armed groups may use the cover of the crowd to incite violence and attack the government (as was feared during the Zabul Seven (or “Tabasum”) demonstrations in November 2015 and the protests after the 2014 elections).

Furthermore, the demonstrations on Friday did present a struggle between those who wanted to use the gathering to express outrage and grief, and those who wanted to use the crowd to put pressure on the government (This is illustrated in this short clip where Latif Pedram, leader of a small Tajik nationalist party, is shouted down by demonstrators asking him not to make this about politics). The police, despite years of training by ISAF and now Resolute Support forces, continue to struggle with peaceful crowd control. But their job is also often greatly complicated by reports of armed demonstrators trying to move towards the palace.

For now, the momentum of the demonstrations seems to have halted. There seems to be little appetite among most politicians for a situation that spirals completely out of control. And although the current government is maddeningly dysfunctional and divided, any other politicians in their place would equally struggle to face the country’s current challenges. Given that there are no real mechanics for a change in government (despite demands for snap elections or the formation of a interim government) and no leaders that seem to garner trust beyond their immediate supporters, it is very unlikely that any radical change would lead to an improvement. And there does indeed seem to be very little appetite among the wider population to have the current weak government replaced by squabbling politicians in a fragmenting political field.

Which is of course also what bothers those who have legitimate complaints against the government. They fear that because of the near consensus that the current weak government is better than most of its alternatives, there will be no accountability for its mistakes, its negligence and the sometimes outright partisan behavior of its parts but a continuation of the less than satisfactory status quo.

 

(1) On 4 June 2017 the hospital raised an alarm, reporting “gentle threats” by some of the protesters camping outside, and appealed for the security of its staff to be safeguarded to ensure that they could keep they hospital open.

(2) Serajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the so-called Haqqani network, was appointed first deputy under then Taleban leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur in 2015; Mansur was killed in a US drone attack in the following year.

(3) Protests were also held in Herat (photos here and here), with approximately 300 people attending. They remained peaceful. Protests in Mazar-e Sharif planned for 4 June were called off by governor’s office in the last moments and postponed to 5 June.  Protests in Takhar province held already on 3 June also went by without any disturbence. At the same time, Iranians and Pakistanis held vigils for the Afghan victims in Mashhad, Tehran and Peshawar.

(4) According to the NDS, there had been four attackers at the funeral of Salim Ezadyar, one of whom had not detonated himself. The NDS claimed to have arrested 13 “suicide attackers and terrorists,” including the fourth attacker at the funeral. In the course of the day the NDS released details and footage of the man, who apparently admitted to having been recruited and trained by the Taleban in a madrassa in Quetta, Pakistan. The Taleban reportedly rejected the accusation per WhatsApp message.

(5) Among the killed reportedly was Mawlawi Jalal, a member of the Ulema Council, and among the injured were four parliamentarians (two remained hospitalised), health minister Firozuddin Firuz, Senate chairmanFazl Hadi Muslimyar and Massud Khalili,  a close aide of late commander Ahmad Shah Massud, poet and later long-term ambassador to India and Spain. (Khalili had been in the room, and had survived, during Ahmad Shah Massud’s assassination by two terrorists masquerading as TV journalists – the bomb was hidden in a video camera – on 9 September 2001.)

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