War & Peace

A Shaken City: On the Taleban‘s truck-bomb attack in Kabul


Security forces cordoned off the area along the bank of the Kabul River immediately after the attack allowing only ambulances to pass through the barriers. (Photo Source: Tolo News 19 April 2016)

Security forces cordoned off the area along the bank of the Kabul River immediately after the attack allowing only ambulances to pass through the barriers. (Photo Source: Tolo News 19 April 2016)

The explosion which shook Kabul on 19 April 2016 was so large  its reverberation could be felt throughout almost the entire city. All that day, and the next, the death toll continued to rise. Official figures currently stand at 68 killed and 347 injured, but the real numbers are likely to be higher. The scale of the attack, and the complete disregard for civilian life in carrying it out, shocked the population and led to a mix of anger, exhaustion and defiance. There were calls for revenge and acts of courage and resilience. AAN’s Martine van Bijlert takes a closer look.

How it happened

At 8:55 on Tuesday morning, Kabul was shaken by an explosion so loud that many people in different areas of the city thought it was close to them. After some initial confusion, it became clear that the former 10th Directorate of the National Directorate for Security (NDS) had been the target. The building is located just south of the Kabul River, to the southeast of the city centre, next to the large Eidgah mosque and the national stadium. Still mostly known under its old name, D10, it is now a separate entity under the presidential office and responsible for the close protection of senior government officials and other VIPs.

A medium-sized lorry truck, apparently filled with hundreds of kilos of explosives, was driven into a poorly secured parking lot next to D10 (which, it turns out, belonged to the well-known kuchi leader, Naim Kuchi), positioned next to the western wall of the compound, after which the explosives were detonated. (For a picture of the aftermath of the truck bomb, see here). The explosion breached the compound’s wall and, according to this report,  killed 22 inside (fifteen cadets that were immediately behind the wall, two guards in the towers and five others in three separate buildings), after which three gunmen wearing D10 uniforms, entered the compound. They started shooting the staff that had not been killed in the explosion. Those targeted reportedly included a group of new recruits who had been in a training session.

In the reporting on the attack gruesome details emerged, among others the information that several cadets who had managed to find cover, were massacred by the attackers. According to Tolo News, after the initial explosion the gunmen shot at least 20 cadets and staff.  It took the government security forces two hours to regain control of the compound. Two of the attackers were killed in the ensuing gun battle (an alleged picture of one them, clean-shaven and wearing a government uniform, can be found here), while a third, according to Tolo News, removed his uniform and escaped. (1)

As is usual in these kinds of attacks, there are also alternative readings of the events. People have, for instance, questioned where the attackers were supposed to have come from, which in turn has fed theories that they may have already been inside when the truck bomb detonated, and may have even come from among the staff or the recruits. MP Zaher Sadat, for instance, was quoted on One TV on 20 April 2016 accusing “specific people” of masterminding the attack: “It had already been planned. If you look at the dead bodies of martyrs, you notice that the majority of them were killed with gunshots. It means that before the suicide attack, our security soldiers were shot dead with weapons.” (BBC Monitoring Afghanistan News, 20 21 April 2016).

A city badly hit

Throughout the day, and the next, the toll of the dead and injured continued to rise. It currently stands at 68 dead and 347 injured. Initial figures, based on ambulance and hospital records, cited 28 dead, but the next day the deaths of those inside the compound – which was immediately cordoned off, with nobody let in – seemed to have been added. Many believe the actual numbers to be even higher, in particular since the NDS has its own hospital and to a certain extent can keep the total number of its deaths and injured from the public eye (although pictures of what people on social media have been describing as “young martyrs” have been circulating).

Emma Graham-Harrison of the Guardian, a former long-time Kabul correspondent, commented that “while the target was elite [referring to elite security forces] – the victims, as so often in these attacks, appear to have been mostly ordinary civilians. About 30 dead and more than 300 injured were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time – hit by shrapnel at a bus stop on their way to work, flying glass in shops and homes nearby, or stray bullets as they tried to take shelter.”

The strength of the blast meant that the shockwave and debris hit the residential and commercial areas in the vicinity. People were walking alongside the roads and river. Houses, schools and businesses were struck, as well as a crowded bus and taxi stand from where minibuses  to other provinces departed. The blast collapsed houses and shops nearby and shattered windows in a radius of around 1-1.5 km (which accounted for a large number of the injuries). Parents rushed to schools in the area, checking whether their children were safe.

The city’s ambulances frantically ferried the wounded to the city’s hospitals, loading the vehicles beyond capacity, sometimes with ten or twelve injured into cars only made to carry one or two. They were joined by police ambulances. For more vivid detail on how the ambulance service performed, see this New York Times article. Hospitals were overwhelmed with hundreds of wounded people, so much so that they could not allow relatives in to check on their patients.

Improvised blood donation centres  were set up to accommodate the large numbers of people who came forward to donate blood, in a sign of solidarity and defiance, as people were looking for a way to do something practical and constructive. According to this report, up to 3.3 million cc of blood was donated with donation drives launched in 20 provinces (see for instance here). On Twitter, some people said they had to go from hospital to hospital, as many were crowded and capacities were overwhelmed.

The nearby Eidgah mosque sustained considerable damage, as did a large number of warehouses and businesses. (See this video towards the end). The deputy chairman of the Afghan Chamber of Commerce and Industries (ACCI) said it estimated the total cost to businesses of the blast to be at least 10 million US dollars. “On both sides of the [Kabul] river we have one hundred warehouses,” said ACCI deputy Khan Jan Alkozai. “Food, power tools and construction materials and most of the stock has been destroyed.”

UNAMA condemned the attack in a strongly worded statement, saying that  “This attack shows the devastation caused by the use of explosive devices in urban areas and once more demonstrates complete disregard for the lives of Afghan civilians.” According to Tadamichi Yamamoto, the Secretary-General’s Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan, “[T]he use of high explosives in civilian populated areas, in circumstances almost certain to cause immense suffering to civilians, may amount to war crimes.”

Taleban claim responsibility

The Taleban were swift to claim responsibility, despite the massive harm to civilians. In a statement  posted on the various Taleban-linked websites, they specified the target and the reason for the attack: “The Kabul security apparatus – especially its notoriously brutal intelligence agency – is our prime target after the foreign invaders. Yesterday the Mujahideen managed to eliminate their target rather successfully and handed quite a justifiably warranted punishment to the savage operatives based inside.”

Whereas in the past, the Taleban have often denied their involvement in attacks that affected many civilians, this time, instead, they simply denied the casualties, dubbing the reports “enemy propaganda.”

The Taleban thus claimed that the Directorate 10 building, due to its security importance, was built in an area with no adjacent civilian buildings or movement – which was clearly not the case – and that the attack had only destroyed the targeted building, killing staff members of this department inside their rooms. They did concede that “due to the force of the explosion, windows of buildings at a far distance were also shattered – naturally injuring people albeit lightly, a situation which is unfortunate.” (2)

The attack’s messages

The attack sends several messages. It is, first of all, the first large complex attack of the year in Kabul (there was a smaller complex attack on the Le Jardin restaurant on New Year’s Day, which killed two and injured fifteen neighbours or passers-by). It is also the first major attack since the announcement of the “Omari Operation,” the Taleban’s so-called spring offensive that was announced on 12 April 2016. The attack is thus designed, not only to lash out at one of the country’s security organs, but also to grab headlines and undermine morale, as part of the psychological battle in which both sides – the government and the insurgency – seek to portray the other as an impotent and spent force.

There is also an obvious and significant symbolism in hitting the security department that is tasked with protecting the government’s high officials. Moreover, it is also very personal. As noted by The Guardian, the personal protection of officials in Afghanistan is often organised among relatives or close family friends — people who can be trusted. So by hitting the VIP protection squad, the Taleban did not only target the national security apparatus, but also individuals with close ties to the government’s leadership. This is illustrated by the fact that among the reported victims were a nephew  of Vice President Sarwar Danish, two bodyguards of Minister of Foreign Affairs Salahuddin Rabbani  and bodyguards of CEO Abdullah Abdullah.

The attack also indicates a clear willingness by the Taleban to risk mass civilian casualties. This is not the first time. There have been several attacks before with large numbers of dead and injured – some of them claimed by the Taleban, others not. The bombing that seems to come closest, in terms of magnitude, casualties and method, was the detonation of a massive truck bomb in the Shah Shahid area in the night of 7 August 2015.  That explosion took place shortly after midnight, when a truck laden with explosives hit a speed bump, killing eight to fifteen and injuring between two and four hundred people (estimates varied). The attack looked to have been an unintentional premature detonation – primarily because of the lack of ‘targets’ in the area.

It was already obvious at the time that, had the truck bomb reached whatever its intended target might have been and been detonated during the day, the number of casualties would have been staggering. (For a picture of the massive crater see here. A short video of the aftermath of the explosion can be found here, while this video has footage of the truck’s detonation captured by a security camera.)

The Taleban at the time denied responsibility, claiming the explosion had been caused by “a targeted air or missile attack in which a large bomb was deployed that created a huge crater in the ground.”  That statement on the Shahamat website, at the time, describing the Shah Shahid incident as “perplexing” and having “no semblance with attacks of Mujahideen,” was very different in tone from the one in response to Tuesday’s bomb attack. (3)

Questions on security and government capacity

The attack, so close to the heart of the security and government apparatus, seemingly based on very precise intelligence and possibly aided by inside assistance, has raised questions again as to the government and security forces’ capacity to keep the capital safe. Commentators on social media and MPs in parliament asked how the attackers managed to reach the compound despite the city’s security checks.

Tolo News conducted an experiment to see how hard it is to drive a truck through the city. The video, that was aired one day after the attack, on 20 April 2016, shows the truck being waved through several check posts – reportedly travelling from Pul-e Charkhi to the river, traversing five check posts and a distance of seven kilometres without a single question being asked. Although the truck did appear to be empty, which might explain away some of the police’s laxness, the findings of the program did little to instil confidence in the effectiveness of the police’s ‘Ring of Steel’ security cordon.

On 21 April 2016, two days after the bombing, the Ministry of Interior announced it had fired four – relatively low ranking – police officials in Police District 1, including the district police chief, in connection with the attack. Minister of Interior Taj Muhammad Jahed additionally ordered the police “to hunt down the terrorists” and use all resources available to protect the city from a repeat attack.  It is an admonition that for the moment sounds somewhat hollow.

Other reactions

In the aftermath of the attack, the government sought to regain the initiative by taking a strong and belligerent position. President Ashraf Ghani claimed that this act by the “enemies of the people of Afghanistan” showed their “weakness and defeat in the face of the national defence and security forces.” Later, while visiting the injured in the Sardar Mohammad Daud Khan hospital, he also vowed that the government would “avenge every drop of blood of its people” and repeated that the attack had been “a desperate, un-Islamic and inhumane act that represented a culture of ignorance.” CEO Abdullah said something similar when he stated “this criminal act… shows the depth of wildness and criminality of the enemies of Afghanistan” (shown on Ariana News TV on 19 April 2016).

There was a marked, and unsurprising, change in tone with regard to the prospects of peace talks – possibly in anticipation of a backlash for having been too soft. CEO spokesman Jawed Faisal was quoted by The Guardian as saying; “Before, we had a focus on a peaceful solution, but now there’s been a shift in strategy: to hit [Taleban] where it hurts the most. We’ll be hitting them with full force, with all means available. They did not answer positively to the peace call of the government, they answered with bullets. If they want war, we’ll give them war.”

Wahid Omar, former spokesperson for Karzai and recently appointed as Afghan ambassador to Italy was quoted by a Tolo News journalist as saying that war was the solution.

There were also calls for the immediate execution of Taleban fighters who are in government custody and who have already been sentenced to death. The demand seems to have originated with former NDS head Rahmatullah Nabil on his Facebook page, later followed by Special Representative of the President for Good Governance Zia Massud. There have been the usual calls on social media to retaliate against Pakistan, if there is another such bombing.

First Deputy Speaker of the Meshrano Jirga Farhad Sakhi, blamed Pakistan specifically: “It [Pakistan] sends terrorists from other side and here it sits at the negotiation table with us. We will never compromise with them” (as shown on One TV on 19 April 2016). The Afghan government has not come out directly accusing Pakistan of complicity, although Omar Aziz, the Kabul NDS chief, said at a press conference the attack was “organised outside the country.” CEO Abdullah, moreover, let it be known on the evening of the attack that he had postponed his trip to Pakistan that had been scheduled for early May “after initial evidence of today’s suicide attack” (see his Twitter account here and here).

There were some other voices. In its editorial on 20 April, state-run Anis Daily said that the attack could not undermine peace talks. “The recent aggressive and suicide attack by the Taliban group have made our people disappointed about ensuring peace… But, we must not lose opportunities of peace talks with the Taliban and other terrorist groups, but we must utilize them.” Independent Hasht-e Sobh Daily in its editorial on 19 April, however, called the attack unprecedented and urged the government to admit its “failure in the peace efforts.” (BBC Monitoring Afghanistan News, 21 April 2016)

A hardening of positions

The use by the Taleban of such a huge amount of explosives, in a residential area, and their – almost unprecedented – willingness to claim such an attack (while still denying the scope of the carnage) could signal a hardening of their position vis-à-vis civilians living in government areas. Whereas the Taleban, in their 2015 spring offensive statement still said that “top priority will be given to safeguarding and protecting the lives and properties of the civilian people,” in the 2016 statement the protection seemed more conditional: “During the span of Operation Omari, in areas including villages and cities where the Islamic Emirate has established its rule, the lives and property of the dwellers will be safeguarded as is its duty.”

It will be important in such an atmosphere to keep the hope of peace alive, however small, and to ensure that the desire to avenge will be curtailed. A hardening of positions on both sides will only lead to more suffering and to a greater disregard of rights and protections by all sides.

 

(1) The Taleban also released a video of supposedly one of the attackers, who claimed that his treatment in captivity (apparently in Bagram) had inspired him to become a “martyrdom seeker:”

I will never forget the scene when I was at the prison, the government people would use severely abusive words against the young Mujahideen. When you would swear to them on the holy Quran, they would tell us that I don’t care about your Quran and your God.

I will never forget these words. The jail term that I passed further strengthened my belief as compared to the past. When I saw their treatment at the jail, it further increased my emotions. When I got released I did not go home directly, I came to the lines of martyrdom seekers.

(2) The statement in response to last Tuesday’s attack also claimed that, “Following the incident, the enemy organs circulated some pictures which were either not of the event or in some cases not even from Afghanistan.” This seems to refer to several pictures that circulated on social media showing a huge fireball above high-rise building, that were indeed clearly neither in Kabul, nor from this incident. (There had been a column of smoke immediately after the explosion but no fireball). Another picture that was apparently taken in the aftermath of a bombing in Pakistan a few years ago, was also fairly widely circulated. This however, is more likely to have been the consequence of the regular mindless sharing of images on social media, than an orchestrated propaganda campaign.

(3) The statement in response to the Shah Shahid explosion said that because the incident was so perplexing they had dispatched an investigation team (as they did not want to lay blame without being sure). The investigation concluded that neither the Emirates leadership, nor the local “Mujahideen leaders” had been involved as “Such bombing campaigns are not the aim of Mujahideen nor is it considered any kind of achievement and most importantly, Islamic principles do not sanction such actions. We strongly condemn this incident and whole heartedly sympathize with our countrymen who were either martyred, injured or lost property in this plot. … The lives of civilians are very precious to us. We will never allow our Mujahideen to ever carry out bombings aimlessly and in crowded areas and will strictly cling onto Islamic rules in this regard.”

 

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