Herat was a logical choice for the transition: rich, cultivated, well-connected, Herat makes the kind of city that can stand on its own feet without much effort. But of course, transition comes with a price. As it seems more and more apparent, the insurgents are keen on targeting these new would-be symbols of success for the government and the internationals. And then even the transition can create uneasiness between the ISAF and the population. AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini, who landed in Herat just as the PRT was attacked, reports.
I didn’t even have time to get out of the military airport in Herat. When I called my usual favourite taxi driver, it was his wife who answered the phone instead, telling me ‘He’s stuck in the bazaar, there is war there. He cannot come and pick you up now, please call later.’ The ground personnel at the airport confirmed that the war in the bazaar was a complex commando attack against the Italian PRT in the city centre. The attack was still in progress and it was difficult to get a clear understanding of what was happening. What we did not learn from the Italian television channel Rai News 24, we found out when the helicopters started carrying the injured to the airfield. The first to land carried a single person, apparently an Italian soldier, severely wounded.
After my taxi driver disengaged himself from the ‘war’ – he was adamant about his involvement: ‘I heard a blast and I went by to check out what it was about’ – I finally reached the hotel. The first impressions of normality on the road from the airport to the centre of the city were cancelled on arrival in the hotel courtyard. This was filled with several dozens armed men of different species: police, army and private guards, as well as a typically moustached NDS officer in charge of the situation. They said the ‘war’ was over, but that the chase for some of the terrorists around the PRT area was still going on. In fact, occasional shots could be heard throughout the rest of the afternoon.
With the evening came the news that one additional insurgent in possession of a remote control had been caught by the police close to the municipality. He had reportedly detonated the explosives which had been concealed near the Chawk-e Cinema earlier that day. It was this explosion, presumably intended as a diversion to attract the attention of the security forces while the main commando attacked the PRT, which caused most of the victims. The death toll of five was still rising at the time of writing, as several injured passers-by were in critical conditions in Afghan and Iranian hospitals.
The attack on the PRT – although creating havoc and engendering a long gunfight – was less deadly, with reportedly a dozen or more injured among Afghan guards, Italian soldiers and other PRT personnel, and possibly two ANA casualties. A suicide bomber driving a vehicle blew up himself in front of the gate to allow the other three members of the commando to enter. They were then able to entrench themselves at the top floor of a tall private building facing the PRT and opened fire on the soldiers. It took a relatively long battle before they decided to trigger their body-borne devices, possibly while trying to escape or get closer to the security forces (given that they detonated on the ground floor of the building).
The tactical execution of the attack is not really new; the occupation of high buildings mirrors recent attacks in Kandahar, Khost and Kabul. The most shocking about the Herat attack is however the fact that the insurgents managed to penetrate the very heart of the security zone in what is generally not seen as a typical ‘friendly environment’, unlike for instance Kandahar where insurgents can count on many contacts and facilitators inside the city.(*) Of course, the fact that Herat gets hit is shocking in itself. ‘Herat is not like Kabul or Kandahar, its people are not used to this kind of attacks’, said the governor spokesperson, adding that ‘they get upset very quickly’. It is true that the population has been accustomed to a certain degree of security inside the city and its environs, and attacks like this have been a rare occurrence during the last years.
Popular reaction to Monday’s attacks in fact has been quite rash, with some Heratis commenting that ‘it’s now time for the Italians to leave’. The location of the PRT in the centre of the city, sometimes interpreted as another sign of the different ‘Italian approach’ – oriented towards a close relationship with the civilian population(**) – now turns out to be a potential source of problems. It is not only the PRT, according to a local journalist, but also the Indian and American consulates and other diplomatic quarters: ‘Herat does not have some sort of Wazir Akbar Khan like Kabul, where you can concentrate most of the likely targets and raise security measures accordingly’ through roadblocks or hesco walls, ‘here the targets are amidst common people’s houses and shops’.
As for the removal of the PRT, the point made by the governor during a press conference after the attacks, when he said to the upset crowd that ‘it’s a matter of few months, be patient’ will probably prove untrue. There are no plans to shut down the PRT; even though Herat city is scheduled to transition, ISAF’s mandate in the other districts of the province will continue.
While there seems to be unanimity among the interviewees on the fact that the recent attacks and the announced enteqal are closely linked, many of them concede that the security of the city is not likely to seriously deteriorate as soon as the Italians forsake their responsibility. The Italian military have not been actively patrolling the city for years and the Afghan security forces carry out all main tasks already. The Afghan army and police also have not fared badly during the attacks on Monday, when they apparently showed a good capability of intervening quickly and isolating the conflict area. If there is one concern about the Afghan security forces that was voiced – by a civil society activist – it is their increasing permeability to insurgent infiltration, even if until now Herat did not experience the consequence of this.
An often heard observation in Herat is that there are almost no ‘real’ Taleban in the province. Except some small groups in Kushk-e Kohna and Obeh, which are in contact with the Taleban fronts in Badghis, most of the other local armed groups have a different origin, and are made up for example of rival commanders in Chesht-e Sharif or renegade mujahedin in Gozara. Even in Shindand, considered the most insurgency-ridden district of the province, the number of Taleban is small compared to that of other armed persons of various affiliation.
The impact of these ‘fake Taleban’ on the overall security is not to be underestimated though. While everybody in Herat seems to agree that an attack like the recent one can only have been planned by the Taleban leadership, possibly from Pakistan or elsewhere, many also understand that this would not have been possible without local help and cooperation.
A member of the Herat Ulema Shura labelled the mujahedin as ‘the first victims of the arrival of ISAF’, claiming that ‘they have been unduly excluded from the positions of responsibility in the security forces’. He cautioned against an enteqal which fails to justly address these mujahedin grievances and to recognize their vital role in providing security. ‘For the last nine years we have been asking to the international community re-build our police and army. We repeated to them time and again: give us the weapons, war is our business.’ Regardless of whether one agrees with his opinions, he may be right when saying that ‘the mujahedin will benefit most from the enteqal, because the state will be forced to lean heavily on them to guarantee security.’
The security concerns are also illustrated by another phenomenon. Herat is one of the major commercial hubs in Afghanistan and many businessmen from less peaceful quarters moved their activities there during the last years, guaranteeing an influx of money that kept levels of unemployment and discontent and, in turn, violence, under control. The city still features a bustling economy. 300 square meters of building ground was valued at one million dollars a month ago. But at the same time, the economy of the city may be starting to reflect the current insecurity. According to some interviewees, the house and real estate market has been weak since some months and this negative trend reportedly increased since the announcement that Herat will be among the first places to be transitioned to the responsibility of the Afghan forces in July. Businessmen fear an increase in violence and investments and sales are said to consequently be experiencing a slowdown.
‘If we have a couple more days like this, the morale of the population will change for the worse. Then, those who can afford it, will start leaving the city, heading to Iran, Europe or America.’ This comment by a state official may sound too pessimistic, but it is true that under the surface of calm and normal life that resumed almost immediately in the city after the attacks, there were signs of uneasiness. Photographs of the civilians killed in the Monday explosion were hung near Chawk-e Cinema and passers-by stopped to comment. Rumours of an unspecified number of suicide bombers still roaming the city continued for days after the attack. The police arrested more suspects on Tuesday, and there are hints that some bombs – to be activated by the remote control of the first detained terrorist – could still be lying undetected somewhere.
Finally, unknown helicopters were flying over the city for hours on Tuesday night. The next morning the well-known popular suspicion of them having been busy ‘disembarking terrorists’ inside the city was slowly making its way into the worried minds of some citizens. Welcome back to Afghanistan and its rumour mill, one could say to Herat. If the terrorists wanted to create concern and confusion here, it seems they have scored the first goal.
(*) The fact that the first explosion did not cause a massacre indicates that it may have happened at still some distance from the gate proper, and thus does not signify necessarily carelessness or complicity on part of the guards. More worrying is the possibility that, as some people hint, the remaining insurgents had already taken position in the building, the entry of which looks into the tightly controlled alley of the PRT. Somebody for instance suddenly remembered that the flat had been empty for a while, after having been hired to a Pakistani tenant. More serious is the report that, before or during the commotion, the insurgents managed to carry a case full of rockets upstairs. Luckily they could not make effective use of them during the gunfight.
(**) Surprisingly the Italian ISAF were referred to as ‘mercenaries’ in the Tolo article (click here) that was reporting the attacks. Is it a misprint, a case of outspokenness, or an effort to share a common terminology with Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed?
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020