The war is getting dirtier, writes Susanne Schmeidl, member of and guest contributor to AAN, looking at the Serena attack and its victims, particularly the women and children. We have to assume that everything and everybody is fair game in the Taleban’s fight against – “well, against what?” she asks, and “for whom?” Schmeidl gives vent to her feelings and demands to know from Mullah Omar how these murders are compatible with his own messages and the Taleban’s codex that order fighters to avoid civilian casualties. She also took part in a demonstration of Afghans against the killing of civilians – actually the third in a series of demonstrations for this cause – and felt that “something had been switched on.” A nascent peace movement. Momentum that needs to be kept going.
New year’s eve, regardless what calendar you adhere to, is for many about turning a new leaf and making resolutions about what to do better the next year. In Afghanistan, such a leaf was turned, but for many of us it is not about things getting better, but things getting worse.
While out with friends in Kabul I heard about last Thursday’s attack on the Serena Hotel, which the Taleban later described as a “planned martyr attack” targeting “foreign invaders along with the top-level local officials and lawyers”. The Taleban said in their message published the next day, Friday, on their website, “The Mujahideen fighters started searching each rooms [sic] of the hotel thoroughly to discover the identities of the guests and selectively took down their targets.”
If that is true, I want to know why the wife of journalist Ahmad Sardar and two of his daughters, along with Ahmad himself, were killed in this attack. What exactly was their crime? Much still needs to be clarified about what happened during the attack and who shot whom. Meanwhile, the third child, a small boy, is lying in hospital with bullet wounds in his head, chest, leg and hand, just woken from a coma and asking for his mother. These four targets clearly did not fit the profile of international and top-level officials the Taleban were after. Even the four internationals killed, including one election monitor who had just arrived, cannot be considered high-profile – unless any international at this stage is seen as a target, which we must assume.
My heart broke when I read the words of one of the two little children killed, Sardar’s daughter Nelofar, reposted by many from Sardar’s own account on Facebook:
My girl, five-year-old Nursery student Nelofar: Baba (father), do the Taliban kill animals as well?
Me (Ahmad Sardar): No!
Nelofar: I wish we were animals . . .
Nelofar did not get her wish and was killed. Sadly, while the Taleban may not kill animals, they do kill little children and women – and not only during this attack but on a daily basis everywhere in the country. (1)
I want to ask Taleban leader Mullah Omar how he can reconcile this particular killing with what he said in his Eid-ul-Fitr message last year:
I order the Mujahideen to block the way of activities of these tyrants if possible and increase efforts for prevention of civilian casualties and help the newly-founded office of the Islamic Emirate which has been established to prevent civilian casualties and present on ground facts to our people and the public of the world.
So, Geneva Convention aside, either children have been included in the ‘non-civilian’ category of combatants, or Mullah Omar is not keeping his word, or he is not following the Taleban’s own codebook (the Layha) that explicitly says, “In carrying out martyrdom operations, take great efforts to avoid casualties among the common people” (find the full translation of the Layha in this AAN document). Or perhaps he simply lost control.
The war is getting dirtier. We have to assume that everything and everybody is fair game in the Taleban’s fight against – well, it raises the questions of ‘against what?’ and ‘against whom?’ and possibly also ‘for whom?’
When the Taleban first swept into Afghanistan in 1996, they had a reason: to liberate the Afghan people from the terror of mujahedin rule. But where does the terror come from now? When one speaks to ordinary Afghans, both in rural and urban areas, the main terror now comes mainly from the Taleban (and of course some also from the Afghan government and international military, which I’ve written about in the past (2)). They rule by fear and not support, and they seem no longer to care about the very constituency they claim to defend – the Afghan people.
This also became apparent in some recent research in which I took part (3): many communities in Afghanistan are starting to question whether the Taleban are still an Islamic movement or defenders of Islam. After all, they kill those accused of spying without a trial (sharia forbids this), deny funerals to members of Afghan National Security Forces (every Muslim has the right to a funeral) and kill and beat up mullahs doing their jobs, such as holding funerals for ANSF members.
Something is clearly wrong here. When I spoke to a man formerly with the Taleban, I listened for four hours to how Islamic the Taliban were, how they followed sharia, how punishment was always according to sharia, how it was the Westerners who were bad. I kept coming back with examples such as those mentioned above until he finally admitted: “It is war. The results justify the means – but once we are back in power, this will all cease.”
But how can you trust a movement that violates its own principles? Who can trust inconsistency?
Before I am accused of bias, allow me to say this: when an American soldier killed one of my journalist friends in Uruzgan two years ago, I also wrote about it, and I deplored this killing as much as these recent killings. I am against the killing of civilians. It is wrong, regardless of what religion you adhere to.
This was also one slogan at a demonstration by Afghan civil society actors in front of the Serena Hotel. “دیگر بس است !!! Enough is Enough نور بس دی !!!”
A nascent peace movement
The demonstration on Monday, 24 March, gathered 250 to 300 people, a considerable turnout for a cold and rainy day. It was the third for civil society actors standing up against the killing of civilians. The first happened after the Taverna attack in January (read for example here), the second occurred after the killing of 21 Afghan soldiers in Kunar (on 26 February; see an AFP video here). It is worth noting, though, that other ad hoc demonstrations have occurred before, for example, after the Kargha lake restaurant attack on 28 June 2012 and, for several days in July 2012, after the Taleban publicly executed a woman, Najiba, in Baghlan (see AAN reporting here and here).
These activists, both men and women and from all ethnic groups, are are seeking to have their voices heard. They are uniting around a simple cause, sending a message to the Taleban but also the Afghan government: Enough is enough. “Enough killing of our innocent people, of terrorizing us and intimidating us.” Enough war.
Such moments in Afghanistan are still rare, but we should recognize and support them for what they are, a nascent peace movement. After all, what are democracies if not about giving people the opportunity to have their voices heard through non-violent actions? Having been one of the few non-Afghans at the rally, by my count four, I could sense the energy that united these people (a friend called it a “fever”; he also called it “contagious”). If you closed your eyes, you could have been at any peace demonstration in Germany or the US; a similar rhythm of slogans. These slogans included calls to the Taleban that killing of children is un-Islamic. And to Karzai, asking if he was “with us” (the civilians) or “with the Taliban”.
The government responded to the demonstrators with Afghan National Police, including riot police. Nice and shiny, they lined up right in front of the demonstrators and, of course, they were well armed. This made some participants nervous, given the critique they were raising against Karzai. But demonstrators and police did not clash. The police actually behaved professionally, and I wondered if some possibly agreed with the demonstrators. Maybe this was also for them a lesson in peaceful protesting. In the end, I thought, everybody wants the same thing: peace.
Of course, as in other demonstrations, some wanted to take advantage of the situation, such as presidential candidates who sent their spokespersons (I saw representatives of the teams of Rassul, Abdullah and Ghani). But that did not discredit the demonstration itself. The march was a reaction to death and violence. Momentum that needs to be kept going.
The protesters were more organized this third time around; they used social media, email and phone calls to rally support, and maybe the next time they will be even more organized and greater in number. Those of us who have been part of peace movements across the world know that all it needs is one simple seed to be sown, and then the frail sapling needs to be tended to grow strong. I do believe something has been switched on in these past weeks; let’s hope it will spread. If more and more people demand peace, maybe the parties of conflict will be forced to listen. I hope that both the Taleban and Karzai were listening. Enough is enough. Results are needed – not words, not excuses and certainly not more killings. Sadly enough only two days later, on Tuesday, another explosion occured in Kabul, an attack on an office of the Independent Election Commission with another four people dead, one police man and three civilians – I suppose civil society needs to shout louder to reach the Taleban leaders sitting in Pakistan. I will go to the next rally. What more can we do than show we support those Afghans seeking peace?
(1) The recent UNAMA report on the protection of civilians stated that, “2013 was the worst year for Afghan women, girls and boys” since 2009, with the highest number of deaths and injuries recorded from conflict-related violence. Here a summary from the UNAMA website:
“It is particularly alarming that the number of Afghan women and children killed and injured in the conflict increased again in 2013,” said the UNAMA Director of Human Rights, Georgette Gagnon. “It is the awful reality that most women and children were killed and injured in their daily lives – at home, on their way to school, working in the fields or traveling to a social event. This situation demands even greater commitment and further efforts by the parties to protect women and children from conflict-related violence.”
The report documented 746 women casualties (235 women killed and 511 injured), registering an increase of 36 per cent from 2012. IEDs used by AGEs [anti-government elements] again killed the most women causing 177 women casualties, up 20 per cent from 2012. The report also noted that ground engagements caused the most injuries to women and comprised the majority of women’s casualties in 2013
It documented 1,756 child casualties (561 killed and 1,195 injured), an increase of 34 per cent compared to 2012. IEDs killed the most children causing 192 deaths and injuring another 319 children, up 28 per cent from 2012. Ground engagements were the cause of 137 child deaths and 504 injuries, a 59 per cent increase as compared with 2012.
The UN report noted that that AGEs continued to deliberately target civilians across the country and carried out attacks “without regard for civilian life,” causing 6,374 civilian casualties, a four per cent increase from 2012.
(2) “The Cost of Kill/Capture: Impact of the Night Raid Surge on Afghan Civilians” (Kabul: Open Society Foundations and The Liaison Office, 2011).
“Strangers at the Door: Night Raids by International Forces Lose Hearts and Minds of Afghans”; The Open Society Institute’s Regional Policy Initiative on Afghanistan and Pakistan (Kabul: The Open Society Institute (OSI) and The Liaison Office, 2010).
(3) One research project was with the Open Society Foundation on Taliban intimidation tactics (2012–13) and the other with Geneva Call on community negotiations with the insurgency (2012–13).
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020