The recent string of attacks, seemingly aimed at hitting in the heart of Afghan cities in a spectacular and murderous manner, continues. Starting from the battle at the Kandahar central police station on 12 February, in a ten-day span four more attacks – unlike the former aimed at soft, largely civilian targets – hit population centres across the country; in Kabul, Khost, Jalalabad and, yesterday, Imam Sahib of Kunduz province. AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini takes a closer look at the backgrounds and implications of, in particular, the Jalalabad attack.
This is a time of year when people want to be in Jalalabad. While winter drags on in most parts of the country, the eastern capital is already blessed with spring-like warmth. On Fridays, citizens crowd the small restaurants on the banks of the Kabul River to enjoy fried fish or bring the family to the park for a picnic. At the end of the month many queue at the bank to get their salary in cash.
The carnage in Jalalabad’s Kabul Bank last Saturday has been, arguably, the worst act of violence to happen in the centre of the city since the famous 1989 battle – possibly with the exclusion of the 2001 US bombings. The city has witnessed alternate fortunes during the 30 years long Afghan conflicts. Initially a strategic although hard-pressed bulwark for the PDPA government, then a peaceful haven for many Kabulis fleeing not the winter, but rather the rockets during the mujaheddin civil war, later a sedated Taleban city with occasional student protests, Jalalabad was perceived in the last few years as one of the Pashtun areas more resilient to the irreparable escalation of the conflict experienced elsewhere.
The long-lasting provincial governorship of Gul Agha Sherzai with his strong US backing, the bustling economic activity derived from the cross-border trade with Pakistan, the relative indifference of some major tribes towards Taleban entreaties and the strong, sweet urban mood of its population had preserved a certain degree of peacefulness at least inside the city.
Some districts, of course, were troubled since the beginning, and their situation got worse and worse with the years. Khugyani, Sherzad, and also Hesarak and Pachir o Agam have been insecure areas since long now, experiencing higher or lower degrees of violence depending on the efforts of government or coalition forces to carry out military operations or opium eradication programs, or just to move into them.
Recently even districts closer to the city, like Surkhrud, Behsud and Rodat, witnessed increased insurgent infiltration, coalition military operations and grass-root support for the insurgency, in a depressing repression-insurrection dynamic. But Jalalabad itself had experienced relatively few direct attacks, and more intimidation tactics instead. These were frequent throughout last year, but mainly consisted of the burning or blowing up of music or video shops, small magnetic IEDs rarely capable of doing more than damaging the car they were applied to and injuring its driver. As of late, along with the intimidations, the ratio of assassination attacks had however increased. During one single day, 8 February, three remote controlled IED exploded in different areas of Jalalabad city centre, causing several injured but only by chance no deaths.
Saturday’s attack featured an unprecedented channelling of violence into the heart of the city. Arguably it could be said that the Taleban wanted to hit Afghan policemen, many of whom, unarmed, were getting their pay through the bank on the week-end. But as the continuously rising death toll shows, with half of the nearly 40 casualties reportedly being civilians, the main purpose was to kill as many people as possible.
Some details of the recent attacks speak for themselves. The disproportionate amounts of explosives that were used in the Kandahar, Jalalabad and Kunduz blasts do not betray a lack of capacity on the part of those who prepared the bombs, but rather indicate the availability of large reserves of explosives at hand and the will to use them. The central and heavily populated locations of the sites chosen for the attacks, with the exception of Kandahar, were all civilian: a market, a bank, the district branch of the census office (although Taleban suggested that in all cases the real target was the police). The only term that comes to mind for this is: ‘shock and awe’ operations.
Referring to what seems to be an orchestrated strategy of high impact – although not necessarily high-profile – there is justification to use the word ‘terrorism’. Throughout all these years it has been applied in random contexts, and often with regard to actions carried out against foreign troops. But you do not aim to ‘terrorise’ coalition troops by laying IEDs on their path, or ambushing them. Changes in their behaviour because of these attacks may be called ‘prudence’ or ‘tactical retreat’, depending on the context, but the original aim behind those actions is to kill or cause their removal, not to obtain some other durable effect through sowing fear.
When you attack local people who do not have any other place or option left – no redeployment, no enteqal or withdrawal possible – you do not want to eliminate them, but you rather aim to cow them into submission. This submission can assume a more or less direct form. The Taleban are clearly not on the verge of conquering Jalalabad or any other major city – they were never, and will probably never be, at least not as long as even a fraction of the International Military Forces is there. To try would be disastrous militarily and counterproductive politically.
But they do not need to. Their economic assets don’t depend on the urban centres they control: they can just as easily levy taxes on truckers ten kilometers away from the chowk, tax farmers, get money from international donors. The recruiting basins of the insurgency are not primarily urban, and these too are accessible even without governing towns: it is probably easier to lure impoverished and indoctrinated youth to take to the mountains than to provide jobs for them in a stable security situation.
As for legitimacy, the unsatisfying record of the Afghan government itself is one the biggest factors providing the Taleban with their alternative legitimacy. And, of course, the longer the current chaos lasts, the more the memories of the past government take on positive aspects. The high level of violence inside cities rather aims at scaring those people who have something to lose and who are less likely to support the insurgency, while those with nothing to lose are encouraged to join the insurgents and improve their social standing by economic as well as religious means. This strategy may work.
In a way understandably, some (foreign) commentators were shocked by the apparent lack of reaction and outrage in the Afghan public opinion to the appalling civilian losses caused by the insurgents’ explosive attacks. Why, they wonder, do the same Afghans who are always ready to protest when a colation troop night raid kills a couple of innocent people by mistake, or produces the arrest of a suspicious village mulla – or even when an old commander dies after ten years’ reclusion in Guantanamo – why do those same persons witness the slaughter of dozens of their compatriots by an insurgent attack without as much as raising a brow? (And, some may add, without taking up arms and killing the bad guys for our and their own sake?)
I will not waste words here to argue that many Afghans are of course deeply angered and upset by insurgent violence, and sometimes take action against it or exact revenge (*). Denying this would imply them not being rational or emotional human beings, and such arguments need not be considered. If they do not live up to the expectations of (some of) us, in terms of the intensity of their reaction, it is more a matter of opportunity and past experience.
The idea that foreign troops are ‘infidels’, invaders, unknown aliens whose plans and objectives are hardly predictable, carries significance in popular perceptions and reactions. However, these kinds of considerations are more likely to play a role in shaping the behaviour of the religiously conservative elements of society, persons who (or whose community) have experienced direct wrongs at the hands of foreign forces, or of individuals who have nothing to lose, and maybe something to gain, by joining the insurgency.
Without considering here the changes in the perception of Islam, after more than a decade of general political stress and daily confrontations and the resurgence of nationalist feelings in the form of xenophobia and conspiracy paranoia, we must consider that the first goal for most Afghans is survival. Their future is bleak, possibly bleaker than ever.
In future, most Afghans will have to deal with poverty, corruption, land and communitarian disputes, religious militancy and patronage of armed groups by rich neighbours. The Taleban, or other armed groups playing the rhetoric of jihad to pursue their political objectives, will be there. FATA will be there, with its unclear and problematic status most probably left unresolved and exploited for different political agendas. Pakistan and Iran will be there. These are the things Afghans know they will have to deal, and eventually accommodate, with. The foreign presence and its support for the present government is the only key factor that is likely to experience a remarkable change in the coming years.
Afghans in all strata of society, it seems, are aware of that. They are poor, divided, bribed, exploited, disillusioned. This is not just a list – in case somebody failed to recognize the nexus of consequentiality. These are factors at play simultaneously that keep Afghans vulnerable to propaganda and unable to enact their self-defence. I think they also explain the lack of chances a (yet non-existing) strong, popular, united reform movement that wants to challenge the current political-economic situation would have to face, even if the current situation may be leading the country to a direction that many Afghans feel uncomfortable with. An uncomfortable future is arguably better than no future at all.
(*) Nangrahar itself is ridden with conflicts between villages and sub-tribes which have been triggered by insurgent’s acts of violence. In a recent instance the inhabitants of a village in Rodat ambushed an insurgent commander from a different village, after he had executed one of their kin on the charges of spying for the government. Ideological connotations for these types of conflicts are tricky to ascertain, but not fully absent.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020