The Taleban have issued a rare public denial, saying they were not behind the suicide attack on the compound of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Jalalabad on 30 May, which left one Afghan, Abdul Bashir, the father of eight children, dead and the ICRC’s humanitarian work in Jalalabad suspended. The Taleban said it did not target ‘those who truly work for the benefit of the people.’ As AAN senior analyst Kate Clark reports, since 2009, Taleban policy on NGOs generally has got much better and it has a good working relationship with the ICRC. Even so, Taleban claims and denials always have to be treated with a great deal of caution. Whoever did carry out this attack, she said wants to push the war into a new phase, regardless of the consequences to Afghanistan and its civilian population.
The Taleban rarely issue denials. The last similar one followed the twin attacks on Ashura ceremonies in Kabul and Mazar-e Sharif in December 2011 in which more than fifty mourners were killed (see AAN reporting here). That attack was claimed (single source only) by a Pakistani sectarian group, Lashkar-e Janghvi , known to be deeply involved in anti-Shia violence in Afghanistan’s neighbouring country (read more about the Ashura attacks here).
The assault on the ICRC attack resembled the Ashura attacks, not in scale, but in the transgressive nature of the violence. Both appeared to be deliberate attempts to break what have been taboos in the Afghan war. The Taleban denial and condemnation of the Ashura attacks looked genuine, an attempt to steer the country away from the brink of sectarian war.(1) It was strongly and emotionally worded, referring to the ‘inexplicable bombings… in which tens of our defenceless countrymen were soaked in their blood and their families left in utter grief’ and urged all Afghans and specifically Shia leaders and scholars to beware those bent on ‘creating rifts and divisions amongst our united people on the basis of religion, race, language or region.’
This was the Taleban’s full statement on the ICRC attack:
Everybody is aware that the Islamic Emirate began and is continuing its struggle and Jihad in light of Islamic principles and humanitarian values. The Islamic Emirate has never not only targeted civilians and those who truly work for the benefit of the people without having ties with intelligence organizations but it has always helped them to the best of its ability for the sake of the relief of its nation, an example of which is a recent statement in which it declared its full support for polio vaccination campaign. Therefore the Islamic Emirate wants to make it clear to everyone that it had no hand in the attack on 8th May on the ICRC office in Jalalabad city and neither does it support such attacks.
Of course, the Taleban kill civilians every day, whether deliberately or out of carelessness – an IED explodes under a civilian bus, a pro-government alim is assassinated, a suicide bomber blows up a police chief at a funeral and kills dozens of fellow mourners. Even accepting the movement’s understanding of the word ‘civilian’ to mean ordinary, non-aligned Afghans, its claim not to target civilians is risible. However, on NGOs, Taleban policy is certainly much better than in the early days of the insurgency. In the movement’s 2006 Code of Conduct (read AAN’s translation of this and subsequent versions here), NGO’s were described as ‘tools of the infidels’:
In the guise of serving, they are destroying Islam, so all of their activities are banned, whether it is roads or anything else, or clinics or schools or a madrassa or anything else. If a school fails to heed a warning to close, it must be burned. But all religious books, for the sake of respecting them, must be secured beforehand.
By 2009, orders had changed to a bland injunction to follow (unspecified) Emirate guidance. On the ground, the U-turn was clear. Despite rising levels of violence against the Afghan government, the Afghan and international military and private development contractors, with the exception of de-miners, attacks on NGOS fell markedly (for detail see here). That trend has been maintained, so that in the first quarter of this year, even though according to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO) violence against NGOs at the hands of ‘anti-government elements’ has risen, compared to last year, most of the violence is collateral and overall, says ANSO, ‘the data continues to provide no evidence of routine or systematic targeting [of NGOs] by the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.’ As to the ICRC, as AAN’s first article on the attack pointed out, the movement has had a good working relationship, based on the Committee’s work with detainees, in health care and getting the mortal remains of fighters (as it does with government forces) back to their families.
Nevertheless, Taleban statements always need to be treated cautiously. There are plenty of examples where attacks have proved controversial, garnering public outrage and bad publicity, where the Taleban has obfuscated or lied. It may offer a pretext for the violence: if a victim is female, she might be accused of having been a prostitute or, if foreign, of having been preaching Christianity (see analysis here). Victims may be accused of having worked with the CIA – as with the attack on the compound of the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) on 24 May – or of having been off-duty Afghan policemen or soldiers. After a Taleban commander hauled 27 Laghmani labourers off a bus and shot them dead in Helmand in 2008, for example, the spokesman said they were, ‘Afghan National Army soldiers . . . travelling to Helmand wearing ordinary clothes.’ The commander, Mulla Adam, was subsequently ordered to Quetta where a court stripped him of his position.
Sometimes, the Taleban simply do not comment at all. They never made any statement on the assassination of former president and chairman of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council Burhanuddin Rabbani for example beyond saying they were looking into it but there was never any public follow-up (see analysis here). Or they blame someone else, for example after a suicide bomber blew up dozens of guests at a wedding in Arghandab in Kandahar, in June 2010, killing not only the head and some members of a pro-government militia, but also, and in the main, ordinary people, the Taleban spokesman blamed the attack on a NATO air strike . At least one senior Taleban official in Kandahar was furious enough to threaten to resign if such an attack was repeated.
All of this means the Taleban denial cannot be taken at face value. As with the IOM attack, more information is needed to make a better determination of who carried out the attack and on whose orders. Suicide attacks mean organisational planning and foresight and, as AAN has reported, in the case of the ICRC, it is almost impossible to imagine hitting the ICRC, with its well-known symbol plastered on its offices, by mistake. The ICRC has closed its Jalalabad sub-mission and frozen all operations carried out from there, as it tries to work out who was behind the attack. ICRC head of operations for South Asia, Jacques De Maio said:
It was clearly a planned attack, with a level of organisation and means that rules out a kind of isolated incident by some individual. It has always been dangerous to be a humanitarian operating in Afghanistan. There is a long series of very serious incidents. We have also paid the price of blood in Afghanistan in the past years. It has been dangerous and it is dangerous, but this attack, the quality of this attack has compelled us to define the level of dangerosity (sic) there is for humanitarian players, and for us.
The ICRC is right in its assessment of the seriousness of this event. Targeting the ICRC means no-one in the NGO world is off-limits. Moreover, it implies a world view which sees this most tenaciously neutral of organisations as having not universal humanitarian values, but ‘western’ ones and that it operates in a ‘with us or against us’ war on the same side as the western armies and the Afghan government. The ICRC has been here before. Reflecting on the murder of ICRC delegate, Ricardo Munguia, who was shot by the Taleban in 2003, Fiona Terry wrote in a paper for the ICRC Journal in 2010 that:
… Ricardo’s death shattered long-held assumptions that the ICRC’s reputation for neutrality and effective work in Afghanistan over the past thirty years would protect its delegates from attack. Neither the man who ordered the killing nor the man who carried it out was a stranger to the ICRC’s work: they each wore an ICRC prosthesis on one leg. Yet this did not stop them killing Ricardo as a symbol of the imperialist West which they considered was waging a war on Islam. Suddenly a silent pact, an unwritten rule concerning the relationship between knowing the ICRC and respecting it, was broken, and the organization had to question whether the perception of its neutrality could again be upheld in the new types of conflict being waged in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia.
Terry describes how difficult it was for the ICRC to keep to its principled neutrality in a conflict perceived variously as the ‘war on terror’ or the ‘war on Islam’ and in which there was a rejection of the Geneva Conventions, not just by Islamic radicals, but the Bush administration, too. It cast al-Qaida and the Taleban as ‘enemy combatants’ who could be tortured and rendered. In Afghanistan, aid has been instrumentalised by the international military and many civilian agencies have also effectively taken sides. In a telling quote, Terry reports a deputy special representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan saying in 2008 that, ‘You cannot be neutral between a legitimate side and a reprehensible side.’
Yet that is what ICRC sought to do. It took it three years to come back from Munguia’s killing, said Terry, working, ‘through a variety of innovative approaches… it demonstrate[d] to all sides the benefits of having a neutral intermediary in the midst of conflict.’ The ICRC identified activities within its mandate which ‘met a real need, could be safely carried out and would open up avenues through which relationships could form.’ In Pakistan, these included family tracing services, work with detainees, orthopaedic services for amputees and medical aid to victims of the fighting in Waziristan and in Afghanistan. It has also looked for innovative solutions: where ICRC vehicles cannot drive safely, for example, the ICRC employs taxi drivers, trained in first aid, who can go out and pick up the injured while the ICRC ensures IEDs on the roads are deactivated and checkpoints allow the injured safe passage to hospital.
Regarded in a pragmatic light, insurgents should safeguard the ICRC because it is useful. However, it was targeted. As with the Ashura attacks in 2011, there was a deliberate recklessness about the assault on the ICRC, a sense that those who ordered it want to push the war into a new phase, to try to tip it into more chaotic violence, regardless of the consequences to Afghanistan and its civilian population.
(1) This was the Taleban’s statement on the Ashura attacks:
Report On The Gathering Of The Leadership Council Of Islamic Emirate
And Its Statement Regarding The Recent Bombings On Ashura
Muharram 15, 1433 A.H, Sunday, December 11, 2011
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
On the day of Ashura, 10th of Muharram 1433, inexplicable bombings took place in Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif in which tens of our defenseless countrymen were soaked in their blood and their families left in utter grief. This incident was also strongly rejected and condemned by the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in the initial hours. Yesterday on the 15/01/1433, the Leadership Council of Islamic Emirate held an important council about this topic. Intense discussions were held regarding these incidents which were described as a pre-planned plot of the defeated enemy and it was stressed that our vigilant nation must pay astute attention to such actions of our enemy and nobody should be allowed to reach their sinister goals by creating rifts and divisions amongst our united people on the basis of religion, race, language or region.
Similarly, the political and religious sides of our country were asked to put the benefits of our country and people ahead of their own or organizations benefits and such actions not be undertaken to achieve their political aims which would mean nothing other then adding fuel to the fire which has been lit by our enemy against the unity of our people and country. It was also said that in these tender moments in which our enemy is on the verge of fleeing, it is going back to its natural habit and reaching for grief stricken moments like the day of Ashura so it can divide the unified Afghan people because the enemy wants to take revenge from our suffering people for their own failures. Our alert and unified nation will never be deceived by such plans of our enemy but rather they will also thwart this plan like all the previous ones. In the end of the gathering, the below statement was issued after much deliberation:
The Leadership Council of Islamic Emirate wants to extend its condolence to the affectees and once against strongly condemns such acts.
Islamic Emirate considers such incidents the plots and acts of the invaders and the enemies of Afghanistan and calls on all its countrymen to lend each other hands and cooperate with each other in preventing such incidents in accordance with their national and religious duty because such acts of the enemy are against all our countrymen and are detriment to our beloved Afghanistan.
Islamic Emirate personally asks the scholars and leaders of Afghanistan’s Ahl Tashi’ (Shiite) to be very vigilant regarding this matter and they should inform their people that this incident can never be considered a topic of enmity between Sunni and Shiite. They should never lend an ear to the internal agents who want to paint this as an internal and religious strife for serving their own interests and for pleasing their masters.
Islamic Emirate gives guidance to all of its Mujahideen to pay attention to preventing such acts from taking place alongside their other duties.
The Leadership Council of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan
Photo: ICRC physical rehabilitation centre in Afghanistan, source: ICRC website, here.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020