Last Thursday, 28 July, the capital of the southern province of Uruzgan saw the most devastating Taleban attack so far this year. Although it did not achieve its declared aim, to kill local strongmen Matiullah, and the far less influential governor Omar Sherzad and his deputy Khodai Rahim, a lot of civilians were killed. Susanne Schmeidl* (with input from colleagues in Tirinkot) mourns one of the victims, an Afghan journalist she knew, gauges local reactions and draws conclusions from vicious circle of escalating violence.
On Thursday, the insurgency once again showed how difficult transition might be to achieve by 2014. Three days before the start of the holy month of Ramazan, a complex attack was launched in Tirinkot, provincial centre of Uruzgan. According to the New York Times, ‘the Taliban said its Tirin Kot attackers, who sought to storm the governor’s compound, the local television broadcast station and the heavily guarded home of Matiullah Khan, a regional strongman, had not intended to kill civilians but were aiming for the rich and powerful. The goal of the attack on Tirin Kot, said Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, the Taliban spokesman for the south and west of the country, was “to make the government collapse”’ (quoted from here).** The event itself has been covered extensively in the media, given that it was the deadliest attack in Afghanistan in the past six months. According to the BBC, 22 people were killed and 39 wounded. (Read more reports on this attack here, here and here.)
Among the casualties was 25-year old Afghan journalist Ahmad Omaid Khpalwak who worked for the Pajhwok Afghan News agency, the BBC and occasionally other newspapers from Uruzgan – much the go-to-journalist in this province -, father of a three month old daughter. In what reminded one of the Oslo killings, Omaid had sent two text messages to his brother before he was killed. The first read: ‘I am hiding. Death has come.’ In the second, he wrote: ‘Pray for me if I die’ (quoted from here
Omaid was one of the few—according to himself, one of only five—journalists in this southern province many saw as too backward for media to thrive. He often came to The Liaison Office (TLO) to use internet. He felt that the lack of internet in Uruzgan was a problem impeding freedom of speech by keeping local journalists from communicating effectively with the outside world. There are no internet cafes in Tirinkot, so it is up to people to find an NGO or any other office to get access to it. On the day of his death, he went to the wrong place for an internet connection because he needed to file stories, to Uruzgan’s local radio station, which is located next to the compound of local strongman Matiullah, the former head of the highway police who is aspiring – reportedly with the support of the Australians (reported here
) – to become the provincial police chief. There, Omaid literally died ‘in the line of duty.’
It was a sad day for all of us who knew Omaid. A sad day not just for his family and friends, but also for Afghanistan—which ranks sixth on the 2011 Impunity Index of The Committee to Protect Journalists (read the report here
), which highlights countries ‘where journalists are killed regularly and governments fail to investigate’—as Uruzgan lost one of its best and most dedicated journalists.
Omaid was passionate for his profession — yet careful to maintain his independence. He also spent time training other journalists in his province. He pursued his profession despite the feeling that freedom of speech was slowing decreasing once again in Uruzgan, only after it had improved after last year’s visit by President Karzai. Lobbied by local journalist, President Karzai then had vouched to dismiss any government official who would encroach on this right.
To the anger of local strongmen, especially of Matiullah, Omaid worked with international media on stories about Uruzgan. They used to blame local journalists for providing information about them to the outside world, albeit Omaid said he never contributed to the New York Times
story that particularly outraged Matiullah (Dexter Filkins, ‘With U.S. Aid, Warlord Builds Afghan Empire’, read it here
). Even the governor, who was overall supportive, had criticized Omaid for a story about poppy stores close to his own compound, as he felt that Omaid made the province look bad.
I had discussed the difference between propaganda and free journalism with Omaid. He felt strongly for the need to get information out and not be deterred or intimidated by what government officials, strongmen or even insurgents thought. So he carried on undeterred – until he died. His death was widely covered in the media, and he is mourned by friends and colleagues, including myself. (Read other obituaries on Omaid here
.)Aside from Omaid’s much too premature death, there are several things noteworthy about the attack:
First, it once again highlights the problems in a war in which government sites are targeted that are located nearby civilian sites and the insurgency is quite willing to accept civilian deaths in order to strike against such targets.
Out of a total of seven suicide bombs on Thursday, one hit the deputy governor’s office compound, which is next door to the provincial hospital in Tirinkot. As described in the already quoted New York Times report this ‘bomb collapsed the hospital wall on top of women and children in the ward.’ Incidentally this very women’s hospital ward had been newly built by the Australian Reconstruction Task Force only three years prior, in 2008. Another achievement spoilt.
A second bomb hit the building of Radio Television Afghanistan (RTA). According to the insurgents, they only stormed the building in order to be able to launch an attack at the neighbouring compound of Matiullah (his uncle Jan Mohammad Khan was killed a week ago in Kabul by suicide bombers in his Kabul house) who provides the security for the Tirinkot-Kandahar highway. While Matiullah remained unharmed, Omaid was not so lucky; he was shot anywhere between 11 to 20 times according to different news accounts.
Secondly, rumours spreading in Tirinkot around how Omaid died highlight the problems of ‘collateral damage’ in a dirty war. While the Taleban claimed responsibility for the attack, they interestingly enough made an effort in pointing out that they did not kill the young journalist, but blamed the Afghan National Police. It is unclear if this is simply a PR move to discredit the already damaged government, or possibly true, as accidental killings of civilians in confused situations are not uncommon.
Some reports traded in Tirinkot have it that that Omaid was shot 17 times from a helicopter – the only helicopter on the scene was a NATO helicopter, which had come to support Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Others say he was shot by foreign forces who surrounded the explosion site. (There are reports of US soldiers being evacuated by Australian military.) Either way people seem to be convinced that foreign forces and not the insurgents or ANSF were to blame. The argument of locals centres around Omaid being fairly well-known in Tirinkot, including by the police, as he was daily on TV. When ISAF/NATO was asked about the incident they could neither confirm nor deny (but promised they would look into it), yet pointed to a press statement of the provincial governor’s office which seemed to hold insurgents responsible for Omaid’s death.
So, while we may never know how exactly Omaid got shot, it is cannot be excluded that he was victim of so-called ‘friendly fire’.
Thirdly, and following from above, there is the question about the credibility of international actors in the Afghan war, and whether or not they are here for the protection of the Afghan population—as they always underline. When the NATO helicopters first emerged on the skies above Tirinkot on Thursday, the TLO guards muttered to one another that ‘now the internationals are coming to kill the rest of the ANSF that the insurgents did not manage to kill,’ laughing bitterly (this alone may explain why so many seem to think Omaid was also killed by international military). It illustrates that in Uruzgan, the internationals are neither seen as protecting nor really caring about the local population. This was somewhat echoed by the new chief of police when I interviewed him in early July. I asked him what for him the biggest difference was to having worked in Kandahar, and he noted that he felt more supported by international military forces there. He said that in Kandahar, three ISAF battalions were working in the city and 17 in the province, and that there was only one battalion for all of Uruzgan, mostly focussing on the provincial centre.
Finally, as noted above, the events in Tirinkot put into question the entire issue of transition and the ability of ANSF to provide protection from the insurgency. While the Taleban have made it one of their conditions for ‘talks’ that all foreign forces leave Afghanistan, they are certainly showing that ANSF are not yet ready to defend their own country on their own. That being said, the presence of the PRT did not prevent the complex attack from happening nor was it able to provide protection for those who died.
In my last interview with Matiullah, he actually showed contempt at how the ANSF have handled the attack at the Intercontinental hotel in Kabul on 28 June. He implied that he and his men would have done it better. One could ask where Matiullah on that fateful Thursday. Some might even suspect that he perhaps wanted to prove the weakness of the new police chief, a job he covets himself.
In a sad irony, the Australian Lowy Institute’s Afghan Voices Series had commissioned a report from Omaid that was dealing with the question of whether or not the Australian army should leave Uruzgan and what people thought about it. I had discussed it with him on several occasions while in Uruzgan in June and early July. He had promised to send the story at the end of this month, a plan he reiterated to me in an email only two days ago. Now, this story died with him and will never be published.
But he told me a bit of what came out of his research: that people’s opinions seemed split about it and found it difficult to make up their mind because, on the one hand, the Australian forces help to clear roads and expand security, yet on the other hand people dislike the Special Forces (SOF) because they do little to prevent people from getting killed while conducting night raids and capture-and-kill missions. Omaid noted that the Australian forces would overall be better liked if they would start behaving better, which I took to mean to rein in their SOF.
Having worked for nearly ten years on civilian peacebuilding in Afghanistan, the entire situation is indeed infuriating. One has to ask the question: what is the international military currently doing? Are they really getting anywhere? In aChristian Science Monitor
article (read it here
), the new US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker argues that the increase in civilians killed might be because the Taleban ‘have been damaged to the point that they are resorting to terrorist attacks… Clearly these are horrific attacks but they can also be interpreted as a sign of organizational weakness on the part of the adversary’. This reminds me of Major General John W. Nicholson Jr., the Deputy Chief of Staff of Operations for the International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, arguing in a recent meeting with civil society on civilian casualties that transition was possibly, they were willing to commit all the resources and would be able to pull it off (read a recent AAN blog on this here
Is the insurgency really at a critical point, or are they proving to us that their supply of willing and able men is limitless? In the said meeting, ISAF was defending the recent surge in night raids because, according to them, it reduces the number of civilian casualties. The General also stated that eight out of ten of their raids are successful (albeit recently I’ve come to think he must mean compounds with a ‘target’, not necessarily of the people arrested in those house—their stats might go down if one uses that measure). If this is so, General, then why is the insurgency not yet wiped out? Where are all these new suicide bombers coming from? Are we not simply creating a new ruthless insurgency stopping at nothing and which even finds the destruction of the women’s wards of Tirinkot’s hospital ‘acceptable’ if they only are able to hit the governor’s compound – and likewise target the TV building only in order to get to Matiullah?
So the behaviour of both sides makes me angry: that of the insurgency embedding with civilians, and that of international military forces pretending they are winning the war and believing that their expanded night raids are helping them to eliminate the insurgency—while at the same time they are traumatising the local population. Both sides think they can win with violence.
I am beginning to wonder what an organization such as The Liaison Office is really doing by trying to attempt peacebuilding in the current environment. There is just something fundamentally wrong with this situation: There are good people in Afghanistan, and in Uruzgan, good people like Omaid – but instead of strengthening and supporting those people and working with them, and thereby seeking alternatives to fighting, the West continues to lock into battle with the insurgency, none the wiser. In the end, the brunt is born by those who fight with words, not guns. That is the sad truth in any war.
(*) Susanne Schmeidl is the Senior Advisor, Research/Peacebuilding, at The Liaison Office in Kabul and a member of AAN.(**) Interesting, the Taleban did not mention the third target, the private compound of deputy governor which is indeed next to the hospital.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020