The Taleban have again warned Afghans not to take part in Saturday’s elections, saying they would be attacking election centres and targeting “all parts of the country”. Earlier they warned they would be using “all force” at their disposal to disrupt the “upcoming sham elections”. Kabul has seen two ‘spectacular’ attacks against election-related targets in the run-up to the election – the headquarters and a sub-office of the Independent Election Commission (IEC). It has also seen two attacks against, what the Taleban described as ‘foreign’ targets – the Serena Hotel and a ‘church’/guesthouse – and one against the Ministry of Interior. AAN’s Kate Clark has been looking into recent Taleban violence, assessing pre-election attacks and asking if there is a new focus on targeting foreign civilians.
In a matter of days, Kabul has seen a series of complex attacks:
- 2 April 2014: suicide attack on the Ministry of Interior, at least 6 policemen reported killed
- 29 March 2014: attack on the headquarters of the Independent Election Commission (IEC); after almost six hours of fighting, two policemen were reported wounded (see reporting here and here)
- 28 March 2014: attack on an NGO guesthouse, it seems mistakenly targeted: the actual target was the next-door community centre called a ‘church’ in Taleban statements; two Afghans killed – a driver waiting outside and a girl who happened to be on the street
- 25 March 2014: attack on a Kabul Provincial IEC sub-office. Five killed, including two policemen and a provincial council candidate
- 21 March 2014: attack on the Serena Hotel, nine civilians killed, including five Afghans, two Canadians (a teacher and a doctor), an American and a Paraguayan election observer (see reporting here and here).
While the rapid succession of attacks in the capital attracted headlines and notice, there were other suicide or ‘complex’ attacks in the country in the same period, with a mix of targets: military, military in civilian areas – thereby inevitably causing civilian casualties – and even purely civilian. They included a police station in Jalalabad where ten policemen were killed on 27 March, an NDS office in Kandahar, a branch of the Kabul Bank in Kunar on 25 March where four ANP policemen and a government official were killed, a buzkashi match in Kunduz city where a suicide bomb killed at least six civilians, and the market place in Maimana where a suicide bomber killed 16 civilians and wounded almost 50 people on 18 March (see reporting here).
Organisations in Kabul have been trying to assess whether Taleban-conducted, election-related violence is worse or not than in the run-up to the 2009 presidential elections and whether violence is worse now compared with the same period in 2013. But this is difficult to credibly assess. Security statistics are notoriously tricky, given that counting methods of ‘incidents’ vary between organisations and within the same organisations over time (see AAN reporting here) and that there is often a time lag while incidents are being collated. Comparisons are also difficult because violence generally has increased since 2009. Yet, at the same time, April is always a far less violent month than August when the 2009 elections were held. Moreover, not all election-related violence is carried out by the Taleban, although some incidents can be attributed to them, especially when they are claimed, like for example an ambush on supporters of Ashraf Ghani in Sarepul on 30 March. However, what we can say is that the violence, so far, has been less than threatened in the Taleban’s 10 March 2014 statement on the elections:
… we have given orders to all our Mujahideen to use all force at its disposal to disrupt these upcoming sham elections; target all its workers, activists, callers, security apparatus and offices and the nation must also stop the process of elections from taking place in mosques, clinics, schools, madaris and other public places. We once again call on all of our countrymen to keep away from electoral offices, voting booths, rallies and campaigns so that may Allah forbid, their lives are not put into danger. If anyone still persists on participating then they are solely responsible of any loss in the future.
There were no attacks on the many massive campaign rallies where it would have been relatively easy to cause mass casualties and widespread panic. And, apart from the two large attacks on the IEC in Kabul, the targeting of electoral staff and campaigners has not been ‘all-out’. It is a matter of speculation why this may be. The Taleban may have decided to hold back out of political considerations, bearing in mind the consequences of large numbers of dead Afghan civilians, or because they have had trouble organising the kind of attacks they intended to unleash. Or they may be waiting for election day itself. On 1 April 2014, they renewed their threats against election workers and voters, telling the latter it would be on their own heads if they were harmed while voting.
It may also well be that the primary aim of the attacks in Kabul, rather than derailing the elections, was to capture headlines, skew international reporting and frighten those, foreign and Afghan, in the centres of power – by giving the implicit message that the Taleban are able to strike wherever they want, whenever they want. The Taleban statement after the attack on the IEC headquarters does seem to point in that direction:
Saturday’s successful attack, last in the series of unprecedented martyrdom operations, signals that Mujahideen with high morale and strong resolve are in even better position than ever to determine their targets, in view of the gravity and sensitivity of the situations, and carry them out with success no matter where they intend to… The enemy backed by the foreign forces has been unable to defend and maintain the security in the sensitive locations such as Serena Hotel, the headquarters of the election commission and so on which is, no doubt, an indication that the enemy is too unnerved and vulnerable to resist Mujahideen. Mujahideen, a couple of days ago, clearly stated that they would disrupt the election process ahead of the upcoming election. True to their words, Mujahideen clearly demonstrated that they have the capability to sabotage the impending election and by way of deadliest strikes will stop the western enemy’s evil objectives to come to fruition. The current operations are intended to send a message that Mujahideen are capable of conducting so formidable and effective operations that compels the enemy to broadcast them whether it intends to do so or not.
(The last sentence refers to a decision by Afghan journalists to boycott the dissemination of Taleban statements for two weeks, after AFP journalist Ahmad Sardar and his family were killed by the Taleban in the Serena attack.)
The Taleban’s claim that the attacks on the IEC proved they could strike anywhere, is contradicted by the fact that, in both cases, the militants were successfully fought off and casualties were relatively light. The Serena attack, on the other hand, looked to be the result of good surveillance and tight planning and in terms of casualties was a relatively ‘successful’ attack on a very difficult target.
Attacks on foreign targets
The other recent complex attacks in Kabul looked to have been aimed at foreign civilians. (1) The Taleban described the Serena Hotel as a place “frequented by the foreigners” and the four gunmen as having killed “at least 22 foreign invaders and puppets including high-ranking officials, lawyers and security gunmen and wounded 13 others.” Compare this language with the final statement of the Taleban after the attack on the Taverna restaurant in January 2014, in which nine people were killed. As AAN reported, three separate justifications were issued in rapid succession – the attack targeted “invading Germans” (none were present), was revenge for a US bombing in Parwan province (the timing made this look a purely opportunist claim) and finally, that it had been aimed at foreigners – as the headline of that third statement put it: “Dozens of invaders killed in martyr attack on restaurant popular with foreigners in Kabul.” In both statements on the Taverna and Serena, the Taleban conflated civilians and the military, using ‘invader’ as a synonym for foreigner. After the Taverna attack, they also called foreign civilians ‘crusaders’ and described the Wazir Akbar Khan neighbourhood as Kabul’s ‘Green Zone’ – which looked like another attempt to blur the line between military and civilian.
The 28 March 2014 attack on the NGO, Roots for Peace, was successfully repelled by the organisation’s armed guards. However, from the Taleban statement and press reporting, it is clear the attackers had intended to attack the next door building, a community centre used by foreign Christians for services and as a crèche. The statement said the target was “a church and a guesthouse used by foreigners” and that the “martyr Mujahideen, after forcing their way into the facilities began targeting foreigners”, killing “scores of foreign and local Christians”. The accusation that Afghan Christian converts were present and killed was not true; it may have been included to justify the attack in the eyes of other Afghans who generally view apostasy as a capital offence. Apart from that, the language of the statement is similar to those after the Serena attack as well as the Taverna statements.
A second statement was issued after the media reported the gunmen had actually attacked the Roots for Peace NGO instead and had been fought off, killing a driver waiting outside and a passing 12 year old girl and injuring two guards. The casualty figures were inflated to “hundreds” and the statement said the target was a “church belonging to US embassy for converting the Afghans to Christianity,” that it had converted “thousands of Afghans” and had been under surveillance for two months. There had been a cover-up, the statement said:
To be frank, anyone with sound judgment and sense, except those taking leave of their senses, would realize that fact that an operation going on for about five straight hours, consisting of deadliest and most powerful blasts and continued rapid gunshots with two month pre-planning and surveillance would have definitely killed many, if not hundreds. Now, in your own judgment, what would you call a person who completely denies any losses? Have the martyr Mujahideen, for five hours, kept firing in the air only to scare the birds.
No-one is ‘off limits’
Particularly disturbing in the Serena and Taverna assaults was the way the gunmen failed to treat anyone as ‘off limits’. Setting aside the standard distinction between civilian and military, these men killed Afghans and foreigners alike, men and women and even children. Given the nature of the violence of the last few weeks, the mind shies away from imagining what would have happened if the Taleban had got their target right on 28 March 2014 and, instead of encountering the armed guards at Roots for Peace, had forced their way past the un-armed chawkidars of the community centre and come across children in day-care.
Yet for Afghans, there are limits and in the Serena attack, the Taleban crossed them. They had already claimed the attack when it became clear their men had shot an Afghan family of five: the prominent Afghan journalist, Ahmad Sardar, his wife and their children (two were killed, the third critically injured). For other attacks the Taleban provided arguments in their defence – calling the Taverna a place of promiscuity where alcohol was served, for the church that Afghan converts were present and generally that victims are ‘invaders’, spies or whores (see analysis of such claims here and of statements made in the aftermath of the Taverna attack here). (2) In the case of Ahmad Sardar and his family, however, there was no possible defence. The Taleban spokesman was left scrambling to, unconvincingly, blame “the foreigners and their puppets” for the atrocity. Journalist Sami Yousafzai reported in a Tweet how he called a Taleban contact and, before cutting off his call, was told “anyone going to such hotel must be killed.”
Afghan journalists, outraged by the killing, decided to boycott Taleban communications, which led to a further flurry of statements by the group, mainly in Pashto. In a mixture of tones – hurt, outraged and threatening – they put together a hasty defence, asking why journalists would boycott the Taleban when they had no evidence it had killed Sardar and his family, boycotts of the US military were not launched when it had killed journalists; why they should be accused of killing a journalist when they could not have known he was a journalist; how could they believe a Muslim would have killed a child; they said only a donkey would report they had used 20 bullets each to kill the children, given how precious and in such short supply ammunition is; and finally they said the boycotting journalists were in the pay of America. (3)
These lame attempts at justification show the risks of attacking civilian targets where the victims cannot be known beforehand. The Taleban succeeded in getting headlines worldwide, but alienated Afghan journalists on whom they rely for getting their message out and other Afghans who found the killing of an Afghan woman and her children indefensible.
The benefits and costs of violence
The Taleban do generally consider the political consequences of their violence and tend to shift their strategy if the negative propaganda consequences of a tactic outweigh its military usefulness. At AAN, we have written extensively about how the Taleban, apart from trying to intimidate and frighten people, have also worked to attract – or at least not alienate – Afghan popular support (see also this assessment of the insurgency). This appears to be the reason for example behind the movement’s change of policy on schools and NGOs – in the Taleban’s 2006 Code of Conduct (read more about it here), fighters were ordered to kill recalcitrant teachers and burn schools and target NGOs, deemed “tools of the infidels”. By 2009, these orders had been rescinded, largely it seems because those who might support the Taleban want their children educated and aid projects. Orders percolated through to the grassroots and NGOs generally are not targeted, although in areas where there is a Taleban presence, NGOs may have to negotiate and ‘register’ with local Taleban officials to carry out their work. (See also AAN’s reporting on the Taleban and schools).
On foreigners, there is still a mixed message: even as they were hitting foreign civilian targets in Kabul, an interview published on 20 March with the head of the Taleban’s NGO and private company commission, Mawlawi Ahmad Bilal, looked like an attempt to reassure NGOs, including international ones, that they are not particularly at risk:
The Islamic Emirate has never opposed the reconstruction, rehabilitation and development of our beloved homeland. There is no hindrance for all those individuals or groups who want to rebuild and provide human assistance for the relief of our masses. They can openly go forward with their activities while observing the rules and regulations laid down for this purpose. (4)
So it is clear that there are contradictions in Taleban policy, action and messaging, which may or may not represent different strands within the movement.
It appears that at least some in the leadership see benefits in specifically targeting foreign civilians. They can be seen as the soft underbelly of the intervention, an easy way to hit western governments, rather than trying to fight well-armed NATO forces, and potentially a highly effective way of driving foreign aid and influence out of Afghanistan. Killing foreigners always get headlines and, domestically, is a low-risk strategy for the Taleban as Afghans are seldom as upset as they are when their compatriots are killed. However, these benefits raise the question of why the Taleban have not carried out more campaigns against foreign civilians before.
Taleban propagandists face a particular problem this year and next: as casualty figures show, this is now largely an intra-Afghan conflict (March was the first month for seven years with no United States military casualties). With the NATO withdrawal soon to be completed (except for a relatively small possible stay-behind deployment if the Bilateral Security Deal with the US is signed), foreign military targets will be even harder to find, making it increasingly difficult to justify the war as a ‘jihad’. Conflating ‘foreigner’ and ‘invader’ may be an attempt to create more foreign targets and lend respectability to the Taleban’s fight.
Yet, killing foreign civilians would be the equivalent of a nuclear option for the insurgency. Targeting people because of who they are rather than what they do has a nasty ideological whiff to it that has been largely absent so far in this war; it is reminiscent of the violence suffered by civilians in Iraq and Pakistan where sectarian brutality has seen the targeting of whole classes of people. It would also be the mark of a group uninterested in the long-term political consequences of putting itself beyond the pale internationally. Taleban messaging which suggests foreigners per se, civilian and military, are a target is therefore worrying. Three attacks in three months is not yet a trend, but it is something to be watched.
(1) The Taleban denied having carried out the other recent attack on a foreign civilian, the murder of Swedish journalist, Nils Horner, on 19 March 2014, but it was claimed (somewhat dubiously) by a Taleban splinter group (see AAN analysis here).
(2) Also compare the Taleban description of the Spuzhmai restaurant on Lake Qargha which it attacked on 21 June 2012 as a “hub of obscenity and vulgarity frequented by the lusty foreign and local top-level military and officials to satisfy their impure lust especially on Thursday nights” and where “anti-Islamic meeting are usually being held.” The gunmen killed about 20 Afghan male civilians, but appeared to have spared women and children. No foreigners were killed (see reporting here and AAN analysis here).
(3) Links to articles (in Pashto) here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
(4) Mawlawi Bilal went on to say that the commission’s responsibility is to “allow all those public relief works like rehabilitation and human assistance carried out by NGO’s and companies, in accordance with the principles laid down for them. This commission is also responsible for halting all those activities which are harmful for our religion and people and damaging the ongoing Jihadi process.” He gave examples of using an NGO to try to convert Muslims or of NGOs involved in “activities against the Mujahidin”. He also said Afghans were permitted to work with NGOs.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020