The attacks that took place a week ago in Kabul received more than their fair share of media coverage. The same thing cannot be said for the parallel attacks launched by insurgents simultaneously in three other provincial capitals. AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini and Obaid Ali look into the attacks in Nangrahar, Paktia and Logar, to try and make political sense of these lesser tragedies. They try to figure out who the attackers were and how they got to Kabul and the provincial centres, also in the light of the recent announcement that an operation by the National Directorate of Security (NDS) intercepted several tons of explosives meant for staging further attacks in Kabul (the ‘potato truck affaire’).
Leaving aside the shock and drama created by the central location and duration of the attacks in Kabul, what was most striking about the events of 15-16 April was the degree of coordination that enabled as many as 36 insurgent operatives to carry out their plans in four different provinces almost simultaneously. In addition to the capital, the Taleban in fact targeted the cities of Jalalabad in Nangrahar, Gardez in Paktia and Pul-e Alam in Logar, where small groups of highly armed insurgents tried to storm government or foreign troops objectives, or to mire security forces in long-drawn confrontations in urban areas. Why were these provinces targeted?
First of all, there were political reasons. These are all provinces close to Kabul and in areas that have been declared the new focus of US/NATO operations (see here and here). Kandahar or Lashkar Gah are already, in the public consciousness, battlegrounds. This is true for both foreign journalists, who tend to go reasonably frequently, either on embeds or more rarely on their own, and quickly come back – as well as for many Afghans. Jalalabad and Gardez, on the other hand, are cities where people live mostly ‘normal’ lives. As for Pul-e Alam, its normality may be long gone, but it is still closer to the capital and the centre stage of the international presence, rather than in the distant south.
There might also have been logistic reasons. It is undoubtedly easier to coordinate attacks in places located at a relative proximity, as once you have started a synchronized and highly coordinated operation as this certainly was, every minor mishap can cause delays. This, in turn, could have given NDS time to find out and intervene.
Finally, it is not sure whether the insurgents only had Kabul and the other three provinces in their minds. On the very morning of 15 April, a large group of 15 insurgents were arrested in Khanabad near Kunduz and, according to police spokespersons, had intended to carry out a similar attack in Kuduz city later in the day (read here).
The four attacks, in fact, draw a kind of ‘geography of encircling’ that makes one wonder if the Taleban plan was not meant to have a double layer of significance. For one, the ‘main stage show’ in Kabul was thrown at the world’s mass media to sensationalise for the general public; on the other hand, the choice of the ‘side events’, may have conveyed a signal for more keen observers, or for the local consumers of security, the Afghans, to draw their own conclusions. This picture would have been even more complete if the Taleban had managed to pull off a simultaneous operation in Kunduz, another ‘non-traditional’ province for Taleban activities, this time in the North (although there has been much increase in violence over the last years, as an earlier AAN report showed as well).
But let us first briefly describe what happened in the three spots targeted by the insurgents and what impressions AAN could gather from locals in the days following the attacks.
Jalalabad witnessed two separate attacks in the afternoon of 15 April at about 13.30, around the same time as the attacks in Kabul began. The targets were the military (former civilian) airfield outside the city and the PRT, which is located in an area that – although belonging to Behsud district – is still inside the Jalalabad’s suburbs. Both started with a suicide attack near the gate of the target which was meant to open the way for the Taleban commandos to enter the premises. This was fairly successful in the case of the PRT, as the explosion of the suicide vehicle enabled four other attackers to enter the gate and engage the security forces at close range.
At the airfield, things went badly for the attackers. The suicide bomber managed to kill one of his colleagues alongside himself when he detonated his vest, and the other two attackers were quickly overcome by the airfield guards before they could do much damage. One, injured in the firefight, was captured alive.(1) The encounter was longer and more critical at the PRT, where the attackers engaged the Afghan guards and the international troops for hours until they were eliminated around 5pm. Casualties in Jalalabad amounted to eight of the nine insurgents killed, along with one Afghan security guard at the PRT and 17 international troops and contractors injured.
Events in Paktia and Logar took a turn more similar to those in Kabul, as the insurgents there opted for the same tactic of occupying half-finished buildings and entrenching themselves there. In Gardez, the site lies on the outskirts of town, on the main road leading to Kabul. The area is virtually littered with unfinished buildings and is close to the Afghan National Police Zone 505 ‘Spinghar’ headquarters, to the police academy and to a local NDS command. For some hours, it offered the three-man insurgent commando team an advantageous position to hit important targets. Their resistance to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) efforts to dislodge them was finally ended by an ISAF airstrike around 5 pm, which also caused one civilian death. The habitable part of the building (or possibly an adjoining block– interviewees gave slightly differing accounts) was housing university students and they had to run for their lives when the insurgents broke in. Some reportedly jumped out of the windows. Many more sustained injuries in the firefight, together with three policemen, and two students eventually succumbed to their wounds.
The attack in Pul-e Alam was the last to begin, and the more massive and troublesome after the incidents in Kabul. A total of eight attackers took part and directed their first onslaught against the governor’s compound and a nearby NDS command, both rather centrally located in town. After failing to storm these places, the surviving insurgents sheltered in an adjacent building, taking position in the basement, probably in order to escape the worst effects of expected airstrikes. They were eventually all killed in the early hours of the night except one who, although injured, managed to move into another building (a medical institute), pass the night in hiding, and resume the fight the next day. At least some of the insurgents in Logar seem to have been equipped with suicide vests, on top of the usual arsenal of Kalashnikov rifles, PK heavy machine guns, RPG launchers and hand-grenades. Fighting in Pul-e Alam also cost the international troops their only death, reportedly during the cleaning operation on the morning of the 16 April. 19 people were injured, mainly ANSF.
Local perceptions of the attacks did not vary too much in the three provinces. Of course, in Afghanistan, there is never a lack of local takes to explain events. So in Nangrahar, a traditional Hezb-e Islami stronghold, some locals were convinced that the reason for the attack was a reaction against the talks that a Hezb-e Islami delegation had held in Kabul (see our upcoming blog on this), even if these happened only one day before the attacks. In Logar, on the other hand, one of the interviewees pointed out that the Taleban attack had almost immediately followed the replacement of the previous governor (2), whom he claimed had been in alliance with the insurgents.
But apart from that, it seems the attacks did not impress the inhabitants of the three cities. They resumed their normal lives almost as soon as the last shots were fired. Residents of Paktia and Logar grimly pointed out to AAN that the value of life in their provinces is much lower and their inurement to death much higher than in Kabul. In Gardez, the site of the fighting was almost three kilometres to the north of the main bazaar and this helped reduce its impact.
As for Jalalabad, the PRT was indeed attacked directly for the first time – until now it had not experienced more than an occasional rocket. The military airfield instead has been the target of many an attack in the past. The only novelty in the recent attempt was the fact that it happened in broad daylight, something which explains its utter failure. The business community of the eastern city is clearly more sensitive to such attacks and some locals have reported fluctuations in the prices of real estate. However, the city population as a whole, after experiencing the incomparably worse attack on a branch of the Kabul Bank last year, were not particularly shocked about last week’s events.
The main effect of the attacks on the provincial capitals was in Kabul and abroad. Those eager of comparisons with the Tet offensive (Vietnam, early 1968 – read here for example) – apparently a large and persevering lot – could relish in the diffused threat and the fact that, as some of the provinces attacked are on the ‘frontline’, the Taleban could be thought as of on the verge of some major breakthrough. These attacks were thus seen to multiply the impact of the Kabul attacks just by their mere existence, without getting any limelight themselves. At the same time, these breaches in security were not much above the ordinary grim reality of the provinces, at least of Paktia and Logar, and thus gained in peculiarity in the mind of locals mainly because of their simultaneity with the Kabul attacks.
As in the capital, the material damage and human losses caused by the attacks in the provinces were limited when compared to the number of the attackers and the weaponry they had. Some of the attacks could have had more serious consequences, especially that in Pul-e Alam. Probably, this can also lead to a positive assessment of the role and reaction of the security forces, both Afghan and foreign (the latter were directly involved especially in Jalalabad, where the attacks targeted their premises).
Praises for the ANSF’s fighting skills, however, went along with sharp criticism of the inability of the NDS to gather knowledge of the attacks beforehand and prevent them (read here). Thus, the arrest of five persons accused of bringing into Kabul ten tons of explosives, concealed on a truck under an (evidently thin) layer of potatoes, announced on Saturday 21 April, seemed the perfect occasion to re-establish the name and reputation of the intelligence services (read here).
The seizure of several tons of ammonium nitrate (a forbidden fertilizer widely employed for the preparation of explosive devices) at the gates of town (in Pul-e Charkhi) is without doubt a frightening and suggestive one. After the Taleban’s spectacular inauguration of the high-profile attack season they made last week, they would need to keep up with operations on the same scale for the rest of it in order to impress. Although recent trends of insurgent operations inside the capital do not go in this direction, bombing targets could prove a cheaper and easy substitute for complex commando attacks. But here too, two different readings of the incident are possible. Not only does the NDS seizure reaffirm its efficiency, but if one looks at the identity of the detained individuals, it fits with NDS claims, partially shared by the US, of Haqqani and Pakistani involvement in the attacks of 15 April (read here).
In relation to the events of last week, it is probably inevitable – even by just looking at the region’s map – to notice how another political geography, that of borders, coincides with that of the attacks. It then becomes difficult to blame the joint Nato/Afghan accusations against the neighbouring state entirely as just Pakistan-bashing. The so-called Parrot’s Beak (hopefully no Afghan would remember it by that irritating name) – that terrible political indent that the British wanted when the Durand Line was drawn, in order to put Kabul a few days march from their territory, and which corresponds to Kurram agency of the FATA – catches the eye of every observer as one of the shortest possible routes to all the targets of last week’s attacks. Accusing the Haqqani network, whose increased activities in Kurram were reported throughout last year (see our previous blog here or another study on the topic), is commonplace after every major attack in Kabul, but also rather realistic.
But Pakistani FATA are not the most direct, nor the shortest route, by which the attacks, at least those in Jalalabad and Kabul, could have been carried out. As mentioned, the location of these attacks roughly encircle Kabul from three sides. The northern side of Kabul, however, is all but quiet. If Parwan’s security problem are mainly concentrated in Ghorband valley, the highest seats of state power in Charikar have already been the focus of Taleban attacks, as a couple of major attempts on the life of governor Basir Salangi showed last summer. According to some media sources – like Noor TV – a more recent attempt on his life was thwarted in early April, and was followed by the arrest of the Taleban ‘general commander’ for the province. If the overall security of the Shomali plateau is satisfactory, many army caches and insurgents’ safe-houses have been discovered there and are known to have been used over the years to stage attacks in Kabul (see our previous blog here).
Also to the northeast of Kabul, Kapisa’s insurgents have apparently been striving to become something more than the localised fronts active in the province’s mountainous stretch that they used to be. In the last fortnight, remotely controlled IEDs have, three times, hit the main road at the outskirts of the provincial capital of Mahmud-e Raqi, almost killing the governor on the spot in the first instance, and managing to kill the police commander of one of the city’s districts subsequently. This small province may be still sociologically divided between a south which sympathises with the insurgents and a north where allegiance to Jamiat-e Islami makes community support for the Taleban less likely. But, as we said, it is a small province in the middle of almost everything: it is easy for insurgents to try and reach Kapisa’s capital and the neighbouring provinces.
The identity of very few of the 36 attackers of 15-16 April has been disclosed – or ascertained, for all that we know. Among them there is the lone survivor of the attack on Jalalabad airfield. He has now reportedly confessed that he was trained for some months by Haqqani people in North Waziristan before being despatched to its objective. Some of the Kabul attackers, on the other hand, were unofficially identified as coming from Laghman. As for the recent arrest made by the NDS in Kabul, they accommodated for both the backgrounds and routes proposed above: three are Pakistani nationals (it is understood they are Pashtuns, else it would have been specified – and hardly credible) and two residents of Kapisa.
Reports about the infiltration of Haqqani recruiters and fighters willing to exploit the insurgency corridor that can run through Kunar-Laghman-Kapisa (see our previous blog here) are not new and should not surprise anyone: where there is a political vacuum, and jobless youth, it is easy for anyone with cash and charisma to start expanding. (3)
There may be no easy solution for this wider problem – as there is no easy solution to deal with North Waziristan and the tribal agencies surrounding it on the other side of the border. However, failure at curbing insecurity, at providing good governance and economic incentives to such a central and relatively small province as Kapisa could turn out to be a failure too far – and too close – for Kabul.
(1) A cleaning operation started immediately afterwards in the vicinity of the airfield, and led to the arrest of two (some sources reported just one) suspects, allegedly found while trying to escape the area and in possession of weapons. They are suspected of having acted as facilitators to the attackers. They are reportedly locals, but the area, referred to as Juy 11, is farmland where only in the last years migrants by many areas of the province or returnees from Pakistan have settled down and so this hardly tells anything about the detainees background.
(2) Atiqullah Ludin had been governor of Logar since September 2008, he had formerly been a PDPA general, a member of Gailani’s Mahaz-e Islami after the fall of Najibullah, and, lately, a Karzai supporter. His replacement is Taher Khan Saberi, a popular tribal elder from Khost province who had also campaigned for Karzai during the presidential elections.
(3) In Kunar the Taleban shadow governor, a senior local figure with Salafi background, was recently replaced by a commander from Loya Paktia, whose links with the Haqqani Network could be more than speculations, and whose attitude towards the ANSF is expected to be less ‘soft’. Significantly, the change had to be pushed through amidst resistance by sections province’s insurgents.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020