The suicide car-bomb attack that destroyed the civilian hospital of Logar’s eastern-most district Azra on 25 June was terrible even for Afghan standards, with now [amended: 29] registered dead and 53 wounded. Amongst the victims were reportedly 15 children waiting for immunisation as well as five toddlers; the 10-bed maternity ward completely destroyed. But the background of this attack is still blurred. Struggling with access problems to Azra, Thomas Ruttig and Fabrizio Foschini try to piece together parts of the puzzle (with material from Sharif Khoram and Gran Hewad).
The car bomb attack that destroyed Azra hospital was one of the biggest terrorist attacks that happened in post-2001 Afghanistan. Only the 2007 attack at a group of MPs visiting the Baghlan Sugar Factory was larger; around 80 people were killed, amongst them more than 20 children who were called out to welcome the delegation. The 9 February 2011 attack on the Jalalabad branch of Kabul Bank when 38 civilians were killed and another 50 injured, the attacks on a dog fight and a public bathhouse in Spin Boldak and Arghandab, both in Kandahar province earlier this year, were roughly of the same impact: the former Kandahar incident on 11 January 2011 saw 17 people killed, including a high-ranking police officer while the latter one in late February 2011 led to eight civilians and five police killed. A bomb attack in the civil registry department of Imam Saheb (Kunduz province) on 11 February 2011 cost 28 civilian casualties.
Apart from the size, it was the second insurgent attack against a hospital. On 21 May 2011, two gunmen stormed the central army hospital (colloquially the 400-bed hospital, officially named Shahid [‘martyr’] Sardar Muhammad Daud, President 1973-78) in a commando-style operation, blew themselves up in a cafeteria and killed six and injured 36 people*.
But while in the 400-bed hospital attack the intentions and targets were clear, this is less the case in the Azra attack. There are indications that the hospital may not have been deliberately targeted. It also did not, in the Taleban’s logic, constitute an ‘enemy target’ – the hospital was neither built with US money nor even by this government, but rather during the mujahedin period, and is said to be very popular locally.
Still on the day of the Azra attack, BBC TV gave a detailed report based on local sources of what had happened: that security forces had been tipped off about an imminent attack in Azra, that they prepared roadblocks and that, when the explosives-laden car approached one of the a check-posts, the driver left the main road and turned into the one side-road that led to the hospital and blew himself up. Reportedly, that happened within ten meters of the hospital.
Speculations that the driver of the attack car actually might have meant to target either the district governor’s office – located in the same street as the hospital – or newly-established Afghan Local Police (ALP) units that had erected check-posts recently, were repeated to AAN by Logar’s provincial police chief Ghulam Sakhi ‘Rogh Lewanai’**. It is possible that the driver lost his nerves when facing security forces and just took the first turn in a split-second reaction.
Eyewitnesses claimed when asked by AAN that he looked very young, they say between 13 and 15 years old. Logar police officials say that he had come from Pakistan, crossing the border at Tera Mangal which is only a few kilometres away and passing through at least two check-posts there unhindered.
A second, different assumption – also heard from sources in Logar – is that the driver of the car-borne explosive device was well-prepared and had deviated from the main road to the hospital on purpose. Almost all analysts we spoke to confirmed that the attack bore hallmarks of the Haqqani network’s modus operandi and happened along one of its major infiltration routes. This would mean that the Haqqani network – under heavy attack by coalition forces – is taking its gloves off and started to attack purely civilian targets now. The Taleban, however, have stated at the day of the attack that they were not involved and even indicated that the attack was planned by ‘someone with an agenda’ (quoted by the BBC here) to smear their image.
But this is unlikely and it looks like the Taleban is engaging in pure blame shedding. The Taleban always try to distance themselves from attacks that violate their own code of conduct (layha; see more on this in our latest report here) which urges all fighters to protect civilians. The layhatheoretically is also valid for the Haqqani network*** which is an integrate part of the Taleban movement. And whether targeted attack or ‘accident’, the mainstream ‘Quetta Shura Kandahari’ Taleban are not ready to publicly denounce the Haqqanis – who operate in a rather autonomous way and have run a whole series of similar spectacular, so-called ‘complex’ attacks in Kabul and elsewhere – of violations of their code of conduct or to distance themselves from it.
A third version comes from Abdul Wali, the head of Logar’s provincial council. He blames ‘some of the groups from neighbouring countries’ who want to undermine a local peace initiative. According to him, the PC ‘recently decided […] to chose Azra district as a [possible] place of negotiation with the Taleban and Hezb-e Islami since we can get access to them living in a border district as well as because of [Azra’s] strong tribal structure.’
Although there are definitely ‘hawks’ who want to derail any talk about talks, it would rather have been a big strike for a relatively small, local initiative that has not even taken off , if the PC chairman was right.
Until recently, Azra had been relatively peaceful, with some insurgent control. The majority of the Azra population belongs to the Ahmadzai tribe which is not strongly involved in the insurgency but controls the drug transit routes in this area. Azra also is a base for various criminal groups, involved in abductions, that operate from Zarghunshahr (where currently NATO/ISAF operations are ongoing) east of the main Kabul-Gardez road. Particularly the Haqqani network uses it as a transit route from North Waziristan via Paktia further on north to finally approach Kabul, but the route also serves drug smugglers; local tribal networks are used for both purposes.
Both groups were obviously interested in keeping the calm. This changed when on 12 June 2011 clean-up operations began – mainly conducted by the ANP, but there also was at least one coalition forces airstrike – which mainly resulted in pushing the insurgents up into the mountains. This was followed by the establishment of a 120-strong, US-trained ALP, and its deployment in eight checkpoints across the district, apparently under the leadership of the former deputy wuluswal of Khushi district.
One of the few things Azra has in common with the rest of Logar (formerly it belonged to Paktia) are the overwhelmingly Hezb-e Islami roots of local fighting networks. The ‘Quetta Shura’ Taleban are not really visibly working in the district, and Haqqani network has expanded here only in the past few years, since 2008. The latter seems to have either vacuumed up the HIG networks or there is an informal cooperation; the latter would be quite different from the often stormy Taleban-HIG relations in neighbouring Wardak province where clashes are reported frequently.
An additional conflict might have emerged between tribes (or subtribes or villages) who have opted for joining the ALP and those who are more or less siding openly with the insurgents. The Taleban of the Haqqani network could have tried to scare or retaliate against those communities. Indeed, it has been confirmed by different sources that in the days previous to the attack community elders from Azra had become reluctant to travel to the provincial centre, as they were afraid of being targeted by insurgents.
(*) The Long War Journal wrote that the attack ‘was likely executed by the Kabul Attack Network, which is tasked with hitting the Afghan government and Coalition forces in and around the capital, and was formed with the help of Siraj Haqqani. The network is made up of members from the Haqqani Network, Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba [LeT], and al Qaeda. A Haqqani Network commander known as Daud, or Dawood, co-leads the Kabul Attack Network along with a Taliban commander known as Taj Mir Jawad’ (read full article here). Indeed, there seem to be indications that different groups cooperate in attacks on Kabul, mainly the Haqqani network and Pakistani groups like LeT. ISAF sources claim that the Haqqani network helps to bring in LeT or Pakistani Taleban-related suicide bombers from Waziristan.
(**) An interesting takhallus (surname), by the way: It means ‘perfectly crazy’.
(***) I was recently told that Serajuddin Haqqani does possess a copy of thelayha.
This article was last updated on 5 Jun 2020