The suicide attack today (18 April 2011) on the Afghan ministry of defence followed a warning by the Taleban spokesman that the movement would be focussing on greater infiltration of the Afghan security forces in order to carry out attacks. He said the attack marked the start of the Taleban’s ‘spring campaign’. It was a strange comment, says AAN’s senior analyst, Kate Clark,* given the spate of deadly attacks already this year. Even so, the attack may possibly mark a significant change in Taleban strategy which, in turn, may be a sign of progress for those concerned about civilian casualties.
For the third time in five days, a suicide bomber used police or army uniform to get into the heart of the international/Afghan war effort. According to a ministry of defence spokesman two soldiers were killed and seven injured** in today’s attack on the MoD. (The intended target appears to have been the visiting French minister of defence.) Taleban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahed, said the attack had been carried out by a soldier from Panjshir who had been serving in the ANA for three years and had been in touch with the Taleban and received military equipment from them.
On Saturday, again according to Mujahed, it was a serving soldier whom the Taleban had recruited a month previously, who blew himself up at the morning meeting at the Eastern regional ANA headquarters, Gambari which is in eastern Laghman. Five foreign and four Afghan soldiers were killed after an ANA soldier or a Taleb disguised as an ANA soldier blew himself up at an ISAF base, killing, On Friday, the chief of police of Kandahar province, Khan Muhammad Mujahed, was killed by a suicide bomber wearing police uniform.
From the point of view of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), the body of laws, including the Geneva Conventions which restrict how wars can be fought, Mujahed’s comments after the Saturday attack were interesting:
‘Today [the attacker] got a very good chance to attack because Afghan and foreign military officials had a meeting at the base… This kind of attacks are very useful for us — recruiting someone and working inside the Afghan forces—these attacks inflict more casualties to the enemy and does not inflict any civilians casualties.’ (quoted in New York Times here)
The Taleban have been repeatedly and severely criticised for targeting civilians or for being reckless as to civilian casualties when they attack military targets. This is a violation of both IHL, which obliges all warring parties to protect civilians, but also of the Taleban’s own Code of Conduct, which repeatedly tells fighters they must protect the lives and property of the common people.
‘In carrying out martyrdom operations, take great efforts to avoid casualties among the common people.’ (Article 57)
‘…all mujahedin with all their power must be careful with regard to the lives of the common people and their property…’ (Article 65)
Following UNAMA’s mid-year 2010 report, which said armed opposition groups were responsible for 70 per cent of civilian casualties, there was denial and outrage by the Taleban, as well as a call to set up a joint commission to monitor civilian casualties. Ever since, there has been a serious of denials and counter-accusations by the Taleban and exhortations to their own fighters to protect civilians (for example, Mullah Omar’s Eid message to the nation in November which can be seen here).
In March 2011, UNAMA and AIHRC reported that the number of civilians killed in suicide attacks by armed opposition groups*** during 2010 as a whole, compared with 2009, had dropped by 15 per cent. As the number of attacks had not decreased, they concluded that the Taleban had started to take greater care. However, in the first three months of 2011, there was a spate of egregious attacks on unequivocally civilian targets, including the Finest supermarket in Kabul (nine Afghan civilians killed, including six, mother, father and four children from one family), the Safi Landmark shopping centre in Kabul (two guards killed) and the Kabul Bank in Jalalabad. The last was particularly shocking for people because they could watch footage taken by cameras in the bank and shown on Tolo TV (it can be seen here). The sight of gunmen casually killing customers angered and disgusted many people. The Taleban’s claims that they had been attacking military targets were unconvincing.
This is a war where public opinion is crucial and that means that killing civilians is not only potentially illegal,**** but also unpopular. The blowback from the Kabul Bank attack may have motivated the Taleban to change tack.
Another indication that the Taleban are able to take criticism seriously was a very rare public apology for breaking the laws of war by using an ambulance to carry out a suicide attack on a police training centre in Kandahar on 7 April. ‘This will not happen again,’ Zabihullah Mujahed toldIRIN which also reported the Taleban’s acceptance that they had violated IHL and their promise of an investigation. Perfidy – treacherously injuring or killing an adversary after deceiving him into thinking he must give you protection – is a serious violation of IHL, as is violating medical neutrality, as an ICRC statement made clear; ‘by violating the neutrality of health care services, such acts of deception endanger medical personnel engaged in caring for the injured and sick in hospitals, clinics and rural health posts,’ said an ICRC statement.
Of course, whether the Taleban are now changing their strategy – or just their messaging – is not yet clear. From the point of view of the laws of war, an attack on a military base, such as took place on Saturday, is legitimate and Mujahed’s desire – if it is serious – not to inflict civilian casualties laudable (even if one would still want to see a reduction in other attacks on civilians, particularly targeted killings and casualties from IED attacks).
However, his threat to up the tempo of attacks based on infiltration will be a major worry for the international and Afghan armies, as they race to get boots on the ground and have enough Afghan security forces ready to start taking over security, beginning with three provinces and four cities***** in summer 2011. The rapidity of the recruitment and training helps make forces vulnerable to such attacks. According to the New York Timesquoting Reuters, the ISAF training mission has begun in turn to train counter-intelligence agencies to spot potential Taleban infiltrators.
Meanwhile, reports Pajhwok, ISAF says the Taleban are resorting to using military uniform to launch assaults because they are incapable of face-to-face combat. A spokesman also said ISAF and the Afghan government are working on a plan to prevent infiltration into the security forces. Recruits, he said, will have to produce guarantees from two tribal elders, not have a criminal background and be physically fit. (One wonders what the minimum standards for enrolment currently are).
* AAN is due to publish a report by Kate Clark on the Taleban’s Code of Conduct, part of which will focus on civilian casualties.
** However, a doctor in the military hospital told AAN that ‘about twenty’ ambulances carrying the wounded had been arriving.
*** Which include the Taleban, Hezb-e Islami and others.
**** Warring parties may not target civilians and must take all feasible precautions to spare civilians. If civilian casualties are expected in an attack on a military target and they are proportional to the military gain, the attack may still be legal.
****The provinces of Bamyan, Panjshir, Kabul (except Sarobi district) and Lashkargah, Mazar-e Sharif, Herat and Mehterlam cities/towns.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020