Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

The Triple Attack in Kabul: A message? If so, to whom?

Kate Clark 11 min

Kabul is facing the aftermath of yet another suicide attack, this time at the entrance to the airport where early reports suggested 21 people were killed or injured. People in the capital were already in shock from the bloody events of 7 August: three attacks in 24 hours that killed more than 50 people and injured more than 300, overwhelmingly civilian. After a turbulent month for the Taleban – forced to go to peace talks and then admit Mullah Omar was dead and in the middle of a leadership struggle and under speculation that the movement is weakened – many wondered if the triple attacks were a ‘message’ from the movement. Today, at least, President Ghani had his own post-7 August message to both the Taleban and Pakistan. AAN Country Director Kate Clark reports.

Kabul residents hold a vigil for blast victims. Photo: ToloNews

To put the 7 August attacks in context: the number of civilian casualties on that one day from the first two attacks (the third struck a military target and caused no civilian casualties) was equal to seven per cent of the total number of civilian casualties from all actors for all of Afghanistan in the first six months of the year (see UNAMA’s mid-yearly report released on 5 August; see also this AAN analysis). It was one of the worst days for civilians in the capital since 2001, comparable only to the Ashura bombing of 2011 when 54 people were killed and 150 injured. (In the mid-1990s, of course, there were far bloodier days as mujahedin factions fought each other for control of the Afghan capital.)

The Taleban claimed the second and third attacks – on a police academy and a United States Special Operations Forces base -, but have been silent about the first which resulted in carnage only to the ‘common people’ (1) and had no obvious target.

The attacks

Shah Shahid 7 August

The first attack, a massive explosion from a lorry filled with explosives, came around midnight in the early hours of Friday morning in the heavily-populated district of Shah Shahid in the south east of Kabul. Homes and shops bore the brunt of a blast which left a huge crater. Civilian casualties were massive, many wounded by glass flying from shattered windows. Hospitals were reported to be short of blood and volunteers queued to donate for transfusion for the injured. On its own, this one huge explosion caused an unprecedented number of casualties from a single attack in the capital in recent years.

The UNAMA figures, as of 10 August, are: 298 civilian casualties; 15 killed and 283 injured. This includes four women killed and 70 women injured as well as 33 children (22 boys and 11 girls). There were no non-civilian casualties.

The Los Angeles Times described the aftermath like this:

Hours after the bombing, the streets were lined with piles of broken glass. [A shopkeeper] Salahuddin said it wasn’t until he was able to maneuver past the crowds and debris in the streets leading to his store that he realized that three members of his own staff, who had been sleeping in a back room of the store, were among the injured. “Three of them were trapped underneath the rubble. I have no idea how they got out from underneath, the whole room was filled with smoke and debris, but by some miracle they did,” he said. While taking the three…to a hospital, he picked up other injured in his Toyota station wagon. Salahuddin said he eventually took 30 to 40 people to Ibn Sina Hospital. “Finally, they told us there was no way they could attend to more patients,” he told The Times from inside his nearly leveled store.

There was no obvious military target for the attack, certainly not one to merit (from an insurgent’s point of view) the effort of getting such a mass of explosives into place. The timing was also atypical. The middle of the night is a strange time to detonate a bomb if a military or government target is the aim. Given that this is a reasonably ‘target-rich’ area with Afghan army and intelligence installations nearby and ministries just a little further away, there has been speculation that this was a premature detonation. (2)

The Taleban have not claimed the attack, but given its particularly horrific nature and the lack of anything to boast about, one would expect silence from the group. As AAN has reported before, the Taleban have an established pattern of remaining quiet or denying responsibility for attacks which are particularly grisly for civilians and have no clear benefit to the insurgency. (3) However, given this was the first of three attacks and the other two were claimed by the Taleban, it looks like the plan was to have three ‘spectaculars’ in the capital within 24 hours which would mean the Taleban are the most likely culprit for this attack as well.

Police Academy 7 August

Later that day, around 19.40 pm on the other side of the city in Karte-ye Mamurin, police cadets, back from their weekend break, were queuing to get back into the police academy. A suicide bomber in police uniform mingled in the crowds and blew himself up.

The UNAMA figures here were 57 civilian casualties; 28 killed and 29 injured – all adult males (4). There were again no non-civilian casualties.

The Taleban claimed the attack, saying it was part of this year’s ‘Azm’ Offensive.

Camp Integrity 7 August

In the last two hours before midnight at the close of the day, a third massive bomb was heard in much of the city, followed by smaller explosions. Those nearer also heard small arms fire and grenades. It was an attack on Camp Integrity, a base used by United States Special Operations Forces north of the airport, in Qasaba, a long way from Kabul proper. Reuters reported:

The blast outside the base was powerful enough to flatten offices inside, wounding occupants who were airlifted by helicopter to military hospitals during the night.

“There was a big explosion at the gate … (The gunfire) sounded like it came from two different sides,” said a special forces member who was wounded when his office collapsed. The initial blast caused by a suicide car bomb at the gate was followed by other explosions and a firefight that lasted a couple of hours, he said…”The helicopters went on for hours… medevac-ing people out,” a U.S. contractor at a camp nearby said.

Eight Afghan armed guards from a private security firm and one US Special Operations Forces serviceman were killed. Two others from the international military and two more Afghan guards were also injured. Although the base is in an area which is also residential, according to UNAMA there were “zero civilian casualties.” The attack was claimed by the Taleban.

Camp Integrity was set up in 2013 to provide a home for US and other Special Operations Forces. The American firm Academi – a re-named Blackwater, famous for killing 17 Iraqi civilians and injuring 20 in Baghdad in 2007 (five employees were later convicted in a US court) – had the contract to run the base and appears to have subcontracted the outer ring of security to an Afghan private security firm.

A spokesman for the NATO mission Resolute Support insisted the base was part of NATO’s ‘train, arm, assist’ mission and the special operations forces there were training their Afghan counterparts. She denied they were involved in the US’ separate counter-terrorism, combat mission Freedom’s Sentinel. However, a defence department press release later made clear the dead serviceman was on the United States’ combat mission.

UNAMA’s total casualties for 7 August in Kabul: 368 (52 killed and 316 injured) of whom 355 were civilian (43 killed and 312 injured).

Why the attacks?

The ‘what’ of the attacks is clearer than the ‘why’. It has certainly been a stormy time for the Taleban. The movement had its first ‘official’ talks with the Afghan government on 7 July, but only after Pakistan had forced it to the table (see AAN analysis here). The leadership was also forced to admit – long overdue – that the supreme leader, Mullah Omar, was dead (see another AAN analysis here). The head of the Leadership Council (Quetta shura) and already de facto leader, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur, was proclaimed/proclaimed himself the new supreme leader, the amir ul-mu’menin (commander of the faithful) and several senior Taleban (not a coherent group) have protested his accession. They include: former Emirate-era ministers interior minister Mullah Abdul Razaq; former deputy foreign minister, Mullah Jalil; former finance minister Mutassim Agha Jan (who had already defected after calling for negotiations in 2013; the head of the Taleban’s political office in Qatar, Tayeb Agha (resigned on 4 August) and members of Mullah Omar’s family (see reporting here, here and here).

The protest, in public at least, has been largely over what they saw as the indecent haste with which Mansur was chosen and the small number of those who did the choosing. Some of the dissidents have rallied around Omar’s son, Mullah Yaqub, who is still only in his twenties, as their chosen successor (either they actually think he would make a good leader or he would be a leader they could control). Mansour’s main rival, Mullah Zakir, has so far avoided going into open confrontation with Mansur (which could mean he has chosen to support him, is working behind the scenes against him, or is holding his fire).

AAN will be reporting in more detail on this leadership struggle. For now, what is important to say is that Mansur needs to look strong on the battlefield. His reputation, in the Taleban’s ranks, may have been damaged first by the Murree talks – he had given the green light (albeit on the grounds the talks would be secret) and sent senior Taleb and member of the Leadership Council Abdul Latif Mansur to attend – and then by the revelation that he had been ruling in the name of a dead man. To set against this, one must say that Mansur’s military standing is not small; effectively in charge since the start of 2010, he has steered the Taleban successfully through the US military surge years (December 2009 to September 2012) and its fierce ‘kill or capture’ strategy, and now an aggressive post-withdrawal fight.

Mansur’s first move after becoming the Taleban amir was to cancel a planned second round of peace talks with the Afghan government, again due to be hosted again by Pakistan. In an audio message, he pledged to continue the jihad and described the peace talks as “enemy propaganda”:

They have tried a lot through money, through media, through false and corrupt ulama (ulama-ye su) and other means to weaken the course of jihad and destroy [our] unity…. We should not believe in [rumours] of peace talks. … This jihad will continue for advancing the word of Allah and until there is an Islamic system in the country. …  If there is any fundamental process taking place, it should follow Sharia, and all actions will be taken under Sharia. Whether that is a jihad by sword, or if it [aim of the jihad] could be achieved through talks or through dawah (invitation), all our actions will be in the light of Sharia.

(AAN translation)

So while Mansur does not rule out future talks, for now ‘jihad’ is the clear priority. This is largely a continuation of his strategy, but makes particular sense now given that the coherence of the Taleban is based on the idea of legitimate armed struggle. Talk of ‘jihad’ is uniting. It boosts morale. Calling for negotiations would make Mansur look weak and risk fracturing the movement. His first message then looked like a bid to ride the wave of popular, belligerent sentiment among Taleban trying to to consolidate his leadership.

After the announcement of Mullah Omar’s death, some concluded the Taleban were weakened. “There is chaos and confusion not only among the Taliban’s top leadership, but also among the ordinary fighters,” one un-named ‘senior Afghan government official’ told the Wall Street Journal. “The Taliban’s internal disagreements are distracting them from the fighting.” The Afghan government also said it would not negotiate with divided factions of the Taliban but “will negotiate with them under the same title” of “armed anti-government militants.”

On the ground, however, there has been no lull in the insurgency and, the week after Omar’s death was announced (and a Western calendar month after the Murree talks), came the 7 August attacks.

A response to events – or routine violence?

The Taleban have plenty of reasons to want to show that they are strong militarily, first to the Afghan government – one of whose demands at the Murree talks was a reduction in violence in the Afghan capital – and secondly to their own ranks to boost morale at a difficult time. Such attacks as were seen in the capital might also be a message to Islamabad and Kabul not to treat the Taleban as marionettes, as they tried to do in Murree. There seems little reason to look for more complicated reasons beyond this for the attacks, for example that they were due to infighting, as some have suggested; one would need to ask infighting among whom and showing what, particularly as two of the attacks were claimed by the Taleban.

However, it is not clear to this author that the attacks were a particular response to anything. Pulling off a big operation in a hostile city is difficult and takes time and money for reconnaissance, intelligence gathering and moving materiel and possibly assets; pulling off three big attacks in one day is even more tricky, particularly if compartmentalised cells are used to minimise the unravelling of a whole network if one group is arrested. If assets were in place and waiting for the go-ahead, the attacks might have been in response to recent events. However, they could equally have been due to happen anyway, irrespective of whatever else was happening politically. In this case, the most one could say was that a decision may not have been made to call them off.

Equally though, the attacks are part of a clear and consistent pattern of insurgent violence this year. The Taleban have been moving aggressively in many parts of the country and suicide and complex attacks are on the increase – civilian casualties were up by 78 per cent country-wide in the first six months of 2015 compared with the same period in 2014 (see the already cited UNAMA mid-yearly report). (5) The Taleban made very little of the attacks on the US base and police academy, treating them as routine. As today’s attack in Kabul also showed, the Taleban do not need special reasons to launch attacks.

This last week – the insurgent violence across the country, as well as in the capital – shows that, for now, leadership problems are not undermining the Taleban’s capacity for violence. The triple attack on 7 August also raised the question, again, of whether Pakistan is able and willing to work to reduce violence this side of the border – as President Ghani has been depending on it to do. (6)

Ghani’s response

President Ghani’s stance has been that peacemaking had to be between states. “The problem, fundamentally, is not about peace with Taliban,” Ghani said in March 2015. “The problem is fundamentally about peace between Pakistan and Afghanistan.” He repeated the line just last week when he took a reasonably benign tone to both Pakistan (they should “cooperate in quelling the activities of the Taliban and other terrorist groups so as to reduce the level of violence in Afghanistan”) and the Taleban (“armed opposition groups [should] solve their political problems by way of negotiations as a new window of opportunity has opened for durable peace and cessation of war and violence in the country and region.”)

In a press conference on 10 August following the triple attack (followed live by AAN) that line had hardened. If Pakistan could not bring the Taleban to the negotiating table, he said, they were able to close their bases. Despite promising to do this he said the “bomb-making factories” and “nests for training suicide attackers” were still active. There was, he said, “clear enmity from a neighbouring country.” Nevertheless, he was preparing to send a delegation to Pakistan this week to put together an operational plan to deal with the insurgency. In other words, he is angry, but lines of communication with Pakistan are still open.

As to the Taleban, the tone was far harsher. The current Afghan state, he said, was based on Islam, “the religion of stability.” He said “those who try to bring instability and insecurity and kill Muslims in a Muslim community, according to Sharia law, are baghi [rebels] and muhareb [those who fight – understood as – against God].” This is extremely strong, coded, religious language, as being a muhareb is one of the worst crimes in Sharia, punishable by exile, the cutting off of hands and feet, or execution, including by crucifixion. (7) Ghani said his government would not hold talks with those who killed Afghans and acted against the interests of the nation.

 

(1) The Taleban tend to use this phrase to describe Afghans not aligned to the government. It is not a synonym for civilian as they also deliberately target those considered civilians under international humanitarian law, for example the police cadets.

(2) UNAMA said that in 2014, it:

…documented several incidents of suicide attacks in which an error appeared to have taken place and the suicide device malfunctioned and detonated prematurely.” In such incidents no party claimed responsibility. For example, on 15 July, a suicide bomber prematurely detonated a VB-IED in the bazaar area of Urgun district, Paktika. province. The explosion caused 138 civilian casualties (43 killed including six boys and 95 injured including two boys). The power of the detonation completely destroyed 25 shops and 18 vehicles.

(3) In the face of Taleban silence or denial, it can be difficult and it takes time to verify whether an attack has been launched by the Taleban. However, in AAN’s report into the Taleban Code of Conduct, we traced several examples of false denials of attacks, including where commanders had subsequently been investigated.

(4) UNAMA classed the cadets who were killed and injured as civilian because they were not ‘participating in hostilities’. This is not always the case for police in Afghanistan. When policemen are deployed to fight the Taleban and are participating in hostilities, according to the laws of armed conflict (but not Afghan criminal law), they would be classified as lawful targets.

(5) See AAN reporting of particularly troubled spots here and here, particularly on KunduzSar-e Pul and Kapisa, and an earlier suicide attack in Kabul at the Park Palace Hotel.

(6) For example, in this press release from 3 August, a few days after the government’s announcement that Mullah Omar was dead:

In response to a question concerning recent developments in the country and the region and their effect on the peace process, the President said that he has discussed the matter with the Prime Minister and Chief of Army Staff of Pakistan. 

President Ghani added that the obligation of Pakistan, as a neighbor and state that has relations with Afghanistan, is to cooperate in quelling the activities of the Taliban and other terrorist groups so as to reduce the level of violence in Afghanistan.  

(7) See The Quran: Surah al-Ma’ida 5:33–34.

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