Five Questions to Make Sense of the New Peak in Urban Attacks and a Violent Week in Kabul
Between 20 and 29 January 2018, there were five high profile attacks in major cities and districts in Afghanistan. The three by far largest ones happened in the capital Kabul. This feeds into a month-long period of such attacks that began in late December 2017. Altogether, almost 250 people, most of them civilians, were killed in these attacks. Three of them (and half of the attacks countrywide) have been claimed by the Islamic State and two by the Taleban, but with the changing dynamics of the Afghan conflict is it becoming increasingly difficult to trust the claims of responsibility or to attribute responsibility. AANâs Thomas Ruttig â with input from the AAN team â tries to make sense of the attacks and what they mean for the continued conflict and politics in Afghanistan.
1. What happened and who claimed responsibility?Â
The current wave of attacks represents a new peak of the urban terrorist campaign carried out by the Taleban and by local IS-affiliated groups. Since 28 December 2017, there have been eight attacks in three major cities, Kabul, Jalalabad and Kandahar.
The list of the attacks in major urban areas:
- On 28 December 41, mainly young, Shia civilians were killed by a suicide bomber among the audience at a Shia education centre Tote in West Kabul. The attack was claimed by the local branch of the Islamic State (IS), its âKhorasan provinceâ (ISKP), through an IS centre-related news channel.
- On 31 December, 18 people were killed by a bombing at a politicianâs funeral in Jalalabad. There were conflicting reports as to whether a suicide bomber or a motorcycle bomb caused the explosion. The Taleban denied their involvement, an ISKP claim was reported.
- On 4Â January, 11 people, mostly police personnel, were killed by a suicide bomber during a protest involving shopkeepers in eastern Kabul, Jalalabad Road. ISKP claimed responsibility (see here.)
- On 20Â January, 40 people were killed by armed gunmen who stormed Kabul Continental Hotel. Those killed included mainly government IT specialists, crew members of a private Afghan airline and other Afghan and international hotel guests. This is the only attack where all the victims were not Afghan. 15 of those who died and several of those injured were foreigners. The Taleban claimed responsibility.
- On 23Â January, five people were killed when armed attackers stormed the Save The Children office in Jalalabad. The attack was claimed by ISKP.
- On 27Â January, four people â two police and two civilians â were killed during a suicide attack in Kandahar City, near the Aino Mena housing scheme, when a suicide bomber struck a police vehicle. The Taleban claimed the attack.
- On 27Â January, 103 people were killed when a car bomb exploded in Kabulâs Sedarat Square. This attack was claimed by the Taleban.
- On 29 January, 11 soldiers were killed when gunmen stormed a base of the Afghan National Armyâs 111th division in Kabul. Again, ISKP claimed responsibility for it.
High-profile attacks in urban areas tend to overshadow ongoing fighting in provinces. However, there has also been simultaneous fighting in a number of provinces outside Kabul over this period. On the days of the biggest attacks alone, 20 and 27 January, media and other reports registered fighting and other security incidents in seven other provinces.
ISKP claimed four attacks, the Taleban claimed and denied their involvement in one. However, it is increasingly difficult to assess the claims and to attribute responsibility. There are indications that the diverse pro-IS groups are claiming attacks that have not been carried out by them. There are also indications that the Taleban are denying their involvement in attacks when there are particularly high numbers of civilian casualties. (The Talebanâs notion of civilians is discussed below). For example, the Taleban denied their involvement in the 31 December attack in Jalalabad that killed 18 people. According to Al-Jazeera ISKP claimed responsibility for it.
For the Taleban, or the semi-autonomous Haqqani network, it might be convenient that the IS claims attacks that have resulted in considerable loss of civilian lives.
In Kabul, there also might be an infrastructure, logistics and possible personnel (âterrorists to hireâ) that can be utilised by the Haqqani network or other Taleban groups, splinter groups now sailing under an IS banner, and violent Pakistani sectarian (anti-Shia) groups.
2. What accounts for this peak in attacks? What are possible motives?
This is not the first peak of attacks over recent years. There have been an earlier series of and extremely fatal single attacks, such as the April 2016 truck bomb claimed by the Taleban (AAN report here) and the one on 31 May 2017 near the German embassy when some 150 people were killed. This latter attack was not claimed by any group, and the Taleban denied their involvement. On 7 August 2015, three attacks happened on one day in Kabul, including another truck bomb â again denied by the Taleban and not claimed by any group â which killed some 50 people killed and wounded several hundred (media report here). The period between 16 and 21 October 2017 saw a series of countrywide, mainly Taleban, attacks on districts centres and government forces installations, with one IS-claimed suicide attack against a Shia mosque in Kabul (AAN analysis here).
The July 2016 suicide bomb attack against a peaceful demonstration of mainly Hazaras (media report here) and the September 2016 attack on the American University in Kabul â again not claimed by any group â indicated that âsoft targetsâ were being attacked more frequently (AAN analysis here).
At least five factors have contributed to the current peak:
- All parties to the conflict have been stepping up their campaigns. The Taleban have done so various times, during the US surge from 2009 to 2012, and again since 2014, when most of Western combat troops withdrew. Although the Taleban gained some more territory in 2017 (for more detail, see here), they lacked the spectacular success of catching a provincial centre, such as Kunduz in 2015. Afghan government troops are carrying out its own anti-insurgent operations (see statement here), but were unable to gain the initiative so far. They have had difficulties in holding the territory from which insurgents were expelled. The US are sending in more troops and are increasing airstrikes to roll back Taleban gains and turn the general trend.
- The next phase in the Kabul Process, an ongoing initiative to mobilise, particularly regional, countries to support a peace process for Afghanistan, is set to take place in late February. So far, this process has excluded the Taleban. As a result, the Taleban feel marginalised and as though they are not treated as an actor in their own right. Therefore, they are applying pressure to be included in talks and may, therefore, want to disrupt initiatives unless this happens.
- Terrorist attacks in urban centres do not directly change the balance of power on the battlefield, but do have propaganda impacts. Both groups want to send a signal to the Afghan population and government that they are capable of carrying out such attacks, even in the highly secured capital. There also seems to be an element of competition between the Taleban and IS, with IS being a relatively new player on the Afghan conflict scene and a competitor for funding and local support. Both groups need to show off their military capabilities to donors.
- Pakistan continues to support the Taleban as a card in its regional power game; although it denies this vehemently. It is clear that at least parts of their leadership structure are there and that Pakistani authorities are aware of their whereabouts. This is reflected by periodical arrests and releases of Taleban-related individuals. They are also not prevented to gather and publicly raise funds. Often when there is talk about attempts to open the door for peace talks there is an upsurge of highly visible terrorist attacks. This discredits the Taleban as a reasonable partner in such talks in the eyes of the population. However, negotiations are on the table as one option for ending the war, also on the Taleban side. The Talebanâs Qatar office has been established and authorised to explore this option.
- The Taleban might also try to capitalise on the on-going government crisis and its new peak in the wake of the dismissal of Balkh governor Atta by President Ghani. They might hope to further undermine the government at a moment when it is dealing with considerable internal power struggles.
3. What are the targets and who the victims of the attacks?
An estimated 232 people have been killed in the eight attacks since 28 December 2017. Although members of the security forces and private security guards (in the Kabul hotel attack) were among the victims in all attacks, most of them were civilians, according to preliminary media information. This was the case in the Kabul education centre bombing, the Jalalabad funeral bombing (even if police were also there), the Kabul hotel attack (see above) and the âambulanceâ bomb in Kabul, as well as the attack on Save The Children (four of the organisationâs staff and one policeman dead). Also see this videoÂ of the 27 January explosionâs impact inside Jumhuriat Hospital as shared on social media.
The Taleban have denied official figures and insist that, for example, most of the âambulance bombâ victims were police. This followed repeated declarations that they do not target âciviliansâ. In their 28 January 2018 statement (here, in Dari here) they claim most casualties were âofficers and workers (mansubin wa karkonan) âŠ inside the old Ministry of Interior building.â Kabul daily Etilaat Roz also quoted eyewitnessesÂ that three cobblers and two street children were amongst those killed.
The reason for this discrepancy is that the Taleban definition of civilian does not correspond with that of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). The Taleban allow, for example, attacks, not only on military targets, but also on civilian government installations and those of what they call âinvaders.â It is also clear that the use of an emergency van rigged with explosives as a car bomb, as on 27 January in Kabul, contradicts the international humanitarian law. In their already quoted statement, the Taleban justified their recent attacks as a reply to the US strategy:
If you want to play power politics and talk through the barrel of the gun, then do not expect roses from the Afghans either and await such replies.
Â UNAMAâs most recent reports show that the number of Afghan civilian casualties has also risen again as a result of US and Afghan airstrikes. Even excluding those that are awaiting investigation results, these attacks could amount to war crimes, and there is no justification for any party to commit such acts.
The IS acts more indiscriminately. It also attacks government and allied installations, particularly the Shia community, arguing that members of that community are involved in fighting the IS in the Middle East. After the 28 December Kabul attack, it issued a statement that the attacked facility was a ârecruitment centreâ for the Afghan (mainly Hazara) Fatemiyun militias fighting in Syria for the Assad regime, posted by Afghan IS watcher Mussa Imran (here; see also AAN analysis here); for the Fatemiyun, see AAN reporting hereÂ and here). In areas under ISKP control, it suppresses everyone who is in disagreement with it. There have been numerous executions of tribal elders, videos of which have been repeatedly posted online.
4 . What does the past monthâs violence say about the security situation in Kabul and the conflict in Afghanistan?
As noted above, this peak of attacks does not â yet â constitute a major shift in the conflict or the modus operandi of the Taleban. However, every new attack adds new victims to the war and every new battle, especially in the provinces, causes more people to flee their homes. This contributes to the feeling of a worsening security situation and the feeling that the government and its security organs are incapable of stopping terror attacks. UNAMA has shown in its most recent civilian casualty reports that in 2016 and 2017 Kabul has experienced a rising number of attacks and casualties resulting from them. Also the UNâs downgrading of Afghanistan in its mission review from post- to in-conflict country reflects the general deterioration of security in the entire country.
Parts of the political opposition are trying to capitalise on the growing fear and rage over the carnage. They criticise the government for its alleged failure to protect the population from the attacks, with some groups demanding its resignation. This is similar to the events during the June 2017 protests that had also been partly caused by an IS-claimed bombing (see AAN analysis here). Protests demonstrations have been announced again. In fact, key government critics have been in governmental positions themselves, some until recently, when similar attacks (see above) happened. Experience shows that governments, even in much more stable countries, from Indonesia to France, have not proven themselves able to prevent terrorist attacks.
5. What does this mean for the prospects of peace (talks)?
The Talebanâs recent wave of highly fatal attacks, causing many civilian casualties, has not made the idea of a negotiated end to the war through talks with them more popular. The US president now has also ruled that out in a reaction to the attacks. The IS seems to be out of bounds for any negotiations anyway.
So, the dilemma remains: Can there be a military solution to Afghanistanâs many problems? Many observers agree there cannot, looking at the failed attempt during the 2009-12 US troop surge that both failed to defeat or force the Taleban to the negotiating table, with up to 140,000 foreign and some 300,000 government troops and police. However, many in the Afghan political class and the wider population seem to entertain the hope that a military solution could be achieved. This is shown by a number of reactions on social media, including from well-known Afghan politicians, to president Trumpâs hardened stance toward Pakistan and his latest rejection of talks with the Taleban show. A local shura in Logar province reportedly awarded a bravery medal to him for his stance on Pakistan.
Given the current, much lower, number of foreign troops â around 15,000 now â with only elite parts of the Afghan forces with improved fighting skills, this remains doubtful. The entire Afghan force will still take years to be able to take over full security responsibility in practice. Also, the current US strategy has been presented so far as an attempt to prevent a Taleban take-over (AAN analysis here), which would require subsequent talks. The American ambiguity stands in the way of developing a clear-cut strategy to end the conflict.
As we have written recently, 2017 was a lost year for peace talks and the outlook for 2018 remains bleak on this, as the Afghan parties, and now the US, build new hurdles for a political resolution, being determined to escalate the war at the same time. Under these circumstances, the choice for Afghans â civilians, government and insurgents â is between talks with an opposite party they despise, or years of continued bloodshed.