War & Peace

On the borders: Where do the attacks in Nimruz come from?


The recent multiple suicide attacks that hit Zaranj, the capital of Nimruz province – with possibly one of the single biggest losses of lives in the Afghan conflict – received relatively small attention by the international media. Of course, both the global media and public are in a slack period regarding news from Afghanistan. The fact that it had happened in a province that usually is far from major trends in the conflict, seemed to have made this neglect even easier. The later announcement by National Directorate of Security (NDS) about the Iranian identity of at least some of the attackers may renew interest in the story. AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini looks at the dynamic of the incident and the reaction of the Afghans in Nimruz and in Kabul.

On 14 August, the dead-hot afternoon of Zaranj was broken by a series of explosions. The targets seem to have included a mix of (mainly) civilian and security institutions: the provincial hospital, a carpet bazaar, a petrol pump station. The death toll reported by many media the day after was of 21 civilians and 15 members of the Afghan National Police (ANP) killed; it is probably still subject to changes given the shocking amount of injured, at least another 120 persons, both civilians and policemen. Reasons for this random targeting could be the inability of the attackers to come closer to their original objectives – the security forces had already arrested or eliminated some of them during their attempted approach – or the will to cause more victims among rescuers and security forces; a bomb struck in front of the provincial hospital where many police had gathered while bringing in injured people.(1)

Maintaining a high level of attacks during Ramazan is something that insurgents have increasingly done during the last years of conflict. Contrary to acts of terrorism in neighbouring countries like Pakistan, though, targeting people shopping in the bazaars is not something that has happened regularly. However, instances of attacks against civilian-only targets seem to be increasing lately, like the one at the Kabul Bank branch in Jalalabad in February 2011 or at Hotel Spuzhmai at Qargha Lake near Kabul on 22 June show. The low value the insurgents – but not only them – give to Afghan lives when a suitable target happens to be around, has been proven many times in the almost ten years of conflict.

But in the mentioned cases, the killing of civilians was not occasioned by their proximity to what the insurgents see as a legitimate target, rather they became a ‘legitimate’ target in themselves apparently only because of being part of a society and an institutional order that the insurgents reject. In other words, these acts of violence reflect an attitude on the part of the attackers and their minders that goes far beyond the cynicism dictated by asymmetrical warfare – and which must in some cases border on mental derangement.

The incident was all the more striking because of its location. Nimruz is hardly a place where an escalation in the conflict or an intrinsic strategic importance can be invoked as an explanation for such a vicious attack. Indeed, the province witnesses low volumes of violence that passes unnoticed most of the time, and its strategic value for the insurgents lies mainly in its use as a transit area. Writing about Nimruz entails repeating every time the same thing: nobody reports about, nobody hears of, nobody cares for the province. The Afghan government itself has happily delegated it to the control of a governor who, together with his network, has been in charge locally for long periods during the decade of civil war prior to 2001 already – and seldom interferes in his activities (read our previous blog here).

If rural Nimruz, with the exception of its northernmost district of Khash Rud, is largely unaffected by insurgent operations, so is Zaranj city. The last incident involving suicide bombings had happened on 28 April, when one of the rare US troops’ convoys to the provincial capital was targeted, killing one soldier and one Afghan policeman.

During the last days, however, there had been signs suggesting that something was in store. On the evening of 13 August, a car was stopped by the ANP at the gates of the city, its occupants resisted the search and two of them were killed in the following fire-fight. Inside the car, the police found weapons, suicide vests and explosives. The following day, only a couple of hours before the attacks took place, three more insurgents with suicide vests and hand grenades were detained by the police.(2) Reportedly, it had been three days before the attack since rumours about the presence of suicide bombers planning an attack had spread in the city. On the fateful afternoon thus, it is not that locals were unaware, rather nobody could have expected something on the scale of what happened and such a brutal targeting of civilians.

‘Before that we had suicide attacks against the governor, against the Provincial Council, but now the Taleban have started targeting karachi-walla(street-vendors)’ complained a local interviewed by AAN. He further narrated the fate of one of his neighbours: ‘A young man working with the ANP, he rushed out of his house after hearing the first explosion and he told his mother to lock the door, lest some suicide bomber should enter their house.’ His mother protested ‘why should they want to enter here, cannot they go enter the governor’s house?!’ Our interlocutor concluded: ‘The policeman escaped a hand-grenade hurled at him while he was piling injured people on his pick up, only to get killed in another explosion when he reached the hospital.’

Nimruz’s insurgency is mainly linked to its northern Khash Rud district, and to Farah and Helmand beyond it.(3) Insurgents from those areas have been targeting the ANP in Zaranj with small-scale attacks before. Also, the two insurgents who were killed in an encounter with the ANP the night before the attack were reportedly trying to enter the city from Khash Rud. However, it is realistic that for such a complex attack involving a high number of perpetrators, several different channels of infiltration may have been used. Locals whom AAN talked to pointed to the role potentially played by a recently established madrasa in nearby Siah Chashma village, whose tabligh (religious preaching) reportedly comes very close to recruiting for the insurgency.

A first attempt at unravelling possible reasons for the attacks would lead many to think of the strategic interest that the province holds for India. Between 2005 and 2009, the Indian government financed and built a much improved version of the road from Delaram to Zaranj, with the perspective of making it a suitable alternative connection to the sea for goods directed in or out of Afghanistan through the Iranian port of Chahbahar, instead of using the Pakistani port of Karachi. Thus, one could imagine an opposite interest on the part of the latter nation’s intelligence services in helping, or even directing, the insurgents to disrupt security in Nimruz through a high-profile strike.

Locals in Nimruz, though, are usually more concerned about the interference of the other Afghan neighbour: Iran. As the Afghan province with the most significant Baluch population, and as a part of the disputed (nowadays mainly in terms of water resources) historical region of Sistan, Nimruz is said to be particularly affected by Iranian intelligence and covert diplomacy activities. According to locals interviewed by AAN, governor Karim Brahui (himself with a past of political relations with Iran, where he was often exiled during the civil war, and more recent business interests there) would be unwilling or unable to prevent such activities on the part of the neighbouring state’s security institutions, in particular of the Sepah-e Pasdaran (or Revolutionary Guards). Iran’s objectives would be to either exert pressure on the Afghan government – or, at a higher level, send a message to the US in reference to threats of an Israeli/US air raid against its nuclear program, by showing how easy it is to destabilise one more area of Afghanistan which, until now at least, went underreported. (This could prove a significant factor at a stage where diminishing reporting on the conflict could constitute part of the NATO spin towards ‘victory’ – as in Iraq.)

The recent announcement by NDS about the identity of some of the attackers would seem fitting with the latter narrative. Their being Iranian citizens had already been announced by a member of Parliament from Nimruz three days ago, who added they were ethnically Baluch; now, the NDS clearly stated that at least five (the three detained and those killed before the attacks) were Iranians, positively identifying four of them by their names as residents of the Iranian cities of Mashhad, Zabol and Zahedan (read a Pajhwok article here). The NDS added that the detainees had confessed receiving training in Iran, and then in Pakistan.

There is also the possibility that the attackers were members of Iran-based militant groups who maintain a hostile behaviour towards the Iranian government, like Jundullah.(4) A similar development, involving a Pakistani militant group, but one with strained relations with that country’s security forces, seems to have occurred for example in occasion of the deadly suicide bombing which targeted the Ashura in Kabul last year (read our previous blogs here and here). However, evidence of the Iranian identity of the attackers is something conspicuous, and it will sound to many Afghans like the definitive proof that Iranian interference inside their country has reached the same levels – or worse – than Pakistan’s.

If reports about the number of would-be attackers that had been arrested or killed before the incident are indeed correct, the attack was scheduled to be of a huge magnitude, and its consequences would have been catastrophic. Organising such a huge operation – worth Kabul as a stage – in so remote a setting could have been considered an easier way to effect a strike at what is, in the end, a provincial capital and a seat of Afghan government institutions. Zaranj is a ‘cheap’ but suitable target for such random attacks, which in fact occurred sporadically there during the past years.(5) The double-border location of the province does not only facilitate the movements of the attackers, but ensures that popular condemnation of the insurgents’ deeds is muffled by the association of all possible foreign plots and hidden hands. For these very reasons, the attack on 14 August in Zaranj could have been in the interest of any the parties mentioned.

(1) Reports about the order of the explosions are contrasting, and while some media outlets reported that the first explosion was that in front of the hospital – ostensibly targeting police vehicles already present there – others say that the explosion at the hospital took place when the wounded from another explosion were already being carried in. People interviewed by AAN concurred with the latter version, adding that the blast at the hospital almost involved governor Abdul Karim Brahui who had gone to inquire about the wounded.

(2) Three attackers blew themselves up, two more were reportedly shot dead during the attacks before they could activate their explosives. Adding them to the two killed the night before and the three detained at the eleventh hour, it gives ten insurgent operatives involved. The total number of attackers has often been reported as 11, although I have been unable to find references to the last one (apart from a VoA report) which just puts at five altogether the number of attackers killed before they could detonate their explosive devices.

(3) Other insurgent groups, more or less directly connected to the Taleban, but with opportunistic and ambiguous relations with Afghan government officials, have appeared recently. One of such ‘nawsakht (newly established, or neo-) Taleban’ group has formed at Baramchah in Helmand province, on the frontier with Pakistan. According to a resident of Nimruz, they are ‘more concerned with how to smuggle opium beyond the border than with thoughts of Islam in danger or occupation of the Motherland’, and therefore it is excluded that they could have been behind such fanatical attacks.

(4) A mainly Sunni and Baluch group that opposes the suppression of these minorities by the Shiite regime. Although, like other militant groups recruiting among ethnic minorities in Iran (the Kurds in the northwest, the Arabs of Ahwaz in the southwest, the Turkmens of the northeast), it has been supported by US intelligence at times (read for example this New Yorker article by Seymour Hersh) it has also somewhat (but not fully, under Afghan circumstances) paradoxically operated in collusion with the US’ enemy, the Afghan Taleban. Only in 2010, the US declared Jundullah a ‘terrorist organisation’. After spectacular attacks on Iran’s President Ahmedinejad in 2005 and on high-ranking Pasdaran in February 2007 and October 2009, Tehran has cracked down on Jundullah, arresting and executing its leader Abdul Malek Regi in 2010.

(5) In November 2007, a suicide bomber missed then governor Ghulam Dastagir Azad but killed seven other people in Zaranj. In April 2008, a massive bomb outside a Zaranj mosque killed 27 people, among them a district police chief and a border police commander, and injured at least 30 more. In January 2009, another suicide bomber struck a district police commander in a Zaranj bazaar, killing also nine others (NYT, 10 January 2009, not online anymore). In April same year, two suicide attackers tried to kill Brahui (then still a cabinet minister) while visiting his hometown Zaranj but failed.

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Thematic Category: War & Peace