War & Peace

The Park Palace Attack: More losses for Afghanistan (updated with a list of the dead)


Paula Kantor, one of the civilians killed during the attack on the Park Palace hotel. Her name was the first to become known, and she was a friend of AAN's - a dedicated researcher and always focused on helping the poorest and most vulnerable. Photo: International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center

The Taleban attack on a Kabul guesthouse which killed 15 people (not 14, as earlier reports said) on 13 May 2015 was aimed, the Taleban claimed, at “invaders”, specifically an “important meeting” of “important people from many invading countries, especially Americans.” In this update of our earlier dispatch, AAN’s Kate Clark identifies all the dead: all were civilian and eight were aid workers, five, Afghans from the regions who had been visiting Kabul for training. Even by the Taleban’s own crude metrics of nationality apparently denoting ‘targetability’, she says just two of the dead came from NATO member states. Moreover, once again, she says, the Taleban have breached the distinction between military and civilian, seemingly branding all foreigners as ‘invaders’. Along with biographical details of all those killed, she pays tribute to one of them in particular, a friend of AAN’s, the former director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), Paula Kantor, who was a serious-minded, generous researcher and mentor who carried out important work on reducing poverty in Afghanistan.

 (Originally published 14 May; updated 18 May 2015.)

15 people, all civilians, were killed when the Taleban attacked the Park Palace Hotel in central Kabul on the night of 13 May 2015. It is a mid-range hotel, where many foreigners, largely Indians and Pakistanis, but also Westerners stay or live. Most tend to be aid workers, researchers and journalists; those with more money or who feel particularly under threat usually stay at the far more expensive Serena. On Wednesday night, the Park Palace was hosting Afghan classical musician Ustad Eltaf Hussein (1) and the concert had drawn many Afghan and foreign music lovers. The police believe the attack was pre-planned since the gunman/men (the number is disputed; the Taleban say one, Afghan security forces say three) did not need to force their entrance with explosives or by killing guards, but appear to have been inside the hotel beforehand.

By nationality, those killed were: Afghan (six, including a joint British-Afghan national), Indian (four), Pakistani (two) American (one), Italian (one) and Kazakh (one).

The number of foreigners killed and wounded made this an unusual attack, as the vast majority of those killed in the conflict continue to be Afghans (both civilian and military). Last year, on average across the country, 29 civilians were killed or injured as a result of the war every day (UNAMA figures; see also AAN analysis). However, that average is likely to increase this year, given that the violence has already intensified. UNAMA reported the number of civilian casualties during the first four months of 2015 as 16 per cent higher than in the same period in 2014. There was virtually no ‘winter lull’ this year, except in the Afghan capital which had been enjoying an unusually quiet few months after a particularly violent autumn and early winter. A number of explanations have been supplied for this – that it was partially linked to President Ashraf Ghani’s decision to ‘take the gloves off’ with regard to night raids by NDS and Afghan Special Forces (Karzai had largely banned these), and partially to the president’s demands that Pakistan put greater pressure on the Taleban to, among other things, cease all suicide and complex attacks in the capital.

Then came two suicide attacks on shuttle buses ferrying workers to and from the Attorney General’s Office, first on 4 May and then on 10 May 2015, which, together, killed seven civilians and injured dozens more. And now the attack on a cultural event at a hotel. (2) The lull is certainly over. The end of the calm raises questions about Pakistan’s intent and influence over those sending attackers and suicide bombers into the Afghan capital. It condemned the attack, which came a day after a visit of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif; he had assured Afghanistan of Islamabad’s full support in its battle against the Taleban, saying, “the enemies of Afghanistan cannot be the friends of Pakistan.”

The attack also raises questions about Taleban intentions this year.

The Taleban’s ‘spring offensive’ statement, issued on 11 April 2015, reads as if, after years of being lambasted for attacking civilians, the movement was finally trying harder to protect them.

… top priority will be given to safeguard and protect the lives and properties of the civilian people; and those Mujahidin who are negligent and careless in preserving the lives and properties of the civilian people and their operations result in the civilian losses or casualties, will be panelized according to Jihadi and Sharia rules and regulations. Similarly, consisting with its policies, the Islamic Emirate has never and will never target religious and other educational institutions like mosques, madrassas, schools, universities, health centers like clinics and hospitals, public buildings and other projects of public welfare. [English as original]

However, both the Taleban attacks on prosecutors and judges, and the assault on the Park Palace Hotel, represented major breaches of international law which prohibits attacks on civilians. Despite their talk, the Taleban continue to fail to abide by the Geneva Conventions, which demand the protection of non-combatants. Instead, the Taleban divide people into those they deem to be with the government, whether military or civilian, and those who are not. It is only the latter which they call ‘civilians.’ In their eyes that makes, for example, prosecutors ‘fair game.’ (UNAMA, quoted earlier, noted on 10 May, that there had, by that point in 2015, been 11 separate attacks against legal professionals and court houses, causing in total 114 civilian casualties (28 killed and 86 injured) this year so far – “an increase of more than 600 per cent from the same period last year.”)

Taleban justifications of the Park Palace attack

The Taleban’s repeated use of the word ‘invaders’ as an apparent synonym for ‘foreigner’ in their claim of responsibility for the Park Palace attack (read a translation at the end of this dispatch) also reads like a deliberate attempt to blur the distinction between military and civilian.

… the mujahed managed to… attack a meeting attended by over 100 invaders.

… an important meeting attended by important people from many invading countries, especially Americans…

The enemies…were holding night-time parties consisting promiscuity and indulgence as well as other important meetings.

Among the dead, there are a number of important/senior people from the invading countries…

The invading countries should understand that they will not stay safe from our attacks at any place and under any cover as long as they fail to withdraw their troops from our country and recognize our sovereignty. … (3) 

Following this statement, some people pressed the Taleban on whether they now considered foreign humanitarian workers as legitimate targets. Here was one exchange with Abdul Qahar Balkhi who tweets for the Taleban (all English as per the original)  in which it looked like they were backing off from their initial hard-line messaging:

Abdulqahar Balkhi: Every foreigner from invading country especially @NATO is considered an invader, we don’t classify any as civilian

@SwoopOuttaOrbit: So even if i was on a humanitarian mission For instance as a doctor in a hospital then i would be your enemy?

@Abdulqahar Balkhi: Any Muslim/non-Muslim not part of @NATO alliance working for humanitarian cause is not considered invader

@Abdulqahar Balkhi: there are proper procedures in place for humanitarian orgs to contribute positively in Afghanistan

Balkhi made another response, to Amnesty International which had condemned what it called an “atrocious attack,” the Taleban’s “contempt for human life” and a “surge” in their targeting of civilians:

@Abdulqahar Balkhi: Reaction: #amnestyinternational accusations about civ/cas baseless, foreign nationals working for invaders not civ.

@Abdulqahar Balkhi: US & their hirelings deliberately target Ulama, madaris, homes & civilians daily; these same organizations have elected absolute silence

In other words, there was both a denial that the dead were civilians and a counter-accusation, that the US and Afghan government forces regularly kill Afghan civilians.

The main claim came 12 hours after the attack started – a long delay by Taleban standard. Apart from the Twitter comments, there has been only one other statement, an article published on the Taleban’s al-Emara (‘the Emirate’) Pashto website. Reporting only the confirmation of the Indian and American casualties, it still insisted the attack had been against “invaders,” but now emphasized the ‘moral decay’ of the concert, saying it had been organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and had involved ‘scandal’ and ‘obscenity.’

Conflating civilian and military

Whatever justifications the Taleban try to make, from the list of those killed below, it is clear just how far away they were from being the “important invaders” claimed by the movement. Of the 15 dead – 11 men and three women – eight were aid workers, (4) five of them Afghan nationals who had travelled in from the regions for training. Three others worked in finance, three others as consultants in energy, infrastructure  or in an unspecified sector. The last was a visiting spouse.

The place which was targeted was also at odds with the Taleban’s portrayal of it. A mid-range hotel, its guests were mostly Indians and Pakistanis, along with Westerners and Afghans from the provinces; these were professional people with access to limited budgets and little reason, they thought, to fear a Taleban attack. If they had had more money or felt themselves to be more obvious targets, they would have been staying elsewhere.

Did the Taleban just make a mistake in their estimation of the worthiness of Park Palace as an important target? (UNODC used to be based there; when they did, there were indeed more stringent security measures. However, it has also not previously been linked to the ‘invasion’.)

Or was the Park Palace just a place which the Taleban could attack easily and hope to net victims who could be held up afterwards as “the targets”?

Or was this actually intended as an attack on foreigners linked to NATO countries? We wrote earlier that in the killing of someone like Paula Kantor the inherent racism of viewing all foreigners or Westerners as ‘invaders’ became clear, in that her suitability as a target in Taleban eyes apparently had nothing to do with who she was or what she did, but only that she was a westerner. However, even here the gunman/men apparently failed to distinguish among potential victims according to the crude metrics of a foreigner/Westerner being an enemy, given that Afghans and those from the region were not spared (Pakistani, Indian and Kazakh). One of the victims, for example, according to two eye-witnesses who spoke to AAN, was an older ‘local-looking’ man with a long grey and white beard wearing shalwar kamiz. Did the gunman/men expect more Westerners and then just kill whomever they found?

As AAN wrote after the attack on the Lebanese restaurant in Kabul in January 2014, we have seen the Taleban crossing the red line of targeting foreign civilians before. And we have seen them trying to justify this before (see, for instance, their response to AAN’s piece on the Taverna attack). We have also seen them pulling back. This time the Taleban’s language is again worrying and many will be watching to see whether their targeting ‘guidelines’ have indeed changed. The fear is that the paucity of foreign military targets (the vast majority of the international military are in non-combat roles advising at senior levels; they are not in the field, except for some United States special forces) may make the softer foreign civilian targets more attractive. Many people, anyway, will already be sceptical of the Taleban’s assertions on Twitter that humanitarians are not targets, given the sheer number of aid workers among those killed.

If there was a shift in the Taleban’s targeting, this would put a large part of the international humanitarian and aid effort under threat, with potentially grave consequences to vulnerable Afghans (50 per cent of whom live beneath the poverty line). The irony would be that those affected would include NGOs who, out of principle, have always distanced themselves from the western military and who have often been in the country for decades, including during the Taleban regime.

15 dead, all civilians, all individuals, among them Paula Kantor

Before giving a longer obituary of Paula Kantor the former director of the other leading Kabul-based research organisation, AREU, who was a colleague and friend of AAN’s, we present what is known of the other victims. Many of the Afghan families did not want the identities of their kin released, possibly for privacy reasons, familiar to grieving families everywhere, possibly also because of the fear of repercussion. We have respected this.

The Afghans

Two Afghans working for the NGO Action Aid, 27-year old Muhammad Muhammadi and 36-year old Dr Jawed Ahmad Sahai, were killed. They were both working in Balkh and had come to Kabul for training on watershed management and water harvesting. A colleague, Andrew Wieteacha, told Vice News he was close to both and described how he would periodically travel to the provinces with Sahai:

It would be Sahai’s stories about his family, including anecdotes of his 4-year-old daughter, that Wieteacha would miss most, he said. “He was more than a hard worker, more than a dedicated humanitarian,…he was also a father and a husband. His family was paramount to him.”

Wieteacha said Muhammadi had always been listening to other people, “It was his patience and kindness that made [him] so easy to work with.” Other colleagues, describing how he had risen within the ranks at Action Aid, told Vice News of his “innate ability to win the respect of everyone from senior colleagues, high-powered political officials and even local elders.” 

The families of three other Afghans working for another NGO, the Aga Khan Foundation, who were killed in the attack did not want their identities revealed. A colleague said the two men and one woman, who were “of a variety of ages, young and old” were normally based in Takhar working on the Foundation’s human and institutional development programme. Like the Afghan Aid staff, they had been in Kabul for training.

A British Afghan who had been working for the British Council was also killed at Park Palace. His family also did not want his details released.

The Indians

Dr Martha Farrell (1959-2015) was a director of the NGO, Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), which she and her husband had founded in 1982 to promote citizens’ participation in democratic government. In a professional career lasting more than 30 years, she had worked in India and abroad in the fields of education, research and policy advocacy, especially on gender and women’s rights. She had been in Kabul to train staff from the Aga Khan Foundation and was killed along with three of her trainees. There were strong tributes for Martha from former colleagues:

Dr Martha Farrell was a dear friend, popular colleague and a great support to others. She has always championed the causes of poor and marginalized. She lived and sacrificed her life for gender equality and women empowerment.

(from the PRIA website)

Martha was a strong woman, always very focussed and determined. She was a great trainer, she was instrumental in mainstreaming gender in PRIA, and she always raised gender issues in all discourses. Martha was passionate about her work.

(a message posted at Sahayi – Centre for Collective Learning and Action; see here)

Dr Farrell is survived by her husband and two children.

Two other Indians were auditors at the same firm. Rajesh Kumar Bhatti, who was 64 and from Chandigarh, had retired as a Senior Deputy Accountant General of Punjab in 2011 and, his son said, had been planning to finish his assignment in Kabul and return home next month: “I spoke to him yesterday, and he seemed excited about his coming trip to the US. He had booked the flight tickets and was going to stay with my younger brother there.” (5) His colleague, George Mathew from Ernakulam in Kochi, had called his family during the attack saying he was fine and hiding. Later, when they called back, there was no response.

The fourth Indian to be killed, 55 year old Dr Satish Chandra, had been in Kabul to negotiate a new assignment, after having been away for six months. With a PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Delhi, he had spent many years working with Indian NGOs, including more than a decade working with the Madhya Bharat or Central Indian chapter of the Society for Social Services which he had helped set up. Since November 2010, he had been doing long stints in Afghanistan, working as a technical advisor on agriculture, rural development and monitoring and evaluation for UNDP and for the ministries of finance and labour and social affairs. After the murder, Dr Chandra’s body was returned to his home in Bhillai, in Chhattisgarh state.

The Pakistanis

Pakistan lost two nationals in the attack: Ismail Awan, an adviser with an Afghan power supply company who was from Sargodha in Punjab, and Abdul Sattar, a finance manager in an Afghan construction company who was from Charsadda district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The Italian and Kazakh

Aigerim Abdulayeva, 27 years old and from Kazakhstan (parents from Taraz but they had migrated to the capital), was killed along with her husband, Alessandro Abati, who was 48 and from Lombardy in Italy. They had met in Kazakhstan and married there before moving to Milan where Abdulayeva was studying for a degree in fashion design. It seems, from the Italian press, that they had been planning a second marriage ceremony in Italy in July. It reported that Abati had been a consultant for infrastructure projects and had worked extensively in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia. According to the Italian Foreign Minister, Paolo Gentiloni, he had been working most recently “as a consultant to an agency that promotes investment in Afghanistan.” His parents, said the press, were “shut up in pain; [they] preferred not to comment.”

The American

Dr Paula Kantor, was a dedicated and meticulous researcher who spent five years working in Afghanistan, first as senior researcher and then director of AREU (2005-2010). She had been in Kabul for a few days, the first time in five years, very excited to be starting a new project looking at women and wheat-growing in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Ethiopia for the Islamabad-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, the world’s leading centre for research, development and training for these two essential staple crops. Four months ago, she had been appointed as its senior scientist working on gender and development. Typically, for Paula’s work, the new project was aimed at helping the poorest and most vulnerable.

Previously, Paula had worked at the WorldFish Centre, the International Centre for Research on Women and at the Universities of East Anglia and Wisconsin-Madison. With a BA in Economics from the University of Pennsylvania, an MA in Gender and Development from the University of Sussex and a PhD in city and regional planning from the University of North Carolina, she brought a formidable skill-set to her work in Afghanistan.

More importantly, however, she brought a commitment to positive social change through policy research. Behind her often self-deprecating front were firm and steadfast views on the importance and relevance of research and the need to uphold high standards. She was pro-active and energetic in seeking out new ideas and opportunities for research that would make a difference in improving people’s lives, especially in the areas of child labour, women, livelihoods, and migration. “She was focused on her work,” one former colleague said, “yet with staff, she was always generous with her time.” Her output at AREU was prolific (6), but she was also crucial for training up a new generation of Afghan researchers and was always a strong advocate for defining a meaningful career path for them.

She remained hopeful for Afghanistan as she made clear on the eve of the London conference in 2010 when Afghan and international leaders met to discuss ‘progress’ in Afghanistan:

“If the international community listens as much as it speaks, and if it responds genuinely to Afghan needs and priorities, then the shoots of hope, already present, can grow.” 

Billions of dollars have been spent on aid in Afghanistan and yet there is still an overwhelming need for the kind of research which Paula carried out and mentored others in doing: thoughtful, passionate, practical and committed, seeking to understand the intricacies of the Afghan social and economic systems that keep people thriving, oppressed or just alive.

 

(1) Ustad Eltaf Hussain is the son of Ustad Muhammad Hussain Sarahang. He was born in Kabul in 1955 and learned classical music from both his grandfather, Ustad Ghulam Hussain Khan, and father. He was also trained by Ustad Amanat Ali Khan and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan of Pakistan.

(2) Most recently, the Taleban’s 17 May suicide attack against a EUPOL convoy (a civilian target, although one which the Taleban consider military) next to the Kabul airport was bound to hurt civilians; indeed, two teenage girls were killed, along with a British security guard working with EUPOL.

(3) A hint that the Taleban might be about to widen their targeting had already come in their spring offensive statement: “the occupation has not ceased in political, cultural, educational, propaganda and other aspects.”

(4) Quoting Acbar, we earlier reported seven aid workers killed. However, the British Afghan had also been working on a development project.

(5) The Indian press reported that two of the Indians had been working with the UN, but UNAMA has confirmed to AAN that none of the dead had been “working with nor was contracted to any UN entity.”

(6) A list of Paula Kantor’s publications at AREU (some co-authored) are:

Create More Quality Jobs with Regular Pay to Improve Livelihoods and Political Stability, May 2007, with Stefan Schütte

Target Assistance to Families with the Least Access to Diverse, Better-Paying Jobs, May 2007, with Stefan Schütte 

Microcredit, Informal Credit and Rural Livelihoods: A Village Case Study in Kabul Province, November 2007, with Erna Anderson 

Microcredit, Informal Credit and Rural Livelihoods: A Village Case Study in Bamiyan, April 2008, with Erna Anderson

Factors Influencing Decisions to Use Child Labour: A Case Study of Poor Households in Kabul, April 2008, with Anastasiya Hozyaninva

Focusing ANDS Implementation on Pro-Poor Outcomes: Workshop Proceedings, 23 February 2009, with Sayed Mohammad Shah

Delivering on Poverty Reduction: Focusing ANDS Implementation on Pro-Poor Outcomes, February 2009, with Adam Pain

From Access to Impact: Microcredit and Rural Livelihoods in Afghanistan, June 2009

Child Labour in Afghanistan: ACBAR Presentation Notes, November 2009

Building a Viable Microfinance Sector in Afghanistan, January 2010, with Erna Anderson

Speaking from the Evidence: Governance, Justice and Development—Policy Notes for the 2010 Kabul Conference, May 2010, with Anna Larson, Deborah J Smith, Emily Winterbotham, Jay Lamey and Rebecca Roberts

Improving Efforts to Achieve Equitable Growth and Reduce Poverty, April 2010

Afghanistan Livelihood Trajectories: Evidence from Faryab, September 2010, with Zarah Batul Nezami

Poverty in Afghan Policy: Enhancing Solutions through Better Defining the Problem, November 2010, with Adam Pain

Securing Life and Livelihoods in Rural Afghanistan: The Role of Social Relationships, December 2010, with Adam Pain

Understanding and Addressing Context in Afghanistan: How Villages Differ and Why, December 2010, with Adam Pain

Running out of Options: Tracing Rural Afghan Livelihoods, January 2011, with Adam Pain

Beyond the Market: Can the AREDP transform Afghanistan’s rural nonfarm economy? February 2011, with Adam Pain

ANNEX: The Taleban’s statement on the Park Palace attack (AAN translation from the Pashto text)

Fedai Attack on Meeting Related to Occupiers Killed and Wounded Dozens of Occupiers Last Night in Kabul

Last night at 9 pm during the Azm operation, a self-sacrificing [fedai] mujahid, Muhammad Idris hailing from Logar province, using a special tactic, carried out [a series of] attacks on Park Palace guesthouse in Taimani area of Kabul city. The mujahid, who had a pistol, a Kalashnikov, a huge amount of explosives, a [suicide] vest and hand grenades, managed to breach the perimeters of the guesthouse and attack a meeting attended by over 100 invaders.

The attack which lasted until late last night was designed carefully; an important meeting attended by important people from many invading countries, especially Americans, was in progress as the attack happened.

Such attacks had previously happened in Wazir Akbar Khan and Shahr-e Naw which resulted in severe casualties for the enemy. The enemies have now [after the two previous areas turned insecure] moved to this area [Taimai] where they were holding night-time parties consisting of promiscuity and indulgence as well as other important meetings.

The mujahedin had followed the enemies carefully and knew about the timing of the meeting precisely. The fedai mujahid managed to cross all the security blockades safely and arrived in the hall [where the meeting was taking place]. According to information, more than 100 people were present in the meeting, half of whom were either killed or wounded in the attack.

Among the dead are a number of senior people from the invading countries; the media and the enemies will perhaps keep silent over that.

Rumours suggesting that the attack was carried out by three people are inaccurate; only one person carried out the attack.

The invading countries should understand that they will not stay safe from our attacks at any place and under any cover as long as they fail to withdraw their troops from our country and recognize our sovereignty. 

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