The last week saw three high profile attacks on western targets in Afghanistan. Such attacks will cumulatively impact the willingness of humanitarian organizations to conduct operations in the already fragile country, therefore impacting the well-being of the millions that rely on their aid.
On January 24th at least three people were killed in a bomb blast claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Jalalabad, which breached the regional headquarters of Save the Children in the country. The blast was followed by an eight-hour fight between insurgents and Afghan security forces, finally resulting in 47 people being freed from the building. Immediately following the incident, Save the Children announced that they would be suspending their operations in Afghanistan until such a time that it is safe to continue.
No other organizations have made statements to suggest they intend to withdraw from the country due to the apparent potential for attacks on humanitarian targets. However, the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) issued a press release indicating that they believed that the likelihood of their personnel in the country being afforded the protections of international humanitarian law was extremely uncertain:
“The ICRC … will continue focusing on our dialogue with arm carriers – both the Afghan National Security Forces and the armed opposition – to discuss the principles of International Humanitarian Law and the respect for civilians and medical missions.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross has a reputation for having the greatest tolerance for the dangers involved in the volatile Afghan security environment, however, the organization downsized their operations in the country after the deaths of their humanitarian workers last year. It is possible that such a move will once again be considered.
Earlier in the week, on January 20th, gunmen allegedly belonging to the Taliban stormed the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul. Al Jazeera reported that a 16-hour siege followed, leaving 18 dead and killing all five of the gunmen reported to be involved. On January 27th, a mere three days after the Jalalabad attack, a suicide bomb placed in a fake ambulance exploded at an outer checkpoint of Kabul’s diplomatic enclave, killing 103 people.
Both attacks exacerbate worries about the rapidly changing Afghan security environment, which have been directly highlighted by the Save the Children attack. Moreover, the Intercontinental Hotel is one of the most secure in the Afghan capital, protected by heavy security and often the accommodation of choice for visiting politicians, journalists, and humanitarian workers. Moreover, the ambulance bombing occurred extremely close to the inner perimeter of the diplomatic enclave, where bombers passed multiple checkpoints by posing as fake emergency services personnel. Such attacks are regularly seen as demonstrative of the fickle security climate in the nation, and the inability of the authorities to secure vital interests.
The timing of last week’s attacks, which have occurred close to the coldest part of the Afghan winter, have sparked speculation about the rationale behind them. Generally, attacks in Afghanistan begin to flare up at the beginning of spring, as part of the Taliban’s self-termed “spring offensive.” So why have we seen a sudden rise in attacks in the last week?
Journalists and analysts have attempted to link the rise in attacks to changes in the Trump Administration’s policy on Afghanistan. Reports emerged as early as October last year, for example, that published in VOA News on November 10th, noting that attacks throughout that period were much higher than those recorded during the past few years. Ahmad Shah Katawazai, Defense Liaison at the Afghanistan Embassy in Washington, stated that he saw the increased attacks by the Taliban to be “…a reaction to the Trump administration strategy regarding South Asia. [The]Taliban have increased their attacks in order to show their presence and strength in the country[.]”
However, the view that the attacks are aimed at making a direct statement to both the American public and policymakers, or aimed at ensuring the apparent downfall of Trump’s Afghan policy, are unverified. Abubakar Siddique, a journalist based in Prague, argued that the attacks were simply escalation. The United States has deployed additional troops to Afghanistan and conducted increased drone strikes, most notably 751 in September of last year alone – the highest amount in a month since 2012. As the United States has increased its operations in Afghanistan, Siddique argues that the Taliban have responded accordingly, accounting for increased activity in the last months, and the events of the last week.
In relation to the January 27th bombing, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid stated that “[t]he Islamic Emirate has a clear message for Trump and his hand kissers that if you go ahead with a policy of aggression and speak from the barrel of a gun, don’t expect Afghans to grow flowers in response[.]” This is indicative of the Taliban’s reiterated demands and violent activities aimed at the complete removal of all foreign forces from the country, but may extend further than this. Michael Semple, a professor at Queen’s University Belfast, suggests that it applies to all foreigners in the nation: “[t]he Taliban seem to be acting as if all foreigners – the foreign presence – is for them somehow important.”
Some commentators have also suggested that the cultural expertise of foreign forces in Afghanistan, or rather the deficit of it, has exacerbated the country’s volatility. Afghan-born Oxford anthropologist, Morwari Zafar, spent a year studying the United States’ reliance on potentially inaccurate sources of information since the initial deployment of forces to Afghanistan in 2001. He discovered that the training given to soldiers before deployment was informed by knowledge gained from those within the American-Afghan diaspora. Many of them had never been to Afghanistan, meaning the cultural knowledge which they passed on to the US government reflected the experiences of their parents and grandparents, rather than the current situation on the ground. Given the focus on honour in Pashtunwali, the tribal code of approximately 40 percent of the population, unnecessary violations of local norms may have been made by foreign forces, resulting in retaliatory action to restore honour and increased resentment towards foreign presence.
Reducing the frequency of attacks and casualties resulting from conflict in Afghanistan is no easy task. This was evidenced by the fact that stability has consistently thwarted domestic governments, the British Imperial Forces, and the Soviets – in the 150 years prior to the current coalition operations. A better understanding of the cultural and tribal norms of Afghanistan, however, will ensure increased capacity for bipartisanship, lower-impact military operations, and perhaps help to facilitate the future of humanitarian work in the country, which now appears more fragile than ever.