Winter attacks cast dark shadow over uncertain Afghan future

The bloodshed has severely shaken the confidence people had in the new national unity government at a time when tension was already high because of the withdrawal of most foreign troops.

Afghan security forces keep watch at the site of a suicide attack on the outskirts of Kabul on December 18, 2014. Shah Marai/AFP Photo
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KABUL // In the minutes after a suicide bomber struck near a school in Kabul, there were no ambulances on hand to take the dead and injured away. Instead, the bodies were piled into civilian cars and police vehicles and rushed to the nearest hospital.

The target that day was a prominent female member of parliament, Shukria Barakzai. She survived, but in recent weeks several more attacks at different locations around the city have also occurred, in some of the worst violence the capital has seen since the US-led invasion.

The bloodshed is of particular concern because winter is usually relatively quiet in Afghanistan, with a lull in fighting due to the harsh climate in many areas.

It has severely shaken the confidence people had in the new national unity government at a time when tension was already high because of the withdrawal of most foreign troops.

What happens over the rest of the winter will do much to set the tone for the year to come. If the situation continues to deteriorate the government will be left with dwindling support when the war traditionally intensifies in the spring. This would widen internal divisions and give the Taliban momentum at a crucial juncture.

Tamim Ahmadzai, a local shopkeeper, was on the way to his electronics store when last month’s attack on Ms Barakzai sent smoke, fire and dust into the air. He stopped his car and then put it in reverse as the horrific scene unfolded in front of him.

If the bombings are meant to sow doubt and fear among the wider public, then Mr Ahmadzai’s reaction suggests they are hugely effective.

“The reasons for these attacks are not clear to us and we are also trying to [find out],” he said. “But the government should answer this. Up until now we haven’t seen anything positive from the national unity government.”

“It’s not only me, it’s all of us. All of Afghanistan is disappointed.”

The new administration was formed after a controversial presidential election that dragged on from the first round of voting in April until late September, when the two leading candidates agreed to a US-brokered compromise deal. Since then the president, Ashraf Ghani, and the chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, have struggled to live up to expectations. Most tellingly, they have yet to even agree on a cabinet.

Several ministerial nominees are due to be announced this week but other deadlines have come and gone and the length of time it has taken to get this far has left some observers wondering whether the government can last in the long-term.

The recent bloodshed in the capital has only added to the uncertainty. On November 9 — a week before the attack on member of parliament Ms Barakzai — there was a failed attempt to kill Kabul’s chief of police. Other incidents in the last two months have included attacks on a British embassy convoy, a South African NGO and a French-run cultural centre.

On December 11 and 13, buses carrying Afghan soldiers were hit, killing at least a dozen troops. One of them was Abdul Malik Khan, a father-of-five and a major in the army. His relatives had trouble recognising his remains when they went to find the body at a military hospital in the city.

“There is no one left to provide an income for the family,” said his nephew, Faisal. Reluctant to talk about the reasons for the rising violence, he speculated that military operations were putting pressure on the Taliban in rural areas and pushing them into Kabul.

The reality, however, is that the war is escalating across the country — not just in the capital. The United Nations recently announced that civilian casualties are at record levels this year, with 3,188 killed and 6,429 injured as of November 30. Thousands of Afghan soldiers and police have also died.

President Ghani has vowed to address some of the root causes of the unrest, including administrative corruption and injustice. After a visit to Pakistan he also claimed to have improved Afghanistan’s relationship with its neighbour, where it is widely believed the Taliban’s leadership is hiding out.

But at present there are no clear signs of a short-term plan to improve security or a long-term strategy to establish lasting peace. The Taliban always appear to be one step ahead of the government and its allies, continually adapting their tactics to suit the changing situation on the ground. With only around 12,000 foreign troops due to be in Afghanistan next year, most people are expecting the unrest to spread even further.

Hilaluddin Hilal served as deputy interior minister under Mr Ghani’s predecessor, Hamid Karzai. He told The National morale in the security forces was low due to internal discord in the new government and shortages in equipment and intelligence gathering capabilities.

He added that with backing from elements in Pakistan, the Taliban were keen to take advantage of the withdrawal of the United States and its allies. This could be seen in the militants’ increasing willingness to fight face to face and signs that they have started attempting to capture district centres.

“I think conditions will get worse. We don’t have the capacity and the ability to fight the war that is being waged against us,” he said.

Although this winter has been unusually violent the next key period in the war is likely to come next spring and summer. If the government can survive beyond then, its chances of winning over people and establishing some kind of political and economic stability will substantially increase.

Having lived through a devastating civil war after the Soviets withdrew from the country in 1989, Kabul’s residents know the situation could be far bleaker. Even when attacks are on-going, life often continues as normal in surrounding streets. But these are trying times and confidence in the new administration is plummeting.

Gulbad Khan Mohmand, a civil society activist, described the national unity government as illegal and unconstitutional – a view particularly common among opponents of the chief executive’s camp.

“I know these attacks are a danger to us but the main danger is that we have lost our system,” he said, accusing warlords and politicians of carving up power amongst themselves. “This current system is a very big threat to our nation. It could burn us as badly as we were burned in the past.”