May 12, 2020, as the world reels under the pressure of rising cases of the novel coronavirus, there is yet another attack in Afghanistan. This time the target is a maternity clinic run by one of the largest medical charities Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF or Doctors Without Borders). This was just one of the many attacks that are being carried out on almost a daily basis in war torn and coronavirus hit Afghanistan. Why this case in particular becomes important is because it ties togethers many factors that are rupturing peace in Afghanistan.
There are two things that must be noted when the motive of the attack is kept in mind. First, the government run hospital also housed a maternity clinic run by the international aid organization MSF, which is under protection within International Humanitarian Law or the Laws of War which are applicable to the armed conflict in Afghanistan. This law particularly protects patients and medical personnel, as well as hospitals and medical facilities (if not being used for offensive military operations). The violation of this results in the attacker being responsible for war crimes.
While this time the assailants were dressed in the garb of police officials, this incident gives us a flashback to March 2017 when gunmen disguised as doctors carried out a massive attack on one of the largest hospitals in the country.
The second reason one can fluff out from the scenario is the location of the 100 bed facility and there emerges a reason why it may have been specifically targeted. It must be pointed out that Dashti Barchi is a locality that is home to multiple families of the Hazara community, most of them Shia Muslim minority that have specifically been targeted by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/ISIS/Daesh). While no group has claimed responsibility for the attack, the Taliban issued a statement categorically stating they were not involved in the attack.
Within hours of the attack, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani addressed the nation through the medium of a televised speech wherein he made clear the fact that the Afghan security forces would no longer stay in a defensive position they were pushed to in light of the peace talks and would move to an offensive position in order to safeguard the lives of innocent civilians. He also spoke of attacks on the Taliban which have invited the threat of retaliatory attacks from the Taliban who have been since the peace talks focusing on the Afghan governmental forces and strongholds, largely leaving aside urban centres.
It is worth noting that attacks on medical facilities have increased since 2017, and ISIS and the Taliban have regularly targeted places of medical assistance, assaulted and killed medical personnel and patients alike. National security adviser Hamdullah Mohib tweeted, “there seems little point continuing to engage Taliban in peace talks”.
Afghan and American officials have stated that in the past few months, ISIL in Afghanistan has been weakened as a result of combined operations by the forces of both Afghanistan and the U.S. and offences by the Taliban.
Though this seemed to be the case when the Afghan Intelligence service declared in a statement that they had arrested an ISIL leader by the name of Zia-ul Haq, also known as Shaikh Abu Omer al-Khorasani, the opposite was to be seen when ISIL claimed responsibility for the funeral bombing in a statement posted on its media arm, Aamaq.
This stands as a testament to the sheer lack of disregard for human life in a pandemic that is spreading like wildfire, rendering medical facilities all the more precious at this time. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, medical assessment is crucial and this shows the cowardice of said groups who aim to achieve their goals at a time of a global crisis.
It becomes important to analyse the response of three key stakeholders in Afghanistan, the U.S., Pakistan and India. U.S. secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, condemned these attacks, while stressing on the point that the Taliban had denied involvement in the attacks. He also stated that the lack of an intra-Afghan peace talk was the major reason contributing to ongoing terrorist attacks and it was when these talks were resumed that the Taliban and the Afghan government could put up a united front against these “outsiders” who were launching insurgencies against the state.
It is noteworthy though that the Pentagon, not wanting to disrupt the delicate peace talk balance created with the Taliban, declined to comment on President Ashraf Ghani’s statement. It noted, however, that U.S. forces continued to reserve the right to defend the Afghan security forces in case they were attacked by the Taliban.
The statement reeks of desperation by the U.S. to maintain the delicate peace agreement they had concluded with the Taliban, all while trying not to upset the ‘legitimate’ government of Afghanistan nor the Taliban. This also becomes crucial at a time when the U.S. is struggling to pull out from its longest war in history and handover the task of security to regional players. The U.S. had also asked India a couple of days back to play a bigger role in Afghanistan and overall regional security, as India seeks to establish its dominance as a regional power and ultimately a global one.
The Ministry of External Affairs of India also came forth to condemn the attacks and term them “reprehensible” and “barbaric”. But Afghanistan is expecting more than just empty words from a country that boasts being the largest regional donor and one of the world’s top donors in terms of developmental aid.
For a long time now, there have been calls that even though India continues to invest millions of dollars in Afghanistan, displaying its soft power capabilities and a will to establish stronger ties with the country, it is backing away from engaging militarily in the country. Without the engagement of hard power, the Indian state quashes its dream of being considered the regional ringmaster.
India furthers its trade interests as well, in terms of the building of the Chabahar port in Iran, thus, trying to manoeuvre a line of trade that bypasses Pakistan and establish strong trade ties with Central Asian countries. This serves the purpose of killing two birds with one stone. Many complications arise though. With the repeated attacks on minority Muslims rising, the religion specific CAA and the humongous tide of right wing Hindutva fundamentalism, the Muslim majority countries that India so evidently pursues may turn against it instead.
When it comes to Pakistan, it seems sort of hypocritical that they release statements condemning such violence. But then why wouldn’t they, especially as they assert their regional importance in maintaining the security balance in Afghanistan and denying that the ISI engages in supporting any of the malicious attacks that are carried on despite there being overwhelming evidence of the opposite. This incident also becomes especially noteworthy when we keep in mind the fact that the Afghan security forces have hinted that the Haqqani network could have a role to play in this operation.
Tamim Asey, the former deputy minister of defence of Afghanistan also noted that only the Haqqani network have such operational capacities to be able to launch such an attack in Kabul. He also stated how the ISKP (ISIL-Khorasan Province) has had long-standing ties with the Haqqani network, and the ISKP claimed responsibility for the attack at the funeral that was carried out later that day. It could be a possibility that the attacks were a retaliatory move to the capture of an ISIL leader earlier.
Among a string of attacks being carried out as Afghanistan struggles to battle the coronavirus sweep with its limited medical facilities, this particular case hints at the many factors that are intertwining and playing a role in the insurgency in the war torn or may I say, war-ripped country. The fact that the attack could be carried out either due to the locality being inhabited by people who are Hazaras or to target an international aid organisation to warn outsiders to leave the country alone are both reprehensible, yet, very possible reasons.
Crimes against the Hazara community and their decimation has been a long standing practice in Afghanistan, with the majority Pashto Taliban launching offences and specified attacks against them and the dominant “Sunni” ISIL members targeting the Hazaras as many of them belong to the Shia community. This shows the growing prevalence of religious fundamentalism and the hunger of such groups to establish something of a Nazi Germany, people who are “pure bred”, while exterminating all the “unwanted” communities who look to be contaminating the society.
The fact that a hospital associated with an international aid organisation was attacked also can be considered intimidation, as insurgents in Afghanistan have long been vocal about the need to drive out any international presence and feel Afghanistan is capable of handling its citizenry. While the Taliban in recent times have extended a hand in developing relations with countries such as India, for its regional partners, international interference in the country is a strict no.
While the Afghan government scrambles to get aid in to re-construct the country, players like India believe that when the American forces withdraw completely from the state, that might increase the chances of an attack on Indian embassies and development projects, both from the Taliban and Pakistan.
With India being one of the top countries in terms of military power and personnel, it is time that India takes a firm stand in the region in order to protect its interests and safeguard its friends, who it very openly embraces and pours development aid into. On the domestic front, India must look at the mounting attacks at Muslims and the curbs placed in Kashmir or it risks losing valuable allies and the support of a huge chunk of its own population.