Maternity ward massacre and funeral suicide bombing in Afghanistan jeopardize US-Taliban peace talks
While the rest of the world has been battling the coronavirus pandemic, Afghanistan has been reeling under a different disaster. Three monstrous attacks orchestrated by terrorists were a harsh reminder to the rest of the world that the decades-long war in Afghanistan is going to continue for years to come. It may have likely jeopardized and set back the US-brokered peace deal between Afghanistan and the Taliban.
Terror attacks in Kabul and Nangarhar
On May 12, a pair of gunmen disguised as police stormed a small bustling hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in southwestern Kabul, the Afghan capital. They burst into the maternity ward of the hospital and opened fire on mothers and newborns, killing at least, two dozen including 16 women and two newborns. Approximately, six babies lost their mothers in the jihadi attack, which has shaken the whole war-ravaged nation that has been a subject of militant violence for over forty years now. In the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar, another attack transpired at the funeral of a local police officer. A suicide bomber detonated himself killing more than two dozen people and leaving numerous others wounded.
While the Islamic State's Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) claimed responsibility for the latter bombing, no party has accepted fault for the maternity ward shooting in Kabul, although the speculation is that the ISIS-K were behind this attack as well.
Taliban denies involvement
The Taliban were quick to deny any involvement and even condemned the two May 12 attacks. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad grasped the group's denial and portrayed the Taliban as a potential counter-terrorism partner.
“We note the Taliban have denied any responsibility and condemned both attacks as heinous,” said Pompeo in a statement on May 12, and added that the lack of a peace deal left the country vulnerable to such acts of malice and violence. Khalilzad sent out a tweet urging the Taliban forces to work together with the Afghan government and bring the culprits to justice, adding that they should cooperate “against a common enemy that perpetrates” such heinous acts.
The government's response
President Ashraf Ghani issued a military order on May 12 to switch to "offensive mode" rather than defensive mode against the Taliban following the news of the two gruesome attacks.
Islamic State's involvement
On May 14, the US blamed the Islamic State militants for the hospital terror attack, renewing calls for Afghans to accept the peace push with the Taliban. In the statement of Twitter, Khalilzad said the Islamic State was against any Taliban peace agreement and sought to trigger a sectarian war reminiscent of Iraq, in Afghanistan. The Taliban and Islamic State, both extremists are archrivals. According to the Afghan and American officials, the Islamic State forces in Afghanistan have been weakened in recent times because of the US bombing raids in the group's bastion, as well as military operations by the Afghan government's security forces and attacks by Taliban insurgents.
And while the Islamic State did claim responsibility for the second bombing in Nangarhar, it is unclear who the perpetrators of the Kabul hospital bombing were. The jihadists were killed by the special forces on the scene, but their identity who sent them remains a mystery. However, the hospital is located in the Dasht-e-Barschi area of Kabul, which is dominated by the Shiite minority, who the ISIS declared war on several years ago. The ISIS has thus far carried out several blood terror attacks in Dasht-e-Barschi, including the 2018 mass killing of students who were taking university entrance exams.
Pompeo and Khalilzad are the main architects behind drafting a US-Taliban withdrawal agreement which was finalized in Doha, Qatar, in February earlier this year. Khalilzad moderated the peace agreement to allow US and NATO troops to leave Afghanistan as it was deemed the best way to try and restore peace after decades of war. But since then, the government has plunged into political turmoil. Ghani and his fellow presidential contender, Abdullah Abdullah, both declared themselves winners of the 2019 presidential polls, and the two also declared themselves as the president of the country.
On the other hand, Khalilzad has been trying to persuade the Taliban to minimize violence. They have continued to attack government security forces but desisted attacking US or NATO troops, who often answer to calls of aid from beset Afghans, after signing the deal. The US has also been pushing the Afghan government and Taliban to start negotiations over the peace agreement, which has been impeded by squabble from either party over a promised release of each other's prisoners.
Last week Khalilzad met with the Taliban at their political office in Qatar and also traveled further to Pakistan and India to seek support on the peace deal so negotiations can be underway. Despite the pandemic closure and travel bans, Pompeo paid a surprise visit to the Afghan capital, Kabul, in an attempt to break the political impasse between Ghani and Abdullah, but ultimately failed. Khalilzad hasn't been there since, either. Pompeo cut a $1 billion aid to the Afghan administration, fuelled by the frustration of the political faction.
The United Nations and the US have said the coronavirus pandemic further powers the urgent need to start the peace talks and eliminate the infighting.
Does the Taliban want peace?
From their insurgency, it doesn't seem like the Taliban want to advocate peace in Afghanistan. However, this hasn't stopped Pompeo or Khalilzad from believing in a utopia, that is completely paradoxical from reality. They have also conveniently ignored the fact that it is the Taliban and not the Islamic State that drives most acts of violence across the country. The attacks in Kabul and Nangarhar may be abhorrent, but the Taliban cannot be let off the hook either. The Taliban terrorizes innocent civilians more than any other extremist party in the country.
Although Pompeo and Khalilzad may have argued time and again that the Taliban can be the US' actual counter-terrorism partner, there is nothing supporting its legibility. There is also no proof pointing to the Taliban' has disengaged from the al-Qaeda, despite the counterterrorism guarantees etched in the February withdrawal agreement
The Taliban attack in Paktia
On May 14, an armed Taliban group struck a truck packed with explosives near a military court in another eastern Afghan province, Paktia. The vehicle blew up, killing at least five people.