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Taliban Strikes Over Afghan President’s ‘Declaration of War’

Head of state orders offensive after attacks on maternity hospital, funeral

[Islamabad] A suicide truck bombing rocked Gardez, the capital of Afghanistan’s southeastern Paktika Province, on Thursday morning.

The explosives-laden vehicle was detonated in the front of a building of the Afghan National Army. Emal Khan Mohmand, a military spokesperson for Paktika Province, confirmed that five people were killed and 14 were wounded.

The Afghan Taliban’s chief spokesperson, Zabiullah Mujahid, immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing. In a press release, he said that “the attack came in response to [President] Ashraf Ghani’s order [on Tuesday evening] of an offensive” against the Taliban.

The “Taliban suicide bomber targeted an army base, which was a ‘mercenaries club’ where military operations were being planned and conducted in the province,” Mujahid added.

He rejected the official statement about civilian casualties. “There was no civilian settlement around the army buildings,” he said.

Mujahid warned that none of the army’s command centers would be safe from Taliban attacks.

On Tuesday, at least 56 people were killed in two separate terrorist attacks in Afghanistan.

Three gunmen attacked a maternity hospital in Kabul, killing 24 people including new mothers and newborn babies, and a suicide blast claimed by ISIS killed 32 at a funeral in eastern Nangarhar Province the same day.

Afghan officials held the Taliban responsible for Tuesday’s attacks; the Islamist group denied any involvement.

President Ashraf Ghani ordered Afghan security forces to go on the offensive against the Taliban.

In a televised national address on Tuesday night, he said that “in order to provide security for public places and to thwart attacks, I am ordering Afghan security forces to switch from an ‘active defense mode’ to an ‘offensive one’ and to begin operations against our enemies.”

Mujahid, the Taliban’s chief spokesperson, responded by issuing a press release saying that “Our fighters are fully prepared to counter every offensive movement by the Kabul government.

“From today onward, the Kabul administration will be held responsible for any further escalation of violation and its ramifications,” he said.

Suhail Shaheen, a Doha-based Taliban political spokesperson, told The Media Line in an interview that “the Taliban could not even think of attacking a maternity hospital and funeral prayers. These are extreme barbaric acts and only ISIS terrorists could show such brutality.

“Unfortunately, such elements are working under the cover of Afghan intelligence agencies and are carrying out false flag operations,” he claimed.

The “sole aim of such attacks is to destroy the peace agreement that was signed in Doha on February 29, 2020,” Shaheen said, referencing a conditional peace agreement the US signed with the Taliban in the Qatari capital.

“However, we are committed to the implementation of the peace deal,” he continued. “Such attacks by ISIS can’t prevent us from pursuing the peace process under the agreement signed in Doha. The Doha peace agreement was a step forward toward stability in Afghanistan.

“We always support peaceful ways to end the 19-year-old conflict and find a sustainable solution for peace and stability in our country. We are strictly following the commitments that we made in the peace agreements,” Shaheen said.

None of the militant groups claimed responsibility for the hospital attack, but according to some media reports, ISIS said that it was “behind the suicide attack on a funeral in eastern Nangarhar.”

Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, called on the Afghan government and the Taliban to cooperate to bring to justice the perpetrators of the attacks on the hospital and the funeral that killed dozens of people, including two newborn babies.

“Any attack on innocents is unforgivable, but to attack infants and women in labor in the sanctuary of a hospital is an act of sheer evil,” he said on Tuesday.

“During the holy month of Ramadan and amidst the threat of COVID-19, these dual attacks are particularly appalling. We note the Taliban has denied any responsibility and condemned both attacks as heinous,” Pompeo said.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy for Afghanistan, tweeted that “Taliban and Afghan government cooperation against a common enemy that perpetrates such crimes is necessary as is cooperation on containing COVID. Failure to do so leaves Afghanistan vulnerable to terrorism, perpetual instability & economic hardship. Now is the time to press forward on peace.”

Scott Worden, director of Afghanistan and Central Asia Programs at the US Institute of Peace in Washington, spoke exclusively with The Media Line about the developing situation in Afghanistan.

“The attacks by ISIS make a peace process more difficult and more urgent,” he said. “While ISIS is attacking similar targets as the Taliban, they have very different political goals. The Taliban want political power within Afghanistan, whereas ISIS has a more global and anti-Western agenda.

“ISIS has used the conflict between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan to gain a foothold to operate from, and therefore ISIS has an interest in spoiling a peace process that would bring more security to the country and reduce ISIS safe havens,” Worden added.

“President Ghani is seeking to balance the strong need for a reduction in violence in Afghanistan in the short term with the need for modernization and development of Afghanistan over the long term. Ghani is trying not to give up too much now to the Taliban that would jeopardize the long-term goal,” Worden said.

Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, told The Media Line that “the latest terror attacks in Afghanistan may impact the peace process directly, given that Kabul has announced it will be stepping up offensives against the Taliban, even though the Taliban did not claim responsibility for the most recent attacks.

“I don’t think the peace process is dead,” he continued, “but I do think that short-term prospects for launching an intra-Afghan dialogue have become more remote. There is a lot of anger and unhappiness in Afghanistan now, and I think for Kabul it’s just not the right time to be sitting down with the terrorists.

“The Ghani government is interested in peace because when Ghani announced that he would step up the offensive against the Taliban, he also called on the Taliban to support peace,” Kugelman said.

“I think that for Kabul, the issue is not with peace [with the Taliban], but with the terms that the Taliban is insisting on in a peace process, and these terms include the absence of a cease-fire and the absence of reduced violence [before a final agreement]. Kabul has good reason to be unhappy about the Taliban’s position. But the Taliban has a lot of leverage, and it knows it gets a lot of leverage by using violence,” he added.

Kugelman said that “the hospital atrocity has the hallmarks of ISIS, which has suffered a number of losses − arrests of leaders, surrenders of fighters − in recent months, but has continued to carry out attacks. Yesterday’s attacks in Afghanistan, given their location and targeting, have all the hallmarks of ISIS.

“Whether the Haqqani Network − a Taliban faction − has been involved in recent ISIS attacks in Afghanistan, as Kabul alleges, is a key question with big implications for the peace process,” he said.

Adil Faroque, an Islamabad-based regional security analyst, told The Media Line that “the recent terror attacks by ISIS won’t be able to stop the peace process because President Trump is desperate to pull out US troops and take credit in the upcoming US presidential election.

“2020 will be a year of ‘tactical civil war’ in Afghanistan. The result of this war will decide the fate of the ruler in Kabul post-US withdrawal next year,” he added.

“Kabul administration officials, spokesperson and sympathizers tried to blame the Taliban for yesterday’s attacks, but Pompeo asked the Taliban in a statement to eliminate ISIS, which has claimed the responsibility [for the attacks], indicating that the US will not allow the peace process to be derailed,” Faroque said.

Syed Ajmal Afandi, a Kabul-based political analyst who attended the signing of the preliminary peace agreement, told The Media Line, “In the Doha peace deal, it was decided that the Taliban would not attack the US or any foreign troops and would not target civilian installations as well.”

However, immediately after the deal was signed, the Taliban had announced that it would continue attacks on Afghan security forces and their installations, he added.

“During the last few months, the Taliban did not claim any attacks on civilians. Meanwhile, ISIS is continuing to target innocent civilians and unfortunately, Ashraf Ghani’s decision yesterday to launch an offensive against the Taliban has further fueled the situation,” Afandi said.