Many terrible crimes have been perpetrated in Afghanistan’s 42 years of war. Yet the attack on the of a Kabul hospital on 12 May was unprecedented and particularly devastating. Even in a country where bloodshed has become grimly familiar, was unbearable.
The gunmen had passed through general wards to kill mothers: women who were pregnant, giving birth or with their newborns. They killed 24 people; apart from one midwife and two babies, all were mothers. The footage of one tiny baby wrapped in a blood-drenched blanket carried out during the four hour-long attack seemed to symbolise the despair felt by many: a child born in can barely draw breath before war engulfs her.
Who carried out the attack is still unknown. The hospital is in a neighbourhood where most people are Shia Muslim from the ethnic Hazara community. That would suggest the assault was the work of the local franchise of the Islamic State group, ISKP. It has carried out many grisly, sectarian attacks on civilians in the past, whereas the have not.
ISKP has not put its name to this transgression, however, and the Taliban were quick to deny responsibility. Yet, suspicion against the latter movement or elements within it lingers. The Taliban’s understanding of they signed with the United States on 29 February was that they would not carry out attacks on cities. However, if the movement had wanted to continue carrying out major acts of urban terrorism – useful militarily for demoralising the population and spreading chaos within government – what could be more deniable than an attack that was this savage and this sectarian?
Whoever carried out the attack,the anguish people felt over this particular act of butchery was heightened by the fact that it came in the middle of a “peace process” initiated by Washington, which has so far brought political dividends for the administration of Donald Trump but little protection for Afghan civilians.
America’s agreement with the Taliban was supposed to usher in talks between the insurgent movement and other Afghans. It followed eight days when all parties to the conflict, including the Taliban, had reduced violence markedly. The US thought it also had an unwritten understanding that violence would remain at low levels. Yet on 2 March the Taliban spokesman, an end to the temporary respite: “As per the agreement, our mujahideen will not attack foreign forces but our operations will continue against the Kabul administration forces.”
It has been a strange time, when the leaders of a “jihad” hold their fire against foreign forces while targeting their fellow Afghans and fellow Muslims during a pandemic and, in the last three weeks, during Ramadan.
Since the March announcement, the Taliban have turned down repeated requests for a ceasefire or at least a reduction in violence. At first, Afghan government forces and the US military acted with restraint, even as the Taliban ramped up their attacks. Research in late March and early April by my organisation, Afghanistan Analysts Network, found people in some areas controlled by the Taliban describing continuing peace.
One elder in Logar, a province to the south of Kabul, said that before the deal, people had been taking sleeping pills just to get some rest. “They were afraid of night raids by the government and Taliban attacks during the day.” Since the US agreement, he said, people were happy, busy and able to return to their fields and get on with their lives.
By contrast, we found people in other contested areas of the country in despair as bloodshed swiftly resumed. “It’s only the Taliban that are attacking,” a local journalist in Badghis province, in the north-east, said. “Corona is one disaster and Taliban attacks another.”
In mid-March, the government did order a shift of stance from “defensive” to “active defensive”. Civilians are again being killed and injured by both the Taliban and government forces, , in greater numbers last month than in April 2019.
The US military is still far less active than it was. Provisional data from the UN suggests the number of civilians killed or injured by US forces has fallen to zero since the February agreement.
Meanwhile the withdrawal of US troops – from about 13,000 to 8,600 – and the abandonment of five military bases are on track to be completed by mid-July.
Afghan hospital attack: 'I thought my baby had died and I would be next'
Kabul does at least now have a recognised leader, following disputed elections in September and parallel presidential inaugurations by the two frontrunners in March. A , signed on Sunday, leaves President Ashraf Ghani in place. As soon as it was agreed, the US envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, left for the region to press the government and the Taliban to start talks.
It is possible, indeed common, for parties to a conflict to talk and fight during a peace process. However, when that happens, there must be a serious intention to reach a negotiated end to the war. Doubt hovers over whether the Taliban really do want to negotiate. Since 29 February, there has been little to suggest they aim to replace fighting with talking, despite US government claims.
Instead, it seems plausible that the Taliban see the US agreement as a means of removing their most dangerous enemy from the battlefield, leaving Kabul open and vulnerable. Unfortunately, Washington has no plan B if the Taliban do not actually want to negotiate with their fellow Afghans. The US approach relies on the Taliban’s good intentions.
The continuing Taliban insurgency is also the “sea” in which other groups swim. Even if the hospital attack was not carried out by the Taliban, their continuing campaign of violence still makes such an atrocity easier to mount. If they had agreed to a mutual reduction in violence, Afghan intelligence would have been less tied up, and the Taliban themselves might have had a good chance of uncovering and preventing the attack. But this was not the case.
In this bloody spring, the one flicker of hope for civilians is that not every Taliban field commander enthusiastically returned to the fight in March; some did hope the negotiations would succeed. In more than one district, locals described to us commanders sitting down to talk to elders about their hopes for peace. However, one Afghan aid worker in the south warned that Taliban members hungry for peace in his district would still obey the leadership; if it did not order them to lay down arms, he said, “they cannot stop fighting”.
On Tuesday, the Taliban launched a major offensive against the northern city of Kunduz, as they have done most years since 2015, when they briefly captured it. The Afghan government responded with an airstrike on an NGO clinic that was treating wounded Taliban fighters alongside civilian patients. Medical facilities, staff and patients are specifically protected by the Geneva conventions and international humanitarian law.
The horrible fear is that the US-initiated peace process will prove a chimera, the conflict between Afghan forces will intensify as American troops withdraw, and neither the Taliban nor the government will spare civilians.
Kate Clark is a co-director of the , a Kabul-based research organisation, and has worked on or in Afghanistan for 20 years