Taliban Attack in Kabul Deepens the Toll of a Long War
Posted January 27, 2018 8:00 p.m. EST
Updated January 27, 2018 10:43 p.m. EST
KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban drove an ambulance packed with explosives into a crowded Kabul street Saturday, setting off an enormous blast that killed at least 95 people and injured 158 others, adding to the grim toll in what has been one of the most violent stretches of the long war, Afghan officials said.
The attack came days after a 15-hour siege by militants at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul that left 22 dead, including 14 foreigners.
On Saturday, hospitals overflowed with the wounded, and forensic workers at the morgue struggled to identify the dead.
The casualties were another reminder of how badly Afghanistan is bleeding. Over the past year, about 10,000 of the country’s security forces have been killed and more than 16,000 others wounded, according to a senior Afghan government official. The Taliban losses are believed to be about the same.
And about 10 civilians were killed every day on average over the first nine months of 2017, U.N. data suggest.
The surge in violence across the country, particularly deadly attacks that have shut down large parts of Afghan cities, comes as the government is in disarray.
President Ashraf Ghani has struggled to build consensus and has recently found himself in a protracted showdown with a regional strongman, a dispute that has taken up much of the administration’s energy. The strongman, Atta Muhammad Noor, a powerful governor, was fired by the president but has refused to leave his post, raising fears that escalating political tensions could further undermine the country’s fragile security.
The recent carnage is also tied, analysts said, to President Donald Trump’s decision last month to increase pressure on Pakistan, long seen as supporting the Taliban as a proxy force in Afghanistan. Trump made a gamble to try to tilt the war in Afghanistan toward a resolution, holding back security aid to Pakistan for what he called the country’s “lies and deceit.”
At the time of the announcement, many Afghan officials feared an immediate escalation in violence in retaliation and wondered whether their shaky government could absorb the blows.
On Saturday, Trump issued a statement denouncing the attack. “I condemn the despicable car bombing attack in Kabul today that has left scores of innocent civilians dead and hundreds injured,” he said. “The Taliban’s cruelty will not prevail. The United States is committed to a secure Afghanistan that is free from terrorists who would target Americans, our allies, and anyone who does not share their wicked ideology.”
In last weekend’s attack, Taliban militants barged into the highly guarded Intercontinental Hotel, battling security forces in an hourslong siege. At least 14 of their victims were foreign citizens, including Americans, and nine were pilots and flight crew members from Ukraine and Venezuela who worked for a private Afghan airline, Kam Air.
At the time of Saturday’s attack, Gen. Joseph L. Votel, commander of the U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the region, was in Kabul. He met with Ghani, and officials aware of the discussion said Pakistan was much of the focus.
Anger at the Afghan government for its dysfunction and ineffectiveness in the face of violence was palpable on the streets.
At the site of the explosion, an old man, his clothes stained with blood, sat on the ground and wailed. He cursed the two leaders of the Afghan government — Ghani and his coalition partner, Abdullah Abdullah — for the security lapses. He said his son was dead.
“May God punish you, may Allah punish you both,” the old man repeated. “There is nothing left for me anymore — come kill me and my family, too.”
Saturday’s explosion occurred on a guarded street that leads to an old Interior Ministry building and several embassies. Many ministry departments still have offices there, and visitors line up every day for routine business.
“I saw a flame that blinded my eyes, then I went unconscious,” said Nazeer Ahmad, 45, who suffered a head wound. “When I opened my eyes, I saw bodies lying on the ground.”
“It’s a massacre,” said Dejan Panic, coordinator in Afghanistan for the Italian aid group Emergency, which runs a nearby trauma center. At least 131 people were brought to the group’s Kabul hospital.
Baseer Mujahid, a spokesman for the Kabul police, said the bomber drove past the first checkpoint, at the entrance to the street. Police had allowed it to pass because it was an ambulance, and one of the city’s main hospitals was just beyond the checkpoint.
“Police stopped the vehicle at the second checkpoint,” Mujahid said. “Then he tried to drive in from the wrong lane. Again, the police tried to stop him. But he detonated the explosive-laden vehicle.” At Malalai maternity hospital, near the carnage, health workers said the explosion had briefly interrupted their work, and jolted patients out of their beds. Then, the staff continued to bring new life into a violent world.
“It has become normal in Afghanistan,” a midwife said. “Every day, we hear these kind of sounds.”
Others at the hospital were deeply affected. Abdul Khaliq, who anxiously waited in the hospital yard, said his sister-in-law had given birth through cesarean section just days ago.
“During the suicide attack, she was at the hospital and now she is shocked. She doesn’t want to breast-feed her baby,” Khaliq said. “Her doctor is trying to convince her that everything is OK, but she cries and says nothing.”
Tadamichi Yamamoto, chief of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, condemned the attack as “nothing short of an atrocity” and called for the perpetrators to be brought to justice.
“I am particularly disturbed by credible reports that the attackers used a vehicle painted to look like an ambulance, including bearing the distinctive medical emblem, in clear violation of international humanitarian law,” Yamamoto said. Later in the day, family members lined up outside the morgue at the Kabul forensic medical department, trying to identify their loved ones. The staff could not draw a list of the victims because most were unidentifiable, or did not carry any documentation.
After the remains were cleaned, the staff lined them up in the yard outside and allowed family members to walk around and identify them. Once remains were identified, the morgue staff would write the name on the forehead, or on the chest if the head was missing.
For some, though, the search continued.
“My cousin was a police officer; he was the person who stopped the ambulance laden with explosives,” said Attaul Haq, 36, who waited outside the morgue. “He was 28, he had a son and a daughter.”