A strange silence in Kabul

Whilst the US airstrikes on the MSF hospital in Kunduz has created reactions worldwide, the response here in Kabul has been surprisingly low key.

On Saturday night, the evening of the horrific bombing of the MSF hospital, I sat down to watch the ten o’clock news , expecting the airstrikes on the hospital  to be the headline. Instead, the first item was about a fist fight in parliament, which had followed a heated discussion over a local peace deal with a Taliban group in Baghlan province. The official who had overseen the peace deal was accused in parliament of a secret ethnic agenda, namely allying with his fellow Pashtun brothers in the shape of the Taliban to orchestrate an ethnic coup. The bombing only came much later in the broadcast. And as Sunday, Monday and then Tuesday passed, reactions in Kabul appeared limited. There were certainly strong statements from individuals and human rights organizations, but no demonstrations, as there had been a few days earlier to protest the Taliban takeover of Kunduz. Even Karzai, a consistent and vocal critic of coalition-caused casualties during his own presidency has said nothing so far. One would assume that his earlier criticism of the signing of the security agreement with the US by his successor Ashraf Ghani would resurface with increased strength, but no.

A few days after the air strikes, The Washington Post articulated my puzzlement in an article called ‘Afghan response to hospital bombing is muted, even sympathetic’. The Post article suggests that the lack of response are linked to fears that President Obama will be encouraged to accelerate the withdrawal of Americans troops. After an increasingly tense relationship with President Karzai, at the center of which were civilian causalities caused by US airstrikes, Afghan leaders, now facing a rapidly deteriorating situation,  want to avoid antagonizing the White House at all costs. Indeed, the present Afghan administration appear keen to uncritically adopt the War on Terror rhetoric and to draw US forces, with their superior air capabilities, into the fight as much as possible.

Perhaps, outrageous as it was, to many in Kabul the bombing of the hospital in Kunduz seems just one in a seemingly endless series of incidents which are threatening to engulf the country completely. Up until a few years ago, the then US-led war in Afghanistan appeared to many in Kabul as a distant and unnecessarily aggressive pursuit which was often counterproductive, turning whole groups against both the US and the Karzai government. Whatever linkages one can make between the strategy of those earlier years and the situation in the country now, there is a little doubt that 2015 has brought the war to the gates of Kabul in a way not seen before. As the atmosphere is turning increasingly anxious, and the Afghan security forces are running from front to front across the country, bitter fault lines have come to the fore. Since the fall of Kunduz to the Taliban on the 28th of September the news landscape here has been dominated by attempts to explain how the government could allow the takeover of a major town by the Taliban. Much public debate, especially in social media, have assumed strong ethnic undertones – Ghani’s policy of approaching Islamabad has been criticized as an appeasement to ISI, whose terrorists protégées the Taliban now run havoc in the North.  Rumors of an ethnic plot have also surfaced – some of it focused on the now replaced governor of Kunduz, who is accused of purposefully leaving the city to his Pashtun Talib brothers. The heated debate is shaking the already fragile foundations of the National Unity Government – with Northern groups arguing that they cannot trust the Ghani camp to provide security in their area, and others warning against the  dangers of mobilizing local militias – who anyway proved incapable of preventing the fall of Kunduz.

In this polarized setting, there seems little space for focusing on the civilian deaths caused by the Afghan government or its Western allies. But overall civilian casualties are already at its highest level since counting began in 2009. The majority are caused by the Taliban and other –‘anti government elements ’but recently the proportion caused by ‘pro- government forces’ have grown. The prospect of an increasingly desperate Afghan government and the intensified involvement of Western forces , the latter extremely reluctant to take casualties and at the same time subjected to limited scrutiny both by the Ghani/ Abdullah administration and by the Afghan public, does not bode well for the future.

Note: This blog post is dated from 6 October 2015 and was written by Torunn Wimpelmann, Senior Researcher at CMI. She is partly based in Kabul, where her research includes the prosecution of violence against women in the Afghan justice system.