Protests erupt in Kabul over recent attacks, allegations of Pakistani involvement
By PAMELA CONSTABLE | The Washington Post | Published: February 1, 2018
KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan security officials, facing public wrath after a spate of urban terrorist attacks that left more than 130 people dead and hundreds injured, announced Thursday that they had presented Pakistani authorities with "undeniable evidence" that some of the insurgents were trained in Pakistan and that the attacks were planned there.
The interior minister and intelligence chief spoke at a hastily arranged news conference after returning from a brief visit to Islamabad, where they said they gave senior officials the names and locations of supporters and facilities for attackers, including mosques and seminaries.
They said some of the information had come from would-be suicide bombers who were captured in the course of bloody bombing and shooting attacks in Afghanistan that targeted a luxury hotel, a military academy, a British charity and a busy block near a hospital, where an ambulance filled with explosives was detonated.
As the officials spoke, several hundred protesters rallied at a nearby park and outside the Pakistani Embassy, demanding that the Kabul government do more to protect its citizens and that Pakistan stop fostering insurgents. But the capital remained tense and largely deserted, with heavily armed police and armored vehicles stationed on many streets.
"The people are angry, and we are too," said Interior Minister Wais Ahmad Barmak, adding that several attacks had deliberately targeted civilians. "We submitted all the evidence we had. We had a very clear discussion." The officials described the meeting as "constructive" and said Pakistan seemed more cooperative than in the past. "Things are different now," he said.
Pakistani officials, in turn, announced they will send a high-level delegation to Kabul this weekend to discuss improving bilateral communications on terrorism and regional security. In Islamabad, Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif visited the Afghan Embassy and said both countries need to make "joint efforts against terrorism instead of playing a blame game." He added: "The enemy is taking advantage of our differences."
Pakistan is facing unprecedented pressure from Washington to crack down on cross-border insurgency, and the new accusations by Afghan officials are likely to intensify that pressure. The Trump administration recently suspended all military aid to its longtime security ally, saying Pakistan had failed to take sufficient steps to rein in Taliban insurgents, especially the Haqqani network.
Officials in Islamabad said they were examining the evidence, but they did not comment on the Afghan charges or demands that they take concrete action against training and support centers for the Haqqanis and other insurgents. Mohammed Masoom Stanekzai, the Afghan intelligence chief, said he and Barmak had asked Pakistan to "hand over" the perpetrators of the recent attacks and shut down Taliban training centers.
Some Afghan analysts said they doubt the new pressure being brought to bear on Pakistan will make any difference. They suggested that its military leaders still believe they can use anti-Afghan insurgents as a foil against next-door India, which they see as a far greater threat than Islamist extremism. But others suggested that the recent violence and the crackdown by Washington may have created a psychic turning point in the stubborn regional dynamic.
"If the Afghan authorities had lost faith in us and we in them, there would not be this engagement," said one Pakistani Foreign Ministry official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "Pakistan will not allow anyone to use its soil against Afghanistan, and the same should go for Afghanistan. There has to be reciprocity. Terrorism is a common enemy and it needs to be fought together."
For the Afghan government, blaming Pakistan once again may not be enough to dispel the growing perception here that the situation is spiraling out of control, the insurgents are running roughshod over the Western-backed security forces and the authorities, distracted and weakened by political fights, are not capable of governing.
"Even though we have had very serious attacks in the past, somehow these attacks seem like a game changer as far as the psychology of the people and the government are concerned," said Anwar Ahady, a former cabinet minister and opposition party leader. "The government says the Taliban have crossed a red line. This has created an environment of instability and unpredictability as to what will happen in the near future."
In Shahr-e-Naw Park, where a small group of protesters gathered Thursday under police protection, the anguish in their voices spoke more loudly than their numbers.
"We are dying every day," said Shuja Shahani, 23, a university student. "I cannot carry a knife in the city. How can a person detonate a vehicle bomb?" The demonstrators blamed senior officials for the violence and demanded that they resign.
Maryam Ahmadi, 42, a former Kabul provincial council member, decried the deaths of scores of civilians in the ambulance bombing as she took the microphone at a makeshift podium. "Yesterday it was our countrymen's turn, tomorrow it will be us," she exclaimed.
The Washington Post's Sayed Salahuddin and Sharif Hassan reported from Kabul. Shaiq Hussain reported from Islamabad.
The Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan, is seen pictured here through the window of an ambulance on Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018, as security forces work to clear the hotel of the Taliban attackers who had stormed the complex on Saturday night armed with guns, grenades and suicide vests.
CHAD GARLAND/STARS AND STRIPES