Taliban carrying out reign of terror in Afghan capital ahead of peace talks
By PAMELA CONSTABLE AND SHARIF HASSAN | The Washington Post | Published: January 1, 2021
KABUL, Afghanistan — In a video, five turbaned fighters stand in a row, wearing flak jackets and sneakers, assault rifles at the ready. One says in Pashto that God hates those who stray from religion and "cling to a worldly life," and obliges the faithful to wage jihad, even if they must face prison or death, to establish the "law of the Koran" on earth.
The video, published Monday on a Taliban spokesman's Twitter account, came amid a rash of targeted shootings and bombings in the Afghan capital that have killed several dozen journalists, civic leaders, physicians, democracy advocates and government officials. The mayhem has brought a new kind of personal terror to a city long accustomed to insurgent attacks against official buildings and military targets.
Even though U.S. troops are leaving the country, the militiaman explained, "it is permissible to kill the (American) puppet regime of Kabul" and those who aid it. English subtitles accompanied his raised voice. "We are carrying weapons to avenge our values and institutions," he said. "We are wholeheartedly obeying the supreme command of Allah."
The video was posted days before negotiations between Taliban and Afghan delegates are set to resume Wednesday in Qatar, after a two-week break. Afghan security officials have blamed the Taliban for several targeted killings, saying the insurgents are using new scare tactics to "leverage" their position at the negotiating table and undermine public confidence in the government of President Ashraf Ghani.
The killings have led prominent civilians to take extra security measures or avoid going outdoors. The Taliban appear to be keeping close tabs on a variety of activities; a recent fashion show at a local hotel was immediately denounced in a tweet from a Taliban leader, who charged that "Western intoxication and ideas" have entered Afghan culture and warned that "anything in conflict with Islam" will be destroyed.
"People in Kabul used to worry whether they would be caught by chance in an attack on a government building or international institution. Now they worry whether they will be next on the list," said one security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly.
But the chief Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, denied any involvement in the attacks, calling the charges "propaganda." In a voice mail response Friday to questions from The Washington Post, he said the insurgents had nothing to do with the killings and blamed them on Afghanistan's intelligence agency.
"We have not killed the doctors, civil society activists, or people who have not taken up arms against us," he said in Dari. "They are not among our military targets, and killing them has no benefit for us." When peace comes, he added, the country will need "educated" Afghans.
Mujahid said that the group's primary goal is to settle the issues through talks, and that a "military solution" would only be used as a last resort.
Despite such denials, Afghan experts and officials said they have little doubt that the Taliban is behind the surge of attacks. Most victims have been killed in their vehicles, either by gunmen who escaped on motorbikes or magnetic bombs placed underneath the carriages. They said the insurgents are sending a veiled message to several audiences, including Afghan officials trying to retain public confidence, delegates returning to the peace talks and American officials in the incoming administration.
The Afghan government has doubled the number of police and other security forces patrolling the capital, and vehicles are being stopped and searched on many street corners. Officials said they have made a number of arrests, and Interior Minister Massoud Andarabi told Afghan lawmakers on Wednesday that detainees had described a special new "cell" based in nearby Logar province that plans attacks on high-profile individuals.
"Unclaimed bombings & targeted assassination of civil society activists are pillars of Talbn terror campaign linked to their negotiations strategy," vice president Amrullah Saleh, a former national intelligence chief, tweeted this week. "They want to break the political will of the Afg people & demand impossible concessions."
Kabul residents going about daily routines that expose them to danger, whether selling used winter clothing in outdoor markets or delivering supplies in hand carts, have also been spooked.
"If I didn't have to feed my wife and children, I wouldn't leave home at all now," said Ali Agha, 26, who sells fruit in a crowded West Kabul neighborhood. With so many explosions and attacks, he said, he had to change his location from another, more vulnerable market where he made more money. "I blame the president, because he can't provide security for the people."
Many Afghans say U.S. officials gave too much away to the insurgents in the deal they signed in February, failing to commit them to specific conditions regarding violence and ties to other extremist groups, while agreeing to withdraw most U.S. troops by spring.
Since the pact was signed, the Taliban have waged a relentless campaign of attacks across the country, killing thousands of people. But in October, President Donald Trump announced that troop drawdown would be speeded up, adding to the insurgents' sense of imminent victory.
"The Taliban are feeling triumphal, and they want to be seen as tough. They are not interested in winning hearts and minds," said Davood Moradian, director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies. "They are using force to delegitimize the Afghan state by showing it can't protect the public, and to remove a layer of resistance to their victory by getting rid of those who represent the values of the Afghan republic."
With a new government soon to take over in Washington, Moradian said, the insurgents want to make sure President-elect Joe Biden doesn't change the terms of the February pact or set new conditions for pulling out the remaining 5,000 troops, slated to be halved next month. By sowing terror on city streets, he added, "the Taliban are telling the new administration, 'Don't you dare reopen the deal.' "
Among Afghan delegates returning to the Doha talks early next week, the intensifying targeted violence has created a sense of dispirited gloom. Some have lost friends to recent attacks or started wearing bulletproof vests. Others said the dismissive harshness of the Taliban's attitude makes it hard to stay optimistic about prospects for peace – or even to remain polite in meetings with adversaries bent on murdering people and creating chaos in their capital.
"The Taliban have not changed. They are eager for power but they have no plans or policies, no ability to run a country. They are a fighting army, not a governing group. They know how to destroy but not to build," said Hafiz Mansour, a conservative lawmaker and delegate. "We have to keep talking because there is no other option, but it is going to be difficult."
Mansour warned that continued violence and stalemated talks could eventually lead to a government collapse, which has happened several times in recent Afghan history, including after the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989. "The real worry is not these individual assassinations," he said. "It is the larger wars that could lie ahead."