Gunmen stormed a Kabul guesthouse popular with UN workers Wednesday in what the Taliban called the first of more attacks ahead of Afghanistan’s Nov. 7 runoff election.
Taliban gunmen stormed a private guesthouse in the Afghan capital, Kabul, in a bloody predawn attack Wednesday that killed six United Nations staff and signaled a clear intent to disrupt the upcoming presidential runoff.
The United States embassy in Kabul confirmed that at least one of the dead was an American.
The raid, which appeared to be coordinated with rocket attacks on the presidential palace and the luxury Serena Hotel popular with foreigners, was the worst attack the UN has faced in Afghanistan and, like assaults on aid workers elsewhere could prompt some to leave the country.
The Taliban said the attack was the start of a campaign to wreck a runoff vote scheduled for Nov. 7.
Before dawn three militants disguised as police and wearing suicide vests sealed off the road outside the Bekhtar Guesthouse in central Kabul before shooting their way past a security guard. Once inside, they threw grenades and, by some accounts, dragged guests from their beds before killing them. At least one detonated his vest before security forces recaptured the building following a two-hour siege.
Eyewitnesses said that some terrified guests fled over the roof of a next-door building; others were injured jumping from balconies as flames engulfed part of the building. Twelve people were killed in total, with nine more said to be in serious condition.
Attack could scare off aid workers
Kai Eide, the UN head of mission in Afghanistan, said the attack would not deter the organization from its mission but that there would be a review of security measures. A truck bombing of the UN headquarters in Bagdad in 2003 killed 22 people and prompted the organization to pull out of Iraq for several years. Although UN workers have occasionally been targeted in Afghanistan before, Wednesday’s attack had the highest death toll so far.
The attack could have a heavy impact on aid agencies in the country, with security analysts warning that some may pack up altogether while others will definitely scale back their operations. Aid workers due to arrive in the country to help with the second round of voting have been advised to delay their flights.
“I think there’s going to be a bit of an exodus,” says one analyst who asked not to be named.
Aid workers are softer targets than the coalition bases, embassies and government ministries that the Taliban has concentrate its attacks on in the capital up til now.
President Hamid Karzai ordered an urgent overhaul of security around international aid institutions.
Deadliest month since 2001
The attack came as the loss of eight more American soldiers on Tuesday brought total troop casualties this month to 54, making October the deadliest month of the war for US forces since it began in 2001. The casualty rate has shot up sharply since July when thousands of additional US troops were deployed to some of the most volatile parts of the country.
Seven soldiers fell victim to a cluster of roadside bombs in southern Afghanistan, while an eighth was killed in an explosion in another part of the country. Improvised explosive devices, the Taliban’s weapon of choice, are the largest single killer of foreign forces in the country. (Read here about how US troops are trying to counter the IED threat in Afghanistan.)
The rising number of casualties, the high-profile resignation of a highly regarded US Foreign Service officer, and the growing tensions over next week’s Afghan election runoff will intensify pressure on Barack Obama as he edges towards a crucial decision on whether to commit thousands more troops to Afghanistan.
Abdullah Abdullah, the top challenger to President Karzai in Afghanistan’s election, said Monday he would otherwise not participate in the Nov. 7 runoff. The ultimatum could be a cover to withdraw from the race.
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – Abdullah Abdullah, the main opposition candidate in Afghanistan, demanded Monday the dismissal of the country’s top election officer as a condition for taking part in a runoff vote scheduled for Nov. 7.
Many analysts see his ultimatum – which also called for the suspension of several government ministers – as highly impractical so close to the ballot. Instead, it could serve as cover for an honorable withdrawal from the race.
Although election officials have been rushing to organize a second round of voting after frontrunnerPresident Hamid Karzai reluctantly agreed to one last week, the possibility of a powersharing deal between the two candidates has persisted as a more pragmatic solution.
Flanked by running mates, campaign aides, and turbaned elders, Dr. Abdullah said his conditions were “the most modest demands we could come up with. The people of Afghanistan … were disappointed. They don’t want to go through the same thing in a few days’ time. These are the minimum conditions” for participation in the second round.
On the subject of the Independent Election Commission’s perceived bias towards incumbent President Hamid Karzai, Abdullah referred to a quote by IEC chairman Azizullah Ludin from The New York Times: “We will have another election, and we’ll have the same result. Karzai is going to win.” Abdullah also accused the IEC of violating Afghan law by “changing results announced by the [UN-backed] Electoral Complaints Commission.”
At the very least, analysts say, Abdullah’s demands will intensify the pressure on President Karzai as the two men bargain over the make-up of the next government. “I think they are bargaining now for post-election posts,” says Omar Sharifi, a political analyst in Kabul. “This is Afghan politics. There are always behind-the-scenes talks.”
Abdullah set Oct. 31 as the deadline for his demands to be met. He refused to say whether he would boycott the runoff if they were not.
The Taliban has threatened to kill anyone taking part in the vote.
Campaigning since Karzai’s reluctant endorsement of a second round last week has been muted, with both candidates fighting their corners on US airwaves more than rallying supporters at home. Karzai questioned the reliability of the United States as a partner Sunday, as he fought off criticism of the first, fraud-ridden round of voting. Meanwhile, in an interview with CNN, Abdullah warned that US strategy in Afghanistan would fail without a credible government in Kabul as a partner.
Some Afghans say they are tired of the election’s toll on lives and business. A runoff between President Karzai and Dr. Abdullah is slated for Nov. 7.
No one on Chicken Street wants any more voting.
Instead of the usual brisk trade in carpets, silks, and gemstones, the popular strip of shops in Kabul is largely deserted. Afghans say their country’s political uncertainty is hurting business. For some shopkeepers sales have dropped by half.
Their disenchantment comes even as United Nationsand Afghan election officials make frantic preparations to hold another round of voting between President Hamid Karzai and challenger Abdullah Abdullah, if they fail to reach a deal before Nov. 7, when the runoff is scheduled.
Among the daunting tasks: Replacing 200 of 380 district election chiefs implicated in fraud during the first round of voting with more reliable staff.
The scramble comes after Mr. Karzai, under pressure from Western officials, agreed Tuesday to accept the findings of a vote-rigging inquiry that triggered the runoff between the two leading candidates.
But although both men claim that more voters will turn out than last time – Dr. Abdullah said Wednesday that voters would “embrace” the prospect – many Afghans have little appetite for more polling.
Turnout estimates were as low as 5 percent for some areas particularly hard-hit by the insurgency during the first round, held Aug. 20.
Haji Abdul Hakim, a carpet dealer on Chicken Street, says he is angry about the failure of the Afghan government and the international community to bring the process to a swift end.
“Business is very slow,” he says. “Everyone is making a loss. Democracy? The original democracy is good but the United Nations doesn’t know about it. Everybody is angry. There are no jobs and winter is coming. Difficult, difficult, difficult.”
His view is characteristic of most interviewees – others derided the runoff for creating “the same problems all over again.”
Still, not everyone is unhappy with Tuesday’s announcement of a runoff election. In Shorobak, in southern Kandahar Province – where fraud was widespread first time around – tribal elder Haji Mohammad Brits says his community wants a runoff vote.
“We will go for a second round if it’s necessary,” he says. “The delay that happened in the result – it’s good because the people can see who did the fraud and they will know a lot of things about the fraud, the problems that happened.”
However, there are serious questions about how to organize another ballot in less than three weeks, with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon acknowledging Tuesday it would be a “huge challenge.”
“We have learned very valuable but painful lessons from the first election. We must not repeat what they have done last time,” he said.
Ballot papers, indelible ink, and other election materials supplied by the UN are already in Kabul, ready to be flown to the provinces Thursday, according to UN spokesman Aleem Siddique.
But a major, and largely unanswered, question is how to avoid a repeat of the vote rigging that tarred the initial poll.
Independent Election Commission spokesman Mohammad Noor Mohammad admits this will be a “challenge” for election officials. “It will be something we respond to in coming days,” he says.
Of more immediate concern to potential voters is security. Durrani Shah, from Gereshk district inHelmand province in the south, says: “We did hard work and we lost lots of life and still no result of the election. We can’t go for the second time. We would be very happy to have the next government and to solve our problems.”
Afghanistan’s national airline Ariana is seeking permission to fly to Europe for the first time since it was banned three years ago for safety breaches.
It believes there is the potential for flights to Heathrow because of the number of diplomats, aid workers and private security contractors wanting to get to Kabul and the 40,000 Afghans estimated to be living in Britain.
The last Ariana flight to reach Britain was a hijacked Boeing 727 forced by gunmen to land at Stansted in 2000 as they sought to get into Britain, claiming to be fleeing the Taliban.
They surrendered after a 70-hour siege. The hostages were released and the hijackers sent to prison. One recently surfaced as a cleaner at Heathrow. To rebuild its reputation Ariana has invested £15million in two new planes, training and technical support that it hopes will satisfy a panel of experts in November.
The airline is applying to the European Aviation Safety Agency for the right to fly into Europe.
Captain Moin Khan Wardak, Ariana’s president and chief executive and also the pilot on the last flight from Heathrow to Kabul, said: “My first aim is safety.”
The link with London was severed in the early Nineties as Afghanistan descended into civil war. A series of fatal crashes in 1997 and 1998, all down to poor maintenance, dealt the airline’s reputation a lethal blow.
Passengers nicknamed it “Scariana”. American bombs in 2001 destroyed much of its fleet at Kabul airport. In 2006 European air watchdogs banned it, meaning its planes cannot enter the EU.
But in June, Ariana took delivery of two Airbus 310/300 aircraft from Turkish Airlines, which is also training the crew to international standards. Its fleet of ailing Antonov aircraft is used on domestic routes. The company already operates an indirect flight from Kabul to Frankfurt using a stop-over in Istanbul and a plane registered in Turkey. With a sizeable Afghan population in London, flights between the capitals made good business sense, Capt Wardak said.
One of the main reasons Ariana is blacklisted is because security at Kabul international airport was considered inadequate, but now British security firm Global has taken over responsibility.
MAZAR-E-SHARIF // Gunrunning here is a lucrative trade. The price of a Kalashnikov has quadrupled in parts of northern Afghanistan, driven up by the possibility of civil unrest as officials struggle to produce a result for August’s presidential election.
“The weapons business is good right now,” said Gen Abdul Malek, a local warlord who fought briefly with the Taliban before double-crossing them and executing 2,000 of their followers. “Where it was once $150 for an AK-47 it has gone up to $600,” he said. “Where it was five Afghanis” [about 10 cents] “for a bullet it is now 30.” Mazar-e-Sharif, the cosmopolitan city that straddles international trading routes, shows little sign of the troubles that have swept northern Afghanistan this summer. But its open spaces and gentle hum belie the political and ethnic tensions threatening to divide the previously peaceful region.
Residents say rival warlords are squaring up, exploiting the political deadlock for personal gain at the same time as the Taliban makes rapid inroads across the north. “They exploit the misfortunes of people, using – the name of their tribe to incite violence and make money,” a local journalist, who asked to remain anonymous, said. “People are saying ‘Kill the Pashtuns’. The leader of the Pashtuns is saying ‘Kill the Tajiks’.”
The trouble started when the powerful governor of Balkh province, Atta Mohammed Noor, fell out with President Hamid Karzai after the latter overlooked him as his vice-presidential running mate. Instead, Mr Karzai chose one of Mr Atta’s bitterest personal rivals, the warlord Marshal Qasim Fahim. Mr Atta threw his weight behind Mr Karzai’s main challenger, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, campaigning energetically for him and festooning Mazar-e-Sharif with posters of a smiling Mr Abdullah. Billboards endorsing the president were defaced or torn down.
But now with Mr Karzai expected to win the election, possibly in one round, Mr Atta looks vulnerable. Old enemies have taken note. Trying to usurp him is Juma Khan Hamdard, a Karzai ally and governor of Paktia province in the east. Mr Atta and Mr Hamdard go back a long way: they fought with different factions during the civil war and later, as governor of a neighbouring province, Mr Hamdard was held responsible for the deaths of 12 people after his Pashtun-centric policies provoked riots.
The two men sit on different sides of the ethnic split: Mr Atta is a Tajik; Mr Hamdard belongs to the Pashtun ethnic group. Both have reputedly used ethnic prejudice to stir up their followers at times, and Mr Hamdard has even accused Mr Atta of having local Pashtun leaders assassinated. Mr Hamdard’s spokesman denied suggestions that he was preying on ethnic insecurities. “Afghanistan is a house for all Afghans: Tajiks, Pashtuns, Hazaras, Uzbeks. And if you see the story of Balkh, it will tell you all Afghan tribes live together. Whoever tells you [otherwise] – it’s completely wrong,” he said.
Locals disagree. “As long as you have warlords in the government how can you have peace in the country?” said one. Mr Atta, meanwhile, has struck back at Mr Hamdard’s attempts to undermine his authority. In a blistering speech he accused Mr Hamdard, in league with the ministry of the interior, of distributing weapons in order to destabilise the north. “Twenty-five commanders were given weapons by Juma Khan Hamdard in Charbolak, Chintral and Balkh districts. For each commander there were between five and 25 AK-47s, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and motorbikes,” he said. At the same time Mr Atta defended the right of his own supporters to “peaceful demonstrations” against vote-rigging.
Some say that Mr Hamdard is a pawn in the plot, spurred on by government ministers unhappy with Mr Atta’s defiance. The powerful interior minister, Hanif Atmar, is rumoured to be behind the campaign to discredit him. But either way, the fragmentation of the north is down to the central government’s failure to impose itself. “The situation is declining faster and faster in the north,” political analyst Haroun Mir said. “People can’t rely on the Afghan security forces to provide protection. The absence of government authority [is creating the] tension.”
Into the political vacuum have stepped the Taliban. Swathes of the countryside and sections of main highways have become impassable over the summer and previously safe Nato supply lines are under threat. The scale of the problem was highlighted when the German military called in an air strike that killed 30 civilians – the kind of incident associated with seemingly more volatile parts of the country. And then on Thursday Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan warned that Islamist militancy was spreading north into Central Asia. Although some insurgents may have come from the Taliban’s strongholds in the south and east, most are local.
“The Taliban is a bunch of different groups using the same brand name,” a security analyst explained. “The Taliban is essentially using a federal model. The Quetta Shura [the supreme Taliban council led by Mullah Omar in Pakistan’s Quetta] lets them do their own thing which, by the way is where the government fails by being so centralised and ships in a few high-value assets Uzbeks, Chechens and so on.”
The map of Taliban activity in the north roughly reflects the location of the Pashtun communities there. Kunduz province, where they have effectively opened a northern front against the German soldiers stationed there, has a number of districts with Pashtun majorities. Balkh too has Pashtun communities. “I see the calm before the storm,” Gen Malek warned. “There will be violence and instability. There will be disagreements between the tribes.”
Some observers struck a more cautious note, suggesting that while some districts might harbour insurgents, trouble would only occur on a large scale if international forces began targeting their leaders. “Then you have a lot of little guys scrambling for power. That would lead to chaos,” the security analyst said. Meanwhile if Mr Atta is forced out of office he is unlikely to be out of power. During his five years as governor of Balkh he has consolidated up to 60 per cent of the province’s business interests – particularly construction companies. Even if Mr Hamdard wins the governorship he covets, Mr Atta will informally continue to run things.
Several analysts and opposition figures in Afghanistan say the UN’s decision to fire Peter Galbraith for urging a harder line on election fraud affirms popular fears that it is the international community calling the shots on who wins.
Before their country’s fraud-riddled election in August, some Afghans complained it was the international community that would decide the result. With the United Nations having fired a top diplomat for urging a tougher stand against vote-rigging, a move made public Wednesday, they say they now have proof.
Several Afghan analysts and opposition figures criticized the decision to sack Peter Galbraith, the UN’s No. 2 person in Afghanistan, for accusing his boss, Kai Eide, of endorsing a decision by the Independent Election Commission to allow fraudulent ballots to be counted – a move he said gave the election toPresident Hamid Karzai.
“I think it will further undermine the credibility of the election,” says Haroun Mir, head of the Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies in Kabul. “The majority of Afghans were already saying the final decision would be decided by the international community.” Read the rest of this entry »