Afghanistan has been engulfed in bloodshed and confusion for decades. The deal between the United States and the Taliban signed on February 29 in Doha, Qatar, has added more tension to the conflict by creating competition among anti-government militants. Groups such as the Islamic State Khorasan (ISK) compete with the Taliban for political success and influence by perpetrating more violence. At the same time, they look to each other’s success as a source of inspiration and cooperation.
No Place for Naivety in Afghan Peace Talks
On November 2, Afghanistan was shocked by an attack on Kabul University that killed 35 students and wounded 50; officially, the death toll stands at 22, with 27 wounded. It was the latest of the many attacks on the country’s educational institutions. On October 24, a suicide bomber targeted the Kawsar-e Danish education center in western Kabul, killing at least 43 and wounding a further 57. In August 2018, another suicide attack in western Kabul on the Mawud tutoring center, which, like Kawsar-e Danish, was located in a Shai-dominated area, killed at least 48 and wounded 60. The victims at both schools were under the age of 20, some of them were as young as 14.
Who Killed the Students?
Due to the highly complex environment, survival for the people of Afghanistan is just a matter of chance. Sajjad Nijati was wounded in the attack on Kabul University. He is also one of the survivors of the attack on the Mawud education center. He has lost three of his family members in the attack on Kawsar-e Danish.
ISK claimed responsibility for all three attacks, while the Taliban denied any connection. However, the Taliban attack on the American University of Afghanistan in August 2016 killed 14 and wounded 35, again mostly students. The attacks on Kawsar-e Danish and Mawud were mainly against the Shia Hazaras, a historically persecuted group that has invested in education as a strategy to break the cycle of its precarious position inside Afghanistan. Shamsea Alizada, a survivor of the attack on Mawud, topped the country’s national university tables by achieving the highest score out of nearly 200,000 students this year. When the attack happened, she was 15 and could have lost her life like many of her friends.
The day after the university attack, students protested and carried slogans against the Islamic State and the Taliban that read “Don’t kill us.” All in all, 13 people have been detained for their failure to prevent the attack, including the security commander of Kabul University and the district chief of police. However, Vice President Ambrulah Saleh reversed the decision arguing that the problem is systematic and needs broader attention. It is still unclear whether those arrested have been released.
The question remains unanswered as to how the three gunmen entered the university campus. Kabul University has three main gates that are blocked by police checkpoints. The terrorists entered from the north gate, which is usually overseen by a large number of police officers who check all visitors’ IDs. With no sign of an explosion at the gate, Saleh, hours after the attack, called it an “intelligence failure.”
Research shows that Afghan universities have been exposed to extremism in recent years and have become fertile ground for recruitment for groups like ISK and the Taliban; in July 2019, Afghan security agencies arrested three ISK recruiters at Kabul University. On November 14, Vice President Saleh announced that security forces have arrested the mastermind behind the attack on Kabul University. According to Saleh, Mohammad Adel was recruited by the Haqqani Network, a branch of the Taliban based in Miramshah, Pakistan, and had gone missing three years ago after completing his third year at Kabul University’s faculty of sharia law.
Proxy War, Terrorism, Confusion
In their peace deal with the US, the Taliban agreed to stop bombing urban centers and cut ties with other terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. However, according to the US special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, attacks by the Taliban have increased by 50% in the past three months, to at least 55 attacks per day around the country. Since the official inauguration of the intra-Afghan talks in Qatar on September 12, the has been no reduction in civilian casualties. The Taliban use military operations as a bargaining chip in the talks, which has increased concerns about the group establishing a totalitarian and discriminatory regime in the country if it comes to power as a result of the negotiations.
The frequently reported links between the Taliban and al-Qaeda remain another concern. Last month, Afghan security forces killed a senior al-Qaeda leader in Ghazni province in areas controlled by the Taliban. Another al-Qaeda member was killed in a Taliban-influenced area in Farah province, in the west. Research also shows that there has been cooperation — as well as clashes — between the Taliban and ISK in the past.
Many in Afghanistan view the Taliban as responsible for hosting and cooperating with various terrorist groups. The continued war by the Taliban has severely undermined Afghanistan’s political stability, economic development and security. This has weakened the government’s functionality and territorial control, opening the door for other militant groups such as ISK. Both ISK and the Taliban have similar ideological positions toward secular education, and the situation on the ground today makes it clear that the war has turned into a deliberate strategy of indiscriminate violence against education centers and youth in the country.
There are three theories about recent urban attacks in Afghanistan. The first is that the Taliban organize the attacks but deny responsibility to benefit from the chaos and backlash against the government, which allows ISK to claim responsibility. Vice President Saleh claimed that the ISK claiming the attack on Kabul University was fake. Saleh pointed to a Taliban flag apparently found at the scene as evidence of Taliban involvement. According to the vice president, the weapons found at the scene do not match those in photos released by ISK. The Taliban, however, rejects these claims.
The second theory is that the Haqqani Network, a branch of the Taliban close to Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), is carrying out attacks in urban areas. Some experts argue there is a disagreement between the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani Network branches. Therefore, without Quetta Shura’s approval, the Haqqani Network attack on urban areas but under the ISK name; since the appearance of ISK, the Haqqani Network did not claim most of the bigger urban attacks, with ISK taking responsibility instead. According to this theory, the main actor behind terrorist activity in Afghanistan is the Haqqani Network rather than ISK. It has been argued that the Haqqani Network has strong links and levels of cooperation not just with the ISI, but also al-Qaeda and ISK. Those who believe in this theory argue that there is a close relationship between the Haqqani Network and ISK.
The third theory is that the ISK organizes urban attacks independently, such as the one on Kabul University. According to this analysis, ISK today has more influence in urban areas. At the moment, however, this argument does not have many supporters among experts and Afghan security officials. From the Afghan government’s point of view, ISK is a platform for Pakistan’s clandestine activities, where ISK is an umbrella for many actors including the Haqqani Network and the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) for attacking targets in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US, Hussain Haqqani, believes that ISK is supported by the same forces in Pakistan that back the Haqqani Network.
Death by a Thousand Cuts
The conflict in Afghanistan doesn’t have a single dimension. It is a combination of proxy wars and terrorism. The proxy dimension of the war since the 1980s produced countless intended and unintended consequences such as state fragility, terrorism, sectarianism, war crimes, social fragmentation and radicalization. Kabul University has found itself at the center of this strife over the four decades of war. In late 1983, a bomb was placed under a dining room table at the university, killing many. Later on, Brigadier Mohammad Yousaf, who was leading the Afghan Bureau of ISI at the time, revealed in his memoir that the attack was part of Pakistan’s strategy of “death by thousand cuts.”
This specter of history is fresh in Afghanistan’s collective memory. Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan enabled the group to intensify the conflict. The complicated links and cooperation between the Taliban, ISK and al-Qaeda make it difficult to believe that they did not join forces to target educational institutions and carry out assassinations. At the same time, contextualizing the war in Afghanistan by considering the long history of cooperation between militant groups and the intelligence services in the region make the proxy dynamic of the war more apparent.
With mistakes made on all sides, especially by the Trump administration in Washington, created both inspiration and hope for many extremist groups in the region. Particularly, the US-Taliban deal turned the country into a playground for various extremist groups and their supporters trying to either outdo each other or build tactical collaboration to defeat the Afghan government. Even Pakistani extremist groups have called upon the Afghan government to surrender to the Taliban.
These groups are trying to build leverage through violence and claiming the honor of resisting the US and its partners. They are fighting to create frustration and chaos in order to expand their operational reach and lethality, thereby creating transnational inspiration for the movement. Unless there is a policy change to effectively deal with this threat, there is no clear vision for ending all this violence.
*[Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the attack on Kawsar-e Danish killed 24 people. This piece was updated at 17:50 GMT.]
*[The author is one of the investigators on the Carnegie Corporation of New York-funded project “Assessing the impact of external actors in the Syria and Afghan proxy wars” (Grant number: G-18-55949) at Deakin University, Australia.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.