The targets of the bomb that ripped through a private educational institute in Kabul on Friday were deliberately chosen. They belonged to the Hazara community. The violent persecution of this Afghan Shia community goes back more than a century but has reached unprecedented levels at the hands of Sunni Islamist fundamentalists in the Af-Pak region over the last decade.
This was the second attack on a school in the Afghan capital’s Dasht-e-Barchi area, a predominantly Hazara neighbourhood, this year. The Islamic State – Khorasan Province (ISKP) claimed responsibility for a bombing at a school in the same neighbourhood on April 19 this year, killing six and leaving several others — students, teachers, and others — injured. The neighbourhood was attacked at least three times last year after the Taliban takeover.
Before they took over Afghanistan last year, it was the Taliban that targeted Hazaras regularly. Four years ago, on August 15, 2018, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a private school classroom in the area, killing 40 people, most of whom were 18-year-old students, as were the 19 victims of Friday’s attack.
While the Taliban denied that they were behind that carnage, they have never been ruled out as the perpetrators either.
The latest attack is being blamed on the ISKP, but the Taliban regime’s continued hatred for and exclusion of the Hazara has not done anything to make them feel protected under the new dispensation. If anything, the vulnerability and insecurity of the community have increased manifold in the last 13 months. And the Taliban’s contempt for women and women’s education legitimises the targeting of female students seeking private high school education after government schools were banned from teaching them.
Earlier this year, a report by the Taliban Sanctions Committee of the UN Security Council suggested that there is “scope for the Taliban overlooking or seeking advantage from ISIL-K attacks that were not directly against Taliban interests, especially those targeting minorities”.
Yet, Taliban spokesmen speak confidently of already gaining “de facto” recognition from the international community, and believe that it is only a matter of time before their claim to be the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan wins full recognition.
On a recent trip to Afghanistan, I visited a clandestinely run school in Kabul. It had to be a “secret school”, said those running it, because those who attended were female and Hazara, a double blow in Afghanistan.
The attack will have a chilling effect on what vestiges remain of girls’ education in Afghanistan, including the underground schools, and serve as a confirmation to the Hazaras that their prospects in the country can only deteriorate. Many Hazara migrated to Pakistan in earlier decades, hoping to find a safe haven there, only to be targeted ruthlessly by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.
Human Rights Watch said in a recent report that since the Taliban takeover in August 2021, ISKP has claimed responsibility for 13 attacks against Hazaras and has been linked to at least three more. Some 700 people have been killed or injured in these attacks.
“The Taliban authorities have done little to protect these communities from suicide bombings and other unlawful attacks or to provide necessary medical care and other assistance to victims and their families,” HRW said.
While on the one hand, this could make the Taliban complicit in the massacres, on the other, the repeated bombings and killings also challenge the regime’s claim of having restored peace and security in the country. Many people I met during my week-long Kabul visit said that while the Taliban had snatched their freedoms, its victory had given them some respite from war and “improved the security situation”.
But even this consolation is fast turning out to be a false premise. While the minority Hazaras have taken much of the hit over the last year, there have been targeted killings of Taliban clerics, and attacks inside mosques, markets and government offices, that have killed all age groups and ethnicities. Starting with the Kabul airport attack on August 26 last year, to date there have been a total of 37 terrorist attacks in the Afghan capital alone. Before the attack on the school, a car bomb exploded last Friday near a mosque in a prominent Kabul neighbourhood, killing at least seven people and injuring 41.
As it stands today, the ISKP poses the biggest threat to the authority of the Taliban in Afghanistan, while on the other side of the border, the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) has returned to torment Pakistan, and the Pakistani Army has been unable to check its activities. That Al Qaeda is also present in Afghanistan was proved with its leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s killing in Kabul in a US operation.
A common thread running through these three groups is the powerful Haqqani network, an independent bloc within the Taliban and a protege of Pakistan that has captured most of the key posts in government, and is seen as not being on the same page as senior Taliban leaders.
Sirajuddin Haqqani was at one time linked to ISKP, but now the groups are assessed to have only lower-level contacts, according to the same report of the Taliban Sanctions Committee of the UN Security Council. After the escalation of attacks by the ISKP since the Taliban takeover, “there is no longer room for ambiguity in the Taliban’s strategic confrontation with ISIL-K, and it was therefore not in the interest of the Haqqanis to nurture such linkages,” the report said. Sirajuddin, who is the interior minister of the Taliban regime, remains “closest” to Al Qaeda, and acts as an intermediary between the Pakistan government and the TTP.
Security experts in India believe that the potent combination of terrorist violence and lawlessness on both sides of the border is an indication the Af-Pak area could be headed towards yet another descent into chaos. That prediction does not bode well for countries in the region. For Afghanistan, there is no sight of an end to the tragedy.