Written by Fatima Faizi and Rod Nordland
Even by the standards of Afghanistan’s long war, the Taliban attack near a school that wounded dozens of schoolchildren Monday stood out as unusually brutal, and expressions of outrage came thick and fast from governments around the world.
But from Doha, the Qatari capital where U.S. negotiators were meeting with Taliban officials in a seventh round of talks, now in their fourth day, there was publicly only silence on the assault.
Several of the earlier rounds of talks, which began in earnest this year, also coincided with attacks in Afghanistan, where more than 32,000 civilians have been killed in the last decade of the war, now in its 18th year. Most of those deaths have been blamed on the insurgents, a result of indiscriminate bombings and suicide attacks.
In earlier rounds this year, U.S. negotiators had brought up the violence at the negotiating table, according to officials with knowledge of the talks, speaking on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities. But now they have stopped doing so, the officials said, in a possible sign of just how keen negotiators have become to seal a deal that would set a timeline for a U.S. troop withdrawal in exchange for a Taliban promise not to let terrorists operate from Afghanistan.
At most, there have been condemnations on the margins of the earlier sessions. That happened again after Monday’s attack, which was apparently aimed at a government facility in Kabul, the Afghan capital, but badly damaged a nearby school, museum and television station.
In addition to wounding 51 children and killing one, the militants also took the lives of another 39 people, most of them civilians, according to Afghan authorities. In all, 116 people were hospitalized with serious injuries, 26 of them children and six women, according to Wahidullah Mayar, the spokesman for the ministry of public health in Kabul.
The State Department condemned the attack Tuesday, calling it “particularly barbarous” and demanding the Taliban cease attacks on civilians. But in Doha, U.S. envoys gave no public statement about the assault.
During previous negotiating sessions, U.S. efforts to complain about Taliban violence sometimes turned into shouting matches, according to the officials. The Americans would challenge the Taliban about killing civilians, and the Taliban would accuse the Americans of doing the same by bombing villages and homes. As the Taliban mounted an offensive this spring, the Americans and the Afghan government increased attacks as well, leaving both sides blaming one another for the surge in violence.
Sediq Seddiqi, the spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani, predicted that Monday’s attack would have repercussions in Doha, saying, “Not only the United States but the entire world is condemning it, obviously it will have its repercussions on the results of the ongoing talks.”
There was no outward sign of that, however. The officials with knowledge of the talks said that the issue did not come up at the Doha peace talks themselves, although American negotiators raised the violence with senior Taliban officials informally on the sidelines of the talks Monday.
The Taliban said it did not deliberately target the Uzair High School, whose 300 students, in first- through 12-grade, used the lower floors of an 11-story building near a Ministry of Defense facility. Many witnesses of the attack said the insurgents entered the school so they could reach the tower’s rooftop, which they used as a firing position.
Ahamadullah Darwish, 25, an English teacher at the school, described the scene after an initial explosion. “After a few minutes I thought to myself that I am the teacher, I must take over and control the children and get them out of the classroom,” he said. “Many students were injured and covered in blood.”
The blast was from a Taliban car bomb, which destroyed much of the school’s outer wall — a tactic that drew condemnation from rights workers, who said the insurgents should not have used such an indiscriminate weapon so close to civilians.
The head teacher of the school, Aziza Sayar Amiri, 55, said students recalled the attackers telling the children to stay out of the way. The students included five of her grandchildren, one of whom was injured.
“The attacker told them, ‘You are good human beings, you have nothing to do with this, get out of here. You are here to study, we won’t do anything to you,” she said.
Symptoms of psychological distress appeared immediately after Monday’s attack. Sayed Adel, 11, bleeding from his ears, was led home by his 12-year-old brother, who was also at the school.
“Sayed Adel was so shocked and the entire night he could not sleep and didn’t allow us to sleep either,” said his grandmother and the head teacher, Amiri. “He kept telling us that he doesn’t want to go to school anymore. He was saying that something is eating him from inside.”
A fifth-grade religion teacher at the bombed school, Safiullah, 24, woke up in a hospital bed after the explosion. (Like many Afghans, he uses only one name). “I am really worried about my students,” he said “They are just 10 and 12, they have no idea about war and peace. It is a dirty game by the Americans and the Taliban.”
The Taliban said the attack was aimed at the military facility. In an unusual admission, however, the insurgents acknowledged there were civilian casualties.
“According to some reports, some civilians have been slightly wounded,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said. “But civilians were not the target.”
Ghani’s government has so far been excluded from the peace talks, although the Americans have insisted that once a deal is made, the next step would be talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
The Afghan government used the attack on the school as evidence of Taliban bad faith. “This shows they are not committed to peace,” Seddiqi said.
Darwish, the English teacher, said he is having trouble sleeping. “Yesterday all the students were screaming, ‘Mom, please come and save me,’ and I was hearing that again and again,” Darwish said.