Why this hospital attack is pushing Afghans toward ‘tipping point’

Rafiullah Wardak and his wife Nazeya chose the Barchi National Maternity Hospital in Kabul for the birth of their third child because it was “safe.” They never suspected it would be the target of a militant attack that would shock even war-hardened Afghans.

Baby Amina was born Tuesday morning, welcomed into the world with the first embrace of her mother. It would also be her last.

Less than an hour later, Nazeya was killed by three bullets as three gunmen stormed the ward. Amina, shot twice in the leg, survived.

Women and children have died before in Afghanistan, in the decades of war that have killed tens of thousands of civilians. Hospitals, too, have suffered dramatic attacks.

But even by Afghanistan’s low standard, the brutal attack Tuesday changed minds. It left at least 24 dead – including mothers, nurses, and two newborns. And it took place amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Many Afghans have turned even more stridently against Taliban and Islamic State militants responsible for so much bloodshed in the country, jeopardizing an already stalled U.S.-led peace effort. And that raises the question of whether the attack against such innocents might prove to be a tipping point that galvanizes Afghans seeking a way out of war. And, if such a horrifying assault is not a tipping point, what it would take to alter such a violent status quo, including a surge of lethal Taliban attacks.

“We have spent our whole lives in war and violence, and expected to make our children’s lives better, but the Taliban will never let us achieve our dreams,” says Mr. Wardak, an Afghan policeman for eight years. After burying his wife Wednesday, he waited anxiously Friday as little Amina underwent another round of surgery.

The conservative Islamist Taliban denied any role in the Kabul attack, or in a suicide bombing that day of a funeral in eastern province of Nangarhar, which killed at least 32 people. U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad tweeted the American assessment that the Islamic State conducted both attacks, and urged Afghanistan not to fall “into the ISIS trap and delay peace or create obstacles.”

A stymied peace deal

The withdrawal agreement the Taliban signed with the U.S. in Doha, Qatar on Feb. 29 was meant to lead to intra-Afghan talks beginning March 10. But that deal, which excluded the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani, has been stymied by a dispute over prisoner releases and a resurgence of Taliban attacks against Afghan security units – even if the jihadists have steered away from targeting U.S. and NATO forces. Since the accord, under which American officials say the Taliban agreed to an 80% reduction of violence, the jihadists have instead conducted some 55 attacks per day, Afghan officials say.

“Unfortunately, what this seems like it might be a tipping point for, is a lot of people rejecting the very idea of trying to give this peace process a chance,” says Andrew Watkins, senior Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group think tank.

“What really worries me is not the fact that there are such intense responses to this attack, [but] that there are no new ideas,” says Mr. Watkins. “What I’m not hearing is any recommendation for anything that could prevent this from happening again tomorrow. … What is it that we might be tipping back into?”

“I don’t think it’s a final blow to the inching forward that the peace process has undergone,” he adds. “But then we come to this question of the national mood, and for so many people this just seems to be it, this seems to be a line crossed.”

Indeed, it doesn’t matter that the hospital attack, striking civilians in the Shiite-majority district of Dasht-e Barchi in western Kabul, bore the signs of an Islamic State operation. It is the Taliban’s continued violence that “paves the way for other groups,” says Mr. Wardak, Amina’s father.

“I will never forget this crime. I will never forgive the Taliban,” he says, distraught. “The Taliban will never accept peace.” And he is not alone.

An angry and exhausted Afghan eyewitness to the attack was visiting the family of another newborn when the shooting began. “Peace with the Taliban is like writing on a piece of ice, and putting it in the sun,” he said, citing a well-known Afghan saying.

Official reaction was swift.

“The Taliban have not reduced violence, and instead they have increased their attacks,” President Ghani said. “In order to provide security for public places and to thwart attacks. … I am ordering Afghan security forces from an active defense mode to an offensive one, to start their operation against the enemies.”

Hamdullah Mohib, Afghanistan’s national security adviser, weighed in as well. “The attacks of the last two months show us and the world that Taliban and their sponsors do not and did not intend to pursue peace,” he tweeted.

If the Taliban can’t control violence, he added, there “seems little point in continuing to engage Taliban in ‘peace talks.’”

Anti-Taliban sentiment deepens

Indeed, though technical discussions continue behind closed doors on provisions of the U.S.-Taliban accord – prisoner releases, efforts to reduce violence, and the start of Taliban-government talks – popular sentiment against the militants has been forged anew by the scale of killing.

Even without a fresh declaration of war, the violence feels like business as usual in Afghanistan, where the Taliban have made battlefield gains for years and now control or contest more than half the country.

“If you look around Afghanistan today and the last few weeks, it looks like a normal spring offensive to me,” Kate Clark, the co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, told Al Jazeera English.

“To be honest, I don’t see any intention from the Taliban of sitting down and talking. Their actions belie that,” Ms. Clark said. “Now you can talk and fight, we’ve seen that in other conflicts. But you have to at least have the intention that a political negotiation is your aim. … And up to now, I don’t think we’ve seen that from the Taliban side.”

Still, neither Afghan side wants to be held responsible for completely shutting down the American-initiated process, even as they bicker over the very first step of a prisoner exchange, two-and-a-half months after the deal was signed. To build “confidence,” the government was meant to release 5,000 Taliban fighters, and the Taliban to release 1,000 prisoners. But only a fraction have been let go.

But the Ghani government is facing tremendous U.S. pressure.

“As terrible as it is, and as much as I don’t want to minimize or marginalize the mass psychological impact of Tuesday’s attacks, the fact is the Afghan government still has a $1 billion cut to [U.S.] aid dangling over its head, like the Sword of Damocles,” says the Crisis Group’s Mr. Watkins.

“The Taliban still very badly wants to reap the fruits of international legitimacy and what seems like the certification of their victory that the deal signed in Doha would deliver them,” he says. “So even if we are at a tipping point, there are big, threatening reasons that are coming in the form of U.S. pressure, and even if it is only by a thread, it does seem to keep both actors plugged in by a thread.”

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