KABUL, Afghanistan – Suicide bombers, roadside bombs and rocket attacks on the Afghan capital have intensified in the one month since President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai took office as the Taliban are sending a message that they disapprove of his tough stance on ending the insurgency and close security ties with Washington, officials, analysts and the Taliban said.
In recent days, central Kabul’s diplomatic neighbourhood has been shaken by late night rocket attacks. On both Friday and Sunday nights, rockets were fired into the heavily fortified “green zone,” sending locals running for cover and international residents into basement safe rooms to await the all clear.
According to an Associated Press tally, there have been at least 10 incidents in Kabul since Ghani Ahmadzai’s inauguration on Sept. 29, killing 27 people.
These include six suicide bombings, two roadside bombs and two rocket attacks. Just hours after Ghani Ahmadzai took the oath of office, seven civilians were killed by a suicide bomber near Kabul airport. On Oct. 1, seven Afghan soldiers and one civilian died in a suicide attack on an Afghan National Army bus.
In the same month last year, six people were killed in five incidents, which included an insider attack on an army base in which an Afghan soldier opened fire on foreign troops and was shot dead. Rocket attacks have been relatively rare in recent years.
The Taliban said they were responsible for sending the rockets into the city and that they would continue doing so following an intense summer of fighting.
“The tactics of our attacks have changed because of the weather, the season. The recent rocket attacks were by us and our aim is to destroy this government,” said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.
He said the attacks were in retaliation for Ghani Ahmadzai’s decision to sign a bilateral security agreement with Washington, permitting a residual force of 9,800 U.S. troops to remain in the country after the end of the year. “These attacks will continue because this government has signed the (agreement). There will be more attacks, as we seek to strike at the head of the enemy,” Mujahid said.
The commander of Afghan National Army ground forces, Gen. Murad Ali Murad, said the recent addition of rocket attacks to the Taliban arsenal was an attempt “to show the international community that they are still a force to be reckoned with,” as they appeared aimed at the diplomatic district of Wazir Akhbar Khan.
Security in the capital – already fortress-like – had been stepped up, he said. Ghani Ahmadzai’s first month in office has coincided with Muharram, a month of mourning by Shiite Muslims for the death in 680 of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. It climaxes with the Ashoura festival, which this year falls in early November. In 2011, at least 54 people were killed in a suicide attack on a Kabul shrine on Ashoura day.
Afghanistan’s Shiite minority is estimated to comprise between 10 per cent and 30 per cent of the population. The true number is subject to speculation since no proper census has been conducted.
Wahid Mozhdah, a political analyst and former foreign ministry official in the Taliban’s 1998-2001 government, said he believed the insurgents were paying residents of villages outside the capital to enter the city to fire the rockets. “Slowly, slowly the tactics of the Taliban are changing, because now they are paying people to fire rockets for them – it’s easy, they just fire the rocket and run away,” he said. “The Taliban are not happy with this government because it has made it clear that it does not want to talk with the Taliban.”
Ghani Ahmadzai’s attitude toward the Taliban has been a departure from that of his predecessor, Hamid Karzai. While Karzai habitually referred to the insurgents as his “brothers” and castigated the United States for its military presence in Afghanistan, Ghani Ahmadzai has not mentioned the Taliban by name in public statements, referring instead to “political opponents.”
In response, analysts say the Taliban have adopted a strategy that emphasizes the vulnerability of Kabul and gives the impression that Ghani Ahmadzai’s government can’t protect the capital.
“Rocket attacks create a sense of crisis among the capital’s residents and force a deterioration of the security situation,” said Jawed Khoistani, a political analyst.
He suggested that the accuracy of the rockets that have landed in the green zone pointed to some degree of co-operation with the security forces that are supposed to be guarding the city perimeter. “Rockets are more dangerous than terrorist attacks in Kabul because it is clear there is help from within the capital itself,” he said.
Kabul shop keeper Ghulam Farooq said that while suicide attacks generally happened during daylight hours, the rocket attacks meant that “now Kabul is not safe at night either … I hope the Ghani government can put a stop to these night-time rocket attacks, so at least we can get some sleep.”