Afghan intelligence services admit they knew an attack was coming, but blame the government next door for organizing it.
- By Ruchi KumarRuchi Kumar is a journalist in Afghanistan.
KABUL — At 8:20 a.m. Wednesday, the Afghan capital of Kabul shook as a massive explosion rippled across the city. A septic tanker loaded with explosives had been triggered at a major traffic junction in Wazir Akbar Khan, the diplomatic area, in the middle of rush hour. At least 85 people were killed and more than 650 injured, making the attack the worst in Afghanistan since 2001, when the Taliban regime was toppled with the help of the United States.
The numbers are still rising. Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS), the country’s intelligence agency, took responsibility for failing to prevent the assault, with one official admitting to Foreign Policy that the NDS had prior intelligence that it would occur. But even as nobody has yet claimed credit for the bombing, the NDS has pinpointed a culprit.
Just hours after the explosion, the NDS pointed to the Haqqani Network, an insurgent group in the Afghan-Pakistani borderlands that shares close ties with the Taliban, as the perpetrators. But Afghan intelligence lay ultimate blame with their Pakistani counterpart, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which it claimed had planned the blast.
It’s an extraordinary accusation, but a plausible one. ISI has been accused of involvement in other terror attacks, including the assault on Mumbai, India, in 2008 carried out by the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba. ISI was also complicit in the establishment of the Taliban, supporting and funding its founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar, in the 1990s.
Afghan-Pakistani relations have become exceptionally strained in the past few years precisely because of Afghan suspicions about such support. Afghan leaders have repeatedly called for strikes by the international community — meaning the United States — on safe havens in Pakistan. And over the past year, Pakistan has forcibly repatriated 600,000 refugees back to Afghanistan. Frequent border skirmishes between the armed forces of each side have worsened the tensions.
The NDS minced no words in its statement. “These terrorists once again proved they don’t represent any religion and they only carry out such coward attacks to please their Pakistani masters which is against all Islamic and human rights principals [sic],” it read. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani ran with the accusations against Pakistan in a blazing speech on Wednesday night. In a decree issued earlier Thursday, he ordered the hanging of 11 Haqqani Network and Taliban prisoners.
But the Taliban denies any connection to this week’s incident. “This explosion has nothing to do with the Mujahideen of Islamic Emirate,” a statement on their website read. “Islamic Emirate condemns every explosion and attack carried out against civilians, or in which civilians are harmed and has no legitimate target,” they added. Pakistan has called the claims “baseless.”
The NDS is also in urgent need of a clear culprit after its failure to prevent the bombing. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a government official told Foreign Policy that the agency was aware the blast was coming. “We knew about a possible attack targeting the Wazir Akbar Khan area as far back as May 21,” the official revealed. Security around the area had been ramped up, with additional checkpoints set up in anticipation of the explosion. “But we weren’t expecting a truck bomb — we were looking for a Corolla or a similar car carrying explosives. We failed to identify the threat,” the source admitted.
While trucks, buses, and larger vehicles are prohibited in that area of Kabul, the explosives were loaded onto a septic tanker, believed to have been contracted privately by one of the diplomatic missions in the area. “Such a truck would also require a clearance document to be able to enter that area,” the official told Foreign Policy. “We are currently investigating if the insurgents used a fake clearance card, or if they managed to get access to an original from one of the embassies.”
While the Afghan government blames Pakistan, many Afghans are speculating about a different culprit — the Islamic State. The terrorist group moved heavily into Afghanistan last year, carrying out a series of lethal assaults in Kabul and elsewhere, including an assault on a military hospital in March. Although no official ISIS channel has claimed responsibility yet, chatter on pro-ISIS platforms on social media has been celebrating the bombing as revenge for the massive Afghan-U.S. strike against tunnels used by the terrorist group last month. The explosion, which used the “Mother of All Bombs,” was hailed as a success by Afghan leaders and killed 39 ISIS fighters.
The official ruled out the possibility of the Islamic State’s involvement, insisting that while one arm of the Taliban may have denied involvement, the Haqqani Network, their close ally, was definitely complicit. “As for Daesh [ISIS], we are confident it wasn’t their doing. They tend to wrongly take credit for any attack against the Afghan state,” it said, claiming that the March hospital assault was carried out by the Haqqani Network, and not ISIS, even though the latter claimed responsibility. The government has previously blamed ISIS for the attack, which was condemned by the Taliban.
Some retaliation against Pakistan seems likely — and will probably have the support of an angry Afghan public. “Not just the Afghan government, but all nations of the world must come together and declare Pakistan as a terror state,” said Idrees Stanikzai, an activist with the Afghanistan Youth Jirga, a political organization in Kabul. He added that Afghans would not only support action against ISI and Pakistan, but have also started campaigning against the sale and use of Pakistani products around the country. “The world knows Pakistan is sponsoring a terrorist state and is responsible for the death of thousands of innocent Afghans. Our lives matter; we are also humans.”
Meanwhile, families and friends of those injured in the explosion continue to wait outside hospitals. “My colleague was badly injured. They took him to the hospital. I am worried because he isn’t answering his phone,” Shah Mohammad, a 21-year-old carpenter who barely survived the assault, told Foreign Policy. A visibly shaken Mohammad was knocked unconscious, while his colleague was injured badly. “When I woke up, I saw people running. I was so afraid, and I ran as far as I could from the site,” he added, with deep worry in his voice over his colleague.
The Afghan government’s response to the bombing seems certain to come under severe scrutiny by the public. Afghans have had plenty of opportunities to develop coping mechanisms to deal with terrorism. But this latest attack could mark the public’s tipping point toward expressing its pent-up frustration, both against their neighbors and perhaps their own government.
Photo credit: SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images