Will a gut-wrenching attack on mothers and babies shake up Afghanistan's peace process?

Will a gut-wrenching attack on mothers and babies shake up Afghanistan's peace process?
Comment: Two gruesome attacks shook Afghanistan this week, but even these horrific acts seem unlikely to mark a significant turning point in the stalled peace process, writes Tanya Goudsouzian.
5 min read
15 May, 2020
The attack on the Kabul maternity ward killed 24 people, including two newborns [MSF/Frederic Bonnot]
Despite years of almost daily incidents of deadly violence across Afghanistan, it was an attack on a maternity clinic in Kabul on Tuesday killing at least 24, that elicited an unprecedented global outpouring of sympathy and outrage for Afghanistan and its citizens.

As gruesome images of babies, mothers and nurses stuffed in body bags circulated on social media, the symbolism of gunmen targeting newborns in broad daylight signified the end of hope for many in the war-ravaged country.

As Mustafa Kazemi, an Afghan journalist and former soldier, tweeted: "I and millions of my generation have never seen or felt how or what peace is. And we may not - ever." The same day, reports emerged of yet another suicide attack at a police commander's funeral in Nangarhar, killing at least 26 people.

Afghan politicians and world leaders were quick to express outrage at the "sickening brutality" and "utter savagery" of these "egregious acts of evil". While no group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack on the maternity clinic, fingers have pointed to the Islamic State of Khorasan (IS-K), an Islamic State group (IS) affiliate, which has been active in the predominantly Shia neighbourhood.

Israel government swearing-in delayed by Pompeo visit: officialsEven so, the Afghan government insists that the Taliban cannot be absolved. Following Tuesday's attacks, President Ashraf Ghani ordered the national forces to go from "an active defensive mode to an offensive one".

The symbolism of gunmen targeting newborns in broad daylight signified the end of hope for many in the war-ravaged country

Vice President Amrullah Saleh tweeted immediately after the attack: "Terrorists Taliban, their current or former allies or their ideological twins attacked a maternity hospital (and) a funeral procession killing mothers, newborn babies (and) innocent civilians. This is the behaviour of the changed Taliban after they took courses on humane conduct in Doha."

The armed insurgents-turned-negotiators distanced themselves from this particular attack, but thus far they have exhibited little willingness to rein in the activities of the various terror groups active in Afghanistan.

Of note, these tragedies occur against the past year's US-Taliban talks, Afghanistan elections and inter-Afghan talks. Reactions to the attacks have been so pronounced that some have surmised they may mark a significant turning point in the stalled peace process.

"If the Taliban cannot control the violence, or their sponsors have now subcontracted their terror to other entities -which was one of our primary concerns from the beginning - then there seems little point in continuing to engage Taliban in 'peace talks'," tweeted National Security Advisor, Hamdullah Mohib. 

Read more: Women for Afghan Women: Escaping the shadow pandemic of gender-based violence

Soon after the signing of the much-heralded peace deal on 29 February, cracks began to appear. The ink was barely dry on the agreement when the contentious issue of the prisoner swap - an ambiguous item on the list - gave the Taliban a pretext to resume attacks against Afghan forces. Further, it became apparent the insurgent group was unlikely and unable to honour any of its commitments, among them a promise to eschew attacks and the harbouring of terror groups.

According to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, there are 
at least 20 terror groups active in the country, with bases in neighbouring Pakistan. These include the Haqqani Network, Al-Qaeda, IS, and Lashkar-e-Taiba. 

In the wake of Tuesday's attacks in Kabul and Nangarhar, the Afghan government reminded the international community yet again that beyond the Taliban and other terror groups lie their sources of foreign support. No official outrightly cited a particular country, but National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib repeatedly referred to the "Taliban and their sponsors".

Earlier this year, Ghani accused Pakistan of continuing to give sanctuary to an insurgent group that helps the Taliban in its war against Kabul and the United States. While a Pakistani foreign office spokesperson duly condemned the attacks on Tuesday, Islamabad has often been criticised for playing a "double game" in the "War on Terror."

Still, rather than assume a united position against a common series of threats, internal discord within Afghanistan's political elites, all jockeying for power, continues to thwart efforts to pursue inter-Afghan talks. The Afghan opposition and other critics - who have been reticent about recognising Ghani's victory in last year's election - are lamenting the "absence of a clear national security policy" and faulting the government for "badly protected civilians", for which "vulnerable security forces pay the price".

Along with civilians and security forces, the peace process is also a victim, as this prolonged internal conflict has only served to further embolden the Taliban which has dug in its heels and refused to compromise on pivotal issues.

As for the US, its response has been muted. The Trump administration's tepid reaction to Tuesday's carnage seems to reaffirm its unbending commitment to the Doha deal, and its withdrawal from Afghanistan, whatever the circumstances or consequences.

One wonders the scale of violence or levels of atrocity the US is willing to 'note' before reassessing the process

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's remark was disappointing, saying only "We note the Taliban have denied any responsibility…" One wonders the scale of violence or levels of atrocity the US is willing to "note" before reassessing the process. Afghans have not forgotten how in September 2019, the United States halted talks with the Taliban over the death of one American soldier.

Yet, following this latest carnage in Kabul and Nangarhar, many find it ironic that Washington is urging Afghans to hasten peace talks, and surrender to a brutal enemy.    

Tuesday's attack on the Kabul maternity ward was a heinous, criminal act that should offend any sense of decency. One would hope that an atrocity of this scale would push all stakeholders to reassess the terms of the peace process, proceed with the inter-Afghan talks and move towards a lasting peace. But, it has not.

Political machinations among Afghan politicians continue apace, the US remains focused on a withdrawal plan at any cost and the Taliban show no inclination to pursue the peace they agreed to only three months prior.

Sadly, if there had been any hope that Tuesday's heart-wrenching attacks would move the dial on the path towards peace, at this point it appears unlikely.

Tanya Goudsouzian is a Canadian journalist who has covered Iraq and Afghanistan for over 15 years. She is former Opinion editor of Al Jazeera English Online. 

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.