After a car bomb was detonated near a police headquarters in the southwest of Kabul, security forces, residents and store-owners watched reacted to an explosion as Afghan security forces conducted an operation to kill the unknown number of armed attackers who followed the initial bomb blast to inflict more casualties. The operation continued for a number of hours, ending as dark fell. Between it and another attack against a compound housing Afghan intelligence officers from the National Directorate of Security in the east of the city, the Ministry of Interior said 15 were killed, including 11 civilians. Another 50 people were reportedly wounded in both attacks. The Taliban claimed responsibility for both attack and said they had killed dozens of Afghan security forces.

‘Onlookers’, by Andrew Quilty


Words and photos by Andrew Quilty

Scraps of scorched human flesh cling to the branches of a tree at the entrance to a police base in Kabul.

The road outside is crowded with traffic leaving the city at the end of a cold, winter workday. As passers-by come alongside the base’s entrance—where a few hours earlier a man had walked into a queue of policemen waiting to go inside and detonated a vest packed with explosives—the commuters strain to look at the scene. They see the cracked and blackened concrete blast walls; the bitumen wet from where firefighters hosed away puddles of blood, and a huddle of street cleaners leaning on wicker brooms. Another grizzly clean-up completed.

Scenes like this have been playing out on an increasingly regular basis in the Afghan capital since the end of 2014, when the US-led combat mission in Afghanistan was wound down and handed to the Afghans. Their armed forces—huge in number (350,000)—and material (the US has invested more than 75 million USD on the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF)) are largely low on experience and morale. The Taliban seized on the international withdrawal and the weaknesses of their new enemy—their countrymen—the ANSF. Attacks by the Taliban and their affiliates are an everyday occurrence. In 2017, countrywide, an average of more than 30 ANSF are being killed every day. Many barely make the news in Afghanistan, let alone internationally, but for residents of the media-saturated and social-media-savvy Kabul, each passing year is remembered in terms of the sequence of attacks and the neighbourhoods who’ve hosted them.

The targets chosen and methods used by attackers—who almost always fight to the death—vary. The Taliban focuses on military, government and foreign targets, whereas the so-called Islamic state’s afghan branch has tended towards soft targets such as mosques attended by the ethnic minority Hazara community because of their adherence to Shia rather than Sunni Islam.

The aftermaths of these attacks, however, play out in a macabre routine. Most start and end with a bomb. The dead and injured are haphazardly hauled into nearby vehicles and sped off to hospital as nearby ANSF—far enough away to have survived but close enough to be wide-eyed with fear—rush to secure the site. Then come the elite forces who widen the perimeter and move in to kill armed attackers who might have followed the initial explosion. By this stage, whether it’s a clean-up operation or an ongoing counter-attack, after the initial, instinctive retreat, residents, shopkeepers and passers-by amass beyond the police line, watching as the latest feature in the landscape of Kabul life takes form.

Onlookers gather along the edge of the Kabul River to watch the clean-up in the aftermath of a car bombing on a busy road close to the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Defence, as well as the high-profile Abdul Fazl (Shia) Shrine. The Ministry of Interior reported six killed and 30 injured in the blast. It followed the bombing assassination of the infamous Police Chief of Uruzgan Province, Matiullah Khan—also in Kabul—the week prior.
Motorists look at the damage caused by a bomb blast that occurred in the early hours of the morning in the Kabul neighbourhood of Shah Shaheed. Whether it was the intended target or not, a truck packed with explosives exploded at 1.17am on the road between an Afghan army base on one side and shops on the other. Fifteen people were said to be killed, while more than 250 were reported wounded. Later on the same day, the Taliban claimed two other attacks including a suicide bombing outside the Kabul Police Academy and another on a US Special Forces base, Camp Integrity. In total, approximately 50 were killed in all three attacks.
After a car bomb was detonated near a police headquarters in the southwest of Kabul, residents and store-owners watched on as Afghan security forces moved in to kill the unknown number of armed attackers who followed the initial bomb blast to inflict more casualties. The operation continued for a number of hours, ending as dark fell. Between it and another attack against a compound housing Afghan intelligence officers from the National Directorate of Security in the east of the city, the Ministry of Interior said 15 were killed, including 11 civilians. Another 50 people were reportedly wounded in both attacks. The Taliban claimed responsibility for both attack and said they had killed dozens of Afghan security forces.
Around noon in the Khwaja Rawash area east of central Kabul, Afghan National Police usher onlookers away from the site where, a few blocks away, an operation was taking place to kill insurgents who had taken over a house not far from Kabul International Airport and fired some sort of missiles (perhaps rocket propelled grenades, mortars or rockets) in an attempt to hit the plane of US Defence Secretary James Mattis as he arrived in Kabul for talks with NATO head Jens Stoltenberg and Afghan and international off icials for the first such visit since President Trump announced a supposedly new strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia, upping military efforts and numbers in the country and pressuring Pakistan to drop their support of the Taliban. The attack on the airport was claimed by both the Taliban and the Islamic State Khorasan Province. One civilian was reportedly killed and a few injured. The Afghan government forces’ operation lasted for six hours and reportedly resulted in the deaths of all three insurgents.
Bus passengers strain to see the site of a Taliban-claimed suicide bombing that occurred in a queue outside an entrance to a National Civil Order Police base earlier in the day. Twenty people were killed and around 30 wounded. The attack came before a third round of four-country “roadmap talks” trying to lay the groundwork for direct dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban. Delegates from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the US are set to convene in Islamabad on February 6 in an effort to seek a negotiated end to the 14-year Taliban insurgency.
After a car bomb was detonated near a police headquarters in the southwest of Kabul, residents and store-owners watched on as Afghan security forces moved in to kill the unknown number of armed attackers who followed the initial bomb blast to inflict more casualties. The operation continued for a number of hours, ending as dark fell. Between that and another attack against a compound housing Afghan intelligence officers from the National Directorate of Security in the east of the city, the Ministry of Interior said 15 were killed, including 11 civilians. Another 50 people were reportedly wounded in both attacks. The Taliban claimed responsibility for both attacks and said they had killed dozens of Afghan security forces.

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