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.
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