The political campaign for the September 28 presidential election in Afghanistan got a bloody start on July 28 when the office of vice-presidential candidate Amrullah Saleh came under attack. Mr. Saleh, a former intelligence chief and President Ashraf Ghani’s running mate, survived the attack, which killed at least 30 people. He was rescued from the building when security personnel fought the gunmen for hours.
At first, a car bomb went off outside the office of the Afghan Green Trend (AGT), Mr. Saleh’s political party, and then gunmen entered the building. One eyewitness, who spoke to this reporter, described the carnage that followed the explosion. “The area has a number of buildings with glasses and the explosion caused a rain of shards. I saw several hundred people injured, including children who had glass cuts on their faces,” said 24-year-old Fazal Ahmad, who was close to the site at the time of explosion. “If you ask me, I would guess hundreds are injured and killed,” he added, while waiting outside the Emergency Ward and Trauma Hospital in Kabul to hear news about his cousin, who was among those injured.
While no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, members of the Afghan Green Trend are certain that the perpetrators were from the Taliban, which had made several attempts at Mr. Saleh’s life in the past. In November last year, an attack on his house in Kabul was averted by the security forces. “There were always standing threats against the Green Trend, but we were made aware by the NDS [National Directorate of Security] of a specific threat against our offices in the run-up to the election campaign,” an AGT member said on condition of anonymity. “No one has claimed responsibility yet, but we are certain it is the Taliban.”
Mr. Saleh, best known for his tenure as the NDS chief, as well as for his most recent, short-lived, profile as the reformist Interior Minister, has been extremely critical of the Taliban. Despite the threats to his life, Mr. Saleh has also persistently rejected the claims of the Taliban’s growing control and influence in the country.
In February, he tweeted: “A challenge: Those who claim that terror groups controls nearly half of Afg are invited to visit my office in Kabul & join us for a tour of the country by road, by plane, by bike, on horse and by foot. This falsehood & fake news is mostly spread by stooges, agents & idiots.” He followed up his statement by taking a ride around Kabul on a cycle and meeting the locals.
A staunch critic of the Afghan President, Mr. Saleh’s decision to join President Ghani’s re-election campaign as his running mate has raised many eyebrows. In a campaign event on July 28 just hours before the attack, Mr. Saleh explained his decision. He said he wants to “turn Afghanistan into a regional hub for trade and a centre of civilisation”.
That the attack happened on the day President Ghani launched his campaign for the much-delayed election suggests that the election season could be violent. Already, the civilian casualties figures of the first six months of 2019, released by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan on Tuesday, paints a grim picture with over 3,800 casualties. While the overall figures for the first half are lower than those for the first half of last year, there was a 27% increase in civilian deaths since the first quarter report. The UN has documented a total of 1,366 deaths this year.
The report also points to a worrying trend of deliberate targeting of civilians, aid workers, religious leaders, places of worship and public places such as schools and government offices. This has led to serious concerns among international humanitarian groups and stakeholders over the protection of civilians as the country gets down to the election process.
“We urge all parties to heed this imperative, to answer the call of Afghans for immediate steps to be taken to reduce the terrible harm being inflicted,” Tadamichi Yamamoto, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, said during the Intra-Afghan peace dialogue held earlier this month between some Afghan leaders and the Taliban in Doha.
“Everyone heard the message loud and clear from Afghan delegates in the Doha talks — ‘reduce civilian casualties to zero!’” he said.
Ruchi Kumar is a journalist based in Kabul