The Afghan forces air strikes on a madrassah in the northern province of Kunduz, which killed more than 100 civilians, mostly children, will complicate the conflict in the war-ravaged country. The air bombardment by Afghan air force helicopters on the madrassah has been one of the deadliest attacks by government forces on civilians in Afghanistan in the 17-year-old conflict. Afghan officials have tried to justify the air strike, arguing that the top leadership of the Afghan Taliban had gathered at the site and the bombardment was aimed at them. This justification is hard to believe, because there is little, if any, evidence that the Taliban leaders were present at the madrassah at the time of the attack.
Even if it is believed that some Taliban commanders were in the Kunduz madrassah does this warrant that Afghan forces kill civilians indiscriminately? Irrespective of the Afghan officials argument to justify the attack, the incident would have far-reaching negative consequences. This seems to be sensed by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who despite the claims by Afghan defense and civilian officials to the contrary, admitted that civilians were killed and the incident was going to be investigated. Obviously, President Ghani was trying to effect damage control but it was too late and repercussions would be felt sooner rather than later.
The reasons that the Kunduz air attack would have large-scale negative effects on peace in Afghanistan are multiple. The most important cause would be that most of those killed were children or young boys. At least 80 families have lost their young male children and this is obviously unacceptable to them. Here the incident could be likened to the Army Public School (APS) attack in Peshawar in December 2014, in which terroristS killed around 150 children, mostly young boys. As a consequence, the Pakistani government came up with the comprehensive National Action Plan and under it extensive military offensives against the terrorists were launched across Pakistan particularly in their bastions in FATA. Resultantly, terrorist hideouts, cells and command and control structure have been dismantled. In Kunduz, Afghan children were killed by air bombardment by the country’s forces, whereas in Pakistan, Afghanistan-based terrorist commander, Fazlullah, accepted responsibility for the attack on the APS Peshawar. The crux of the argument is that when so many children are killed in a country, whosoever may have killed them, the consequences are severe for the perpetrators. As Afghan forces owned the attack, they would have to face the consequences for the strike killing innocent children.
Another very important reason the attack by the Afghan air force would have far-reaching negative consequences on peace in Afghanistan is that most of those killed were students of a religious institution, particularly graduates of the Holy Quran. The killing of students engaged in Quranic studies is, indeed, loathsome. This has created ripples of hatred for the Afghan government, particularly its forces, within Afghan society and people. Naturally an increasing number of Afghans would consider the Taliban, the key insurgent group, and their struggle legitimate and justified. Historically, those insurgent and resistance movements which have the large-scale support of the people in the area or countries where they operate, are better poised to succeed. The Afghan Taliban as a group has survived for more than two decades and it could not be defeated by the US and NATO forces as well as more than 300,000 Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) because of the social support which the group has had. It is not only because of the superior military techniques or fighting skills of the Taliban that they have remained invincible.
In the aftermath of the attack on Kunduz madrassah, the Taliban would step up their attacks on the ANSF with increased vigour and enthusiasm. This would further dim the prospects for peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Here one important aspect is of note. The gory attack on the seminary came after President Ghani offered the Taliban to recognize it as a legitimate political movement so that the ground for negotiations could be prepared. However, the Taliban refused to negotiate with the Afghan government but offered talks to Washington, which according to the former has the real power to have meaningful talks, as opposed to the puppet President Ghani administration. Why did it happen that, on the one hand, Ghani was offering talks and on the other hand the ANSF made such an attack on a seminary killing at least 100 children? The reason is that the Afghan establishment, particularly its security branches, have an abundant presence of officials from the communist era and any reconciliation of the government with the Taliban is not in the individual or group interest of these officials. We have been pointing out this factor in these lines since a long time. When the Taliban engaged in rare negotiations with the Afghan government in a Pakistani hill resort some years back, the Afghan intelligence agency, National Directorate of Security (NDS) revealed that the Taliban founder, Mullah Omar, had been killed a couple of years back. The information turned out to be correct, but divulging the same on the eve of the talks between Kabul and the Taliban was aimed at torpedoing the peace process, which ultimately evaporated into thin air. In fact, the communist-era Afghan officials, joined by new recruits think that if somehow the Taliban join the Afghan government this would reduce their influence and clout and many may also lose their positions and perks.
It is important to note that according to a New York Times report, Afghanistan has the surprising number of 3,000 officials enjoying the rank of general. The position is given as a bribe to those warlords, who express their allegiance to the Afghan government. So how could one expect professionalism from such a force?
This, indeed, is a very explosive situation and casts long shadows on the prospects for peace in Afghanistan. The institutions, including the ANSF, which the US thinks it has raised in the war-ravaged country with billions and billions of dollars could not be developed on sound footings. Therefore, they are not up to the task for which they are meant. The US and its allies should have taken more caution in raising the ANSF and other state institutions. However, a lot of water has flown under the bridge and the process of reforming the Afghan system of government is well-nigh impossible. The way forward is virtually invisible. The only way is to dismantle the ANSF and other key government institutions and to build them from scratch. The task is onerous, if not impossible, and the Americans seem in no position, or of a mind, to undertake such reform.