Yesterday morning started with an event so senseless and evil that it is hard to describe. An American army patrol was moving through downtown Jalalabad when the villains detonated a bicycle mounted IED. This IED had no chance of even denting the paint job on an MRAP, but it did throw out a bunch of shrapnel, which killed one of the best diesel engine mechanics in town and wounded another 15 civilians – mostly children.
I drove up behind the convoy a few minutes after the attack. They had stopped, dismounted and were treating the injured. I walked up to the rear vehicle turret gunner and asked if I could cut through the convoy and head into the downtown area. He pointed over to the scene and said they were treating a bunch of school kids and I could not get through the circle yet. I had thought that the IED had gone off much further down the street, where there’s a stretch of road with very little pedestrian activity. Once I saw where the bomb had gone off I was stunned – the traffic circle is full of children at that time of the day. I asked if they were OK and he said yes, but there were a lot of injured school kids; he was visibly upset about the children. I could see soldiers working on the kids about 50 yards further down the street and can only imagine how upset they were.
It is hard to determine exactly what an attack of this nature was supposed to accomplish. There was zero chance that the bomb would damage an American convoy. We are told again and again that careless use of firepower by ISAF is generating more fighters determined to get revenge for the deaths of family members. If that is true one would suspect the Taliban would also not conduct meaningless attacks which kill and injure innocents; there are conflicting reports, one says the Taliban claimed credit for the attack, another says they specifically denied any involvement.
Bicycle borne IED’s are anti-personal weapons which are not very powerful and not effective against vehicles – especially armored vehicles. They can cause a lot of casualties among unprotected civilians, which is exactly what happened yesterday. So what was the point? That is impossible to say, but here are some things to mull over. In the last three weeks or so there have been a series of very minor rocket strikes and IED attacks. This started around Nowruz, which is the Persian New Year (it is 1389 now by that calender) and was celebrated on the 19th of March. There were reportedly warnings by the Taliban to local people not to celebrate Nowruz, which were dismissed out of hand. Pashtunistan square in the downtown area was crammed with people (male people anyway) during the evening of Nowruz. During the early morning hours a single 107mm rocket landed in the eastern end of the city and two small IED’s went off near Pashtunistan square. Even on New Year’s the streets are empty by 0100 so these three attacks caused no casualties and little damage. They caused no reaction from the local people other than annoyance. There have been several single 107 rocket shots which have landed in local housing areas since Nowruz which have caused little damage and only one casualty. The bike attack yesterday seems to be a tipping point; it has the locals attention – they are upset and angry.
One of the factors in play with our efforts in Afghanistan is the absolute disgust local Afghans harbor for the various factions who conduct attacks of this nature or try to intimidate them into not celebrating traditional Persian holidays because the Wahhabi school of Islam does not recognize them. They are fed up with this kind of incredibly reckless use of weapons which are targeting them. Hezb-e-Islami Gullbuddin (HIG), the Taliban sort of affiliate party run by Gullbuddin Heckmatyar, has announced a suspension of operations while they talk with the Karzai Government and has even been fighting with Taliban formations in both the northern part of the country and in Kunar Province. HIG is responsible for much of the mayhem in the region and it could be that withdrawing their fighters created a power vacuum which has been filled by amateurs of the religious extremist type. They will not be able to hide inside the local population for long if they are so stupid that they shoot rockets at the biggest public park in Jalalabad during Nowruz and cook off anti personnel IED’s around crowds of school children. When the local security apparatus gets wound up and on the trail of cells operating in urban areas like Jalalabad they can be very effective. Somebody is going to answer for the bike attack, but even if they roll up the entire cell it will not have a meaningful or lasting impact in the overall provincial security situation. The only meaningful measurement of progress is economic. When the unemployment is reasonable and opportunity for a living wage widely available to all Afghans, then the little bands of psychos who set off bombs around school children will never be able to survive inside the population. We have a long way to go before we reach such an aggressive milestone and until we do, we are going to see more senseless attacks of this nature.