Conflict & Justice

Afghan Security: The Ostrich Factor

Saturday was a very bad day in Jalalabad, the capital of the eastern province of Nangarhar. At least 18 people died and up to 80 were injured when insurgents in police uniforms attacked a bank where security forces were lined up to receive their monthly pay packet.

Local doctors say the final death toll will be much higher than immediately reported – as many as 40, according to one surgeon at the main Jalalabad hospital.

The attackers included suicide bombers and gunmen; many of the injured were hit by flying debris from the initial explosion. But according to The New York Times, after a protracted gun battle, when everyone thought the worst was over, an insurgent in a police uniform managed to detonate his own explosive vest as he was being carried to an ambulance. This killed many more, including rescue workers. Eyewitnesses, unable to unravel the sequence of events, thought that the ambulance itself had contained a bomb.

While the scale of the tragedy was out of the ordinary, the fact of the attack was very much business as usual. In the past month, Nangarhar has witnessed no fewer than five explosions – one in a music store in Jalalabad, one in a parked motorcycle, another that damaged a NATO plane at the airfield, and at least two Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) outside the city that targeted government vehicles. There were at least ten casualties – less dramatic than Saturday’s toll, but still significant in a province that is supposed to be one of the safer locales in the country.

Just over a month ago, a friend of mine was badly injured by an IED on the busy road between Jalalabad and Torkham, the border area with Pakistan. He required eye surgery to repair a damaged cornea as a result of the attack.

Nevertheless, when an Afghan reporter interviewed Nangarhar’s Chief of Police, General Ali Shah Paktiawal, a day or two before the latest assault, he insisted that everything was fine.

“Don’t listen to those reports,” Paktiawal instructed the reporter. “We’ve had a security seminar here. Nangarhar is doing well.”

On February 11, Paktiawal and other officials hosted a conference in Jalalabad on the transfer to Afghans of full control over security – the much-vaunted “Inteqal” or “Transition” that has commandeered headlines and quite a bit of funding over the past several months. They all decided that Jalalabad was more than up to the task.

According to President Hamid Karzai, this transition will begin next month, right after the Afghan New Year, which falls on March 21.

But perhaps Paktiawal’s confidence deserves a bit of toning down.

The security forces in Nangarhar were caught by surprise in Saturday’s attack; despite the obvious target represented by the high concentration of police, no one was prepared for trouble.

The chief of police and his deputy were among those injured in the assault – fortunately, not seriously. But they lost at least seven officers in the blast, for which the Taliban promptly claimed responsibility.

“We inflicted heavy casualties on the security forces of the puppet government,” a Taliban spokesman said, as reported in The New York Times.
Paktiawal and his colleagues are still insisting that they can handle the responsibility for their own security. But with just one month to go before Transition begins, some observers may be forgiven for getting a bit nervous.