Afghan troops resume ‘offensive’ stance after deadly attacks

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Afghan security forces stand guard outside Dasht-e-Barchi Hospital which came under attack in Kabul, Afghanistan May 12, 2020.
Afghan security forces stand guard outside Dasht-e-Barchi Hospital which came under attack in Kabul, Afghanistan May 12, 2020. REUTERS – MOHAMMAD ISMAIL

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani ordered the country’s security forces Tuesday to resume offensive operations against the Taliban and other insurgent groups, following two separate attacks that killed dozens of people. “I order all the security forces to end their active defence position, return to offensive postures, and resume their operations against the enemy,” Ghani said in a televised address. No group has claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s attacks on a maternity hospital in the capital Kabul and a funeral in the eastern province of Nangarhar, but Ghani blamed the Taliban and the Islamic State group.“Today we witnessed terrorist attacks by the Taliban and Daesh groups on a hospital in Kabul and a funeral in Nangarhar, as well as other attacks in the country,” Ghani said, using the Arabic abbreviation for the IS group. Earlier Tuesday, gunmen stormed a maternity hospital in the Afghan capital, killing at least 14 people – including newborns and nurses – as a suicide blast at a funeral in the country’s restive east left two dozen mourners dead.

Three gunmen held siege to the Barchi National Hospital in Kabul for hours after the early-morning attack before security forces killed them in a clearance operation, the interior ministry said.  The 100-bed government-run facility is supported by Doctors Without Borders, which is also known by its French name Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), said Wahidullah Mayar, a spokesman for the Ministry of Public Health. Heavily armed security forces were seen carrying infants away from the scene – at least one wrapped in a blood-soaked blanket. “The fatalities also include mothers and nurses,” interior ministry spokesman Tareq Arian said. Some 15 people were wounded and more than 100 – including three foreign nationals – were rescued, he said.

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Afghanistan at war

The hospital is located in the west of the city, home to the capital’s minority Shiite Hazara community – a frequent target of hardline Sunni militants from the Islamic State group. Tuesday’s attack was the latest hitting the country’s already stretched health sector, with facilities and medical personnel frequently caught in the crossfire during decades of war in the country. “We call on all sides to stop attacking hospitals and health workers,” said deputy health minister in the city, Waheed Majroh. Around an hour after the Kabul assault, a suicide bomber killed at least 24 people at the funeral of a local police commander in eastern Nangarhar province, according to provincial spokesman Ataullah Khogyani. The attacker detonated explosives in the middle of the ceremony. Amir Mohammad, who was wounded in the blast, said thousands of people had gathered for the funeral, an event that often draws huge crowds in Afghanistan. The Taliban denied involvement in either attack. The latest violence comes as Afghanistan grapples with myriad crises, including a rise in militant operations across the country, a surge in coronavirus infections, and a reduction in foreign military support.

String of IS group attacks

The violence comes just a day after four roadside bombs exploded in a northern district of Kabul, wounding four civilians including a child. Those bombings were later claimed by the so-called Islamic State group, according to the SITE intelligence group.They were just the latest in a string of IS group attacks on the capital. In March at least 25 people were killed by a gunman at a Sikh temple in Kabul in an attack later claimed by the group. The IS group was also responsible for an infamous attack in March 2017 on one of the country’s largest hospitals, when gunmen disguised as doctors stormed the Kabul building and killed dozens.

The jihadist group has recently suffered mounting setbacks after being hunted by US and Afghan forces as well as in Taliban offensives targeting their fighters, but it still retains the ability to launch major assaults on urban centres. The Taliban have largely refrained from launching major attacks on Afghan cities since February, when they signed a landmark withdrawal deal with the US meant to pave the way for peace talks with the Kabul government. Under the agreement, the Taliban promised not to target forces from the US-led coalition, but made no such pledge toward Afghan troops and have stepped up attacks in the provinces. The deal will see all US and foreign forces leave Afghanistan over the next year. Thousands of US troops have already gone, with a drawdown to 8,600 expected within months. In October 2015 US air strikes destroyed an MSF hospital in the northern city of Kunduz, killing 42 people. The city had earlier been seized by the Taliban.(France 24 news)