Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend

Taliban carrying out reign of terror in Afghan capital

Kabul attacks come ahead of peace talks slated for next week

- BY PAMELA CONSTABLE AND SHARIF HASSAN

KABUL, Afghanista­n — In a video, five turbaned fighters stand in a row, wearing flak jackets and sneakers, assault rifles at the ready. One says in Pashto that God hates those who stray from religion and “cling to a worldly life,” and obliges the faithful to wage jihad, even if they must face prison or death, to establish the “law of the Koran” on earth.

The video, published Monday on a Taliban spokesman’s Twitter account, came amid a rash of targeted shootings and bombings in the Afghan capital that have killed several dozen journalist­s, civic leaders, physicians, democracy advocates and government officials.

The mayhem has brought a new kind of personal terror to a city long accustomed to insurgent attacks against official buildings and military targets.

Even though U. S. troops are leaving the country, the militiaman explained, “it is permissibl­e to kill the [ American] puppet regime of Kabul” and those who aid it. English subtitles accompanie­d his raised voice. “We are carrying weapons to avenge our values and institutio­ns,” he said. “We are wholeheart­edly obeying the supreme command of Allah.”

The video was posted days before negotiatio­ns between Taliban and Afghan delegates are set to resume Wednesday in Qatar, after a two- week break. Afghan security officials have blamed the Taliban for several targeted killings, saying the insurgents are using new scare tactics to “leverage” their position at the negotiatin­g table and undermine public confidence in the government of President Ashraf Ghani.

The killings have led prominent civilians to take extra security measures or avoid going outdoors. The Taliban appear to be keeping close tabs on a variety of activities; a recent fashion show at a local hotel was immediatel­y denounced in a tweet from a Taliban leader, who charged that “Western intoxicati­on and ideas” have entered Afghan culture and warned that “anything in conflict with Islam” will be destroyed.

“People in Kabul used to worry whether they would be caught by chance in an attack on a government building or internatio­nal institutio­n. Now they worry whether they will be next on the list,” said one security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly.

But the chief Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, denied any involvemen­t in the attacks, calling the charges “propaganda.” In a voice mail response Friday to questions from The Washington Post, he said the insurgents had nothing to do with the killings and blamed them on Afghanista­n’s intelligen­ce agency.

“We have not killed the doctors, civil society activists, or people who have not taken

up arms against us,” he said in Dari. “They are not among our military targets, and killing them has no benefit for us.” When peace comes, he added, the country will need “educated” Afghans.

Mujahid said that the group’s primary goal is to settle the issues through talks, and that a “military solution” would only be used as a last resort.

Despite such denials, Afghan experts and officials said they have little doubt that the Taliban is behind the surge of attacks. Most victims have been killed in their vehicles, either by gunmen who escaped on motorbikes or magnetic bombs placed underneath the carriages. They said the insurgents are sending a veiled message to several audiences, including Afghan officials trying to retain public confidence, delegates returning to the peace talks and American officials in the incoming administra­tion.

The Afghan government has doubled the number of police and other security forces patrolling the capital, and vehicles are being stopped and searched on many street corners. Officials said they have made a number of arrests, and Interior Minister Massoud Andarabi told Afghan lawmakers on Wednesday that detainees had described a special new “cell” based in nearby Logar province that plans attacks on high- profile individual­s.

Many Afghans say U. S. officials gave too much away to the insurgents in the deal they signed in February, failing to commit them to specific conditions regarding violence and ties to other extremist groups, while agreeing to withdraw most U. S. troops by spring.

Since the pact was signed, the Taliban have waged a relentless campaign of attacks across the country, killing thousands of people. But in October, President Donald Trump announced that troop drawdown would be speeded up, adding to the insurgents’ sense of imminent victory.

“The Taliban are feeling triumphal, and they want to be seen as tough. They are not interested in winning hearts and minds,” said Davood Moradian, director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies. “They are using force to delegitimi­ze the Afghan state by showing it can’t protect the public, and to remove a layer of resistance to their victory by getting rid of those who represent the values of the Afghan republic.”

With a new government soon to take over in Washington, Moradian said, the insurgents want to make sure President- elect Joe Biden doesn’t change the terms of the February pact or set new conditions for pulling out the remaining 5,000 troops, slated to be halved next month. By sowing terror on city streets, he added, “the Taliban are telling the new administra­tion, ‘ Don’t you dare reopen the deal.’”

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