'Killing the brain of Afghanistan': Wave of assassinations stokes fear, mars peace talks

A number of attacks have hit Afghanistan, mainly against prominent women, journalists and other progressives.

The wave of targeted killings has fueled fear among Afghan intellectuals and increased general concern about the future of the battle-hardened nation.

As of January 20, 40 people had been killed in the last three months of 2020, in addition to more than 130, according to Afghan Peace Watch, a nonprofit research and media organization.

The violence stems from fragile negotiations in Qatar between the US-backed Afghan government and the Taliban insurgents to end the country’s decades-long conflict and the government is pushing for a ceasefire. This could also pose a challenge for the Biden administration as it takes office just months before the scheduled May deadline for the remaining US troops to leave the country.

Zakia Herawi, one of two judges who were killed in Afghanistan on January 17th.

In a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, Antony Blinken, President Joe Biden’s candidate for Secretary of State, said the Biden team plans to bring US troops home if conditions in Afghanistan permit. while maintaining the ability to fight a resurgence of terrorism in the country.

Haji Mustafa Herawi’s sister was one of two female judges who were mowed down by armed men on a street in Kabul this month. He has little doubt that the Taliban were behind the attack, and Afghan officials have repeatedly blamed the insurgents for the series of murders. Taliban leaders have refused to attack civilians, saying they are not responsible for killing the judges.

“She was enlightened and had a desire to contribute to her country,” he told NBC News in the days following her murder. His eyes streaked with tears. “Your goal is to make Afghanistan free of educated and enlightened people and to throw this country back into the dark times.”

In recent weeks, targeted attacks have killed the deputy governor of Kabul, the head of a local radio station in Ghor province and a women’s rights activist in Kapisa province.

“This type of assassination campaign is focused on killing the brains of Afghanistan,” said Habib Khan, founder of Afghan Peace Watch. “That can create a vacuum that will take decades to fill.”

A spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry has been unable to provide official data on the number of attacks in recent months, and it remains unclear who was behind the attacks. Taliban insurgents are widely believed to be prime suspects, but other groups are also believed to be taking advantage of the chaos.

Patricia Gossman, assistant director of Asia at Human Rights Watch, said it is safe to say that a large number, if not most, of the attacks have been carried out by the Taliban and that the recent wave coincided with a sense of “triumph.” “among its commanders who feel that victory is within reach.

“While they claim not to kill civilians, they are basically redefining civilians to suit their own purposes,” she said, noting that the target groups are usually people that Taliban commanders are familiar with Connect government. “You have long said that people who work for the government are no longer civilians.”

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Razwan Murad, a spokesman for First Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who recently took responsibility for security in the capital, told NBC News that the insurgents have changed tactics since the US and Taliban signed a landmark agreement last February and replaced indiscriminate terrorist attacks with targeted killings so as not to anger Washington.

“The purpose of the IED explosions, targeted killings and increased violence is to put pressure on the Afghan government and gain an advantage in the peace talks,” he said. “The Taliban want to weaken the government, but our enemy will never achieve his goal.”

However, it is not just the Taliban who are accused of killing civilians. October Human Rights Watch accused Saleh tries to silence those who have reported victims of a civilian air strike by the Afghan government in Takhar province. He refused the claim.

Relatives carry the body of a judge who was shot and killed by armed men on January 17 in Kabul, Afghanistan.Mohammad Ismail / Reuters

And this month, NBC News spoke to a man who said he lost 18 relatives in an Afghan air strike in the rural Nimroz province. President Ashraf Ghani said he had directed officials to conduct a thorough review.

Even so, the assassinations of intellectuals in a country nearing a possible moment of transition have struck a nerve.

Orzala Ashraf Nemat, an Afghan civil society activist, hopes regional and international pressure will convince the Taliban to agree to a peaceful solution. But the recent wave of violence has made them worried about the future.

“Some of the audiences are not known to have controversial ideas. They are ordinary, simple civil society leaders,” she said.

“That scares people – in the end, it shows that everyone is a target.”

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