The Taliban on Wednesday said they were ready to fight back against Afghan forces, after the president told troops to resume offensive operations following a series of horrific attacks that have further unravelled a fragile peace process.
Meanwhile new details emerged of Tuesday’s brazen assault on a Kabul hospital, where at least 24 people including infants, mothers and nurses were killed. The daylight attack was followed by a blast at a funeral in the country’s east that killed 32 mourners.
According to international humanitarian organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders, which runs the maternity wing at the Barchi Hospital in west Kabul, one woman gave birth during the lengthy assault.
“While pregnant women and babies were seeking health care in one of the most vulnerable states in life … attackers stormed the maternity (unit) through a series of explosions and gunfire lasting for hours,” MSF said in a statement.
The group said at least one Afghan colleague appeared to have been among those killed in the “revolting” attack.
President Ashraf Ghani blamed both that assault and the funeral bombing on the Taliban and the Islamic State group, ordering Afghan troops to “resume their operations against the enemy”.
Afghan forces had for weeks been on a “defensive” posture in an attempt to help clear the way for peace talks with the Taliban.
But the insurgents, who have denied involvement in Tuesday’s attacks, warned they were “fully prepared” to counter any strikes by Afghan security forces.
“From now onwards the responsibility of further escalation of violence and its ramifications shall fall squarely on the shoulders of the Kabul administration,” the Taliban said in a statement.
The aggressive posturing from both sides raises fresh questions about the fate of a hoped-for peace process that is teetering just as Afghanistan grapples with a public health crisis from rising coronavirus cases.
Authorities dismissed the Taliban’s warning, saying they had always indulged in “violence and war”.
“The Taliban cannot simply deny their involvement in violence, including the recent ones,” Ghani’s spokesman Sediq Sediqqi told reporters.
– MSF tragedies –
MSF has experienced several tragedies in Afghanistan, including the shooting of five staff in 2004 in Badghis province, prompting the group to pull out of the war-torn nation after 24 years.
MSF returned in 2009. But in 2015, after the Taliban had seized the northern city of Kunduz, US air strikes destroyed an MSF trauma hospital, killing 42 people.
MSF said it opened the 55-bed maternity unit in Kabul in 2014, and has delivered more than 5,000 babies there since the start of this year.
Images of dead mothers and babies wrapped in blood-soaked blankets sparked international outrage.
The Taliban have not claimed any major attacks in Kabul and other cities since signing a deal with the United States in February for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan.
They have, however, regularly targeted Afghan forces in several provinces.
Afghanistan’s intelligence agency said Wednesday that since the US-Taliban deal the insurgents have carried out 3,712 terrorist attacks in the country. These attacks killed almost 500 civilians, the National Directorate of Security said in a statement.
An ongoing political deadlock between Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah is also seen as a sign of weakness by the Taliban.
Abdullah had previously served as Afghanistan’s “chief executive” under an earlier power-sharing deal with Ghani, but lost that post after he was defeated in a presidential election that incumbent Ghani, a former World Bank economist, won in September amid claims of fraud.
Instead of accepting defeat, Abdullah declared himself president, holding his own swearing-in ceremony on March 9, the same day Ghani was inaugurated.
Officials say Ghani and Abdullah are soon expected to announce a new power-sharing deal.
– US pushes for peace –
The Taliban have blamed the Islamic State group and elements of the government’s intelligence units for the latest attacks.
IS have claimed the funeral bombing, but no group has admitted responsibility for the hospital attack.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres strongly condemned the latest violence.
“Attacks against civilians are unacceptable and that hospitals, medical facilities and personnel have special protection under international humanitarian law,” his spokesman said in a statement.
Top US officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who noted the Taliban’s denial of responsibility for Tuesday’s attacks, have urged the Afghan government and the militant group to cooperate to ensure a peace process succeeds.
“Failure to do so leaves Afghanistan vulnerable to terrorism, perpetual instability and economic hardship,” Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy who negotiated the deal with the Taliban, said on Twitter.
The accord with Washington will see all US and foreign forces quit Afghanistan over the next year.