In Kabul, attack on American University targets a rare oasis

The school, which opened in 2006, has symbolized a path to progress for many. Thirteen people were killed, including students, educators, and security guards.

Mohammad Ismail/Reuters
Students walk toward a police vehicle after they were rescued from the site of an attack at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 25, 2016.

Afghans are reeling from the latest high-profile attack in Kabul, in which suicide attackers detonated a car bomb beside the American University of Afghanistan, killed seven students inside, and mounted an overnight standoff that ended at dawn Thursday with the killing of two gunmen.

A total of 13 people died at the school, a toll that included security guards, students, and lecturers. It was a major blow to a community already roiled by the kidnapping two weeks ago of two teachers, an American and Australian who have not been heard from since.

“This is a horrible situation,” says Makia Munir, a first-year English literature student who left 10 minutes before the attack. Some students escaped by jumping out of second-story windows; many of the hundreds trapped overnight, barricading themselves in classrooms, are still in shock.

“Educational centers should not be attacked, this is not allowed by any rule or laws,” she says. “The government needs to protect its nation, or it is going to get worse.”

The targeting of a place that has operated as something of an oasis and a symbol of progress since it opened in 2006 has caused Afghans once again to question their safety and future progress amid political turmoil and Taliban advances in the north and south of the country. 

The assault appeared to be aimed not only at the United States but at Afghan government and security services, since many children of the elite attend the school. No group has claimed responsibility, but it resembled previous attacks by the Taliban, who rarely take credit for particularly unpopular actions that kill many civilians or strike schools, even when they are responsible. 

Disquiet among Afghans is compounded by a political dispute over power-sharing arrangements between President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, which erupted last week. The two co-leaders, criticized for being more adept at pointing fingers than leading, met Thursday for a second time to resolve differences. 

“People are living in great fear right now, there is huge hopelessness in Kabul and throughout the country,” says Shahla Farid, a professor of political science at Kabul University.

“There was [physical] insecurity already, and now we have political insecurity as well,” says Ms. Farid. “The two doctors [co-leaders] are having problems between themselves, which affects security more and gives morale to the enemies of Afghans.”

Mr. Ghani met wounded students at a hospital, and media images showed him holding hands with and hugging the head of one male student, and consoling a female student with words. 

“Terrorist groups want to impede … growth and development,” Mr. Ghani said of attacks on civilians, schools, and peaceful demonstrations. Afghans would “overcome all the challenges,” and such attacks “will strengthen our goal to eliminate the roots of terrorism.” 

But disputes continue over the nuts and bolts of a cumbersome unity government that has been gridlocked since elections two years ago.

“The situation is critical…. I insist that a loya jirga [large gathering of tribal and political leaders] needs to be held because people want it and the national unity government leaders promised that to the people,” said Rangin Dadfar Spanta, a former deputy of the National Security Council, quoted by Tolo News. “They cannot deceive people.… they should not test people’s patience.”

Fazlullah Wahidi, a former governor of Herat, said the co-leaders “are afraid” of convening a loya jirga, because the jirga would say “they do not want this government,” according to Tolo News.

Security usually tight

Security is usually tight around the American University, which occupies a well-defended, sprawling compound on a main road in western Kabul. The suicide bomb vehicle first breached the gate of a Ministry of Education vocational school for the visually impaired adjacent to AUAF, then detonated at the university wall. The school guard was shot dead, but students had gone home for the day.

“I am broken apart,” says Hamayoun Azizi, a teacher at the vocational school, as he walked through a hallway strewn with broken glass. The attack represents a new phase in the insurgency, he says.

“Now that targeting schools has started, education is harmed here and it is an example of what the country will look like tomorrow,” says Mr. Azizi. Afghans were happy to see some rebuilding and improved education over the years, after the Taliban were ousted by US-led forces in 2001.

“Now everyone is concerned about the current situation, which makes us think that another civil war might happen again,” says Azizi.

For many Afghans, the attack struck close to home.

“There were reports that the American University is a target for six months, but the security forces could not foil this attack,” says Farid, the professor. “Everyone is hopeless now. My students, for example, would study hard in past years but now there is less interest in studying and the number of failed students has increased.”

Such concern is felt far beyond Kabul.

“We are trying hard not only to provide security for the people but also to defend our territory, we get our friends killed and wounded, but there isn’t an end to this,” says Mohammad Aref, a Afghan National Police officer and father of three working in Lashkargah, the capital of Helmand, which is now largely surrounded by the Taliban. 

Most officials are corrupt and protect only their loved ones and relatives, he says, while poor policemen are deployed to the war zones. 

“I don’t have any other option, or I would quit my job,” said Mr. Aref. “There is huge joblessness, so I need to face danger if I am to feed my kids.”

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