Thursday night was supposed to be a celebratory evening of classical music and traditional Afghan songs at the Park Palace hotel, one of Kabul’s most popular guesthouses. But just minutes before renowned Afghan singer Eltaf Hussain Sarahang was scheduled to perform, gunshots pierced the air. Taliban gunmen managed to kill at least 15 people, entering the fortified hotel, one of the few still frequented by foreigners, without resistance.
The attack reinforces the fact that Afghan civilians remain as vulnerable as ever. It has reinvigorated fears about the fate of peace talks with the Taliban. The incident also reinforces doubts about Pakistan’s trustworthiness.
Just days before the attack Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited Kabul, condemning the Taliban’s offensive. “I assure you, Mr. President, that the enemies of Afghanistan cannot be friends of Pakistan,” Sharif said in a joint interaction on Tuesday, after meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
The offensive comes with buzz about peace talks with the Taliban heating up. Several reports have confirmed the group’s willingness to engage in negotiations with the government. Representatives of President Ghani held an informal meeting with Taliban militants a few weeks ago.
That makes the Taliban’s latest attack particularly baffling.
“The Taliban is pursuing these kinds of attacks because they’re not ready to enter into peace talks,” Amrullah Saleh, former head of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, says. Now a politician, Saleh also raised doubts about Pakistan’s loyalties. “In the minds of Afghans there is no doubt that these attacks are perpetrated with the support and strategic guidance of the ISI.”
Kabul-based journalist Amir Akbari holds the same view, cautioning Ghani not to trust Pakistan. “No Afghan trusts the peace process.” Akbari says. “If the Taliban wanted peace, why would they indulge in this mindless violence?”
Among the dead in Thursday’s shooting are four Indians, an American, a British citizen, a Kazakh national, an Italian, and two Pakistanis.
Indian media believes gunmen were targeting Amar Sinha, the Indian envoy to Kabul, who was supposed to attend the gathering. Ahmad Zia Massoud, Ghani’s special envoy, has said that Sinha was the likely target, but Saleh doesn’t buy it.”
“It was an attack against Afghans,” Saleh asserts, “it was an attack against international community.”
This was not the first such attack. In the last year, the Taliban have attacked liberal enclaves such as Kabul’s French Cultural Center, which supported local talents in theater and the arts, forcing it to close, and Serena hotel, where gunmen killed nine civilians. These attacks have driven more and more foreign tourists away from Afghanistan.
Ghani was expected to usher in a new era in Afghanistan, ravaged by three decades of war. But the former World Bank official seems to be faltering in the first year of his presidency. Provinces in northern Afghanistan, like Kunduz, are gradually slipping into the hands of the Taliban. Elsewhere, the militants continue to press the initiative.