Violent attacks in Afghanistan and the Maldives threaten nascent advancements on human rights and democracy
Only the harshest and most forceful terms would be fitting to describe terrorist attacks that specifically target children, no matter in which part of the world. As barbaric and inhuman as last week’s attack on a girl’s school in Kabul therefore was, what made it even more heartrending was the scale of the devastation that resulted, the section of the Afghan population that was deliberately chosen as the target, the depressing history that girls and women in the war-ravaged country have had to endure, and most importantly the implications and the prognosis for the prospects of this highly vulnerable half of Afghanistan’s population. In the nearby island nation of the Maldives, meanwhile, an assassination attempt on the most vocal, capable and unrelenting proponent of democracy has raised serious concerns about the direction in which the country, which has suffered lengthy spells of authoritarianism and is now confronting increasing religious extremism, was heading.
On the afternoon of 8 May, as the girls attending the Syed Al-Shahda School in the Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood in west Kabul were leaving after the day’s classes, terrorists detonated a car bomb in front of the school to target the girl students. Reuters quoted an Afghan official as saying that “The first blast was powerful and happened so close to the children that some of them could not be found”. Two more bombs exploded soon thereafter as other students rushed out of the school in panic. The attack left books and backpacks, as well as bodies, strewn across the ground in front of the school. At least 85 people, most of them girl students aged between 10 and 16, were killed and 147 were wounded.
Afghanistan has already been battered by decades of intense violence, and brutality by terrorist groups has not been alien to it. Nevertheless, the attack on the girls shook the country. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission demanded an investigation by the United Nations (UN) and echoed the nation’s indignation in a statement in which it lamented that “Yet again, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters – and an entire community – spent the night collapsed in grief”. It added, “Why were school children killed? Why were their dreams, and the hopes of their parents, turned to dust? For what purpose? To whose benefit? With whose support? These questions must be answered. Afghans suffer horrific incidents of loss repeatedly, and are left with unanswered questions”.
The choice of the Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood of Kabul for the terrorist attack was neither a coincidence nor was it random. The ethnic Hazara minority group, whose members are overwhelmingly Shiite Muslims, live in the Dasht-e-Barchi area. It is for this reason that the neighborhood has been subjected to several attacks by Sunni terrorist groups, especially the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), in recent years. In a gruesome attack a year ago on 12 May 2020, three gunmen had attacked a maternity clinic in the Dasht-e-Barchi area and killed 24 mothers, newborns, and a medical professional. A United States (US) State Department report had noted last year that “Representatives from the predominantly Shia Hazara community said the government’s provision of security in Shia-predominant areas was insufficient”.
Although the Taliban denied involvement with the 8 May explosions and condemned attacks on civilians, others were not convinced. Belquis Ahmadi, a senior program officer at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), told Newsweek that the Taliban’s denials did not actually matter. She added, “They can deny it as much as they want, but the reality is that the entire country believes that it’s the Taliban who are behind these attacks. These are just empty words — just useless, baseless denials. The truth is that they have hands in all of these attacks one way or another”. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was equally convinced that it was the Taliban that was responsible for the ghastly act. He said, “This savage group does not have the power to confront security forces on the battlefield, and instead targets with brutality and barbarism public facilities and the girls’ school”.
The international community was outraged by the attack on the school girls. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres condemned the attack and expressed his deepest sympathies to the victims’ families and to the Afghan government and people. Pope Francis, in remarks to pilgrims in St. Peter's Square in Vatican City on 10 May, called the attack an “inhuman act”. The US State Department condemned the “barbarous attack” and called for an “immediate end to violence and the senseless targeting of innocent civilians”. It added that it would “continue to support and partner with the people of Afghanistan, who are determined to see to it that the gains of the past two decades aren’t erased”. Condemning the killing of civilians, India’s Ministry of External Affairs averred that “The perpetrators clearly seek to destroy the painstaking and hard-won achievements that the Afghans have put in place over the last two decades”. It was, however, the European Union’s mission in Afghanistan that underlined the most critical aspect that the attack signified when it tweeted that “targeting primarily students in a girls' school makes this an attack on the future of Afghanistan”.
The gains that have been made in Afghan women’s rights over the past 20 years are as considerable as they are fragile. Since the 2001 US invasion that overthrew the Taliban, Afghan women have emerged out of repression and made their mark in a wide range of fields, from politics to economics. At 27%, the proportion of women members in the Afghan Parliament is the highest in the region. With the impending US departure from Afghanistan, there is a real danger that the freedoms and rights that the women enjoy now will be severely curtailed and their meaningful contribution to society and the economy will be made redundant against their will. The US has more or less acknowledged that the Taliban will grab power when the foreign troops leave. The Taliban, by not making a fuss about the violation by the US of the agreement with it to leave Afghanistan this month, has signaled to the US that the 6 month grace that the US has sought is acceptable to it. The Taliban does not want to queer the pitch as it is confident of entering Kabul as long as the foreign forces do leave. During its last regime from 1996 till the US invasion, the Taliban had banned girls from attending school, forced almost all women to leave their jobs, restricted their movement and enforced a strict dress code. The difference between now and then is stark when one considers actual figures – according to USAID, more than 3.5 million girls are now enrolled in school in Afghanistan, compared to none during the Taliban era.
The 8 May attack on the girl students, therefore, has generated considerable concern because of what it portends. Heather Barr, interim co-director of the women's rights division of Human Rights Watch, felt that “This attack will have a huge impact on girls across the country. A picture is beginning to emerge which is deeply alarming, with violence escalating and women and girls increasingly targeted while the world moves on”. US Representative Adam Kinzinger described that attack as a “Horrific and a grim foreshadowing of the future in Afghanistan”. He added, “Doesn't take much to imagine what will happen when the US is gone. The Taliban regime will restart their war against women, denying them basic human rights, setting the country back in deeply oppressive ways”.
The US, after spending 20 years in Afghanistan and raising hopes and expectations, should not look away from the plight that awaits the Afghan people, especially the women, even if it is walking away from it. It must use all its other leverages to protect the rights of the girls and women, indeed the human rights of all Afghans. One important tool that appears to already have been put into use is exerting pressure on Pakistan to rein in the Taliban. Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa visited Kabul on 11 May, just after the school attack, and met President Ghani. In an essay in Foreign Affairs Ghani had demanded that the Taliban not only end its relationship with Al Qaeda but also with Pakistan.
As brought out in the EFSAS article titled The Maldives’ Foreign Fighter Phenomenon - Theories and Perspectives, for a tiny nation with a population of only about 350,000, the islands of the Maldives have shown an unusual propensity towards extremism and terrorism. That again came to the fore on the evening of 6 May, when the country’s former President Mohamed Nasheed, who is presently the Speaker of its Parliament, stepped out of his home in the capital Male and was about to enter his car when an improvised explosive device mounted on a parked motorcycle was detonated remotely by terrorists. Nasheed was severely wounded in the explosion and was rushed to hospital, where, as per a hospital statement “Over the course of the past 16 hours he had life-saving surgery on injuries to his head, chest, abdomen and limbs”. Nasheed is still in the critical care unit, but as per doctors he is now out of danger.
Police Commissioner Mohamed Hameed told a news conference shortly after the explosion that “We are treating this as a terrorist attack”, adding that authorities were trying to identify “four persons of interest” who were “noticed due to suspicious behaviour at the crime scene”. The Maldives Police Service in a subsequent statement informed that “To further assist in the investigation, two experts from the Australian Federal Police will arrive in the Maldives tomorrow (8 May) morning. Additionally, two UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) technical experts from the UK, based in the Maldives, are currently assisting the investigation. All evidence indicates that this was a deliberate act of terror”. Two men linked to Islamic extremism were arrested later that day, and the prime suspect, the 25-year-old Adhuham Ahmed Rasheed, the following day. Investigators are searching for others believed to be involved in the attack.
The attack on Nasheed sent shock waves across the country and the region. Maldivian officials and citizens took to social media to condemn the attack and wish Nasheed a speedy recovery. India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar expressed deep concern at the attack and said that Nasheed “will never be intimidated”. Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, told Al Jazeera that “This is very significant, not just in terms of scale but also in terms of target. The fact that you have a former president who is still a very prominent political figure and a very prominent democratic leader in a region that is now marked by strongmen and hardline nationalists … is quite a big deal”.
Eva Abdulla, the deputy speaker of the Maldives parliament, believes that the attack should be perceived as a “warning not just for the Maldives, but the region”. Given the history of Maldivian terrorists training and fighting in the frontier regions of Pakistan and in Syria, Abdulla added, “I think we must all work together with our neighbours too. We need answers on this. It’s imperative that the investigation is speedy and transparent and it’s imperative that we crackdown on violent extremism here”.
Nasheed, despite belonging to the smallest country in South Asia in terms of population, is today one of the most consistent and unwavering torchbearers of democracy in the region. He has also been a vociferous critic of extremism and terrorism. His western views and liberal policies have come in for criticism by religious hard-liners in the Maldives. The description of the attack on Nasheed by President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, a long-time friend of Nasheed, was therefore, perhaps, the most apposite. He said in a televised address that the assassination attempt was “an attack on democracy and the Maldivian economy”.
In an era of eroding adherence to democratic practices and slackening respect for human rights, last week’s developments in Afghanistan and the Maldives do not bode well for South Asia.