Yesterday’s deadly suicide attack at a police checkpoint outside a military base in Khost, in eastern Afghanistan, is a grim reminder that Afghan civilians bear much of the cost of the country’s armed conflict. The checkpoint adjoined an outdoor market, and many of the at least 27 civilians – including 12 children – killed in the attack were in vehicles waiting to pass the checkpoint on their way home. Six members of the Afghan National Security Forces were also killed. No one as yet has claimed responsibility for the attack.
The Khost attack’s civilian casualties are no aberration. The United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan documented 107 suicide and other kinds of attacks in 2014 that resulted in 1,582 civilian casualties. Its February report on the protection of civilians blamed the Taliban and other insurgents for 72 percent of civilian casualties, largely due the increased use of improvised explosive devices and suicide bombings, as well as mortars and rockets.
The base that was attacked, Camp Chapman, houses some United States Special Forces. The Khost Protection Force, a US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-trained militia responsible for counter-insurgency operations along the Pakistan border, controls the checkpoint. The Taliban claimed responsibility for a 2009 suicide bomb attack on Camp Chapman that killed seven CIA employees.
This year’s insurgent violence apparently targeting civilians includes an April 18 attack on the Kabul Bank in Jalalabad, which killed at least 33 people and injured 100. Insurgents claiming allegiance to the extremist group Islamic State, also known as ISIS, said they were responsible, but that assertion is disputed. The Taliban claimed responsibility for an earlier attack in Jalalabad on the same bank. Suicide attacks against provincial officials in Lashkar Gah on March 15 and June 30 killed 9 civilians and injured 40. The November 23 suicide attack at a volleyball game in Yahya Khel, Paktika that killed 53 and injured 85 was one of the worst recent incidents of this kind. Afghan Local Police, a paramilitary force, were the presumed target. Although the Taliban denied responsibility they subsequently claimed to have launched an internal investigation into the attack.
According to the Afghanistan Analysts Network, the Taliban have a history of denying responsibility for attacks in which large numbers of civilians are killed. That suggests that even the Taliban recognize that attacks on civilians may not be in their interests. As a possible ceasefire could be on the table of the next round of talks with the Afghan government, maybe the Taliban will begin to see the harm in all attacks on civilians.