Taliban suicide blast hits media crew in Kabul, killing 7
January 21, 2016 12:00 AM
Rahmat Gul/Associated Press
An uninjured Afghan driver is seen through the shattered windshield of a car at the site of a suicide attack Wednesday near the Russian embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.
By Sayed Salahuddin / Special to The Washington Post
KABUL, Afghanistan — A Taliban suicide bomb blast struck a crew affiliated with Afghanistan’s largest media group on Wednesday, killing at least seven people and raising fears of further militant violence against one of the country’s most prominent news outlets.
The attack came as U.S. officials said the Obama administration has granted the military new authority to strike the Islamic State in Afghanistan, a move seen as signaling a more sustained fight against the extremist group outside of its base in Iraq and Syria.
Taliban insurgents claimed responsibility for the assault Wednesday, the deadliest against media in Afghanistan in recent years. Last year, the Taliban had declared one of the media group’s flagship stations, Tolo News, a legitimate target and accused it of promoting immorality and foreign culture.
In recent years, the station had regularly run anti-militant ads funded by the U.S. military and NATO-led forces.
Kabul’s police chief, Abdul Rahman Rahman, said the bomber detonated a powerful blast near a van carrying nearly 30 staff of Kaboora Production, a unit of the Moby Group, which also includes Tolo.
Chief Rahman, speaking to reporters at the scene of the attack, said at least seven people — five men and two women — were killed and 25 were injured on a roadway near the Russian Embassy in western Kabul.
“The target was Kaboora Production,” he said.
Taliban insurgents denounced Tolo over its coverage of the fall of northern city of Kunduz to militants last October. The station claimed the Taliban had committed war crimes in Kunduz.
Kunduz was eventually recaptured by Afghan-led forces backed by U.S. airstrikes — which included an apparent mistaken attack on a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders. More than 40 civilians died in the airstrike and led to calls by the medical charity for an independent investigation.
“You cannot silence our voice,” said of the presenters on Tolo News shortly after Wednesday’s attack. In a sign of mourning, another TV channel belonging to Moby Group cancelled its regular programs and played Quranic recitations.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said the van was under Taliban surveillance and called Tolo News an “important tool of warfare of America and the crusaders” in Afghanistan. He warned of more attacks against the station and its affiliates if its policies remain unchanged.
Younus Fakoor, a political analyst, described the attack as an attempt to “frighten the media in Afghanistan.”
A statement from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul condemned the attack. “Murdering those who work to enlighten, educate, and entertain will not stop Afghans from exercising their universal human right to freedom of expression,” it said.
The privately owned Moby Group has 15 news-gathering offices throughout Afghanistan and business offices in Dubai.
Taliban militants have increasingly targeted sites in Kabul amid deepening rifts over efforts to restart peace talks.
Envoys from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States are scheduled to meet in Kabul later this week to discuss possible peace initiatives.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who is on an official visit to Switzerland, said his government “would not negotiate with those who shed the blood of innocent people” and promised stepped up crackdowns on militants.
The United Nations in Afghanistan said it was “gravely concerned by the attack on media workers” in the country.
The Taliban have been on the offensive since the U.S. and its allies withdrew most combat troops at the end of 2014, and the insurgents now control more territory than at any time since they were driven from power in 2001. At the same time, a barrage of militant attacks in major cities — including at least one from the IS affiliate in Afghanistan — has left the public wary.
A defense official, speaking Wednesday on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal decisions, said new rules of engagement approved last week permit U.S. commanders in Afghanistan to launch airstrikes against militants affiliated with IS, in the same way that the military targets fighters linked to al-Qaida.
The new arrangement “enables the United States to more actively target [IS] in Afghanistan,” the official said.
Under previous rules, the U.S. military was able to conduct airstrikes in Afghanistan in three circumstances: to protect foreign forces; to help Afghan troops ward off an enemy onslaught; and to target al-Qaida and affiliated militants.
According to a second official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, the U.S. military has struck militants identified with IS in Afghanistan in the past, but those strikes were launched on the basis of the fighters’ “hostile intentions” rather than their affiliation with the group’s Afghan organization. The new rules were first reported by The Wall Street Journal.
While the decision was not seen as signaling a dramatic change for U.S. activities in Afghanistan, it strengthens commanders’ authority against assorted militants there and, more generally, illustrates the expanding U.S. campaign against IS beyond its home base.
The change comes as the Afghan government struggles to beat back an emboldened Taliban, whose sustained attacks have jeopardized not just ordinary Afghans, but also President Barack Obama’s hopes of ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan before he leaves office. Amid worsening security across Afghanistan, the White House has several times altered Mr. Obama’s original plans for withdrawing U.S. troops.
Now the country faces a new threat from militants who have aligned themselves with IS and are mostly arrayed near Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan. Defense Secretary Ash Carter visited Afghanistan’s eastern Nangahar province in December and discussed the growing IS presence there with Army Gen. John F. Campbell, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Taliban and IS militants are battling one another for control of resources, even as both also fight government forces.
The granting of expanded strike authority follows the State Department’s designation this month of IS’s Afghan entity, called “ISIL-K,” or Khorasan, as a foreign terrorist organization.