As Fighting Season Begins, a Gruesome Terrorist Attack Shakes Afghanistan

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Hoshang Hashimi / AP

An Afghan soldier stands guard in the destroyed courthouse in Farah, in western Afghanistan, on April 4, 2013

Many died instantly, execution-style, with bullet wounds in the back of their heads. Some bled to death. And others perished in the initial explosion that cleared the way for militants to take over two government buildings in this provincial capital; their grisly remains spattered nearby walls and pavements.

The April 3 attack in Farah city, in the west of Afghanistan, was the deadliest in nearly two years: it left over 50 dead and more than 100 wounded. Yet the carnage got little media attention because of Farah province’s marginalized status along the border with Iran and the difficulty reaching it over dangerous roads. The attack also signaled a potential shift in Taliban tactics as a new fighting season begins — while the Taliban’s high-profile attacks in recent years have grown more targeted, the wanton killing of civilians in Farah raises fresh doubt over security in war-ravaged Afghanistan.

The assailants besieged the courthouse and the attorney general’s office at the heart of the city for a whole working day until commando forces ended the siege by killing the gunmen. The extent of the carnage has sapped the morale of the small city of about 100,000 people. More than a week after the attack, many residents remain gripped with fear. One elder said most people in the city were cutting back on activities that take place away from the safety of their homes. Another said his two young daughters still refuse to go school, fearing another attack.

“There were funerals everywhere — so there is no hope left in the city,” says Naser Royan, a Farah resident in his late 20s. “The day after the explosion, I asked a shopkeeper friend why he wouldn’t open his shop again. His words kept me awake till 3 a.m. that night. He said ‘What good is life if you share memories with a person one day, and the next day his flesh is smeared on your goods.’”

(MORE: Taliban Attack Kills 13 Afghan Soldiers

The attack began around 8 a.m. when military police stopped a suspicious army pickup truck approaching the road that leads to Farah city’s appeals court and the attorney general’s office, according to officials and security guards on duty. The back of the truck, loaded with explosives, was covered with a tarpaulin. “We did not have military police in our structure — but I recently deployed about 30 or so of my soldiers into the city as military police,” said Colonel Zalmay Nabard, commander of the Afghan army brigade in Farah. “Since it is a small unit, they know their own comrades and vehicles — this wasn’t one of theirs, and they tried to stop it.”

The assailants in the truck opened fire on the first guard who tried to stop it and they drove on. When two other guards blocked their way, the vehicle detonated. “We had to gather the flesh of our guards from nearby homes,” Nabard said. Authorities say they have intelligence that a second explosive-laden vehicle was also part of the plan — aimed at blowing up the governor’s office — but did not show up. They have narrowed in on it, but it remains at large.

The accounts about what happened next are conflicting. Some say that nine assailants, dressed in Afghan army uniforms, had already made their way toward the appeals court and the attorney general’s office. Others suggest the heavily armed Taliban arrived after the explosion and split between the attorney general’s office and the court — both were packed with visitors as working hours on Wednesday were under way already. Either way, fighting raged for nearly eight hours. Among the victims were 10 police personnel and army soldiers. The rest were judges, attorneys and other civilians, according to interviews with local residents and families of victims.

But Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, a spokesman for the Taliban, insists civilians were not killed. He says the Taliban do not consider attorneys and judges to be civilians but rather agents of the Kabul regime, and therefore legitimate targets. “We besieged all the rooms and shot them in the head one by one,” Ahmadi said. Without specifying the number, Ahmadi also claimed that the attackers managed to release some important political prisoners — one of the suggested motives for the Taliban targeting of the court.

Mohammad Akram Khpalwak, the governor of Farah province, refutes that. “There were no political prisoners at the court that day — it was all criminal cases being tried,” Khpalwak tells TIME.

(MORE: New Details Emerge in Deadly Afghan Attack)

Among the dead was Fraidoon, a 28-year-old Islamic-law graduate of Herat University. He had been serving as a clerk in the court for the past three years. “I was in the hospital in the morning visiting a sick relative when I heard about the attack at the court,” said Haji Said Ahmad Jan, Fraidoon’s father. He tried to call Fraidoon’s number, but the call wouldn’t go through. So he waited at the hospital until 4:30 p.m., inspecting every dead and injured person that was brought in, hoping his son would be among the injured. The register at the provincial hospital shows that 124 wounded people and 39 dead were brought in — others were taken to private hospitals or to their homes. To make room for the wounded, this small hospital had to clear the maternity ward, sending pregnant women home.

Commando forces eventually flew in from neighboring Herat province and helped end the resistance at around 4:30 p.m. — targeting the rooms where the insurgents were holed up with heavy artillery. After the fight was over, Ahmad Jan got a call that his son’s body was found in the courthouse. Fraidoon had a bullet in the head, one in the neck and one in his left torso. He leaves behind two young sons and a young daughter.

The attack has, once again, raised questions about the capabilities of Afghan security forces as they begin to take charge of security in most of the country while foreign forces continue their staggered withdrawal. Residents as well as provincial council members say not enough measures were in place to protect the city. A provincial council member said vehicles are rarely searched before they drive into major government buildings.

President Hamid Karzai visited the province to meet family members and offer his condolences. As is the tendency in Kabul, Karzai and his officials have blamed foreign hands — implicating both Iran, which shares a border with Farah, and Pakistan, long thought to be colluding with the Taliban. A senior army official in the province told TIME that he had a “strong guess” the attack was backed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. But he could provide no reason why they would be behind the assault nor evidence other than that the uniforms the Taliban assailants were wearing looked more like those issued to the Iranian guards that those of Afghans.

Farah’s governor also suspects foreign involvement. “I am not saying it could be foreign hands involved — I am saying it must be,” Khpalwak said. “We also have good intelligence on the capacity of the local Taliban — this was beyond them,” Khpalwak said. His intelligence shows that leadership of local Taliban was unaware of the attack.

(MORE: Red Cross: Security Deteriorating in Afghanistan)

But the officials’ answers have done little to quell local anger. “Security cannot be brought with empty words — it comes with action,” said Ahmad Jan, who lost his son. “For God’s sake, don’t give them room to kill our youth again,” he pleaded the government.

Such attacks, in which a large number of civilians were affected, also further intensify anger toward the Taliban and complicate Karzai’s outreach to the militants in hopes of striking a peace deal — a process that has floundered despite the President’s desperate attempts. While Karzai has gone out of his way to release hundreds of Taliban prisoners — often without due process, critics say — the Taliban have responded with attacking the court.

“Those who shed the blood of our innocent are not our brothers,” said activist Barry Salaam, referring to President Karzai usually addressing Taliban as “angry brothers.” A delegation of Salaam’s group, called Afghanistan 1400, a diverse political movement working toward a long-term vision for the country, was in Farah to speak to families and donate blood to the wounded. They brought a message of defiance — that, while some are shedding blood, others are ready to donate. The 1400 in the group’s name is a reference to the turn of the Afghan millennia, eight years from now. “It’s time we value the Afghan lives being lost every day and stop compromising with those who are taking the lives,” Salaam said.

MORE: U.S. General: Taliban Likely to Be Long-Term Threat 

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