Why did the Taliban attack the Taverna?

Taliban’s latest attack aimed at attracting publicity and outrage.

The Taliban did not mention Afghan victims of the Taverna attack in their statements, writes the author [AFP]

The attack on a Lebanese restaurant in Kabul on January 17, one of the deadliest direct assaults on civilians in the last few years of the war, was being hailed [Pashto] as an achievement, and one which will be remembered in the military history of Afghanistan. Notwithstanding the strong denunciation of the attack, both locally and internationally, the Taliban have been bragging about the assault. They are unembarrassed and unapologetic. One reason the Taliban refers [Pashto] to it as an achievement is the publicity that resulted. A quick look at the insurgency’s overall rhetoric, and specifically its own reading of the incident, indicates it is about more than just the notion that “there is no such thing as bad publicity.”

The Taleban’s initial statement [Pashto] said the attack killed mostly “senior people from the invading country Germany”. There were actually no Germans among the casualties. A day later, the claim had changed [Pashto]: The Taliban said the attack had been in revenge for the civilians bombed by NATO forces in Parwan province two days earlier. This looked like blatant populist opportunism: If the attack had been intended as revenge, the Taliban would have said so in their first statement. Also, the time between the bombing and the attack was too short for arranging such a complicated attack.

The Taliban in recent years have increasingly turned to high profile attacks and assassinations as their favourite tactics. Mostly, these are directed at Afghans. 

Moral message?

However, even if it had been an act of revenge, the Taliban had difficulty explaining why killing random foreigners (they deliberately dropped any mention of the Afghan victims) dining at a restaurant had to do with NATO’s armed forces. After that, though, the Taliban have issued a barrage of statements and articles in local languages adamantly defending their act as a “heroic achievement”.

To justify the mass murder of dozens of defenceless civilians, the Taliban called the victims everything from Crusaders [Pashto], to invader enemies to silent hypocrites. They called the restaurant a place of promiscuity and indulgence and also claimed [Pashto] it was in Kabul’s “Green Zone” [sic] thus automatically making it a legitimate non-civilian target. Kabul does not have a Green Zone (although occasionally the media refers to Wazir Akbar Khan neighbourhood by this phrase which comes from Baghdad’s heavily fortified governmental area). Wazir Akbar Khan is not fortified and contains a mix of private homes, international organisations and embassies.

It is, moreover, interesting and tendentious use of the language of international law. At the same time, the puritanical overtones in the Taleban’s post-attack narrative imply that the victims deserved to die because they were behaving immorally. This “moral” message is directed at the Taliban’s own members and supporters, the in-group, and are reminiscent of the justification used to murder common Afghans at a restaurant in the town of Qargha to the west of Kabul in the summer 2012.

Vulnerable targets

There is a further underlying message in all these articles – that the attack was very successful in garnering publicity. Publicity matters to an insurgent movement desperate to demonstrate its strength after actually having been severely undermined. It needs to assert itself, to say it is still there, and can do “something”, especially at the start of 2014, which it wants to portray as the year of victory. Attacking the Taverna restaurant, vulnerable, not well-fortified and frequented by foreigners, actually serves that purpose well. Such attacks are good for morale, and benefit a group which often values the resonance of its activities, rather than tactical gains – yet another sign of the insurgents running into despair. The attack looked like it was done by a group acting on the basis of the logic of: “I murder, therefore I am”.

The direct attack on civilians, and its subsequent strong defence by the Taliban, also showed how they blur the line between civilian and legitimate military targets. UN estimates regularly show the Taliban is responsible for the lion’s share of civilian casualties each year. The Taliban has consistently denied this, partly because it does not recognise internationally definitions of a civilian, ie someone not participating in hostilities, but includes anyone it deems pro-government who could be ulama, tribal leaders, government officials and judges.

There is one more point as to why the Taliban would undertake a three-man suicide operation against a restaurant in Kabul. The insurgents have realised that bleeding foreigners, whoever they are, guarantees big headlines in the international press. That may be an additional reason as to why the Taliban did not mention the eight Afghans killed in the attack. Indeed, the loud outcry about dead foreign civilians versus the relatively meek reaction to dead Afghan civilians (example, recently in Parwan) is also one of the points the Taliban is trying to make in its prolonged propaganda in the wake of the attack. One Taliban article called [Pashto] the attack a test of the internationals’ “hypocrisy”.

What does this mean for the insurgency’s changing tactics and trends? The Taliban in recent years have increasingly turned to high profile attacks and assassinations as their favourite tactics. Mostly, these are directed at Afghans. These are effective in spreading distress and a perception of insecurity and earn them better propaganda. Such attacks might not decrease since the insurgents need to keep up their spirit. It is too difficult to capture territory, overrun towns or show their superiority in face-to-face fighting. Complex attacks and targeted killings of civilians, however, are light on resources and good for morale and therefore will probably persist in the future.

Borhan Osman is a researcher and analyst with the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul.