Targeted killings threaten Afghanistan's postwar future

Despite historic peace talks, a spate of killings targeted media and activists.

January 7, 2021, 4:00 AM

For Afghans, 2021 began with what occurred too often over the past year: the assassination of a journalist.

Bismillah Adel Aimaq was shot on New Year's Day by unknown gunmen. His killing continued a disturbing trend that made Afghanistan the most dangerous country in the world for journalists in 2020, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Family members and relatives take part in the funeral procession of Afghan journalist Rahmatullah Nekzad at Khoja Omari in Ghazni, Afghanistan, Dec. 22, 2020.
AFP via Getty Images

Last November, Aimaq wrote on his Facebook page that unidentified people had shot at his car and his house, adding that he had reported the incident to security officials.

On Jan. 1, Aimaq was dead. Now, questions have risen over what action was taken following his reports.

In 2020 the CPJ concluded that Afghanistan had become the most dangerous country in the world for journalists, after at least five journalists and media workers were killed in a spate of seemingly targeted attacks.

After a brief lull in violence following a U.S.-Taliban deal in February, the number of assassinations targeting civil society activists and journalists grew by the fall of 2020, despite the start of U.S. troops pulling out of the country, and the launch of historic peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government in September.

Earlier in 2020, journalist Mir Wahed Shah and broadcast engineer Shafiq Amiri were killed when a bomb exploded in Kabul in May, injuring at least six other staff at Khurshid TV. The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for the attack.

Municipal workers clean up debris at the site of a bomb attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, Dec. 22, 2020.
Zakeria Hashimi/AFP via Getty Images

Yama Siawash was a prominent reporter on the TOLO TV network, before he was killed after a bomb was attached to his car in early November.

A few days later on Nov. 12, Elyas Dayee from Radio Free Liberty, became the 50th journalist to die in Afghanistan since 2001. A third of those, 16, have been killed in the last two years alone.

Elyas was widely admired as a dedicated reporter and a familiar voice on the airwaves in dangerous Helmand, which he had refused to leave despite the increase in violence. In a moving obituary, his colleagues noted that he had taken in his sister and her children when her husband, a policeman, was killed. He had recently pitched a tent in his garden to shelter four related families who were displaced in the recent fighting.

In late December, prominent journalist and head of a local journalists' union, Rahmatullah Nekzad, was shot dead by a Taliban prisoner who had been released in a peace deal and was now in custody of security forces, according to the head of Afghan intelligence.

President Ashraf Ghani described his murder as a "terrorist attack." Nekzad's peers said he prided himself on telling all sides of the story, and had reportedly been arrested at various times by the United States, the Afghan government and the Taliban. He left behind seven children including two wives, one of them pregnant.

Zakia Nikzad, one of his widows, told ABC News: "My husband was very kind and a great father. He had great visions for the future of his children, but our world and my children's future has vanished. The incident happened just in front of our house -- all my children are in deep shock. They witnessed their father being brutally killed. I am concerned about the future of our family -- he was the breadwinner."

Prominent female journalist Malalai Maiwand, who shares her name with a 19th-century folk hero dubbed the "Afghan Joan of Arc" for leading Afghan fighters against British troops, was shot dead by gunmen in Jalalabad on Dec. 10. Her driver, Mohammad Tahir, was also killed in the attack. Five years ago, Maiwand's mother, an activist, was also shot dead by gunmen.

The director of Afghan Journalists' Safety Committee, Najib Sharifi, told ABC News: "We are deeply concerned by the killing of journalists. If this continues we will lose one of the biggest achievements of Afghanistan in the past two decades which is freedom of speech and press freedom. We call on the government to do everything possible and take all necessary measures to protect journalists."

Not just journalists

The bloodshed in Afghanistan in late 2020 was not limited to journalists. There was international condemnation after Yusuf Rasheed, the CEO of the Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan, was shot dead by gunmen in Kabul in late December. The USChargé d'Affaires Ross Wilson said Rasheed was a "dedicated and steadfast advocate for representative democracy in Afghanistan."

"He worked tirelessly for years to ensure free and transparent elections that engaged all Afghans. His death is a loss for his family, friends and nation," Wilson said.

Most of the assassinations have gone unclaimed, but the Taliban has a long history of systematically targeting journalists in the country. Militants have accused outlets such as Tolo TV news, which lost seven journalists to a Taliban suicide bomber in 2016, of producing propaganda for the U.S. and Western-backed Afghan government.

On Jan. 6, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid rejected the accusation that it was behind the assassinations, saying those who had been killed were "not included in our military target lists," and that the killings were "detrimental" for Afghanistan.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani talks with journalists in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Dec. 17, 2020.
M Sadiq/EPA via Shutterstock, FILE

The Taliban has "had specific targets from the outset of its struggle and unfailingly accepted responsibility for those actions. The [Taliban] has never attacked non-military and unarmed personnel over the past two decades," said Mujahid.

Attacks on civilians

In late October 2020, 24 people were killed after a suicide bomb attack targeted the Kawsar-e-Danish education center in Kabul, that was claimed by IS terrorists. The Health Ministry said that most of the dead were teenagers between 15-16.

Afghan journalist Rahmatullah Nikzad in Ghazni, Afghanistan, Aug. 4, 2018.
Sayed Mustafa/EPA via Shutterstock, FILE

Barely a month later, on Nov. 2, IS gunmen also stormed Kabul University, killing at least 35 people, mostly students. At least 50 others were injured.

In several bombing attacks in June, respected Imams and religious scholars Maulvi Mohammad Ayaz Niazi and Maulvi Azizullah Mufleh, and a prominent human rights activist Fatima Khalil, who spoke six languages and graduated from the American University of Central Asia, were also killed.

In a statement on Twitter, the USFOR-A spokesman Colonel Sonny Leggett explicitly blamed the Taliban for unclaimed attacks on government officials, journalists and civil society leaders.

Pressure on Afghan government

The deadliest violence in Afghanistan surged just as the Taliban and the Afghan government launched unprecedented peace talks last September. For years, the militants refused to sit down with or recognize any representatives from the government.

Earlier in 2020, the Trump administration signed an agreement with the Taliban, which called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and a guarantee from the militants not to harm U.S. security interests in the country.

Afghans have not laid blame solely with Taliban militants for the spate of killings -- with many Afghans and workers saying the government has not done enough to protect journalists and civilians from militant attacks.

After Bismillah Adel Aimaq's death, the Kabul Press Club and Afghan Journalists Defense Committee asked the media in Afghanistan to boycott reporting on the government for three days, in the hope of putting pressure on officials to step up protections for journalists.

Afghan men pray near the coffin of journalist Malalai Maiwand, who was shot and killed by unknown gunmen in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, Dec. 10, 2020.
Parwiz/Reuters, FILE

Responding to the news of Aimaq's death, President Ghani lay the blame squarely on the militants: "The Taliban and other terrorist groups could not silence the legitimate voices of journalists and the media by carrying out such attacks. The President gave serious instructions to the relevant bodies to protect the media and the political, social and civil activists who have been targeted by terrorist attacks," Ghani said in a statement on Jan. 1.

Speaking in New York in December to the United Nations Security Council, the UN Secretary General's special representative for Afghanistan Deborah Lyons said: "The unrelenting violence remains a serious obstacle to peace and a threat to the region ... Such attacks are completely unjustifiable. They risk chilling the public discourse, just when dialogue is most needed."

ABC News' Conor Finnegan also contributed to this report.

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