KABUL — The militant wing of a group some have seen as a likely partner in reconciliation efforts has claimed responsibility for a massive suicide bombing Tuesday, casting more doubt on an already shaky, halting process to negotiate with militants to end the 11-year-long war.
At least 12 people were killed and many more hurt when a van packed with explosives detonated next to a minibus full of workers headed to the Kabul International Airport, according to an Afghan Ministry of Interior spokesman. The foreign victims were identified by President Hamid Karzai’s office as eight South Africans and a citizen of Kyrgyzstan.
Hezb-i-Islami claimed credit for the attack, saying it was in retaliation for a video seen as insulting to the Muslim prophet Mohammad that has sparked protests around the world. The group’s statement about the attack said it was a young woman who carried out the bombing and that those killed were American spies.
The group’s political wing, which is largely separate from the armed faction, includes Karzai’s chief of staff, a number of cabinet ministers and numerous members of parliament.
In the aftermath of the bombing, the twisted wreckage of the van and several bodies were strewn near a gas station, the windows of two large wedding halls nearby blown out. Suicide attacks are unusual for Hezb-i-Islami but spokesman Zubair Sediqqi said an insult to Islam called for an extreme tactic.
“Mostly we don’t choose suicide attacks, but because the issue was religion we were ready to die,” he said.
The surprise claim by Hezb-i-Islami was the latest blow to efforts toward a negotiated settlement to a war that appears increasingly stalemated.
The U.S. and Afghan governments have reached out to insurgents and appeared to be making progress when the Taliban agreed in January to open a consular office in Qatar, but the group has since cut off talks, refusing to deal with Karzai and accusing the U.S. of dealing in bad faith. Hopes for resuming talks took a further hit earlier this month when the U.S. designated the Taliban’s main partner, The Haqqani Network, as a terrorist organization.
Abdul Jabbar Shulgari, a former Hezb-i-Islami commander who later was elected to parliament, said he was shocked by the attack, especially because Hezb-i-Islami representatives had been coming to Kabul for negotiations with the Afghan government through intermediaries. He said the bombing could put a chill on negotiations.
“Now they are attacking the place where they were guest,” he said.
Hakim Mujahid, member of Afganistan’s High Peace Council, said hopes of bringing Hezb-i-Islami’s armed faction into the process dimmed after leader Gulbaddin Hekmatyar decried a strategic agreement between the U.S. and Afghanistan in May.
“He declared very clearly that he will fight against the foreign forces until there is not a single foreign (soldier) in Afghanistan,” Mujahid said.
The window for negotiations with Hezb-i-Islami likely has passed, said Waliullah Rahmani, CEO and founder of Kabul Center for Strategic studies.
“The reality is that Hezb-i-Islami ideologically has transferred from a brotherhood-centric ideology to a salafi/deobandi insurgent group,” he said, referring to the fundamentalist, intolerant ideologies embraced by terrorist groups such as al-Qaida.
Rahmani said the bombing underscores the one-sidedness of current peace talks.
“If we (the Afghan government) are to invest our blood, treasure, time and hope for a political process in Afghanistan, we have to reconsider our tactics, with more focus on governance and security institutions and capabilities and, ultimately, military options rather than channeling a peace negotiation council with a strategy of begging for peace,” he said.
Sediqqi, the Hezb-i-Islami spokesman, demurred when asked about what the attacks could mean for potential peace talks.
“Our political section of Hezb-i-Islami, whatever they do is their own choice but I am representing the military side and we are not involved in negotiations,” he said.
Shulgari, the former Hezb-i-Islami commander, said trust has eroded for all parties involved in negotiations and showing good faith is the only way to restart peace talks.
“It’s very easy to bring the sides back to the table if there is trust and both sides are honest in their promises,” he said.