Wedding attack shows a US-Taliban deal wouldn’t end killing in Afghanistan

Relatives grieve near the coffins of victims of the Dubai City wedding hall bombing during a mass funeral in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug.18, 2019.


By SHASHANK BENGALI AND SULTAN FAIZY | Los Angeles Times | Published: August 18, 2019

KABUL, Afghanistan (Tribune News Service) — Abdul Sattar was leaving his cousin’s wedding with his wife and a son when he noticed the late-arriving guest, a well-dressed man who pulled up on a bicycle festooned with flowers and rushed inside the hall.

After decades of carnage in Afghanistan, little things can set off alarm bells. Sattar, a sergeant in the Afghan army, recalled thinking: “He could be a suicide bomber.”

Moments later, an explosion ripped through the hot, crowded hall where some 1,200 guests had gathered on a Saturday night in western Kabul. Witnesses said the assailant ran toward the stage where a band was playing the drums and detonated a suicide vest.

The local affiliate of Islamic State on Sunday claimed responsibility for the blast that officials said left 63 people dead — including children — and wounded more than 180.

The deadliest attack in the Afghan capital this year set off a fresh wave of grief in a country where nowhere — not weddings, not hospitals, not places of worship — is safe from suicide attacks.

And it deepened questions about the Trump administration’s plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by striking a peace deal with one religion-based militant group — the Taliban — even as other extremists such as Islamic State continue to kill large numbers of civilians.

Months of U.S.-Taliban negotiations are nearing an agreement under which the U.S. would pull out half the estimated 20,000 international troops in Afghanistan in exchange for Taliban pledges not to allow the country to harbor other Islamic extremist groups.

Taliban leaders, who in recent months have continued to launch violent attacks of their own, say they are prepared to make a deal, but they hold no sway over Islamic State militants, a relatively small number of fighters including Pakistani operatives and other foreigners who fled the group’s former strongholds in Iraq and Syria. The group has been buffeted by U.S. ground operations and airstrikes in eastern Afghanistan in recent years, but continues to carry out major attacks.

The most recent U.S.-Taliban talks ended last week in Doha, Qatar, without a deal, although the White House is nonetheless moving ahead with plans to reduce the number of troops and diplomats stationed in Afghanistan as President Trump tries to show progress ahead of the 2020 election.

Such a deal would leave security entirely in the hands of an Afghan government that has proved – despite billions of dollars in U.S. training and equipment – unable to protect its citizens. It has also not been a party to the negotiations being held by the U.S. and the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan for several years before the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.

“The government has failed to secure our lives,” said Sattar, who lost six members of his family in the blast. “May God protect us.”

A 12-year army veteran who served multiple tours in Helmand province, the site of some of the worst fighting of the war, he stood in the dirt of a cemetery in western Kabul on Sunday afternoon amid six freshly dug graves topped with unmarked stones.

The dead—including his two teenage brothers, 11-year-old nephew and sons aged 6 and 10 — were buried in simple wooden coffins. Mourners helped dig the graves by hand.

The 32-year-old Sattar hadn’t slept. Upon hearing the blast, he had rushed back inside the wedding hall to look for family members.

His white clothes were stained with the blood of bodies he had helped carry from the hall, its walls streaked with shrapnel holes and chairs torn to shreds. It was difficult to recognize the victims. Bodies lay in pieces on the tiled floor, some women’s arms still decorated with bracelets.

“Some with half a body, some without hands and legs, some without heads,” he said. “It was like a nightmare.”

The Dubai City Wedding Hall is one of many large, brightly lighted venues in Kabul that host elaborate festivities costing upward of tens of thousands of dollars and offer a rare chance for Afghans to celebrate in large groups. It sits in a western Kabul neighborhood heavily populated with members of the Hazara ethnic minority, a Shiite Muslim community that has been repeatedly targeted by the Sunni extremists of Islamic State.

The groom, a 24-year-old tailor, is Shiite. He and his bride survived the blast.

In 2017, Islamic State claimed responsibility for an attack on a mosque in a Shiite area that killed more than 50 people. The year before, the group bombed a Hazara-led protest, leaving more than 80 dead and hundreds wounded.

Last year was the deadliest for Afghans since the United Nations began counting casualties a decade ago, with almost 4,000 civilians killed and more than 7,000 wounded – mostly in attacks by the Taliban and Islamic State. This year has seen a surge in deaths and injuries caused by pro-government forces, largely because of U.S. airstrikes, the U.N. has found.

Although the Taliban is far and away Afghanistan’s most influential militant group, questions remain about its cohesiveness after decades of warfare. Taliban forces have often fought Islamic State for territory and resources. But one Afghan security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that a peace deal could see up to 10% of Taliban fighters defect to Islamic State.

The spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Doha, Suhail Shaheen, denied involvement in Saturday’s attack, which he called “cruel and brutal.” Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch responded on Twitter that the Taliban denial “highlights the fact that a U.S.-Taliban deal won’t end attacks on Afghans.”

Graeme Smith, a consultant for the International Crisis Group, said Islamic State is fearful of a peace deal because it is “getting hammered on the battlefield” by both U.S.-backed government forces and the Taliban and “does not want to see its two biggest enemies make peace and join forces against them.”

“There’s a potential motive for them to conduct bigger spectacular attacks right now, on the eve of a historic settlement between the United States and the Taliban,” Smith said.

Another condition of the deal is that the Taliban enter into negotiations with Afghan political leaders, a complex process that is likely to see some insurgent leaders join the government and attempt to overturn the political order and relative social freedoms ushered in by the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.

Experts say those talks could collapse or drag on for years, threatening the durability of the Afghan army and further emboldening militants.

“A U.S.-Taliban agreement does not end fighting in Afghanistan, and in fact the fighting could get very nasty,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, an analyst at the Brookings Institution. “Even if negotiations between the Afghans don’t collapse, one scenario is talking and fighting at the same time.”

Many Afghans see little distinction between the Taliban and Islamic State.

“They are the same dogs that bite the nation whenever they want,” Sattar said.

Special correspondent Faizy reported from Kabul and Times staff writer Bengali from Singapore. Special correspondent Stefanie Glinski contributed to this report from Kabul.

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