NAUROZE — the 3,000-year-old Zoroastrian festival — marks the beginning of the new year of the Persian calendar. In Afghanistan, Central Asia and some Gulf countries, the event represents springtime, as well as the renewal of hope.

As the harsh winter departs, nature is reborn and the Afghans put on their finest clothes to celebrate the arrival of spring. Unfortunately, in recent years, militants have attacked Nauroze celebrations in Kabul.

On March 21, a suicide bomber belonging to the militant Islamic State (IS) group detonated his explosives in the middle of a crowd celebrating the carnival. Over 30 people died and more than 60 were injured — the victims mostly hailed from the Shia community. Soon after the explosion, desperate families searched among corpses and body parts for the remains of their relatives. The site was strewn with limbs, hands and pieces of flesh. Hospitals echoed with heartrending cries.

IS often targets the Shia community, which reportedly accounts for some 20 per cent of the Afghan population. The terrorist outfit says that Shias are on its hit list because they are recruited by Iran to fight for the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria.

America’s military commanders and diplomats have repeatedly vowed to wipe out the terrorist group. But that is yet to happen. Instead, the militant organisation has expanded its deadly footprint in Afghanistan.

Some two weeks ago, a suicide bomber killed 10 people at the Kart-i-Sakhi shrine. The bombing triggered angry protests by the long-oppressed Hazaras, but the security establishment failed to protect the small ethnic group.

IS is seeking to sow divisions between Sunnis and Shias.

Over the past two years, more than a dozen attacks have hit mosques, shrines, schools and rallies in Kabul. Most of the assaults have been carried out by IS and the Afghan Taliban, with the former seeking to sow divisions between Sunnis and Shias.

Since 2016, mass-casualty attacks on Hazara targets have left more than 300 people dead and over 700 wounded. Wednesday’s blast followed an attempted suicide attack on a school in Dasht-i-Barchi — another neighbourhood regarded as relatively safe.

Ruthlessly persecuted for generations, the Hazaras justifiably denounce the assailants who have turned their festivities into tragedies. Their argument that the timing and location were not a coincidence cannot be faulted either.

Hours after the Nauroze bombing, colourfully garbed Hazara women and children partied on the same street near the Kabul University. Not only did they enjoy the fiesta, they also demonstrated their incredible resilience.

Following Wednesday’s mayhem, President Ashraf Ghani once again came in for flak from Kabul residents for failing to keep his promise of upgrading the capital’s security. Ghani had held out the pledge after the killing of more than 100 people in a terror assault in January.

In February, the president offered the Taliban unconditional peace talks. Importantly, in a clean break with his past stance, Ghani has come to terms with the reality that ending the war — not winning it — is essential to stabilise Afghanistan.

Ghani offered unconditional peace negotiations to the Taliban on the first day of the Kabul Peace Conference on Feb 28, a bold initiative that drew stout support from China, Pakistan, Russia and the UN. However, the insurgents have not yet responded formally to the president’s comprehensive proposal, including a truce and recognition of the Taliban as a political entity. What the fighters have said so far is that the unity government needs to take permission for peace and war from the Americans.

While refusing to talk to a ‘puppet’ government, the Taliban insist on a dialogue with the Trump administration on putting an end to the 17-year conflict, the longest in US history. They insist on withdrawal of foreign troops, a decision that has to be taken by Washington.

To the Taliban, geostrategic objectives are the main driver of the American presence in Afghanistan. They believe a political settlement cannot be negotiated by the unruly ruling coalition. Although the warring sides acknowledge an outright victory on the battlefield is impossible, they are still far from launching talks.

Amid nebulous signs of willingness in some Western capitals to discuss a timeline of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban are likely to accept the presence of a limited number of foreign forces once the US drops opposition to direct communication.

Despite their divergent views and apparently unbending positions on core issues, the twain may meet at some point if they agree on discussing the pullout of foreign forces and giving Kabul a meaningful role in finding a political settlement.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Peshawar.

Published in Dawn, March 24th, 2018



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