KABUL: Afghanistan’s president on Monday vowed to eliminate all safe havens of the militant Islamic State group as the country marked a subdued 100th Independence Day after a horrific wedding attack claimed by the local IS affiliate.

President Ashraf Ghani’s comments came as Afghanistan mourned at least 63 people, including children, killed in the Kabul bombing at a wedding hall on Saturday night. Close to 200 others were wounded. Fresh violence was reported on Monday as an Afghan official said at least 66 people were wounded in a series of explosions in Jalalabad. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

Many outraged Afghans are asking whether an approaching deal between the United States and the Taliban to end nearly 18 years of fighting America’s longest war will bring peace to long-suffering civilians. The wedding hall bomber detonated his explosives in the middle of a dancing crowd, and the IS affiliate later said he had targeted a gathering of minority Shia community.

Both the bride and groom survived, and in an emotional interview with local broadcaster TOLOnews the distraught groom, Mirwais Alani, said their lives were devastated within seconds. Even as victims’ loved ones mourned, there were fears that funerals and memorials could also be targeted.

Violence on Afghanistan’s independence day leaves 66 people wounded

A sharply-worded Taliban statement questioned why the US failed to identify Saturday’s attacker in advance. Another Taliban statement marking the independence day said to “leave Afghanistan to the Afghans”. More than anything in their nearly year-long negotiations with the US, the Taliban want some 20,000 US and allied forces to withdraw from the country. The US for its part wants Taliban assurances that Afghanistan, which hosted Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden before 9/11, will not be a launching pad for global terror attacks.

The US envoy in talks with the Taliban, Zalmay Khalilzad, on Sunday said the peace process should be accelerated to help Afghanistan defeat the IS affiliate. That would include intra-Afghan talks on the country’s future, a fraught process that could take years.

But Ghani on Monday said that the Taliban, whom the US now hopes would help to curb the IS affiliate’s rise, are just as much to blame for the wedding attack. His government is openly frustrated at being sidelined from the US talks with the insurgent group, which regards the Afghan government as a US puppet.

The Taliban “have created the platform for terrorists” with their own brutal assaults on schools, mosques and other public places over the years, the president said.

More than 32,000 civilians in Afghanistan have been killed in the past decade, the United Nations said earlier this year.

Details have yet to emerge on Monday’s blasts in Jalalabad where both the Taliban and the IS affiliate are active. Noor Ahmad Habibi, deputy spokesman for the provincial governor, said some 10 explosions took place and that most people had minor injuries. And in the capital of neighbouring Laghman province, Miterlam, governor’s spokesman Asadullah Dawlatzai said a mortar attack by the Taliban slightly wounded six people.

“We will take revenge for every civilian drop of blood,” Afghanistan’s president declared. “Our struggle will continue against (IS), we will take revenge and will root them out.” He urged the international community to join those efforts.

Ghani alleged that safe havens for militants are across the border in Pakistan, whose intelligence service has long been accused of supporting the Taliban. The IS affiliate’s claim of the wedding attack said it was carried out by a Pakistani fighter seeking martyrdom.

Ghani also called on people in Pakistan “who very much want peace” to help identify militant safe havens there.

Last month after meeting President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Imran Khan insisted he will do his best to persuade the Taliban to open negotiations with the Afghan government to resolve the war.

Trump on Sunday told reporters he did not want Afghanistan to be a “laboratory for terror” and he described discussions with the Taliban as “good”. He was briefed on Friday on the progress of the US-Taliban talks, of which few details have emerged.

Published in Dawn, August 20th, 2019