AFGHANISTAN is a land that has seen plenty of massacres during decades of unrest. However, despite this almost relentless cycle of violence, Saturday’s bloodbath targeting a school in a Kabul neighbourhood leaves one numb. Nearly 70 young lives — mostly schoolgirls — were wiped out as terrorists targeted the school in the Dasht-i-Barchi area, a neighbourhood populated by the Shia Hazara community. The area is not new to tragedy, as in 2020 gunmen targeted a maternity ward located in Dasht-i-Barchi, slaughtering over 20 mothers and newborns. While the Afghan president has blamed the Afghan Taliban for the latest atrocity, the militia has denied responsibility. Considering the combination of targets — a school, girl students, and a Shia neighbourhood — suspicion squarely falls on the local franchise of the so-called Islamic State group. The Iranian foreign minister has also said IS is responsible.

At a time when foreign troops have begun their withdrawal from Afghanistan, and when the peace process is in a critical phase, attacks such as these send up major red flags regarding the shape of things to come. Will the Afghan people face more such atrocities once foreign forces quit the country and the government in Kabul is unable to protect them? With the Taliban stubbornly refusing to take the peace process forward, will Afghanistan once more plunge into complete chaos — a war of all against all — as soon as the last Western soldier departs, and IS and their cohorts step up their campaign of bedlam? There are no easy answers to these grim questions but the US-led mission that has been present in the country for the last two decades, as well as the Afghan government and the Taliban, needs to start providing some replies.

Indeed, foreign forces — initially the Soviets and later the Americans — bear major responsibility for destabilising Afghanistan. However, the country’s own power players, from the Kabul elite to the Taliban to the warlords in the provinces, have all played an equally important role in the destruction of their country. Instead of looking at the bigger picture, power-hungry Afghan factions have chosen the path of war to secure short-term gains. This narrow approach must end now. It is time the Afghan elites took responsibility for their actions, and for bringing peace to their country. As of now, the onus is on the Taliban to fully participate in the peace process and work with the Kabul government to ensure a power-sharing formula. The group has announced an Eid ceasefire, but much more needs to be done. The Dasht-i-Barchi attack is but a small preview of the ferocity ahead if a power vacuum is created in Afghanistan. IS and like-minded militants play by very different rules, which is why responsible Afghan parties, aided by the international community, must join forces to defeat such extremist elements if Afghanistan is to be saved from more such diabolical violence.

Published in Dawn, May 11th, 2021

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