The United States has urged the Taliban and the Afghan government to engage seriously in the ongoing peace process to prevent Islamic State militants from further aggravating an already tense situation in the war-ravaged country.
“We are still looking into what or who is responsible, but I would note that ISIS has been responsible for similar attacks on Shia communities in Kabul in the past,” US State Department Spokesperson Ned Price told reporters in Washington on Monday.
Saturday’s school attack in the Afghan capital that killed at least 80 people — most of them girl students — has earned strong condemnation from across the globe.
The president of the UN General Assembly, Volkan Bozkir, called the blast "an abhorrent and cowardly attack" while UN Secretary General António Guterres emphasised that “those responsible for this heinous crime must be held accountable".
But the US went beyond a formal condemnation by showing interest in the Taliban’s denial of involvement and by urging them to work with the Afghan government to bring peace to a country that has been involved in one war after another for almost half a century.
“We note the Taliban has denied involvement in the attack, and we welcome their announcement of a three-day ceasefire over the upcoming Eid holiday,” Price said.
“We call on the Taliban and Afghan leaders to engage seriously in the ongoing peace process to ensure the Afghan people enjoy a future free of terrorism and of senseless violence.”
While condemning those responsible for “targeting innocent Afghan girls at their school,” the US official pointed out that most of the girls were in their teens and were “killed for nothing more than pursuing an education and a brighter future”.
On Sunday, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said that the group was not involved in the attack and condemned the "cruel and senseless act of violence”.
Although Afghan President Ashraf Ghani blamed the Taliban, the US media pointed out that the explosions occurred in a heavily Shia neighbourhood that has faced brutal attacks by Islamic State militants over the years.
On Monday, the Taliban also announced a three-day Eid ceasefire, which would come into effect later this week.
“We do welcome this announcement and any move that allows the Afghan people a reprieve from violence,” Price said. “We urge the Taliban to extend this ceasefire and order a significant reduction in violence.”
But Michael Kugelman, a Washington-based US scholar of South Asian affairs, said in a tweet that the Eid truce was welcome news, but this happened previously too and was never extended.
“There’s little reason to believe this year will be different. They offer much-needed brief respites, but sadly little more than that,” he said.
At Monday’s news briefing, some journalists also questioned the Biden administration’s trust in the Taliban, and warned that after the US withdrawal, such attacks might increase.
Some even suggested that future attacks, if intense, could force the US military to return to Afghanistan. However, the US State Department spokesperson rejected the possibility, saying the US was not abandoning Afghanistan.
“We are withdrawing our troops. We are not disengaging from Afghanistan. And we will continue to use our diplomatic, economic, and humanitarian toolset to ensure that the gains of the past 20 years, particularly those made by women, girls, and minorities, are preserved,” he said.
Explaining why he was welcoming the Taliban announcement and urging them to extend the ceasefire, he said: “We all know that a return to violence would be senseless as well as tragic. We remind the Taliban that engaging in violence will not afford it legitimacy or durability.”
The US, he said, has always urged all Afghan factions to engage in serious negotiations to determine a political roadmap for their country’s future that leads to a just and durable settlement.
“A just and durable settlement has been at the centre of our efforts. It’s in no one’s interest — we know this — for Afghanistan to devolve into civil war once again. It’s not in the Taliban’s interests, it’s not in the government of Afghanistan’s interests, it’s not in the interests of Afghanistan’s neighbours, and it’s certainly not in the interests of the people of Afghanistan,” he added.
US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad went a step ahead and said in a tweet that the US also wanted the Taliban to agree to a permanent ceasefire and political settlement to end the violence,
“Afghans deserve much more: a political settlement and a permanent ceasefire,” he wrote while commenting on the Taliban offer. “We therefore urge accelerated negotiations among Afghans on a political settlement and an end to this senseless war.”
Kugelman also emphasised the need for a permanent ceasefire, but he disagreed with the suggestion that aggravated violence in Afghanistan could bring the US military back.
“The threat emanating from Afghanistan is not sufficiently strong to warrant US forces staying. As horrific as this attack was, this is not the type of thing that would cause the US to change course because these are attacks that target Afghans,” he said.
Meanwhile, Pakistan Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa also visited Kabul on Monday and in a meeting with President Ghani, offered Pakistan’s support for political negotiations with the Taliban.
“We will always support an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process based on mutual consensus of all stakeholders,” a Pakistani military statement said.
Gen Bajwa was accompanied in the meeting by British Chief of Defence Staff General Sir Nick Carter. The United Kingdom has about 750 troops among the Nato contingent of 7,000 in Afghanistan.
Recent reports in the Pakistani media suggest that Islamabad has intensified its efforts to convince the Taliban to commit to a ceasefire.