Jul 30th 2016
EVEN for a country as inured to war as Afghanistan, the strike on a crowd of peaceful protesters in Kabul on July 23rd was shocking. Bombs killed 81 people, perhaps the deadliest such attack in the capital since the civil war two decades ago. Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility, saying it had sent two suicide-bombers to “a Shiite gathering” (the protesters were mainly Hazaras, a Shia minority). It hinted it would attack again should Afghan Shias keep travelling to Syria to fight on the side of its president, Bashar al-Assad.
The Afghan government said it thought IS was indeed guilty. The group published photos of two men they said were the bombers, and details of the attack bear IS’s hallmarks. But as with massacres in Europe, it seems likely that the culprits were inspired by IS’s propaganda rather than following direct orders. Though the exact number of self-styled IS fighters in Afghanistan is disputed, their ranks remain small and are not obviously growing. The group is opposed by the Taliban (which looks askance at its Arab origins). A cluster of fighters in Nangarhar, an eastern province, looks fairly well contained.
All this is no comfort to Afghanistan’s battered citizens. Civilian casualties have risen every year since the UN started counting in 2009 (during which time nearly 23,000 have been killed). On July 26th the government said it had cleared IS fighters from parts of Nangarhar. But it said something similar four months ago, and that did not prevent the bloodshed in the capital.
The Hazaras commonly face discrimination; they had gathered to protest against the planned rerouting of a power line around the Hazara-dominated province of Bamiyan. Security forces were present, but focused mostly on keeping protesters away from the city centre; they blocked roads with shipping containers.
Such marches are an increasingly popular way for young Afghans to exercise political rights; many now shun older politicians, whom they associate with tanks and guns. And for all its violence Afghanistan has managed to avoid the kind of sectarian bloodletting that afflicts neighbours such as Iraq. Afghans of all ethnicities are loudly decrying the attacks. That is some small solace, at least.