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14 people are left dead and 60 injured after a grueling suicide bomb attack strikes near the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. The attack this past Sunday followed the arrival of exiled Afghani Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum to the nation’s capital. While many of Dostum’s supporters awaited his return and gathered near the airport to see him, an enemy was among them. Police spotted the bomber, but he could not be apprehended before he detonated, according to Al-Jazeera. Police spokesman Hashmat Stanikzai confirmed to CNN that Dostum was the target of the attack, though he escaped unscathed in an armored vehicle. Sunday’s attack highlights the regularity of violence in the region stemming from various sectarian cleavages in Afghani politics.
About a week and a half ago, the UN released a report stating that Afghan civilian casualties in the first half of 2018 are at a decade peak. In fact, a separate suicide attack at the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation & Development in Kabul left 7 dead and 15 injured just last week, according to CNN. In response to increasing violence, the government announced in February it would consider recognizing the Taliban as a legitimate political party in exchange for a ceasefire deal.
Much of this violence, including Sunday’s attack, can be attributed to the various politicized ethnic divisions in the nation. Dostum is an ethnic Uzbek. Channel News Asia points out that President Ghani, an ethnic Pashtun, utilized Dostum to gain support of the Uzbek-majority in Northern Afghanistan for his presidential campaign despite having called him a “known killer” in 2009. Though he is popular among he fellow Uzbeks, Dostum has acquired a hefty list of enemies during his time as a warlord in the Afghan War. One NY Times article describes VP Dostum as “an illiterate former communist enforcer turned warlord who at one time or another was allied with every side in Afghanistan’s long war – including the Taliban – and turned on most of them.” Working alongside U.S. Special Forces in 2001, Dostum was hailed as heroic by many in the West. However, during this time and throughout his career thereafter, Dostum was accused of many crimes.
Dostum has been named the culprit of severe war crimes during his time as a warlord. According to NY Times, he is accused of allowing his men to take thousands of Taliban prisoners and keep them in locked truck containers until they suffocated. Once elected, Dostum was also seen going into battle with his private militia and binge drinking, despite both of these acts breaking Afghan law. Most notoriously in 2016, Dostum was accused of having his political opponent Ahmad Eshchi detained, tortured, and sodomized. Though he denied the accusations, Dostum fled to Turkey under the premise that he needed medical care.
Dostum’s return was likely a result of turmoil in Northern Afghanistan. According to Channel News Asia, thousands of Dostum’s supports had set out in protest of Dostum’s militia commander being detained regarding a dispute with regular security officers. The protests continued for over two weeks. One protest leader, Ehsanullah Qowanch, told AFP that protesters don’t trust the government and will only stop when told to do so by Dostum himself.
Dostum returned to Afghanistan Sunday after remaining in Turkey for over a year. The suicide bomb went off minutes after his arrival. According to SITE, an agency dedicated to monitoring terrorism, ISIL/ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack through their official news agency, Amaq. To understand their motivations, it is important to understand the confusing relationship between ISIS, Taliban, and Afghan government, particularly Dostum. Dostum is a clear enemy of the Taliban. Not only is he accused of torturing Taliban members, but he is an important figure in the formation of the United Front, or the Afghan Northern Alliance. This alliance, formed after the Taliban seized Kabul, fought to win back their control. According to Wikileaks, a source highly controversial for its publishing of confidential information, Dostum is responsible for cultivating support for the United Front from Uzbekistan and Russia. This, in conjunction with his appeal to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, makes him a driving force in the eventual success of ousting Taliban government.
How does ISIS play into this relationship? One article in an independent newspaper, Daily Outlook Afghanistan, describes the relationship between ISIS and Taliban in the country. “The NATO’s General Secretary in Afghanistan maintained that the bulk of ISIS group in this country belongs to Pakistani Taliban who escaped the border following the operation Rad-ul-Fasad launched against the Taliban by Pakistani military.” This observation shows the ties between the two organizations. However, the article then maintains that ISIS and Taliban in Afghanistan are not clear allies. In fact, ISIS in Afghanistan seeks to take away power from Afghani government and the Taliban in order to secure its own authority. Though the Taliban recognizes ISIS as a threat, some member of ISIS believe that a collective force is more powerful. According to Daily Outlook Afghanistan, an ISIS offshoot released statements claiming that “all Mujaheed forces should gather under a single flag and leadership and there is no need for the Taliban’s presence.”
Given this information, the motivations of ISIS can be interpreted a few ways. The first is that the organization is trying to gain the respect of Taliban leaders by targeting a politician known to torture thousands of the Taliban’s members. On the other hand, ISIS may simply be trying to exacerbate ethnic conflict and specifically enrage Dostum’s rioting supporters in the North. Similar to the tactics used by ISIS in Syria, this could allow them to divide and conquer Afghanistan.
Either way, Sunday’s attack has devastated the capital. One witness reported to AFP that, “People were collecting human flesh with their hands.” Afghan government must take action to ensure the safety of its citizens. This may be achieved through the prosecution of Dostum himself. President Ghani claimed Dostum will face trial by an independent legal body. To address the larger issue of terrorism in the country, the government might push again for the ceasefire deal with the Taliban. So long as their power is contained, Afghanistan might benefit from appeasing this sect and allowing them to publicly condemn violence and ISIS. However, it may be challenging to prevent legitimizing the Taliban from spiraling into a complete takeover. From here, Afghanistan should tread carefully while considering its options. The protection of its citizens is crucial, but that includes from ISIS and the Taliban.