Afghanistan vows to crush Islamic State havens after attack

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In this photo released by the Afghan Presidential Palace, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani inspects the honor guard during Independence Day celebrations at Defense Ministry in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 19, 2019. (Afghan Presidential Palace via AP)
In this photo released by the Afghan Presidential Palace, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani inspects the honor guard during Independence Day celebrations at Defense Ministry in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 19, 2019. (Afghan Presidential Palace via AP)

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan’s president on Monday vowed to “eliminate” all safe havens of the 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 mourns at least 63 people, including children, killed in the Kabul bombing at a wedding hall late Saturday night. Close to 200 others were wounded. Fresh violence was reported Monday as an Afghan official said at least 66 people were wounded in a series of explosions in the eastern city of 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 Shiites, whom it views as apostates deserving of death.

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.

A sharply worded Taliban statement questioned why the U.S. 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 U.S., the Taliban want some 20,000 U.S. and allied forces to withdraw from the country. The U.S. for its part wants Taliban assurances that Afghanistan — which hosted al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden before 9/11 — will not be a launching pad for global terror attacks.

The U.S. 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 asserted that the Taliban, whom the U.S. now hopes will 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 U.S. talks with the insurgent group, which regards the Afghan government as a U.S. 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. More children were killed last year — 927 — than in any other over the past decade by all actors, the U.N. said, including in operations against insurgent hideouts carried out by international forces.

Details have yet to emerge on Monday’s blasts in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province, 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 neighboring 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 asserted 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 with President Donald Trump, Pakistan’s 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 doesn’t 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 U.S.-Taliban talks, of which few details have emerged.

Some analysts have warned that Trump’s eagerness to bring at least some troops home ahead of next year’s election could be weakening the U.S. stance in the negotiations as the Taliban might see little need to make significant concessions.

In a message marking Afghanistan’s independence and “century of resilience,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the weekend wedding bombing “an attack against humanity.” It was one of many international expressions of condemnation pouring in following the attack.