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ISIS Bombing Targets Afghan Polling Station


We are going to start with Afghanistan, where a suicide bomber killed more than 55 people and injured more than 100 others who were lining up outside a government office in Kabul to register to vote in the October elections. ISIS says it is responsible for that attack. On top of that, there was another explosion near a voter registration center in the north that killed five people and wounded others. We wanted to talk more about conditions overall in Afghanistan, especially considering that the U.S. has military operations there have gone on now for more than 16 years, so we called Ahmed Rashid. He is a journalist and the author of many best-selling books on the conflict and the region. We reached him via Skype. Ahmed Rashid, thanks so much for joining us.

AHMED RASHID: Thank you.

MARTIN: Why these attacks on these particular government buildings in Afghanistan? I mean, we've seen those before, but what's your sense of why those particular targets and why now?

RASHID: Well, the target was a polling center, and that is where Afghans are lining up to register to cast their votes in the autumn for legislative elections, which hopefully will be followed by presidential elections early next year. So that was one very big signal. The second one - that the targets were mostly Shia Hazaras from central Afghanistan, who have been targeted before in the sectarian war between groups like ISIS and the Taliban on one side and Shias on the other. But I think the real tragedy is that ISIS, who claimed to have carried out this attack, are really hellbent now on trying to disrupt the elections.

MARTIN: We were looking through our files, and we realized that we spoke with you exactly a year ago today when there was a massacre. I don't know how else to describe it. You know, more than a hundred people were killed, many more were wounded in an attack on an Afghan military base. This was by the Taliban, who were disguised as Afghan military. So I wanted to ask you, what does it say, you know, that a year later, there is still this level of violence but it seems to be being fomented by a different group? Is there some assessment to be made about this?

RASHID: Well, I mean, firstly, the Taliban are still the largest and most important militant group in Afghanistan. They control maybe up to 40 percent of the country's territory, and they have enormous influence and clout. ISIS, as such, is an intruder. It's a late arrival in the game, but they have been very lethal. They have no qualms about hitting civilians in the way that they have. Now, I think the Taliban have tried to, in some fashion, avoid civilian casualties, partly because the government has been offering them talks, as have the Americans, saying, come talk to us, even if you don't lay down your arms immediately, come talk to us. So I see this attack as not just an attempt to sabotage the elections and to undermine the government but also to, if you like, sabotage any Taliban efforts at mediating with the government. So it's a kind of sabotage on all accounts.

MARTIN: How would you describe what the U.S. and its allies are doing in Afghanistan now?

RASHID: Well, frankly, it's very confused. And I think, you know, a lot of political people in Washington have expressed that. Rather than gaining territory and pushing back the Taliban, the Taliban are gaining territory and pushing back the Afghan government army and the Americans. And I think there's a huge military crisis. And the Trump administration has basically depended on sending a couple of thousand more troops but basically depending on airpower. There's been appalling bombing over the last few months on Afghan targets. The U.S. military says those targets are all Taliban or ISIS, but it's quite evident that there are large numbers of civilians being killed as well. So in a sense, what Trump is saying is that we'll bomb you but we'll also be open to negotiations. But at the moment, what President Trump is insisting upon is the kind of surrender which is not going to happen. And the Taliban are certainly in a much stronger position, I would say, than the government itself.

MARTIN: I'm really interested in the security situation there. Are people accepting that this level of violence is going to be their constant for the next however long? I mean, what is the administration in Afghanistan's posture toward all this?

RASHID: I think one new thing that we've been seeing is a lot of public demonstrations against the government after one of these bomb blasts. Even after this bomb blast, there were demonstrations and people came out, relatives et cetera who came out and said down with the government, the government should resign. Now, that is a new phenomenon which we had not seen before. And clearly, that doesn't bode well for the government of President Ashraf Ghani. He's still waiting for the Taliban response. And he's been urging Parkistan - which has a lot of influence over the Taliban, which has a sanctuary for the Taliban,- urging Pakistan to try and persuade the Taliban to get on with it and send a positive message. Back as we've seen, clearly, the Taliban know very well that if they agree to peace talks, ISIS is going to go all-out to try and sabotage it.

MARTIN: That's Ahmed Rashid. He is a journalist and a best-selling author. His latest book is "Pakistan On The Brink." That's part of a trilogy examining the war in Afghanistan and its regional impact since 2001. Ahmed Rashid, thanks so much for speaking to us.

RASHID: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: April 23, 2018 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous headline incorrectly said the polling station bombing was carried out by the Taliban. It was an ISIS attack.