Thursday, November 8, 2007

Many questions over Afghan blast

Many questions over Afghan blast

In the northern Afghan city of Baghlan, the immediate shock is over.
Funerals for the schoolchildren killed in the blast have already taken place and the MPs will be buried on Thursday.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has spoken of the need to fight extremism.

Forensic investigators are working at the scene.

But questions remain unanswered, among them the most important: who carried out the attack?

The Taleban have categorically denied responsibility. They say such an attack goes against their principles - they do not target civilians.

But so far, suicide bombs in Afghanistan have exclusively been the work of the Taleban and al-Qaeda.

Taleban denial

Even within the Taleban, there are different factions.

One of them is led by the warlord and former mujahideen, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, originally from Baghlan.

His fighters are known to be active in Baghlan province but they, too, have said they were not involved.

Shukria Barakzai, an MP with the opposition Third Line political group, believes the Taleban were responsible.

"No-one else could do it," she says. "Suicide attacks came (to Afghanistan) with them. Even during the Soviet regime, there were no suicide attacks. They are un-Islamic."

There is a good reason why, even if they were involved in the Baghlan bombing, the Taleban would want to distance themselves from it.

When air strikes by Nato and US-led forces kill Afghan civilians, the Taleban uses the deaths to discredit the international military presence here.

For them to cause the deaths of so many civilians would stir up widespread public anger.

But if the Taleban did not do it, who did?

Rival militias

Baghlan province has been relatively unscathed by the insurgency that is wracking the south of the country, but it suffers from other forms of instability.

Private militias operate there. The main road to Baghlan from the south is, like many Afghan roads, a route used by drug traffickers.

"If the Taleban say it was not them, it could be some rival groups or someone inside," says Wadil Sofai, lecturer in law and politics at the University of Kabul.

The governorate of Baghlan changed hands three times last year.

Afghanistan's politics are notoriously factional, but the MPs who died in Baghlan came from all political and ethnic groups.

Abdul Ghafoor Liwal, the director of the Regional Studies Centre of Afghanistan, believes the real target was the authority of the parliament itself.

"The parliament is the symbol of the establishment of the new democracy in Afghanistan," he says.

And Dr Sofai says the bombing has dented confidence in the government: "No family will be ready to send its children to welcome authorities or personalities from now on."

He believes the Afghan government which took power after the fall of the Taleban has failed at a fundamental level. It has been unable to ensure the safety of its citizens or to make important reforms.

"Karzai cannot remove bribery and corruption. He cannot ensure that social justice is there. This government is ineffective. It doesn't have the capacity to lead. There is nothing I can propose to the government to do because it cannot do anything," he says.

Spreading instability

Shukria Barakzai says the Baghlan bombing shows that MPs are a soft target. And she warns that instability in the north will increase.

"People think of the south as unstable, but nowhere is safe. The government must provide more security, not just for MPs, but all the people."

So why was security for the MPs' visit so lax? How could a suicide bomber get so close to the visiting dignitaries?

One MP who was supposed to take part in the delegation but could not go because of illness says it was because the MPs themselves did not request extra security.

But he said the government still had a responsibility to protect its people.

Another puzzling aspect of the Baghlan bombing is the sheer number of people killed, making it the deadliest such attack in Afghanistan's history.

Put bluntly, most suicide bombings here kill only the bombers themselves.

There are still some people who believe, partly because of the devastating death toll, that it was not a suicide bomb at all.

Forensic investigators are now at work in Baghlan, but it will be some time before their findings are released.

Either way, it is a grim reminder that the underlying causes of the violence in Afghanistan have not been resolved, and the instability is likely to worsen still further.


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