While we certainly don’t put it past the Taliban to blow up a bunch of schoolchildren to take out a couple of politicians, we note that this attack comes in the normally (relatively) peaceful north of the country, where the Taliban were never popular and still have little following. News accounts frequently forget that the real power in Afghanistan’s hinterlands remain the warlords who terrorized the country in a decade and more of internecine ethnic and sectarian bloodshed after the Soviets pulled out, and still have their deep personal grudges—despite the best efforts of Karzai and the US to broker peace (and maintain the fiction of a centralized Afghan state). Baghlan, the scene of today’s horrific attack, lies within the domain of regional warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, who (as we have noted) has long been in an oft-bloody power struggle with local rivals. We’d like to know where the apparent targets of this blast stood vis-à-vis this conflict. Note that the Taliban explicitly deny responsibility this time, and raise the possibility of Mujahedeen accounts-settling. From Reuters Nov. 6, emphasis added:
MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan — A suicide attack on a parliamentary delegation killed at least 50 people in northern Afghanistan on Tuesday, a provincial official said, in the worst such blast in the country’s history.
Five members of the Afghan parliament were among the dead and the toll was expected to rise. Schoolchildren were also among the victims in the town of Baghlan in the north of the country which had so far escaped the worst of Afghanistan’s worsening violence.
“We have recorded 50 people dead so far, but there are still bodies on the streets we have not counted and some of the dead have already been taken away by their relatives,” Baghlan provincial security chief Abdurrahman Sayedkhail told Reuters.
The shattered and scorched bodies of children and adults lay on the ground amid pools of blood and lumps of flesh as people scrambled to carry away the living and dead.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
A spokesman for the Islamist Taliban said the group was not behind the attack. The Taliban has killed more than 200 people this year in suicide bombings aimed at ousting the pro-Western government and driving out foreign troops.
The bomber was on foot and blew himself up as schoolchildren lined up to welcome the parliamentary delegation on a visit to a sugar factory in Baghlan. Large crowds had also turned out to greet the deputies, on an economic fact-finding mission.
Opposition spokesman and former Commerce Minister Mostafa Kazemi and four other parliamentary deputies were killed.
“The bomber got very close to the delegation as they were being greeted. He got very close to Mostafa Kazemi and blew himself up,” Sayedkhail said. “He was carrying a massive amount of explosives.”
A deputy agriculture minister and prominent woman parliamentarian Shukria Barakzai were among the wounded.
Northern Afghanistan has been relatively peaceful and prosperous compared to the south and east where Taliban suicide attacks are all too common and insurgents are locked in almost daily battles with Afghan and foreign forces.
One Taliban spokesman said the group had not carried out the Baghlan attack.
“It might have been carried out by their rivals in the parliament,” said Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahed. “These parliamentarians were all mujahideen in the past and killed lots of civilians. Maybe someone was trying to take revenge.”
But the attack on Baghlan, a small market town in a melon-growing region with streets lined with citrus trees, had all the hallmarks of a Taliban operation.
NATO commanders say the Taliban are far from having a unified organization and consist of a number of factions operating more or less independently under loose guidelines handed down from the governing council.
Al Qaeda operatives and at least one other rebel organization [a probable reference to former US proxy Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose network is said to extend to the north. (Afgha.com, Nov. 6)—WW4R] are also active in Afghanistan.
The insurgents’ strategy is aimed at convincing Afghans that their government and its Western backers are unable to bring security to the country which has already suffered nearly three decades of almost constant war.
The Afghan government often comes in for a good measure of blame from ordinary Afghans for failing to prevent the bloodshed. Frustration with official corruption, the lack of rule of law and the slow pace of development is also fuelling anger with the government.
NATO and U.S.-led coalition troops are in a race against time to strengthen Afghan security forces before resentment grows against the presence of 50,000 foreign soldiers and mounting casualties lead Western public opinion to demand the troops be brought home.
See our last post on Afghanistan.