KABUL, Afghanistan -- As Afghanistan mourned the 63 people killed late Saturday night in a suicide bombing, the nation's president vowed to "eliminate" all havens of the local affiliate of the Islamic State extremist group.
"We will take revenge for every civilian drop of blood," President Ashraf Ghani declared Monday. "Our struggle will continue against [the Islamic State]. We will take revenge and will root them out."
Ghani made the comments on a day in which at least 66 people were wounded in a series of explosions. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Monday's attacks in the eastern city of Jalalabad where both the Islamic State and the Taliban are active.
Monday was also Afghanistan's Independence Day, marking 100 years of freedom from British rule. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hailed Afghanistan's independence and "century of resilience" in a statement that also called the wedding bombing "an attack against humanity," one of many international condemnations of the attack.
But after multiple explosions over 48 hours, the holiday was subdued.
Survivors of Saturday's attack on a Kabul wedding hall focused instead on burying the dead and caring for the nearly 200 wounded in that blast. A brother of the groom spoke through tears of his weariness at the bloodshed in the country and the crushing guilt he felt at having to face his neighbors, many of whom had lost relatives.
"Around 20 victims' families live in our very neighborhood," said 22-year-old Ramin, whose brother, Mirwais Alami, survived, along with his bride, Raihana.
"We don't know how we should look at them," said Ramin, who like many Afghans uses only one name. "Maybe they don't want us, or like us, anymore."
Ramin helped with Monday's funerals, including one for the 8-year-old brother of the bride.
"We are just tired of this life," Ramin said of the decades of war and insurgency that Afghanistan has endured.
Many angry Afghans are asking whether an expected deal between the United States and the Taliban to end nearly 18 years of fighting -- America's longest war -- will bring peace.
"We don't care who will make a peace deal. We don't care who will come into power," Ramin said. "What we want is peace. We just want peace."
Overcome with grief, he apologized and said he couldn't say anything more.
In his own emotional interview, the distraught groom Alami told local broadcaster TOLOnews that their lives were devastated by the bombing.
"It would be better if I had died," he said. "How can I look at people?"
A sharply worded Taliban statement questioned why the United States failed to identify the attacker in advance. In another statement on Monday to mark Independence Day, the Taliban said the world should "leave Afghanistan to the Afghans."
ISIS' REACH GROWS
Saturday night's attack was claimed by Islamic State in Khorasan, as the Afghanistan branch is known.
The branch officially began operating in Afghanistan in 2015, according to a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Its name invokes the Khorasan Province, a medieval region that encompassed parts of Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia.
Started by Pakistani national Hafiz Zaeed Khan, who pledged allegiance to Islamic State head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014, it began as a small band of mostly Pakistani militants operating in the eastern Afghanistan province of Nangahar. The Islamic State affiliate's claim of the wedding attack said it was carried out by a Pakistani fighter seeking martyrdom against Shiites.
Like its parent group -- the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria -- the Afghanistan offshoot has ambitions to hold territory and is known for carrying out brutal attacks on civilians, including women and children. Shiites are particularly frequent targets, because the extremist Sunni group considers them apostates.
The number of Islamic State affiliated fighters in Afghanistan has grown to between 2,500 and 4,000, according to a recent estimate by the United Nations. The wedding bombing in Kabul on Saturday highlighted the group's growing reach, according to Michael Kugelman, a South Asia specialist at the Washington-based Wilson Center.
The Islamic State in Khorasan has never successfully captured territory in Afghanistan. It remains much weaker than its two key rival militant groups in the region: the Taliban, the Afghanistan-based militia; and al-Qaida, the terror group formerly led by Osama bin Laden that has inspired affiliates in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa.
Despite the Islamic State's lack of territory in Afghanistan, Kugelman said, the group has remained "resilient."
Fawaz Gerges, the author of a recent book on the rise of the Islamic State, noted that the group often attacks mosques, schools and weddings to show that it's "purer" than the Taliban and al-Qaida.
"Suicide attacks against weddings are force multipliers for [the Islamic State], because it's desperate to show its potency, its ability to strike near and far, especially after the beating it has taken in Iraq and Syria," said Gerges, who is also a professor at the London School of Economics.
The U.S., in its peace negotiations, hopes that the Taliban will help fight the Islamic State.
Although both groups practice an extreme form of Sunni Islam, they have different beliefs and methods. The Taliban are an Afghan-based militia that ruled much of the country from 1996 until the U.S. invaded in 2001. The Islamic State is an international terrorist group notorious for targeting civilians.
The U.S. envoy in talks with the Taliban, Zalmay Khalilzad, said Sunday that the peace process should be accelerated to help Afghanistan defeat the Islamic State affiliate. That would include talks between the U.S.-backed Afghanistan government and the Taliban about the country's future, a process that could take years.
President Donald Trump told reporters Sunday he doesn't want Afghanistan to be a "laboratory for terror," and he described discussions with the Taliban as "good." He was briefed Friday on the progress of the U.S.-Taliban talks.
In their nearly yearlong negotiations with the U.S., the Taliban have called for the approximately 20,000 U.S. and allied forces to withdraw from the country. For its part, the U.S. wants Taliban assurances that Afghanistan -- which hosted bin Laden before Sept. 11, 2001 -- will not be a launching pad for global terror attacks.
Gerges said the Taliban, through its negotiation efforts, has sought to define itself in contrast to the Islamic State -- more reasonable, less violent, and willing to operate as a mainstream political actor.
But observers fear that a peace agreement with the United States could cause some Taliban fighters to feel betrayed and defect to the Islamic State, which the Taliban see as "an existential threat," Gerges said. Many of the group's initial recruits formerly belonged to the Taliban.
"If there is a Taliban peace deal, you would have a critical mass of disaffected, angry Taliban hard-liners who would jump into the [Islamic State] camp," Kugelman said.
Information for this article was contributed by Rahim Faiez of The Associated Press; and by Claire Parker of The Washington Post.
A Section on 08/20/2019
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