The release of the United Nations’ mid-year report on civilians casualties (CIVCAS) in Afghanistan came two days after ‘the deadliest single incident recorded by the UN in Afghanistan since 2001’. Eighty civilians were killed and as many as 290 injured in a suicide attack on peaceful protesters in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul on 23 July. 

For the first time the UN report, which documents the relentless toll of the conflict on civilians (63,934 CIVCAS — 22,941 deaths and 40,993 — since January 2009) dedicated a section to ISIL Afghanistan/Daesh, which claimed responsibility for the Kabul attack. The UN attributed 122 CIVCAS to Daesh in the first half of 2016 (compared to 13 the year prior). That figure has now increased fourfold. It's clear the group is increasingly a major player in Afghanistan's protracted conflict.

Daesh never set up shop directly in Afghanistan, but, rather, ‘picked’ up groups that broke away from the Taliban after its founder and longstanding leader Mullah Omar was officially confirmed dead. Some of these groups view the Taliban as increasingly under the influence of Pakistan, others prefer to franchise the Daesh brand. There are also reports that many of those fighting for Daesh are not Afghan, but from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan. All this makes it hard to pinpoint the territorial spread of Daesh outside of its stronghold in Afghanistan’s eastern province of Nangarhar, though there are reports it is also operational in Kunar, Logar and Wardak, with activities in Zabul, Northern Afghanistan and, obviously, Kabul.

The fact that the Hazara minority accounts for nearly all those killed and injured in the Kabul attack has prompted some observers to warn of the dangers of a sectarian conflict. In my view, however, we should be careful about fanning the fire of sectarian conflict — unless we wish to advance the political agenda of Daesh. This is not to say there is no element of ethnic targeting. The Hazara are both an ethnic and religious minority and they are indeed Shia and not Sunni Muslim which puts them firmly in Daesh's sights. In the days since the Kabul bombing, a Daesh commnader claimed it was retaliation for the support offered by some members of the Hazara community to the Assad regime in Syria. In addition to this specific attack, the Hazara have been disproportionately affected by seemingly random abductions and killings over the past months. All this said, few things in Afghanistan are simple or clear cut. As the UN report documents, some 51% of all CIVCAS occur in Afghanistan’s Pashtun belt (South, Southeast and Eastern Afghanistan), with 28% in Southern Afghanistan alone, the Taliban’s heartland. Civilian suffering is spread across all ethnicities and creeds.

It is also true that the Hazara have long been a repressed minority. They were persecuted in the past under the Taliban and many Hazara feel their region has been neglected economically, with relatively few aid dollars finding their way there. After all, Saturday’s demonstration was to express discontent with the Afghan government’s decision to reroute the Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TUTAP) electricity project from Bamiyan to the Salang routes, with the Hazara region losing out on associated jobs and benefits. Tensions over this project have been simmering all year. Protesters repeatedly interrupted Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s speech in London on 13 May, following up with a demonstration three days later. Many feared then that something could go wrong at a mass protest with ethnic dimensions.That event passed without incident, making Saturday's attack a shocking contrast.

The Hazara have gained a great deal of political power and integration over the last decade. They are well represented in the current government, including high-ranking positions. President Ghani (a Pashtun) quickly condemned the attack in Kabul and declared a national day of mourning while vowing revenge. These actions reflect a conflict between a heterogeneous Afghan government and an insurgent group that happens to be majority Sunni. Furthermore, the insurgents the government are fighting are increasingly heterogeneous as well. Daesh and the Taliban do not always see eye to eye. There were reports they declared jihad on each other early on, and have since fought for territorial control, especially in Nangarahr. In addition, some Taliban commanders that had joined Daesh were recently reported to have defected back citing ‘ideological rigidity and ultra-violent action’. The Taliban was also quick to deny responsibilities for Saturday’s devastating attack. 

Thus, while sectarian targeting played a role in the Kabul bombing, others factors were also at play. It was an opportunity to create maximum effect (in the form of human suffering) with minimum resources and to prove Daesh is active in Kabul and hence needs to be taken seriously. Which of these three considerations was the most important for Daesh is hard to say. What matters is the attack had its intended effect: it delivered international attention and the group is now considered to be a serious threat in Afghanistan.

In light of the above, in a country where the conflict — and allegiances — have always been rather fluid, with opportunism and pragmatism frequently prevailing over firm convictions, and where every ethnic group has been victim and perpetrator at some point in time, one should be careful before attributing too much solely to sectarian conflict. It is very valid to cry out against an attack on a civilian demonstration, and the targeting of minorities, but as the Afghan government has proven, such an event can equally become an opportunity to demonstrate solidarity between the different ethnic groups, rather than emphasise difference. The Afghan government responded maturely by condemning the attack, and so did many Afghans regardless of ethnicity and creed. Similarly, the beheading of ethnic Hazara by Daesh in November last year caused public uproar and led to a demonstration where Hazara were joined by others in the public condemnation. Speaking of sectarian conflict ultimately gives Daesh what it seeks by indirectly empowering the group and its agenda.

Photo by Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images