Even by the bloody standards of , it was a brutal attack: a suicide bomber at a wedding celebration, detonating his device as children danced and the happy couple completed their marriage rituals. In an instant more than 60 of the 1,000 guests were dead, hundreds injured.
Few events are so joyous and optimistic as a wedding. So why would a terrorist group – – want to attack one?
One reason is that Isis does not believe that restraint serves its purposes. As the atrocities that accompanied its expansion and rule in Iraq and Syria made clear, the group does not aim to win ordinary people’s loyalty but to rule through fear and a few select powerbrokers. Its explicit savagery is not a byproduct of broader strategy. It is the strategy.
But strategies – even those of groups like Isis – do not evolve in a vacuum.
There have been significant changes in the political situation in Afghanistan over recent months. In July, that US troops were still in the country, and Washington is now close to a deal with the Taliban, the reactionary Islamist movement ousted from power by a US-led invasion in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in 2001.
The agreement would see the 14,000 remaining US forces in Afghanistan withdraw in return for a commitment to a ceasefire and a pledge not to support acts of international terrorism.
This latter concession may be less costly to the movement than some analysts think. , and have not been directly linked to international attacks.
Separate negotiations are due to start between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan.
More or less simultaneously, Isis has been definitively expelled from all the territory it held in Iraq and Syria, though it still exerts significant influence over swaths of land and large numbers of people there. This has consequences wherever else the group has established a presence.
One is renewed ambition to establish territorial enclaves. In Islamic historical legal tradition, if you have no land you cannot be recognised as caliph and so alternative zones of potential expansion have become more important. The most propitious appear to be west Africa, the Sahel and Afghanistan.
Isis in Afghanistan has grown from a handful of disaffected Taliban mid-level commanders five years ago to as many as 3,000 fighters. These are mainly concentrated near the border with Pakistan.
Isis strategic thinking has been heavily influenced by the advice of key jihadi thinkers who argued a decade or more ago that extremists needed to foment civil war, discord and chaos. The resultant bloody anarchy would allow them to gain support and eventual power. This was one reason Isis in Iraq made savage assaults on Shia Muslims central to its worldview and strategy, aiming to prompt civil war there.
The victims of Sunday’s attack were from Afghanistan’s marginalised Hazara minority and Shia. The aim was slightly different though. A civil war is already under way, and there is no need to provoke a fresh one. Instead, the attack on the wedding underlined the inability of the Afghan government to protect its own citizens, prompting fear and anger and helping to ensure that any efforts to stabilise the country come to nothing. We can expect more attacks, as savage and shocking, if peace talks advance any further.
The attack also comes at a key turning point that could offer a strategic advantage to Isis, which has fought bitterly with the Taliban over recent years as the newcomers have challenged the authority and ideology of the older movement. Hundreds, thousands probably, have died in the war between the rival organisations.
If the Taliban stop fighting the US and the Afghan government, Isis will aim to take over the role of the main opposition force in the country, gathering to its banners all the malcontents and rejectionists any deal would inevitably create. They would also seek to attract the support of the Taliban’s erstwhile supporters, inside and outside Afghanistan.
High-profile, spectacular bombings that attract much media attention are a way of demonstrating their capabilities and determination, as well as showcasing its readiness to use appalling violence.
Even successful peace talks are unlikely to end Afghanistan’s long nightmare.
No group has claimed responsibility for the in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad. More than 30 people were injured when blasts hit restaurants and public squares as the country marked the 100th anniversary of its independence.
Wrong peace deal could mean 'return to chaos' for Afghanistan
A recent documented 3,812 civilian casualties in Afghanistan in the first six months of this year. The Taliban caused 38% of these, while Isis caused 11%. The biggest number were caused by Afghan government forces and their allies.
In the brutal competition for power in this most unlucky of countries, those who bear no arms are usually the victims.