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Deadly Bombing Shatters an Afghan Haven From War


HERAT, Afghanistan — Twin bombs tore through a crowded bazaar in what is considered the most peaceful province in Afghanistan on Tuesday, killing at least 14 people and wounding dozens more in the deadliest attack in the province in more than a decade.

The blast, which took place in the city and province of Bamiyan, happened even as international donors from dozens of countries were expected to pledge a reduced tranche of funds for Afghanistan at a conference in Switzerland. Concerns from donors have intensified over the worsening violence in Afghanistan as the peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar have stalled, and over continuing corruption within the government.

The contrasting scenes — one of the mass killing of farmers and shopkeepers in a crowded market at dusk, the other at a gilded hall in Geneva where Afghan and Western officials discussed the shape of “lasting peace” — summed up a difficult and discordant moment for Afghans caught in the violence.

Unending and unpredictable violence has been a cornerstone of the past several months as the two sides at the peace negotiations have seemed unable to move forward, and as the United States has decided to withdraw roughly 2,500 troops by mid-January. The sudden troop pullout by the Trump administration has only compounded a sense of unease in the country as Afghan security forces struggle to hold back an emboldened Taliban.

The Taliban denied carrying out the attack in Bamiyan. The province is home to mostly Shiite Hazaras, a religious and ethnic minority group that has been repeatedly targeted by Islamic State loyalists in the country. The terrorist group is seen by many as a spoiler group for any lasting peace settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

Just a 30-minute flight from Kabul, Bamiyan is a tourist destination for Afghans and international visitors alike, who often travel there to see what remains of the ancient Buddha statues that were destroyed by the Taliban before the U.S. invasion in 2001. The province is one of the few places left in the country where people can walk around without constant fear of being killed, and it has served as a refuge from violence for people who are unable to leave the country.

But fighting around the province has intensified in recent years, the roads in to Bamiyan are frequently patrolled by the Taliban, with people often being pulled from their vehicles by the insurgents.

November has been a bloody month for civilians in Afghanistan, with at least 164 killed so far, according to data compiled by The New York Times.

But as the one public hospital in Bamiyan city quickly filled with wounded from Tuesday’s blast, Afghan officials in Kabul and Geneva braced themselves for news that they would receive less international aid than in years past.

The last two pledging conferences — in Tokyo in 2012, and in Brussels in 2016 — promised more than $16 billion and more than $15 billion in aid, respectively. More than 50 percent of the Afghan government’s national budget is made of international funds.

Faced with the possibility of less money this time, Afghan officials have emphasized their commitment to human rights improvements and to the peace negotiations as reason enough for continued foreign backing.

Addressing the Geneva conference from Kabul by video conference on Tuesday, President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan asked the international community “to help us do more with less.”

“Financial resources — aid — will continue to be critical to our growth for the foreseeable future, even as we have balanced that dependency markedly over the past six years,” he said.

Just days before the Geneva conference, Mr. Ghani established a new anti-corruption commission, years after he pledged to do so following his election in 2014. Anti-corruption experts in Afghanistan see the commission as the latest in a repeated number of such bodies set up over the past two decades, and it is riddled with troubling issues, including a lack of independent oversight, and staffed with people close to Mr. Ghani’s office.

The Taliban, pointing to the Afghan government’s endemic corruption, said the funds from the Geneva conference should be given directly to the people or to the Taliban for the sake of transparency. The insurgent group has long-used the government’s shortcomings for propaganda purposes, especially its inability to secure the capital, Kabul.

Aside from the Taliban insurgency wreaking havoc in almost every corner of the country and killing dozens almost daily, the coronavirus has setback Afghanistan’s economic growth by years, according to a recent United Nations report.

International diplomats, whose countries’ economies are also suffering from the pandemic, have grown openly weary of the 19-year-old war, and frustrated by the Afghan government’s repeated promises to combat corruption without fully following through.

“There has always been shortsightedness on the part of the international community,” said Sayed Ikram Afzali, the executive director of Integrity Watch Afghanistan. “And that has been exploited by the government to the maximum extent.

“There is no easy way out of this whole mess. I think we’re at a stage that we cannot roll back everything and start from scratch,” he said.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a U.S. government watchdog that monitors the war in Afghanistan, flatly laid out the problem in a report released earlier this month.

“The Afghan government often makes paper reforms, such as drafting regulations or holding meetings, rather than taking concrete actions that would reduce corruption,” the report said.

On Monday, Amrullah Saleh, Afghanistan’s senior vice president, accused members of Afghanistan’s Parliament as being corrupt, drawing a swift outcry from the legislative body.

In recent days the Parliament has moved to confirm more than a dozen ministers, a process that has been delayed for months because of political infighting. It is an open secret that many of those ministers had to pay some members of Parliament for their votes, according to officials and observers.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff reported from Herat, Afghanistan, and Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva, Switzerland. Fahim Abed contributed reporting from Kabul, and Fatima Faizi from Herat.


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