There is a classic real life murder mystery called the Wallace Case. William Herbert Wallace, an insurance clerk, was originally convicted of murdering his wife, but later acquitted on appeal after the presentation of new evidence – and though supported by his employers, he was accused by some of his neighbours.
The case is regarded as a classic because each piece of evidence can be interpreted to prove Wallace either guilty or innocent, with equal probability. No one has any real idea, almost ninety years after the event, whether Wallace really was the murderer. The answer depends on which evidence you wish to think important, what sort of things you generally believe and what personal points you wish to make.
The forty years of conflict in Afghanistan never used to be like this. Everyone knew who was who, and who was funding who. Then the world lost interest in the seemingly eternal war because there was no happy ending on the horizon.
What is transpiring now is all about ruining the End Game, as was mentioned in the movie Charlie Wilson’s war.
“These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world… and then we f**d up the end game”
This evolved situated created an opportunity for new players to come along, often very little different from their alleged sworn enemies. Together they made the situation so complex, and guilt and innocence so unprovable, that everyone left those with the most interest in causing trouble to their own devices.
The 17th August bombing in Kabul is just another in a long line of atrocities committed against Afghanistan and its people by many players. But dig a bit deeper, and it has all the makings of another Wallace Case.
The Islamic State has been blamed for it, and has accepted responsibility. But all the evidence in the ledger of guilt or innocence can point either way – almost as if it was supposed to, because somebody wanted us to think a certain way, for their own ends.
Worst amongst equals
The Islamic State no longer controls much territory, if any. But as a military force, it is making a comeback – or so we are told.
Earlier this year Donald Trump claimed “victory” over the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. In English, that means it had served its purpose. Most articles about the IS refer to its funding, without specifying where this comes from. Ask anyone in Afghanistan what happens when the US develops a specific policy objective, and you know where the sudden influx of funds and arms enjoyed by various “terrorist groups” actually comes from.
But the IS has a much wider reach than Syria and Iraq. Afghanistan remains a haven for extremist Islamist groups, because in practice there is very little else for the locals to choose from. It is also because this venue is where the money comes from too, and thanks to the various programmes set up to funnel money under the guise of assistance and democracy building, including those funded by the US State Department, USAID and USAID.
All the while the US designated terrorists go about protecting the populations they want to be seen supporting, even if those populations disown that support – as residents of Northern Ireland found for thirty years. They also often profess a clear ideology which people can understand, even if they don’t agree with the violence and fundamentalism that goes with it.
One of the reasons the Taliban was successful against domestic opposition was that it promoted the traditions of Pashtunwali, a moral code everyone knew and understood, rather than “Islamic fundamentalism”, a label its opponents likewise used as justification. Whatever else it did, it connected the people with something they understood in real terms, not ideology.
In a country which once deposed its king for “turning Christian “because he started building factories – and you just can’t do things the way the Western powers do now – conducting a “reconstruction” which brings in politicians who are obliged to play a Western-style game in public because the Infidel says that is the right thing to do. The Taliban may have been bloodthirsty, arbitrary and corrupt, but in the eyes of many, that was not necessarily important. They were the Devil they knew, who spoke a language they understood.
Not many who accepted the Taliban when it first flushed out the Mujahedeen do now, because the criminal aspect of that regime later became apparent. Quite rightly, Muslims do not associate their religion with criminality, particularly when it involves the misuse of poppies forbidden by the Quran.
But the Islamic State does have some support, as an extension of what the Taliban represented for many Afghans in better times. It may be another brutal terrorist group, but amongst all its crimes it professes the same Islam that millions of non-violent Afghans understand, even if they disagree with its practice.
Quranic scripture versus a pathological liar and womaniser who represents all the Quran says is wrong with the West? We all know which side millions of Christian Westerners would come down on, never mind Afghans.
So why would such a force send a suicide bomber to a wedding? To embarrass the government? To show that the IS still remains? Or to serve the purposes of the same US which claims to have defeated its fair weather allies in Syria and Iraq?
Elephants in every room
The Afghan government was another Western creation, put there after the Taliban regime was overthrown by the US and its allies in 2001. Though the change was by then generally welcomed, it soon became clear to many Afghans that the US was an occupying force whose agendas had little to do with the welfare of Afghanistan or international security.
Even the best intentions of the best Afghan government (and the Karzai government wasn’t notably badly behaved or incompetent) could not compete with the perception that the country no longer belonged to Afghans, even if those Afghans were bad ones. The re-emergence of the Taliban as an insurgent force was not motivated by nostalgia but the fact that it filled a gap, which the US had created by driving a wedge between the understanding of the people and the imposed values of their politicians.
The Islamic State is even better equipped to fill that gap, simply because it isn’t the Taliban, which Afghans have seen before. It is hardly a saner or more reasonable version of the Taliban, but the dream of a global Islamic Caliphate, where everyone has common values, has a resonance people of any type of religious or political belief can relate to. A lot still depends on who has the bigger gun pointed at you, but what destiny you are prepared to accept in such circumstances is also a motivating factor.
So the Afghan situation can be boiled down to five actors: the US and its allies; the Afghan government; the Taliban; the Islamic State; and the remnants of the Mujahedeen groups of old, who still control certain strongholds and make themselves available to the highest bidder. Each of these has sound reasons to sponsor a suicide bomber.
The bombing both furthers and harms their respective causes, and those of their opponents. But the important factor is: who wants to draw attention to Afghanistan, and their own deeds, right now?
Houses of carefully placed cards
Each actor has equal reason to be behind this bombing and equal reason not to be. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility, but it would, wouldn’t it? It wants to show it’s still around, particularly now Trump has halved the troop complement in Iraq and Syria on the grounds that it has been defeated.
When governments do things, all their various agencies do not fall into line immediately. Often the members of one department want to score points over another, or keep a lucrative gravy train going. It is equally likely that the Islamic State either didn’t send the bomber or was asked to do so by part of the US military-industrial complex, which would never have gone into Afghanistan if it had not seen the move as a benefit to itself. It never does, as the inaction against North Korea testifies.
The US and the Taliban are involved in prolonged negotiations over the future of the country. The Afghan government, despite being a US creation, is not usually a party to these talks. Imagine that – a government is installed by the Infidel which beat the Taliban, and then that same Infidel, having failed to completely eradicate the Taliban, goes running into negotiations with it and then side lines the very same people it said were the right ones to run the country.
Neither the US, the Taliban nor the Afghan government want the Islamic State to rise again. But they all need to demonstrate that it remains a threat.
The US and the Taliban can argue that they need to intensify their negotiations, which are largely about control of the drug smuggling routes, to prevent further atrocities because the Afghan government is ineffectual. The Afghan government wants to portray the US-Taliban negotiations as undermining the country, as they have brought about a return of violence and Taliban-type tactics.
The Mujahedeen groups and their small ethnic cores of support must be dying laughing with all this. The most successful of these groups dissolved long ago, either crushed by the Taliban or joining the new Afghan government which followed it. As with the Real IRA in Northern Ireland, only a few of the old combatants remained unconvinced, and felt more at home in the old divisions.
The Mujahedeen, many of whom are now exiled in Pakistan or former Soviet republics such as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan depending on their ethnic base, know they will bring the full force of the other actors on their heads if they try and bomb anywhere. That is also the exact reason they would do it regardless.
Publicity is the one avenue they can still exploit to further their cause if they go about it the right way – and their sponsor governments, who also want a toehold in Afghanistan to prevent any further governments they don’t like taking charge, would be very happy to see the country disintegrate on the watch of the US, Taliban and Afghan government if they think they can remove those forces in this way.
Faced with these plausible options, most observers within Afghanistan and without would shake their heads and say “I don’t know where to begin”. That leaves them with two options – either believe whatever the media tells them, or fall back on pre-existing assumptions.
Those assumptions themselves are usually carefully lain – ask any Serb, whose compatriots have always had to endure a world where everyone thinks all the Serbs living together in their own country is a bad thing, without being able to explain why. So what are the authors of this atrocity assuming we will think about Afghanistan, the US, the Taliban and the Afghan government, based on what they have been told seemingly since time immemorial?
Playing the unseen side
First, we know that Afghanistan has been home to endless conflict for two generations. The world is a very different place now to 1979, when the long-vanished Soviet Union moved in to remove the independently minded Afghan Communists, but Afghanistan in Conflict has remained a constant.
So no one expects lawfulness or effective government there. Another suicide bombing would be business as usual, strangely comforting for those who do not have to live under the threat of being caught up in such actions because they live alongside those who see them as acceptable.
Second, the Islamic State is no longer the force it once was in the general consciousness, regardless of what it does on the ground. No longer is it seen as a terrifying whirlwind of extreme violence consuming everything in its path, but as yesterday’s news, and thus a spent force.
Everything the Islamic State does now is seen as another random act of violence. No longer do its actions have the quasi-official status they had when performed by a landholding institution, even if it was branded “terrorist”. The bombing doesn’t persuade us that the IS is alive and well, but that it very nearly isn’t.
But people who hear about the suicide bombing also have assumptions about the Taliban. This, fundamentally, is what the bombing was about. The US is openly consorting with what it long branded the wickedest and evillest of forces on earth. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this action, the assumption everyone has been encouraged to make is hindering a US policy objective, and few think this is a bad thing.
The US has long shown itself happy to create a little more “collateral damage” in terms of murder and mayhem to get its own way. If the Afghan government is useless, and IS is still around but a dangerous rump, this sanitises the relationship between the US and the Taliban.
The Taliban can’t run the country again, but is well equipped, in the popular imagination, to do all the dirty stuff. Then the US can restore order as the nice guys. Just like it did before, to create the present situation, though it won’t admit it.
When a monument is described as having been built by a certain nobleman, we don’t infer that the nobleman literally built it with his own hands – he ordered the construction and oversaw the work. Whoever sent a suicide bomber to a wedding in Kabul to kill 63 people and wound 182 is just as responsible for those deaths and woundings as the bomber. Maybe not enough people care. But when you lose your home and family because someone made up a story, you will.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.