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A Look At Instability In Afghanistan After Blast In Kabul

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The president of Afghanistan has proclaimed tomorrow, Tuesday, a national day of mourning. This after a horrific attack over the weekend on a girls' school in Kabul. Dozens were killed, most of them students, young teenagers. The death toll is still rising. And now a bus bombing in southern Afghanistan has left at least 11 people dead. The Taliban has denied responsibility in both cases. In fact, no group has claimed responsibility. What is undeniable is that violence is rising as U.S. forces begin to pull out, so who are the players in Afghanistan's instability? Here to deliver a primer (ph) of sorts is Annie Pforzheimer, former U.S. deputy chief of mission in Kabul.

Welcome.

ANNIE PFORZHEIMER: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

KELLY: We're glad to have you with us. Let's start with the Taliban and these questions. How unified a group is it these days? How different a group is it from the Taliban that was driven from power two decades ago?

PFORZHEIMER: I think the Taliban is relatively unified, and they are different in that they have fighters who have a great deal of autonomy throughout the country, who extend their rule in different ways, some quite brutal. But in general, they have a leadership which is keeping a disciplined eye on the entire political messaging of the group, so the difference is that they know better how to play the international community.

KELLY: When they deny responsibility for attacks like these, should we believe them? How much weight do you give it?

PFORZHEIMER: I think, in point of fact, the details of the attack point to the ISIS group that is active in Afghanistan. This is the target that they have chosen in the past, and it has some of their hallmarks.

KELLY: OK.

PFORZHEIMER: But when the Taliban denies it, they're missing the point that their activities have set the stage for ISIS to remain in Afghanistan and to gain power.

KELLY: And I want to get to the Islamic State in a second but one more question on the Taliban, which is how much have they changed from the group that was driven from power two decades ago in terms of their ultimate ambitions, in terms of their respect or lack thereof for human rights, for women's rights?

PFORZHEIMER: I'm afraid that you can see the answer to that in their behavior in the parts of the country that they already control, which are, generally speaking, the more isolated and less populated parts of Afghanistan. They have, in some cases, allowed schooling for girls up to the age of 12. But in many other cases, they don't allow schooling. And they put restrictions, for example, on women who need health services. And overall, they don't show a great deal of ideological change from when they held power in the '90s.

KELLY: Which does not bode well for - should they eventually come back to power in Kabul and in the entire country. All right. You mentioned the Islamic State and why suspicion might fall on them for this attack on the girls school, for example. I think Americans, you know, got used to hearing about the Islamic State more in Syria, more in Iraq. How active are they in Afghanistan today?

PFORZHEIMER: Well, ISIS has been in Afghanistan since about the time that many of them were driven out of Iraq, so 2014, 2015. And they remain active, especially in the eastern part. They had a lot of military setbacks in 2019, but they have rebounded over the last year.

KELLY: OK, so those are two of the players. There's obviously al-Qaida. There are others. It's a complicated landscape. To what extent is it possible to know or say, do these groups coordinate or not? Are they allies? Are they rivals? How would you frame it?

PFORZHEIMER: I think the most obvious allies are Taliban and al-Qaida and the Haqqani network, which is, in essence, a subset of the Taliban. So those groups, it's documented, work together. United Nations reports and others have shown that al-Qaida still retains a lot of advisory status with the Taliban. And with regard to the Taliban and ISIS, I think that they have fought each other over territory. But again, they essentially enable each other by stretching thin the Afghan security forces.

KELLY: So many challenges there for both the Afghan government and the U.S. - as we noted, pulls out troops from the country but continues to want to try to exercise some political leverage there.

Thank you very much for sharing your expertise.

PFORZHEIMER: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: That is Annie Pforzheimer, former deputy chief of mission in Kabul. She's now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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