Abdul Sattar was leaving his cousin’s wedding when he noticed a well-dressed man pull up on a bicycle festooned with flowers and rush inside the hall.
After decades of carnage in Afghanistan, little things can set off alarm bells. Abdul Sattar, a sergeant in the Afghan army, recalled thinking: “He could be a suicide bomber.”
Moments later, an explosion ripped through the hot, crowded hall where about 1,200 guests had gathered on a Saturday night. Witnesses said the assailant ran toward the stage where a band was playing the drums and detonated a suicide vest.
The blast, which left 63 people dead and more than 180 wounded, was the deadliest in the Afghan capital this year and deepened questions about President Trump’s plans to withdraw U.S. troops as violence against civilians surges in Afghanistan.
The Trump administration is said to be nearing an agreement with the Taliban after months of negotiations under which the U.S. would pull out half the estimated 20,000 international troops in Afghanistan in exchange for Taliban pledges not to allow the country to harbor other Islamic extremist groups.
But it was the local affiliate of Islamic State that claimed responsibility Sunday for the blast in west Kabul, which set off a fresh wave of grief in a country where nowhere — not weddings, not hospitals, not places of worship — remains safe from suicide attacks.
The attack highlighted the concerns among many Afghans and analysts that while the U.S. rushes to make a deal with one religious militant group, other extremists such as Islamic State continue to kill large numbers of civilians.
“A U.S.-Taliban agreement does not end fighting in Afghanistan, and in fact the fighting could get very nasty,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, an analyst at the Brookings Institution.
Taliban leaders, who in recent months have continued to launch violent attacks of their own, say they are prepared to make a deal, but they hold no sway over Islamic State militants, a comparatively small number of fighters including Pakistani operatives and other foreigners who fled the group’s former strongholds in Iraq and Syria. The group has been buffeted by U.S. ground operations and airstrikes in eastern Afghanistan in recent years, but continues to carry out major attacks.
The most recent U.S.-Taliban talks ended last week in Doha, Qatar, without a deal, although the White House is nonetheless moving ahead with plans to reduce the number of troops and diplomats stationed in Afghanistan as Trump tries to show progress ahead of the 2020 election.
The U.S. State Department on Sunday condemned what it called a “despicable” attack, saying in a statement: “The Afghan people deserve a future free from terror. That is why it is time for all Afghans to join in the #AfghanPeaceProcess and build a united front against the menace of ISIS,” another name for Islamic State.
The Afghan government has not been a party to the negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan for several years before the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. The Trump administration is seeking an eventual withdrawal of all U.S. troops, which would leave security entirely in the hands of Afghan forces that have proved unable to protect their citizens — despite billions of dollars in U.S. training and equipment.
“The government has failed to secure our lives. May God protect us,” said Abdul Sattar, who lost six members of his family on Saturday. A seventh died of his injuries Sunday, even as the family buried the others.
A 12-year army veteran who served multiple tours in Helmand province, the site of some of the worst fighting of the war, he stood in the dirt of a cemetery in west Kabul on Sunday afternoon amid six freshly dug graves topped with unmarked stones.
The dead — including his two teenage brothers, 11-year-old nephew and sons ages 6 and 10 — were buried in simple wooden coffins. Mourners helped dig the graves by hand.
The 32-year-old Abdul Sattar hadn’t slept. Upon hearing the blast, he had rushed back inside the wedding hall to look for family members.
His white clothes were stained with the blood of bodies he had helped carry from the hall, its walls streaked with shrapnel holes and chairs torn to shreds. It was difficult to recognize the victims. Bodies lay in pieces on the tiled floor, some women’s arms still adorned with bracelets.
“Some with half a body, some without hands and legs, some without heads,” he said. “It was like a nightmare.”
The Dubai City Wedding Hall is one of many large, brightly lighted venues in Kabul that host elaborate festivities costing upward of tens of thousands of dollars and offer a rare chance for Afghans to celebrate in large groups. It sits in a west Kabul neighborhood heavily populated by members of the Hazara ethnic minority, a Shiite Muslim community that has been repeatedly targeted by the Sunni extremists of Islamic State.
The groom, a 24-year-old tailor, is Shiite. He and his bride survived the blast.
In 2017, Islamic State claimed responsibility for an attack on a mosque in a Shiite area that killed more than 50 people. The year before, the group bombed a Hazara-led protest, leaving more than 80 dead and hundreds wounded.
Last year was the deadliest for Afghans since the United Nations began counting casualties a decade ago, with almost 4,000 civilians killed and more than 7,000 wounded — mostly in attacks by Islamic State and the Taliban, which also harbors extremist Sunni beliefs. This year has seen a surge in deaths and injuries caused by pro-government forces, largely because of U.S. airstrikes, the U.N. has found.
Although the Taliban is far and away Afghanistan’s most influential militant group, questions remain about its cohesiveness after decades of warfare. Taliban forces have often fought Islamic State for territory and resources. But one Afghan security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that a peace deal could see up to 10% of Taliban fighters defect to Islamic State.
The spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Doha, Suhail Shaheen, denied involvement in Saturday’s attack, which he called “cruel and brutal.” Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch responded on Twitter that the Taliban denial “highlights the fact that a U.S.-Taliban deal won’t end attacks on Afghans.”
Graeme Smith, a consultant for the International Crisis Group, said Islamic State is fearful of a peace deal because it is “getting hammered on the battlefield” by both U.S.-backed government forces and the Taliban and “does not want to see its two biggest enemies make peace and join forces against them.”
“There’s a potential motive for them to conduct bigger spectacular attacks right now, on the eve of a historic settlement between the United States and the Taliban,” Smith said.
Another condition of the deal is that the Taliban enter into negotiations with Afghan political leaders, a complex process that is likely to see some insurgent leaders join the government and attempt to overturn the political order and relative social freedoms ushered in by the U.S.-led invasion.
Experts say those talks could collapse or drag on for years, threatening the durability of the Afghan army and further emboldening militants.
“Even if negotiations between the Afghans don’t collapse, one scenario is talking and fighting at the same time,” said Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution.
Many Afghans see little distinction between the Taliban and Islamic State.
“They are the same dogs that bite the nation whenever they want,” Abdul Sattar said.
Special correspondent Faizy reported from Kabul and Times staff writer Bengali from Singapore. Special correspondent Stefanie Glinski in Kabul contributed to this report.