KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Saturday night's devastating attack on a wedding in Afghanistan's capital comes amid huge uncertainty about the country's future. The United States and the Taliban say they are nearing a deal to end America's longest conflict, one that has lasted a generation and left tens of thousands dead. The U.S.-Taliban talks have sidelined the government in Kabul, which is increasingly frustrated.
Meanwhile, the growing prominence of the local Islamic State group's affiliate, which claimed responsibility for the wedding attack, has raised fears that whatever peace the U.S. and Taliban might broker will not stop the killing of Afghan civilians. The U.S. envoy in the talks, Zalmay Khalilzad, said Sunday that the peace process must be accelerated, including holding talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government and other Afghans. He said those moves will put Afghanistan in a "much stronger position" to defeat the IS affiliate.
Here is a look at the major players in the country:
It has been nearly 18 years since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to topple the Taliban-led government that harbored al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, and now President Donald Trump is eager to bring the troops home. More than 2,400 U.S. service personnel have died. The military says some 14,000 troops remain in the country after a presence that spiked to roughly 100,000 under President Barack Obama. Their combat mission formally ended in 2014 but they continue to train the Afghan military and conduct strikes on the Islamic State group and the Taliban.
For nearly a year, Khalilzad has been negotiating with the Taliban on issues including a U.S. troop withdrawal and Taliban guarantees that would keep Afghanistan from again becoming a launch pad for global terror attacks.
The extremist group ruled Afghanistan for five years, imposing their harsh interpretation of Islamic law before the U.S.-led invasion, and many worry it might return in some form under an agreement with the U.S. The Taliban now control roughly half of Afghanistan and are at their strongest since their 2001 defeat. Their attacks have become so frequent and deadly that the Afghan and U.S. governments now keep military casualty figures confidential. The Taliban refuse to negotiate with the Afghan government, calling it a puppet of the U.S. While the group's political leaders have spoken of allowing limited women's rights and protecting civilians in talks with a range of Afghan representatives earlier this year, no one knows how many of the group's tens of thousands of fighters will follow them. Some fear that fighters unhappy with a deal with the U.S. could join other extremist groups such as IS instead.
President Ashraf Ghani is openly frustrated at his government's exclusion from the U.S.-Taliban talks, and he insists that next month's presidential election in which he seeks a second term is crucial for giving the government a strong mandate to deal with the Taliban in intra-Afghan talks that are expected to follow a U.S. deal. While the Taliban have condemned Saturday night's blast in Kabul, Ghani said the group cannot absolve itself of blame because it provides a "platform for terrorists." His government has said it is still waiting for details of Trump's meeting on Friday with national security advisers on the progress of the U.S.-Taliban negotiations.
ISLAMIC STATE AFFILIATE
Even before the late Saturday bombing at a wedding hall in a Shiite area of Kabul, the local IS affiliate had carried out scores of attacks that have killed hundreds of the Shiite minority Hazaras in the capital and elsewhere in Afghanistan. The extremist group, which appeared in Afghanistan shortly after IS swept across Syria and Iraq in 2014, is committed to overthrowing the Afghan government on its path to establishing a global caliphate. While IS has since lost all the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria, its Afghanistan affiliate is still trying to expand its footprint.
The Taliban and IS are sharply divided over ideology and tactics, with the Taliban largely confining attacks to government targets and Afghan and international security forces. The Taliban and IS have fought each other on a number of occasions, and the Taliban are still the larger and more imposing force. A recent United Nations report estimated that the IS affiliate in Afghanistan numbers between 2,500 and 4,000.
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