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Afghanistan’s bomb attack exposes nation’s ethnic and religious fissures

The death toll from Saturday’s car bomb attack on a girls’ school in a minority Shiite neighborhood in Kabul has crossed 50 and at least 100 people have been injured. While no one has taken responsibility for the attack, the government has blamed the Taliban. NewsHour Special Correspondent Jane Ferguson joins Hari Sreenivasan with the latest.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The death toll in yesterday's bombing in Kabul, Afghanistan rose to at least 50 and the number of wounded is now more than 100.

    The bombing targeted a girls school in a minority Shiite neighborhood in Kabul.

    Afghan officials said many of those hurt or killed in the blasts were girls between the ages of 11 and 15.

    At funeral services today grieving family members blamed Afghanistan's government and western powers for not doing more to end violence against ethnic and religious minorities in the country.

    For more on the violence and the U.S. and NATO troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, I spoke with NewsHour Special Correspondent Jane Ferguson.

    Jane, first, what do we know about this bombing?

  • Jane Ferguson:

    It was, it seems, a series of bombs. There was one massive car bomb that exploded around about 4:00 p.m. local time just outside the gates of the school. It's not specifically a girls school, but the boys and girls studied at different times. And in the afternoon, it was the slot for the girls. So these girls were coming out and it's believed that after that car bomb, there were at least two other explosions in the area.

    There have been 50 confirmed dead, over 100 injured. But some of those injured are also in critical condition. So the death toll could rise even higher than it already has.

    We also know that the Taliban have condemned the attack and are denying any responsibility. Now, that's not unusual for the group. They have, of course, this deal with the United States that they signed that sort of insinuates, or at least it had some parts of it, some of the parts that we don't that have not been made public, are believed to have set, have basically tied them to not attacking major cities or big spectacular attacks like this. It also is much more characteristic of ISIS because it's likely that this attack could be more of an ethnically motivated attack.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Put it in the context of the troop withdrawal that's happening right now. Is this something that ends up making Afghans concerned that perhaps if the United States leaves by September 11th, as we said, we were going to do, that they are in for greater instability.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Afghans are deeply concerned and have been for a very long time now knowing that the American troops would be leaving and now knowing that it is an unconditional withdrawal. Now, you can, of course, connect explosions and acts of violence to that withdrawal. Everything that's happening in Afghanistan right now is happening within that context. But it's not as though American troops would have been standing outside that school. There's not that direct defense of the Afghan public.

    But what's happening is, as the United States has committed to drawing down no matter what, you're seeing the more domestic side of this war really starting to ramp up. And that is what concerns people the most. What happens after America leaves? America is not ending the war in Afghanistan. America is leaving the war. What they could leave in their wake and what Afghans fear the most is the potential for civil war that can take on an ethnic slant that can be reminiscent of different warlords and militias fighting one another.

    The whole point being that America is leaving, but there's no plan for peace in Afghanistan when they're gone. And events like this and attacks like this only make people fear that the worst is yet to come.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You've reported from the region multiple times. And the fact that this is a school and the victims are predominantly young girls, young girls and the education of women has been a source, a contentious source of debate in the Afghan government and in Afghan society.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    It has. Women have had some gains over the last 20 years. More so women from certain socioeconomic backgrounds, women from the cities, are able to study. But there's no denying that education has been the absolute bedrock of those gains. Young women, there's a whole generation of young women in Kabul in particular, who have come up through the local education system, and it has completely changed their lives. These are young women that are planning to have roles in society.

    The attacks against women are not just in schools. You're also seeing a campaign of assassinations against professional women as well in the city. NATO troops and many governments that are involved in Afghanistan, in the efforts in Afghanistan, believe those attacks are that they're actually being carried out by the Taliban, although they deny that. So there are many different groups fighting one another in Afghanistan. None of them are sparing women and many of them are targeting women. And it's a really concerning sign for what their perspective is on the future of Afghanistan and what kind of Afghanistan they view as on the horizon as the United States leaves.

    And these young girls are not the first to be attacked. Schools have been attacked in the past in that very area of Kabul, that same Hazara district, an education center was attacked just in October of last year. And so there seems to be also a real push back against those who are trying to better themselves, those who are trying to really enter civil society and have careers and be a part of Afghanistan's future. And that's in particularly a very painful reality for women right now.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Is there an ethnic dimension or a targeting to this attack?

  • Jane Ferguson:

    It's very likely that there is. Now, I just mentioned that there was an attack in the same neighborhood last year. You know, this is a predominantly Hazara neighborhood. The Hazaras are an ethnic group that has often been targeted by the extremist groups, whether it's the Taliban or ISIS. Now, ISIS have targeted this group even more so, they've targeted weddings. They've targeted areas that are Hazara dominated, partly because the group is largely Shia. And so it does have that sectarian element to it.

    And when you think about it, Hari, what you really have here is a Shia group which is so heavily pushing for the education of its young people. It shows that the group which has been discriminated against for generations in Afghanistan since long before America entered this war, really wants to push its younger generation up socioeconomically. They want to enter into levels of government and to levels of the economy. And this is a pushback against that real ambition of the group.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Jane Ferguson, thanks so much.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Thank you.

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