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What the deadly Kabul bombing shows about ISIS in Afghanistan

In a poor neighborhood of Kabul, a suicide bomber slipped inside a Shiite cultural center and blew himself up. As people fled, more bombs went off outside. At least 41 people died, and more than 80 are wounded. The Taliban denied involvement while the Islamic State group claimed responsibility. John Yang reports and Hari Sreenivasan learns more from Laurel Miller of the RAND Corporation.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    At least 41 dead, more than 80 wounded, that's the toll in today's bombing attack in Kabul, Afghanistan. It was the latest in a series of strikes by the Islamic State group.

    John Yang begins our coverage.

  • John Yang:

    Cries of grieving relatives echoed through the wreckage of a Shiite cultural center. Most found only shoes on a blood-stained floor.

  • Man (through interpreter):

    I saw many dead in the area. I was looking for my cousin, but I could not find his body. I'm not sure what happened to him.

  • John Yang:

    Officials said a suicide attacker slipped inside and blew himself up. As people fled, more bombs went off outside. Many of the victims were students attending a conference at the center, which is in a poor neighborhood of Western Kabul.

    Bloody and burned, they flooded into a nearby hospital.

    Mohammad Hassan Rezayee (through interpreter): The conference had started. A blast went off. After that, I was unconscious. When I regained consciousness, the meeting hall was full of flames and smoke.

  • John Yang:

    The Taliban denied any involvement. And the Islamic State group, made up of Sunni extremists, claimed responsibility. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called it an attack against Islam and all human values.

    The White House also condemned the bombing, which came despite last week's claim of victory over the Islamic State from the vice president during a visit to Afghanistan.

  • Vice President Mike Pence:

    ISIS is on the run. Their capital has fallen. Their so-called caliphate has crumbled from Iraq to Afghanistan and everywhere in between.

  • John Yang:

    But the militants have been stepping up their strikes in Kabul, and they continue battling U.S. and Afghan troops in Eastern Afghanistan.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    To help us assess the situation, we're joined by Laurel Miller. She was the deputy and then acting special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan during the Obama administration. She's now a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation.

    Laurel Miller, what's the status of ISIS in Afghanistan?

  • Laurel Miller:

    ISIS has proven to be a surprisingly resilient force in Afghanistan over the last couple of years.

    It emerged in early 2015, predominantly composed of former Pakistani Taliban. That is a different group than the Afghan Taliban, though it has undoubtedly attracted some local adherents as well, including other militant groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is an Afghanistan-focused group.

    It has suffered considerable pressure from the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, from Afghan government forces and, indeed, from Afghan Taliban forces as well. But despite claims of success and the progress against the group in Afghanistan over the last year-and-a-half, as you saw in today's events there, it has proven resilient, and it has proven able to regenerate its forces.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    How much of this is due to the porous and somewhat lawless border with Pakistan?

  • Laurel Miller:

    That's certainly a factor that facilitates the endurance of a variety of militant groups in the region.

    It's not just a question of the porousness of the border, a border of that area that indeed many locals simply don't recognize as an actual border, but it's also a question of the lack of any government control on either side of the border and a certain lawlessness and remoteness in this area.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What's the relationship between the Taliban and the ISIS? They're philosophically rather different.

  • Laurel Miller:

    They are rather different.

    The Afghan Taliban is a, essentially, nationalist organization in Afghanistan. It has political goals. It, from its own self-perception, was illegitimately overthrown by U.S. forces in 2001, and it believes that it has a claim on legitimate power in Afghanistan.

    It doesn't have ambitions beyond the border of Afghanistan. The ISIS branch in Afghanistan-Pakistan area, by contrast, is part of the global ISIS movement that has a variety of branches around the world, and that branch sees the Afghan government as an illegitimate force, but in a different way than the Afghan Taliban.

    The Afghan Taliban and the ISIS branch in Afghanistan have actively fought each other. They may benefit from some of the same kinds of supply networks in the region, but they are groups that are opposed to each other and have engaged in combat against each other.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So, is this the global nature of ISIS that keeps it funded? I mean, where do they get their support?

  • Laurel Miller:

    That's difficult to say.

    I mean, early on, there were some indications of financial support, material support from the core of ISIS in Iraq, Syria, but that has no doubt dwindled as the fortunes of core ISIS have dwindled as well.

    But, like other militant groups in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, ISIS is able to generate revenue locally to keep its fight going. It's able to extort the local population, exploit them in a variety of ways.

    And, of course, we're talking about a region that's just awash in weaponry, and not terribly difficult to obtain.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right, Laurel Miller, thanks so much.

  • Laurel Miller:

    Thank you.

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