With sectarian violence rearing its ugly head in Afghanistan with the suicide attack on Tuesday that killed 6o Shias in Kabul, the security situation that must be managed by President Karzai has just gone from “hard” to “impossible.”
It would not be surprising to see the Shias respond to this sacrilege - the bombing at one of their holiest shrines on the holiest day of the year. And then what? We’ve seen it before in Iraq with the bombing of the Golden Dome mosque. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and pretty soon the whole country is blind and gumming their food. And in Afghanistan, you have the added weight of ethnic tensions to go with the religious angle. Shias are mostly Hazaras and make up about 20% of the population. They are routinely threatened by the dominant Pashtuns and Uzbeks and it cannot be discounted that there was an ethnic element in the attack.
But utlimately, someone was behind the blast. I examine that question in my FPM article today:
Regardless of whether the claims by the LeJ are true, there is the question of who is ultimately behind the attacks. Some experts say that neither the LeJ or the Afghan Taliban is sophisticated enough to have carried out such brazen, carefully coordinated attacks, and that the group’s former ties to Pakistani intelligence, as well as the Pakistani Taliban, make it likely that one of those two organizations bears ultimate responsibility. LeJ is also loosely affiliated with al-Qaeda which raises questions about the terror network’s plans for a post-NATO Afghanistan. Stirring the sectarian pot to foment chaos in Afghanistan is a possibility given AQ’s actions in Iraq and Pakistan in recent years.
While the LeJ may lack sophistication, they make up for it in murderous intent toward Shias. They have killed thousands of Shias in Pakistan over the last 15 years and have been banned by the Pakistani government. Their goal is to establish a Sunni state in Pakistan. And despite past ties to the ISI, the Pakistani government insists that they are as much an enemy of Pakistan as they are of Afghanistan. Pakistan’s own problems with sectarian strife explode regularly, and the LeJ is usually a primary cause of the violence. This doesn’t mean that the ISI wouldn’t attempt to re-establish a connection with the LeJ — especially if they thought the terrorists could serve their ultimate goal of controlling the post-NATO environment in Afghanistan.
Another possible culprit is the Haqqani Network which also has ties with the Pakistani ISI and is known to have carried out quite complex operations, such as the attack on the US embassy a few months ago. With the Afghan Taliban denying responsibility, suspicion falls on the Haqqani – perhaps the most effective terror network in Afghanistan.
What is the ISI’s game? And why now? Clearly, if one were to desire a sectarian conflict, the opportunity of striking on the Shia’s holiest day when thousands of pilgrims are on the move answers the second question. As for why the ISI would unleash Haqqani — or any other terrorist group — to foment religious strife, the answer has to do with Pakistan’s problem of how to influence a post-NATO Afghanistan so that the composition of a future government proves malleable enough for them to dominate.
The Hazaras support the government of Hamid Karzai. A sectarian conflict would weaken those ties and create chaos, turning a bad security situation into an impossible one for the Afghan government. As BBC Afghanistan editor Waheed Massoud suggests:
Analysts believe the regional players of old still have a stake in Afghanistan’s instability. Unity between Shias and Sunnis, and unity between ethnic groups and between political factions leaves no room for Iran or Pakistan to wield influence.
Many analysts here believe that Pakistan in particular has come under increasing international pressure for sheltering militants on its soil, and particularly the leadership of the Afghan Taliban.
If it is Pakistan, they have covered their tracks well. If it was the LeJ, why they felt they had to cross the border into Afghanistan to kill Shias is a mystery. They’ve got plenty of targets on the Pakistan side.
That’s why I believe those analysts who say it was Haqqani that carried out the attack. They may have done so at the behest of either Pakistan or the Taliban, but the coordination and complexity of the attack would seem to point the finger at the most effective terrorist group operating in Afghanistan.
If the attack does set off a sectarian conflict, will Obama keep American soldiers in country? If he’s smart, he won’t. Abandoning Afghanistan to the Taliban and Pakistan will keep them both occupied for years. They deserve all the misery that will befall them if they are stuck having to tamp down sectarian violence that they initiated in the first place.