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American and Afghan government officials are saying that the danger of sectarian conflict in Afghanistan cannot be dismissed, as it appears that the enemies of the Kabul government may be seeking to fracture the country along the religious fault line between Sunnis and Shias. A civilian advisor to former Afghanistan commander General Stanley McChrystal, Andrew Exum, told the Associated Press:
“One big worry over the past year has been that factions within Afghanistan have – independent of anything NATO has been doing – begun to prepare for another civil war in the aftermath of a NATO withdrawal,” said Exum, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington. “I see the attack simply hastening that process.”
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.
Sowing sectarian or ethnic strife is one way for Pakistan to assert its influence while other nations like India and China move into Afghanistan with promises of aid and economic development. Pakistan is too poor to offer such incentives which means it must find other means to get in the game.
American and Afghan officials are hoping that these horrific attacks are not the start of a new phase in the war. But regardless of who is ultimately responsible for the murders, it is the Afghan people who will pay the price if the nightmare of sectarian violence comes to pass in a country already torn and bloody by a decade of conflict.
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