A New Phase in Afghanistan?

Surprising sectarian violence rocks the country -- did Pakistan play a role?

A suicide bomb blast at an important Shia shrine in Kabul, Afghanistan killed at least 59 worshipers and injured more than 160 on Tuesday while raising the specter of sectarian conflict for the first time in the war. Equally troublesome for authorities is the possibility that the attacks were based not on religion, but on the ethnicity of the victims.

Another attack on a Shia mosque in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif at about the same time killed four and injured 17. The mosque attack occurred on the holiest day of the year for Shias -- the festival of Ashura -- at the Abul Fazl shrine where hundreds of people were packed together mourning the martyrdom of the prophet's grandson.

Almost immediately, a representative of the Pakistani-based terrorist group Lashkar-e Jhangvi al-Alami, a militant splinter group of the Lashkar-e Jhangvi (LeJ), claimed responsibility for the attacks, but no proof has been uncovered that would prove that assertion. LeJ has not been known to operate inside Afghanistan, but has been responsible for hundreds of terrorist attacks carried out against Pakistan's Shia population.

The Taliban denied responsibility for the blasts and condemned the loss of life as "inhumane." They blamed "the invading enemy" - a reference to the NATO forces in Afghanistan.

This kind of terrorist attack, targeting Shias during Ashura, has been almost unknown in Afghanistan. According to the CIA Factbook, about 19% of the population of Afghanistan is Shia Muslim. While there are the usual tensions between Sunnis and Shias, the relative freedom to practice religious rites and observances under the Karzai government has led to a wary accommodation between the two sects.

Now, that peace has been shattered by persons or groups unknown. Will the Shias respond? Tensions are certainly running high and the possibility cannot be dismissed.

But another aspect of the attacks cannot be ignored: that ethnic conflict may be at the bottom of these attacks. Most Shias come from the Tajik and Hazara ethnic minorities, who have historically been persecuted by the Pashtuns, Uzbeks, and other groups that make up the patchwork quilt of Afghanistan society. Splitting the country along ethnic lines would be just as effective for Afghanistan's enemies as dividing it according to religious beliefs.

Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai cut short his visit to Europe and hurried back to Kabul to deal with the crisis. And in his first statement on the attacks, he pointed the finger at Pakistan. "Without any doubt, the enemies of Afghanistan are trying to separate the Afghan people," Karzai said in a statement. He later told the press after visiting some of the wounded in a Kabul hospital, "We will pursue this issue with Pakistan and its government very seriously." The Afghan president added, "Lashkar-i-Jhangvi is based in Pakistan, therefore the government of Afghanistan with all its strength and international support will pursue this issue. Afghanistan cannot ignore the blood of its children."

Pakistan's Foreign Ministry spokesman demanded that the government of Afghanistan supply proof that Pakistan was behind the attack, texting AFP, "Lashkar-i-Jhangvi is a banned organization. We would encourage Kabul to share with us evidence, if any through official channels."

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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