Complicating sectarianism in Afghanistan

Analysts question comments about impending sectarian violence in Afghanistan following Ashoura Day attacks.

Analysts in Kabul and Washington say Afghanistan lacks armed Shia groups to lead to sectarian violence [Reuters]

In the hours following Tuesday’s Ashoura Day attacks on Shia Afghans in Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif, online and offline discourse quickly turned to talk of a resurgence of sectarian violence based on religious or ethnic lines in Afghanistan.

The Guardian asked if the Kabul attack was “a sectarian or an ethnic atrocity?” The Financial Times said the bombings “raise sectarian strife fears”, The Telegraph drew “parallels with Iraq”, Foreign Policy called it “rare Afghan anti-Shia violence” and the BBC simply asked “Why have Afghanistan’s Shias been targeted now?”

For some analysts however, when put into the context of the nation’s history and the complex ethnic and political factors of Afghanistan, the attacks on one of the Shia calendar’s holiest days do not lead them to believe this is the beginning of sectarian war.

“It didn’t immediately make me think this was the start of something new in Afghanistan,” said Caroline Wadhams, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

For Wadhams, the attacks at the Abdul Fazi shrine in Kabul and near the Shrine of Hazrat Ali in Mazar-e-Sharif, do not fit with the nature of violence in Afghanistan.  

Wadhams says “a pursuit of power and control of territory” are what drive the Taliban and other fighters in Afghanistan.

The Taliban, usually quick to take credit for attacks, issued a statement on Tuesday condemning the bombings that killed 59 and left more than 100 wounded.

“Very sadly we heard that there were explosions in Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif, where people were killed by the enemy’s un-Islamic and inhuman activity,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement published on the group’s website.

The condemnation by the Taliban, who banned public Ashoura observances during their five-year rule in Afghanistan, further shakes the theory that this was a concerted effort to drive Afghanistan towards sectarian war at the hands of the nation’s usual suspects – the Taliban, Haqqani Network, or the forces of Gulbuddin Hekmetyar.

“It’s not against collaborators, it’s not against foreign forces, it’s not against the government,” says Wadhams of the standard stated targets of attacks by those groups. Attacking Shia for their beliefs would not benefit the stated causes of any of those groups.

Lack of armed groups

If the intention was to create a series of violent attacks between Afghanistan’s two largest religious groups, Dr Ali Amiri, a Kabul political science professor, says “I hope the Shia religious groups don’t react. The benefit of a reaction would only be to those outside of Afghanistan.”

In contrast to the statements by General John R Allen, ISAF commander, that “this insurgency, which wraps itself in a false veil of Islam, must know that killing innocent pilgrims will spell their own demise,” many questioned said it would likely be neighbouring and outside countries that stoke sectarian violence in Afghanistan, not the Taliban.

A headline in the Telegraph compared Afghanistan to Iraq, but in interviews with Al Jazeera the names that came up most often were Pakistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

A possible response to yesterday’s attacks “will not be tit-for-tat violence” because Afghanistan lacks trained and armed militant groups from both Shia and Sunni sects like neighbouring Pakistan, says Abbas Daiyar, a Kabul-based journalist.

Afghanistan, says Daiyar, lacks “a single militant Shia group…known or involved in any previous sectarian attack” to carry out proportional violent attacks in response.

If targeted attacks continue, a response could come from newly created Shia militant groups in Afghanistan, but Daiyar and Ahmad Shuja, an Afghan blogger and commentator based in DC, both agree that such groups would have to be greatly helped by Iran, Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia.

“With a history of Iranian involvement in creating such groups in Afghanistan, it will not be difficult for them to grow them again in Afghanistan, but it will take time,” stressed Daiyar.

The unlikely culprit

For Crispian Cuss, a defence analyst and former British officer, the attacks could have been perpetrated by a group whose name has become increasingly rare in Afghanistan discourse over the decade – al-Qaeda.

“It’s got all the hallmarks of al-Qaeda,” Cuss told Al Jazeera.

Al-Qaeda, who see Shias as legitimate targets, says Cuss, like to attack a community “which will create such enragement within that community that they will go back and attack the Sunni majority,” and that will set the stage for an increasingly radicalised set of sectarian-based attacks between Shia and Sunnis.

Wadhams, however, sees this as an unlikely outcome from an even less likely culprit.

Al-Qaeda at this point in Afghanistan, says Wadhams “is almost non-existent and this isolated incident does not mean al-Qaeda is back” in Afghanistan.

For Wadhams, Afghanistan is unlikely to become a bastion of sectarian strife like Iraq or even Pakistan.

In Afghanistan “it’s not just pure ethnicity. It has always been political ethnic groups that have vied for power.”

Instead, Wadhams says this attack was most likely a fringe group who saw an easy and vulnerable target full of people. They “took advantage of the situation to kill. It just strikes me as a pure terrorist attack.”

Manage the event

Amiri says even if the attacks were more politically motivated than religiously, it is now up to the religious leaders “to manage the event”.

For the most part, Amiri says the response by religious leaders in the country was to condemn the attack and say “it was carried out by a hardline Islamic group,” a fringe set.

This action may have been what kept the aggrieved from venting their frustrations in more immediate and physical manners.

In Pakistan, where sectarian attacks are much more common, the response is usually immediate.

“You have a procession of angry people breaking shop windows, blocking roads and burning tires,” says Shuja, who grew up in Pakistan during the civil war and Taliban reign in Afghanistan. That so far, has not erupted in Afghanistan.

Shuja says despite violence and anger in Shia communities in Afghanistan, the response to the attack was managed well so far.

As an example, Shuja points to reports of scuffles and arguments between students in Mazar University that were said to be calmed by local leaders.

Complicated tapestry

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Cuss said one-off attacks like those that occurred in Kabul on Tuesday have to be put into context. “Kabul has 20 per cent of the Afghan population but it only sees one per cent of the attacks.”

There must also be further context placed into the “complicated tapestry of groups” in Afghanistan, says Wadhams.

Afghanistan lacks the sharp religious or ethnic divides of Iraq and Pakistan say the analysts.

“Co-existence between Islamic sects in Afghanistan is very different from neighbouring countries,” says Amiri.

Though Cuss used the civil war of the 1990s as a recent example of sectarian strife in Afghanistan, Shuja points out that the largest Hazara group during the civil war (the ethnicity that makes up the majority of the nation’s Shia population) was in fact a conglomeration of several smaller groups.

With reports of a sizable group from the eastern province of Logar in attendance, a predominantly Pashtun and Tajik area of the nation, and no clear smoking guns from the group responsible, Wadhams wonders who the perceived enemy would be in a retaliation to Tuesday’s attacks.

Theories of the attacks creating sustained sectarian conflict “[are] very convenient, very easy”, but ultimately flawed, says Shuja.

All those interviewed point out that though the spokesman for Pakistan-based al-Qaeda-linked group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi -which has carried out attacks on Shia in Pakistan – claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s attack, it cannot be assumed that Afghanistan will see the kinds of sectarian violence of its neighbour to the south.

Reports from the scene of the Kabul attack and Wednesday’s burial services showed grief and anger. Anger was directed at Afghan security forces, who were criticised by locals who said cars easily passed through the area around Kabul’s largest Shia shrine, Pakistan, who has been increasingly blamed for violence in Afghanistan, and the United States.

The anti-US and anti-Pakistan chants can be seen as proof that at least some on the ground saw the attacks as part of a larger whole, rather than purely sectarian.

The motives for the attacks may have been sectarian, especially if Lashkar-e-Jhangvi actually was responsible, but “the message was lost on some people along the way,” says Shuja of those who immediately expressed anger at the United States and Pakistan.

Source: Al Jazeera

More from News
Most Read