Six Thoughts on Today’s Ashura Attack in Afghanistan

An attack on a public gathering in Kabul attended by thousands of mourners commemorating the Shiite occasion of Ashura has left more than 50 dead. A bomb in Mazar-i-Sharif has killed several, while another attack in Kandahar seems to have missed the Ashura mourners but still caused casualties.

The apparently coordinated attacks have given rise to a lot of concern, questions and, naturally, speculation. The situation is still evolving, but here are my initial thoughts based on information currently available.

1)  Concerns that today’s incidents will spark a cycle of sectarian violence are perhaps exaggerated. Moments after the attack, the Wall Street Journal ran a headline warning of potential sectarian strife, but later revised their story to its current version. The DDR (Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration) process and DIAG (Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups) were very effective in disarming most major armed groups in Afghanistan. (The exceptions are the Taliban and Hizb-e-Islami – Gulbuddin, which form the backbone of Afghanistan’s insurgency.) Launching a cycle of sectarian violence requires arms, experience and organization. No Shiite group in Afghanistan has any of these three things in enough supply at the present time, rendering them ineffective at feeding into any form of organized or sustained violence. Having said that, some of Afghanistan’s neighbors and other countries have in the past favored certain groups and at present have an incentive to escalate sectarian violence.

2) The attacks are not sectarian only. It is important to keep in mind that, although it is easy and tempting to mark off the attacks as sectarian, they are not purely so. First, the victims are overwhelmingly not only Shiite but also of a certain ethnic group. Secondly, eyewitness accounts have it that some people at the scene of the blast were chanting anti-Pakistan slogans, demonstrating how the attacks are perceived as political by some. Therefore, although the attackers might have intended to strike a sectarian note, the message was lost on some people along the way. And it’s often more important how an attack is perceived than the damage it does or the message it intends to send.

3) The explosions mark Afghanistan’s first sectarian suicide attack, setting off a terrifying precedent in a country that has not seen sustained, organized sectarian violence in more than a century. The last large-scale, organized episodes of sectarian violence occurred in the late 1800s under King Abdul Rahman who, in his quest to establish control over certain regions of the country, sanctioned Jihad against Shiites, deeming them infidels.

4) So who did it? Hard to say. Reports by RFE/RL Radio Free indicate that the banned Pakistani militant outfit Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) has accepted responsibility. The reports are unverified, but the LeJ has a long history of attacking Shiites and Hazaras in Pakistan. The groups has never been directly involved in attacks inside Afghanistan, but they have issued threats against the Shiite Hazara community, which bore the burnt of today’s attacks.

5) The LeJ has strong ties with al-Qaeda and the Taliban, although none of Afghanistan’s known insurgent or terrorist groups have a history of sectarian suicide attacks; in fact, the Taliban were quick to condemn the attacks as inhumane. However, that is not to say that the attacks couldn’t have been done by elements of the domestic insurgency. Ashura processions are very easy, very vulnerable targets, especially if the insurgent groups need to send a message after the feel-good soundbites and photo-ops coming out of Bonn II. Additionally, all of Afghanistan’s insurgent groups stand to gain from such an attack in various ways, not the least of which is to spread further disenchantment with the government’s ability to safeguard religious practice, stoke communal distrust and overshadow the transition of security responsibility from NATO to Afghan troops.

6) Reactions from officials: President Karzai condemned the attacks from Germany, where he is still continuing his tour after the Bonn Conference. Vice President Karim Khalili, who is a Shiite and a Hazara, put the blame on “enemies of Afghanistan’s peace and stability” in his condemnation statement. Interestingly, Genral John R. Allen, commander of the NATO forces in Afghanistan, attempted to blame the insurgents:

This insurgency, which wraps itself in a false veil of Islam, must know that killing innocent pilgrims will spell their own demise.