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Friday 9 December 2011

AFGHANISTAN: Who is behind attacks on Shi'a?

Dec 8, 2011
Terrorists can also bestow favors
By M K Bhadrakumar

The twin terrorist strikes on Tuesday on Shi'ite worshipers in the Afghan capital Kabul and the northern city of Mazar-i-Shairf, killing 58 people, are an extraordinary event. Even in the darkest days of violence during the past decade, Afghanistan never descended to sectarian violence.

The easy thing to do is to blame the Taliban. But Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid quickly condemned the "wild and inhuman attack by our enemies, who are trying to blame us and are trying to divide Afghans by making such attacks on Muslims". The Taliban blamed the "invading army" for the attacks, referring to the foreign troops in the country.

The ghastly act needs to be "deconstructed" to get to somewhere
in its vicinity. The big question is why - and, why now? On the day of Ashura in March 2004 a similar attack took place in Karbala and Baghdad in Iraq killing 170 people, which was attributed to al-Qaeda. (The day of Ashura is a day of mourning in Shi'ite Islam.)

Who stand to lose?

So, the mystery deepens. On the Afghan chessboard today, it is impossible to accept happenings as merely coincidental.

The party that stands to lose most is the Taliban. It has painstakingly built up a case in recent years aimed at convincing other Afghan groups that it is prepared to work with them in a spirit of reconciliation.

The Eid message by Taliban leader Mullah Omar offered that all ethnic groups in Afghanistan would have their rightful place in a future power structure. The Taliban would stay miles away from getting mixed up with anything that smacks of Wahhabism, which demolishes their self-image of flexibility and moderation.

Iran and Pakistan are also big "losers". For both, sectarian strife in Afghanistan not only detracts from their main agenda, but could complicate their incipient mutual understanding.

For Iran, the main focus today is on the vacation of the US occupation by 2014 and it is willing to cooperate even with Taliban groups. As a regional power, too, it is not in Iran's interest to be portrayed as the champion of the Shi'ite sectarian interests. Sectarian strife in Afghanistan could also pose security issues for Iran.

Iran doesn't have direct access to the Shi'ite regions of Afghanistan except through "Sunni territory". Sectarian strife could impair Iran's access to Shi'ite regions.

For Pakistan, sectarian strife holds the great danger of isolating the Taliban, whereas its objective is to gain wider acceptability for its "strategic assets" in the Afghan endgame.

Again, sectarian tensions in Afghanistan could easily spread into Pakistan, which has a bloody history of sectarian violence. Pakistan already has its hands full with combating terrorism. National unity remains Pakistan's ultimate trump card in warding off US pressures.

Curiously, a person who claimed to speak for the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Pakistani Sunni militant group, put a call through to the US government-funded Radio Free Europe and apparently took responsibility for the attack on the Shi'ites. The claim can't be verified but the damage is done, as attention turns to Pakistani interference in Afghanistan.

Any sectarian strife in Afghanistan would be a blowback to the 1990s. Afghan Shi'ites, mostly of Hazara ethnicity, who form around 20% of the Afghan population, were persecuted by the Taliban regime and during the Taliban's campaigns to capture the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif in 1997 and 1998, Hazaras and Pashtun Taliban were killed in their thousands, fueling bitter rivalry between Iran and Pakistan.

During the past decade, interestingly, Shi'ite regions were left largely untouched by the Taliban insurgency and this helped Tehran and Islamabad to harmonize their Afghan policies despite robust US attempts to create tensions in the Iran-Pakistan relationship.

A friendly Pakistan is an imperative need for Iran to break out of its isolation, while a friendly Iran enables Pakistan to concentrate its attention on the dangerous slide in US-Pakistan ties.

Yet another cluster of "losers" comprises the non-Pashtun groups who oppose President Hamid Karzai and are increasingly willing to reconcile with the Taliban. They include the "nationalistic" elements who recently formed the National Front - heavyweights like Ahmed Wali Massoud from Panjshir (brother of the slain former Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud), Uzbek leader Rashid Dostum and Hazara Shi'ite leader Haji Mohammed Mohaqiq. Any polarization on sectarian lines would bury their pan-Afghan agenda.

Mohaqiq, who is close to Tehran, called on Afghans to react "carefully and intelligently". He said the perpetrators "want to trigger a sectarian war in Afghanistan. My message to the Afghan nation is to recognize the real faces of the enemies of Afghanistan and to maintain civil order."

His remarks echoed the statement by Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, who described the incidents on Tuesday as an attempt to fuel tribal and religious tensions and to create instability and insecurity in the regional countries. Salehi alleged that foreign countries are seeking to disturb peace and stability in the region by provoking sectarian and tribal conflict.

Who stands to gain?

Taking the above into consideration, the arrow may appear to point toward the Haqqani network or al-Qaeda for perpetrating the violence. But neither seems a possibility. The Haqqanis - a key part of the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan although they are based in the Pakistani border areas - have no reason to harm Pakistani interests, while al-Qaeda's capacity is in serious doubt.

Now, stepping aside a little, it is also possible to put the terrorist strike against the broad Afghan and regional backdrop.

The time has come for the conclusion of the strategic pact between Karzai and the United States paving the way for the establishment of American military bases following the formal withdrawal of troops. There is considerable opposition to Karzai's move among the Afghan people, who see it as his quid pro quo for US support for a third term for him as president beyond 2014.

If sectarian fault lines appear, a unified national opposition would become that much difficult to crystallize against the US's strategic pact with Kabul.

Second, any spiraling of the violence could only provide justification for a continued US military presence in Afghanistan since the Afghan armed forces and police would be hard-pressed to cope with the situation.

A third aspect is the US-Iran standoff, which may well lead to a confrontation in the near future. Afghanistan would be a very vital staging post for undertaking any hostile acts against Iran. No matter Karzai's claims that he would not allow Afghan soil to be used against neighbors, the plain truth is that his opinion doesn't count.

The downing of an American drone surveillance aircraft operating over Iran from the US bases in Afghanistan shows that eastern Iran is an "active front" in the standoff. Sectarian strife weakening Tehran's influence inside western Afghanistan works to the US's advantage if Washington decides to attack Iran.

Finally, Pakistan would be a great loser if Afghanistan descended into sectarian strife and the weakening of the Pakistani position in the Afghan endgame would help the US.

In sum, US interests are, paradoxically, very well served in the current scenario if sectarian tensions escalate in Afghanistan and Western troops become the only really credible provider of security. That is to say, any number of forces could be interested in indirectly buttressing the US's regional strategies.

Ironically, on Tuesday, in faraway London, Afghan Minister for Mines Wahidullah Shahrani announced that Karzai's government had for the first time invited bids to develop gold mines and copper mines. The London Times duly noted, "Invaders since Alexander the Great have dreamt of exploiting its mineral wealth. Now Afghanistan is seeking foreign investors to help it to tap rich deposits of gold and copper."

Conceivably, Afghanistan could follow Africa's gory past where the mad scramble for resources brought in foreign mercenary forces of all kinds.

The international community can only heave a big sigh of relief that only the day before the terrorist strikes in Afghanistan, Karzai's allies resolutely pledged at the congregation in Bonn to stand by him for the long haul to protect his country from evil forces casting their eyes.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

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