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.
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.”
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