I wrote a piece on Guardian about the sectarian attack in Kabul last week. It was slightly edited for word limit. Below is full version.
The sectarian attack in Kabul on Tuesday was first of its kind in Afghanistan. Though the Taliban quickly disowned the attack, it doesn’t mean involvement by elements from different Taliban groups can be ruled out. Previously they have committed sectarian-oriented war crimes, such as the Mazar and Yakawlang massacres during their rule in Afghanistan.
In his notorious speech in Mazar in October 1998, Taliban leader Mullah Manan Niazi warned the Hazaras, who make up majority of Shias in Afghanistan, to either convert to Hanafi Sunnism or face the consequences. Following that infamous sermon, thousands of Hazara Shias were killed in a few days in Mazar. However, in the current war and insurgency during the last 10 years, militants have avoided sectarian attacks.
Whether such incidents can provoke sustained sectarian violence depends on who exactly is behind the attack. However, it will not cause larger Sunni-Shia violent conflict in Afghanistan for the time being. Even if such attacks increase, it will not be tit-for-tat violence since we don’t have trained militant groups from both Sunni and Shia sides – unlike Pakistan where sectarian violence has decades of history.
While militants from Pakistan with a sectarian background are in the rank and file of Taliban insurgents in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is no single militant Shia group in Afghanistan known to be involved in any previous act of violence.
Traces of Tuesday’s carnage in Kabul also apparently point to sectarian militants in Pakistan. An al-Qaida affiliated, Pakistan-based militant outfit called Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al-alami (LeJ-Al-Alami) has claimed responsibility and previously it has been mentioned in media reports in connection with sectarian attacks in Pakistan.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al-Alami is a splinter of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), which is the militant wing of Sipah Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) that has 17 international branches outside Pakistan including in UK and Canada.
It is possible that such groups are now focusing on Afghanistan under the patronage of some elements in Pakistan who want to open a new front. SSP and LeJ were banned in Pakistan in 2002 but the outfits soon resumed operations under new names, first as Millat Islamia Pakistan and later Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamat (ASWJ).
Recently Pakistani Interior Ministry issued a latest list of banned outfits, and surprisingly ASWJ was not included.
These sectarian militant groups have a history of connections with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Qari Hussain, the notorious suicide bombing trainer of Tehreek Taliban Pakistan, has strong links with LeJ and SSP leadership. During the Taliban regime, LeJ militants were trained in camps such as Badr, Muawiyeh and Waleed in eastern Afghanistan.
SSP is an offshoot of Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI), a religious political party in Pakistan, who provided the bulk of Jihadi recruits for Taliban in the 1990s. SSP founder Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi – to whose name the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (Forces of Jhangvi) refers – was vice-chairman of JUI-Punjab.
Prominent Pakistani journalist Amir Mir in his book True Faces of Jihadis says the entire LeJ leadership is made up of veterans who have fought in Afghanistan in 1990s. There is no detailed information about LeJ-Al-Alami and its leadership based in North Waziristan. These militant outfits have been changing names to avoid ban in Pakistan. Amir Mir says some experts believe SSP and LeJ are two faces of the same coin. And possibly LeJ-Al-Alami is not any different from LeJ.
LeJ is also involved in many attacks on westerners in Pakistan. According to intelligence reports, LeJ was behind an attack on a church in Islamabad in March 2002 killing five foreigners, including two Americans. In May 2002, 11 Frenchmen were blown up in Karachi. In January 2003, the US State Department added LeJ to its List of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. State Dept. spokesman Richard Boucher said LeJ was behind the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl and 1997 killing of 4 American oil workers in Karachi.
The roots of these militant groups date back to the dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq in Pakistan and the religious revolution in Iran. Pakistani academic Hassan Abbas in his book, Pakistan’s Drift into Extremism: Allah, the Army and America’s War on Terror, says the 1979 Iranian revolution changed the character and magnitude of sectarian politics in Pakistan.
The zealous emissaries of the Iranian revolutionary regime started financing their outfit Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Fiqa-e-Jafria, a Shia group in Pakistan. To counter this, the military dictatorship of Zia, says Hassan Abbas, “through intelligence agencies selected Haq Nawaz Jhangvi“, and Saudi funds started pouring in. Saudi-Iran sectarian rivalry reached a peak in the 1990s when the Tehran regime increased support for its Shia outfits in Pakistan and tit-for-tat attacks started. Iranian Council General in Lahore Sadeq Ganji was killed in Dec 1990 in retribution for Haq Nawaz Jhangvi’s assassination in Feb 1990. Later Iranian diplomat Ghulam Raza was killed in 1997.
The FTO listing of LeJ by the US has been symbolic without any practical actions against the terrorist organization involved in murder of many American citizens. Recently the Pakistani Supreme Court released Malik Ishaq, one of the founders and current leader of LeJ on July 14 because of “insufficient evidence produced by the prosecution”. He is charged for 44 cases of murders. Despite being in jail, he continued terror plots against Shias in Pakistan.
Following 9/11 attacks, SSP joined the Pakistan-based pro-Taliban Council for Defense of Afghanistan and condemned ouster of Taliban by the US. In an interview later with BBC, Azam Tariq, the then SSP leader said to support Taliban in resistance. Azam Tariq was also a frequent visitor of Afghanistan under Taliban rule, where he had set up the training camps for SSP/LeJ militants.
After the ousting of the Taliban, these sectarian terrorists fled back to Pakistan from the training camps in Afghanistan. In the following years, LeJ found new patrons and supporters in north Waziristan among al-Qaida operatives, who used the group to launch attacks in Pakistan.
Tuesday’s attacks in Kabul, claimed by LeJ-Al-alami, could not be carried out without some help from elements within the Taliban in Afghanistan, or the Haqqani network. But the question is whether this will lead to sustained sectarian violence. If targeted sectarian attacks increase, it might provoke retaliatory actions and the birth of Shia militant groups in Afghanistan. With the history of Iranian involvement behind creating such groups in Pakistan in the past, it will not be hard for them to grow such outfits in Afghanistan. But it will take time.
We have already seen increasing Iranianisation of Shia religious festivities in Afghanistan during the last couple of years. According to my former journalist colleague and a university professor Ali Amiri, Ashura has been a cultural commemoration observed both by Shia and Sunnis of Afghanistan equally. But it is increasingly gaining a political colour with monopolisation of pro-Iran clerics.
Amiri notes that the leading Iranian newspaper Kayhan supervised by their supreme leader reported the attack in Kabul as an “American revenge from Islamic awakening”. Ali Akbar Walayeti, former foreign minister of Iran, heads a commission that supports regional religious outfits, and influential Afghan Shia cleric Sheikh Asif Mohsini, who runs a TV and grand Madrassah in Kabul, is reportedly member of that commission.
Afghan leaders have to make all efforts to stop the rise of sectarianism, which started in Pakistan with similar attacks causing an extreme religious polarisation and plaguing sectarian harmony for more than three decades now.