Attacks on Shiites in Afghanistan: Why this is different than Iraq

Afghan domestic politics revolve more around ethnicity than differences between Sunni and Shiite sects of Islam. Bomb blasts may be aimed at confidence in Afghanistan's government.

Musadeq Sadeq/AP
Afghan police officers stand guard at the scene of a suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday. Some think that the reason for the attack may have been to shake confidence in Afghanistan’s security at a time when donor countries were meeting in Bonn to support that country’s future development.

A series of coordinated bomb attacks in three Afghan cities, targeting Afghanistan’s Shiite community during a holy procession, has spurred debate over whether Afghanistan is on the verge of a huge sectarian clash.

It’s tempting to see parallels between sectarian attacks in Afghanistan and those in Iraq, where Sunni-Shiite violence has in the past pushed that country toward civil war. But Iraq and Afghanistan have less in common than would appear to be the case, and there is nothing in Afghanistan’s history or in its present political environment to suggest that the attack on Shiite worshippers will be the spark of a larger and longer-term Sunni-Shiite conflict in Afghanistan.

As the Monitor’s man in Kabul, Tom Peter, points out, the greater tensions in Afghanistan exist between insurgents and their government than among various religious or ethnic groups vying for power. Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia may support various factions within Afghan society, but no single group is in a position to deliver the knockout blow and come to power. In the meantime, the simpler answer for what motivated the Tuesday bomb blasts – which killed some 59 people in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif, and Kandahar – may have been to shake confidence in Afghanistan’s security at a time when donor countries were meeting in Bonn to support that country’s future development. Afghanistan is likely to rely on foreign aid well after US troops withdraw over the next five years.

“There is no sign of tension between Sunnis and Shiites in Afghanistan,” says Fakori Beheshti, a member of parliament from Bamiyan, a predominately Shiite province. “This was just an act of the enemies of Afghanistan. It came after the Bonn Conference about the peace and stability of Afghanistan and by carrying out these blasts not just in Kabul, but in Mazar-e Sharif and Kandahar it showed that they are against the achievements of Afghanistan and trying to get media attention.”

The bombings most assuredly targeted members of the Shiite community, who had been observing the month of mourning for the killing of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Hussein, on the fields of Karbala in Iraq hundreds of years ago. At the climax of Ashura, as the mourning period is called, Shiite faithful gather on the streets, flailing themselves with chains and knives to evoke the pain and suffering felt by Hussein and his followers.

It’s a practice that some Sunnis find provocative, since this historic event marks the internal power struggle between the Prophet’s followers on one side and the Prophet’s family members that led to the division of Islam into Sunni and Shiite sects.

Reuters news agency reported yesterday that a man claiming to be spokesman for the Pakistani-based militant group Lashkar-e Jhangvi took credit for the bombings. Lashkar-e Jhangvi is a radical anti-Shiite organization that once trained in Afghanistan during Taliban times, and is thought to have carried out the bombing of the Islamabad Marriott Hotel in September 2008.

Lashkar-e Jhangvi may very well have carried out the attack, but there is nothing to suggest that such an attack will have the effect that they intend. Sunni-Shiite tensions just don’t have the power that they have in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. If one looks at a timeline of recent attacks in Afghanistan, the pattern does not suggest growing tensions between Sunnis and Shiites. The pattern suggests an attempt, generally from foreign-based militant groups, to undermine trust in the Afghan government.

When domestic conflicts do break out in Afghanistan, they tend to be more ethnic in nature than religious. During the six-year-long civil war that broke out in Afghanistan following the departure of Soviet troops in February 1989, competing mujahideen groups, organized largely on ethnic lines of Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, and Shiite Hazara, pummeled each other as much as they pummeled the communist government of the pro-Soviet President Najibullah, and carried on the murderous artillery barrages against each other once they wrested control of Kabul in 1992.

This ethnic dimension caused the Guardian’s Ghaith Abdul-Ahad to ask:

Were the Hazara killed just because the other ethnic groups thought of them as inferior, or because they were Shia?

Covering the 2005 parliamentary elections in Afghanistan, I could see that the group that may have benefited the most from the fall of the Taliban were the Hazara community, who are generally followers of the Shiite sect. Oppressed by the Taliban, and neglected by decades of Afghan monarchs before that, the Hazaras saw their fortunes improve with better roads, electricity works, and much better security. While the Taliban was making inroads among disaffected Afghans along the Afghan-Pakistani border, they largely hit a brick wall in the Hazara’s stronghold of Bamiyan province.

But while some Sunni Afghans warned that the Hazaras were becoming a political force, and a potential 5th column for Iran – a Shiite country where many Hazaras spent their years in exile – one Hazara politician, Fatima Kazemian said that Iran couldn’t rely on Hazara loyalty, even if they intended to do so. The reason, she said, is that Iranians are just as racist against Hazaras as the Afghan Pashtuns are.

"If the Iranians had treated the Afghan refugees better in Iran - if they had let Hazaras go on to get university educations like the Afghans do in Pakistan - then the Afghans would leave Iran with better memories of the kindness of Iran," says Kazemian. "But the Iranians don't do this. They like the Aryan people, like the Tajiks or the Pashtuns, better than they like us. We have the same religion, but we have a problem with our eyes and our nose."

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