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Dec 7, 2011 | 06:08 GMT

4 mins read

Attacks a Reminder of Afghanistan's Sectarian Tensions

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) claimed responsibility for one of three improvised explosive device attacks that targeted Afghan Shiite shrines and Ashura mourner processions Tuesday. The attacks hit targets hundreds of kilometers apart but occurred within 75 minutes of each other. Investigations have yet to confirm LeJ's claim. The attacks were almost certainly timed to spark sectarian violence, and whichever militant group carried them out required resources in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Kandahar.

That kind of sectarian violence, which for years has affected Iraq, has not played a great role in the war NATO has led in Afghanistan since 2001. The Afghan Taliban have for the most part directed their actions at Western, Indian and NATO targets, along with Afghan security forces and government posts. While they do not indicate the stirring of a new trend, Tuesday's attacks do spotlight the potential for a rise in sectarian and tribal violence in the country.

Foreign powers have occupied Afghanistan for about two decades since 1979. In the period between these occupations, Afghanistan was embroiled in a civil war. Foreign occupiers tend to divide the country along artificial lines, co-opting some elements of society and thereby alienating others. Those groups that do not benefit from patronage — or worse, see their traditional rivals gain strength — turn to insurgency. Other parts of society, even when attempting to maintain neutrality, are often dragged into conflict. While foreign intervention puts a temporary hold on underlying tribal, ethnic and sectarian tensions, it does not permanently solve them. In the long run, occupation tends to exacerbate those rivalries and even creates new ones. When the artificial force is removed from the equation — as was seen in the 1990s — long-repressed tensions quickly return to the fore. This is the key geopolitical reality of a country with arbitrary borders that has been colonized time and again.

The artificial force directed by the U.S. and NATO-led International Security Assistance Force has only recently begun to lift, and will affect the reality on the ground for years to come. But as Washington attempts to work with Kabul and Islamabad to forge a political accommodation with the Taliban, opportunities for rival groups to take part in an eventual settlement will open, while others will close. While the Taliban have appeared reticent to negotiate, it is fully within their interest — their participation depends on terms and timing.

If such progress occurs, transnational jihadists with no stake in national politics or in political reconciliation in Afghanistan and Pakistan fear they will be negatively affected. Many of them do have past associations with parts of the Afghan Taliban, so some jihadists may choose to move toward negotiations. But the most hardline groups fear that the settlement will fall far short of their ideological expectations, or that they may actually end up the subject of crackdowns.

In a fairly quick response, Zabihollah Mojahed, an Afghan Taliban spokesman, criticized the attacks and blamed them on foreign enemies. Mullah Muhammad Omar, the head of the Taliban, recently instructed his fighters to avoid attacking civilians and to focus on foreign targets and Afghan collaborators. While that has not been strictly carried out in practice, one possibility these events open is for the Taliban — if they so choose — to openly criticize transnational jihadists. While they may have aligned over the last two decades, the Taliban's interests are not perfectly or permanently tied to those of foreign jihadists.

Tuesday's attacks appear to indicate that LeJ, which has close ties to al Qaeda and foreign jihadists, is attempting to ignite new types of infighting and to disrupt any movement toward a negotiated settlement between Washington, the Afghan government, Pakistan and the Taliban. If so, it represents a highly visible and significant break between LeJ and the Taliban. Washington demands that the Taliban eliminate support of transnational jihadists as a precondition to any settlement. In this context, the attacks' potential significance as a break between the two entities, and the distinction publicly made afterward by the Taliban, are both noteworthy.

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