Attacks have targeted Shi’as in two of Afghanistan’s major cities as they gathered for Ashura, to lament the martyrdom of Imam Hussein and members of his family in Iraq in 680 AD. The attack in Kabul was particularly serious and left dozens dead. Such violence is a new phenomenon, says Kate Clark, deeply troubling and potentially very dangerous for Afghanistan, which has managed to avoid the sort of sectarian and indiscriminate attacks suffered by Pakistanis and Iraqis in recent years. At least, she says, all parties so far, including the Taleban, have condemned.
More than fifty people were killed in an attack on an Ashura procession in Murad Khana, in the historic heart of Kabul, near the defence and finance ministries and not far from the presidential palace. Among the dead were women and children, caught in the blast of what appears to have been a suicide bomb. Survivors told the New York Times that the bomber had been in the procession of mourners who were beating their chests and, some, flagellating themselves. Scenes from the aftermath, broadcast across Afghanistan, were horrific, with blood on the pavement, mangled bodies and distraught survivors. A second attack hit mourners in Mazar-e Sharif, with four people reported killed (see video of the site here).
Despite the many terrible things which have happened during the 34 year old war, sectarian attacks of this sort have been exceptionally rare. Afghanistan has also largely been spared the sort of indiscriminate bombing – of mosques and markets – where civilians are deliberately killed in large numbers, as seen in Pakistan and Iraq in recent years. Moreover, such coordinated attacks – on the most solemn day of the Shi’a calendar – were clearly designed to stir up trouble and terror, adding anguish over today’s dead to the grief for the martyrs of 1300 years ago.
Promoting sectarianism in Afghanistan is playing with fire. But, so far, all sides have condemned the attack and seem intent on trying to contain the fall-out. The Shi’a ulema council has called for restraint. The attack’s perpetrators, ‘want to trigger a sectarian war in Afghanistan,’ said Hizb-e Wahdat leader and MP, Mohammad Mohaqqiq. ‘My message to the Afghan nation is to recognize the real faces of the enemies of Afghanistan and to maintain civil order’ (sourced here). Residents in Mazar-e Sharif called an emergency meeting after a dispute between Shi’a and Sunni students at the university erupted into violence. The Taleban have also condemned the attacks, calling the attacks, ‘inhuman deeds of Islam’s enemies’ and an ‘act of tyranny’.
This is some relief. If the attacks had been ordered by the Taleban leadership, it would have marked a dangerous development in the insurgency. Such attacks would break the Taleban code of conduct,* as well as the new and detailed list of rules aimed at avoiding civilian casualties in Mullah Omar’s recent Eid message. In his message, he called for investigations into any attacks on civilians which are blamed on the Taleban. If the Taleban are serious about their condemnation, an investigating clarifying whether these attacks were carried out by rogue Taleban or by an allied or non-Taleban group would be helpful. Taleban denials always have to be scrutinised, because they sometimes deny operations if this is politically expedient, particularly when there are many civilian casualties. However, attacking Shi’a during a religious ceremony would be a new and very troubling departure for the movement.
So far the attacks seem to point to the possible emergence of a different kind of spoiler. (There is an unconfirmed, single-sourced report that the Pakistan-based Laskhar-e Jangwi has claimed the attacks, which would fit their modus operandi).** The attacks looked designed to intentionally spark ethnic and sectarian violence, but they could also galvanise resistance against what is seen as outside efforts to further disrupt Afghanistan’s already besieged relations. There will be anger, but who it will be directed against depends on who is blamed for the attack.
In order to understand the longer term implications of today’s killings, we need to know who was behind the attacks, what the intended message was and who the message was aimed at.
And we can only hope that these were one-off attacks, never to be repeated.
* … In carrying out martyrdom operations, take great efforts to avoid casualties among the common people. Except those who have been given permission and a private programme by the leadership, mujahedin are obliged to get their orders from the provincial officials to carry out martyrdom operations (Article 57 of the Taleban’s Code of Conduct or Layeha).
** The Lashkar-e Jangwi spokesman reportedly called Radio Liberty’s Islamabad bureau and verbally claimed responsibility. There was, at the time of posting, been no other formal claim.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020