There were a series of sectarian attacks in Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan, killing more than 50 people in early December. While sectarian violence in Afghanistan has not been uncommon, what is new in this wave of blood bath is the perpetrator - Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Punjab (in Pakistan) based Sunni sectarian organization. Why would a Punjabi based sectarian organization carry out attacks in a foreign soil, that too of sectarian in nature? Is this a beginning of a new trend - exporting Sunni sectarianism, by groups with a base in Punjab? On carrying out these attacks, could they have acted alone?
Though Afghanistan has always been divided on ethnic lines, in the recent decades, the Taliban attacks against the Shia Hazaras in western and northern Afghanistan have introduced a sectarian divide. Both in the Hazara regions and in Mazar-e-Sharif Taliban has pursued a sectarian agenda. However, during the last decade, the War on Terrorism between the international troops (along with the Afghan troops) and the Taliban (along with the al Qaeda) over shadowed the sectarian divide within Afghanistan.
During the same period (since the mid-1990s), there has been an alarming increase in sectarian violence within Pakistan. During the initial phase of suicide attacks within Pakistan, most of the targets were sectarian, with the Shia community bearing the major brunt along with the Ahmediyas. During the recent months in 2010-11, these sectarian attacks have also expanded to include other sects within the Sunni fold. For example, there have been multiple attacks in Lahore, Karachi and elsewhere on the Sufi Islam. It appears that not only these Sunni sectarian organizations are targeting non-Sunni groups, but also attempting to impose a particular brand of Sunni Islam within Pakistan.
Besides, these Sunni militants have been extremely active on the eastern belt of the Durand line. In particular, the Orakzai and Kurram agencies have witnessed multiple sectarian attacks during the last decade. It is believed that these sectarian attacks were led by Sunni militants from Pakistani Punjab, primarily the members of the Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP) and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). It is no secret that these sectarian organizations are now working with the al Qaeda, Taliban and the TTP elements in the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA).
Despite the statement from Pakistan asking for evidence on Lashkar-e-Jhangvi’s involvement (sound familiar?), there is a general belief within Afghanistan, as projected by Hamid Karzai, that the Sunni sectarian militants were responsible for the recent attacks. So, is this a westward push by the sectarian organizations based in Punjab? They had reached the Durand line during the last few years; now, have they crossed the Line and gone into Afghnaistan? It appears so.
The second most important question is – whether they have acted alone or in collaboration with the Taliban? Does the ISI know this and aid the same? The sectarian militants would not have reached Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif without the support of the Taliban factions – the Quetta Shura or the Haqqani network. Especially when the international troops are present and actively conducting counter-insurgency operations.
It is entirely possible that these Punjabi organizations work with the Haqqani network in the FATA and have sought their logistical assistance for reaching deep into Afghanistan. If the Haqqani network is involved, then one could also presume that the ISI know of this. If the Haqqani network and the Quetta Shura are already waging a war, why would they allow a third party to enter into the scene?
Perhaps, these groups along with their handlers in Pakistan believe that more is better. If the Haqqani network is fighting in eastern provinces and the Quetta Shura in the Southern provinces, why not interject another group with a sectarian motive to threaten Karzai, that Pakistan and its proxies could open multiple fronts within Afghanistan? Perhaps, a thousand cut strategy in the west?
Given the facts, these are developments after the Indo-Afghan strategic partnership, and there is a progressive build up by the international troops towards an exit, it is entirely plausible that Pakistan and proxies would like to exert multiple pressures on Afghanistan and Karzai. Clearly, there cannot be peace within Afghanistan without Pakistan’s positive inputs.
Or is this totally an independent phenomenon, without Pakistan knowing it? The sectarian groups of Pakistan Punjab have outgrown the province. As explained above, they had moved into the FATA and now crossed the Durand Line. There have been continuous sectarian attacks in Quetta and Karachi in the recent years, and attempts to infiltrate into the Northern Areas. If this is an independent phenomenon without the ISI’s knowledge, Pakistan has every reason to be alarmed about this expansion. What would then happen is, the sectarian groups establishing a strategic depth in Afghanistan, making it tough for the State to control and combat them.
Two more significant questions that the region should be cautious about are whether this is a stray attack or a beginning of exporting sectarianism by Punjabi groups based in Pakistan and if it is a new trend, what would they do further?