Update: An expanded, updated version of this article is now up on UN Dispatch.
Reports are still trickling in, but at least one attack has occurred in a dense public gathering in Kabul marking the Shiite occasion of Ashura. Two consecutive bombs have gone off in Mazar. These are my initial thoughts based on incomplete information about a rapidly evolving situation.
- Reports are emerging that today’s incidents will touch off a cycle of sectarian violence. Well, they won’t. DDR and DIAG were very effective in disarming all armed groups except the Taliban and Hizb-e-Islami Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Launching a cycle of sectarian violence requires arms, experience and organization. No Shiite group has any of these three things at the present time, rendering them ineffective at feeding into the organized and sustained violence, at least in the short term. Having said that, various outside states — Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, etc. — could potentially work the sectarian angle.
- The attacks mark Afghanistan’s first sectarian suicide attack, setting of a terrifying precedent in a country that has not seen sustained, organized sectarian violence in more than a century. The last large-scale, organized episodes of sectarian violence occurred under Amir Abdul Rahman who, in his quest to establish control over certain regions of the country, decreed that Shiites be considered infidels.
- The attacks are not sectarian only. It is important to keep in mind that, although it is easy and tempting to mark off the attacks as sectarian, they are not. At least not purely sectarian. First, the victims are overwhelmingly not only Shiite but also of a certain ethnic group. Besides, eyewitness accounts have it that mourners at the scene of the blast were chanting anti-Pakistan, anti-America slogans, demonstrating that at least some people perceived the attacks as more than just sectarian. Therefore, although the attackers might have intended the attacks to send a sectarian note, the message was lost one some people along the way. And it’s often more important how an attack is perceived than the damage it does or the message it intends to send.
- None of Afghanistan’s known insurgent or terrorist groups have a history of sectarian suicide attacks, making Gen. Allen’s statement denouncing “the insurgents” a bit off. However, that is not to say that the attacks couldn’t potentially be their doing. Ashura processions are very easy, very vulnerable targets, especially if the insurgent groups need to send a message after the feel-good soundbites and photo-ops coming out of Bonn II. Additionally, all of Afghanistan’s insurgent groups stand to gain from such an attack in various ways, not the least of which is to spread further disenchantment with the government’s ability to safeguard religious practice, stoke communal distrust and overshadow the transition process.
- I am watching for how Karzai responds to this attack, especially following the Bonn II conference and all the promises/rhetoric coming out of it. Today could well be the bloodiest in years. Will Karzai cut his trip short, return home and thus overshadow Bonn? It’d also be interesting to see how his deputies — especially Khalili, a Hazara and a Shiite cleric — handle the situation.