December 07, 2011

Karzai Skips U.K. Trip as Blasts Spur Fear of Sectarian Violence

Afghan President Hamid Karzai canceled plans to visit the U.K. today, heading home following three bombings that targeted worshipers observing a Shiite Muslim holiday and sparked fears of sectarian violence.

A suicide bomber detonated an explosive vest at the gate of the Abul Fazl shrine in Kabul, killing 55 people, Hashmatullah Stanekzai, a spokesman for police in the capital, said by phone. Bombs also exploded at Shiite observances of the Ashura holiday in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif and the southern city of Kandahar.

Afghanistan has largely avoided the violence between Sunnis and Shiites that have been part of the struggles in Pakistan and Iraq. The attacks, which were condemned by the Taliban, raise the risk that sectarian bloodshed may be exported to Afghanistan by Pakistan-based groups, the Austin, Texas risk analysis company Stratfor said, as the U.S.-led coalition plans for a 2014 pullout.

The series of “attacks work against the Taliban strategy and highlight a breach in Taliban control over the various militant groups active in Afghanistan,” Stratfor analyst Ben West wrote in a report.

The Kabul attack, in which 134 were wounded, targeted worshipers who had gathered for Ashura, which marks the death 14 centuries ago of a Muslim leader, Imam Hussein, the prophet Muhammad’s grandson. Afghan Islamic Press, a news agency in the Pakistani provincial capital of Peshawar, said it received a phone call claiming responsibility for the Kabul attack from the Pakistan-based anti-Shiite militant group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.

Targeting Shiites

Lashkar is an organization of Islam’s Sunni Deobandi sect and has conducted scores of bombings and shootings against minority Shiites in Pakistan.

“Before I arrived at the gate, there was a huge explosion and I fell down,” said Shuja Ahmad, 35, a government employee who had come to the mosque for Ashura prayers. “I saw people running, screaming and crying and saw bodies everywhere.”

Afghanistan’s main militant movement, the Taliban, arrested or killed thousands of Shiites in Mazar-e-Sharif and other cities during the Taliban regime in the 1990s. Still, those attacks didn’t include bombings of religious ceremonies and inciting a Shiite backlash now amid the Taliban’s fight against U.S.-led forces “does not fit into their strategy,” Stratfor said in an e-mailed analysis.

‘Against Islamic Law’

Zabihullah Mujahed, a Taliban spokesman, denied in an e- mail that his group was responsible for the attacks, saying that “the brutal incidents that happened in Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif are against Islamic law and humanity.” His e-mail said that “the foreigners want civilians to hate the Taliban more and more.”

The attacks increase concerns of a more complex civil war in Afghanistan as the U.S.-led coalition hands over to the Afghan army and police. A second round of formal transfers of security responsibility is underway in provinces and districts throughout the country. Those transfers are due to be completed by the end of 2014, when a limited U.S. force is to remain to support Afghan government forces.

The top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, has privately recommended delaying new American troop withdrawals planned by the Obama administration until 2014, the Wall Street Journal reported today.

“One of the worries is that various factions in Afghanistan have already begun to prepare themselves for another civil war in the aftermath of a U.S. and coalition withdrawal,” said Andrew Exum, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based defense policy research group.

Regional Factions

Regional factions may be trying to consolidate power that skirts the central government, which the U.S. and its allies are seeking to strengthen, said Exum, a former Army platoon leader in Afghanistan who has advised U.S. commanders.

In the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, a bomb attached to a bicycle exploded as people walked across a street to attend an Ashura ceremony, said Sherjan Durani, a spokesman for the Balkh province government. Four people were killed and seven wounded, Durani said.

A bomb that was placed on a parked motorcycle in the southern city of Kandahar exploded without killing anyone, said Zalmai Ayoubi, a spokesman for the province.

The attacks marked “the first time that on such an important religious day in Afghanistan, terrorism of that horrible nature is taking place,” Karzai said in Berlin yesterday after meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Karzai attended an international conference on the future of Afghanistan Dec. 5 in Bonn, and was scheduled to go to London.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul released a statement condemning the bombings, which it said occurred “nearly simultaneously.” The U.S. “remains undeterred in standing with the Afghan people against the scourge of terrorism in our mutual aim of promoting peace and prosperity,” the statement said.