On December 6, the day of Ashura, one of the most emotionally charged days in the Islamic calendar, two bombings in Kabul and Mazar-i Sharif targeted Afghan Shi’ites commemorating the anniversary of the death that day of Hussein bin ‘Ali, the third Shi’ite Imam. The Kabul attack was carried out by a suicide bomber and targeted a shrine filled with worshippers while in the northern city of Mazar-i Sharif a bomb exploded at a Shi’ite mosque. The death toll from both attacks currently stands at 84 according to the Afghan Interior Ministry. The bombings have raised fears that they will precipitate the advent of sectarian violence between Afghanistan’s majority Sunnis and minority Shi’ites, who make up an estimated 19 percent of the total population of nearly 30 million people.
The Afghan Taliban was quick to deny responsibility for both the Kabul and Mazar-i Sharif attacks. The insurgent movement followed their initial denial with the release on December 11 of a detailed statement signed by its leadership council, the “Quetta Shura,” which repeated their denials of responsibility, strongly condemned the attacks, offered condolences to the victims and their families, and urged Afghan Shi’ite religious scholars to join them in preventing the eruption of sectarian violence like that which has plagued Iraq since 2003. The statement also urges Taliban fighters to ensure that such divisive attacks do not take place.
The strongly-worded Afghan Taliban response, which was signed, unlike the majority of the movement’s statements, by its leadership council, is significant because it shows how potentially damaging association with this type of brutal, seemingly mainly sectarian attack is to the movement’s claims to be a national movement. Despite its opposition to Shi’ite ritual practices and major parts of Shi’ite theology and its past targeting of Shi’ite Hazaras in the 1990s during its campaign to conquer all of Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban today has no clear strategic interest in perpetrating this type of violent sectarianism. Indeed, the movement’s central political goal, which seeks to ensure its members a prominent political role in the country, would not be advanced by potentially beginning a bloody and ultimately strategically damaging outbreak of sectarian violence.
Suspicion about responsibility for the December 6 attacks has fallen on an offshoot of Lashkar-i Jhangvi (LJ), an anti-Shi’ite Pakistani militant group, following a claim by an individual claiming to be a group spokesman. This claim was later contradicted by a denial of responsibility and condemnation issued by another purported LJ spokesman to the Pakistani newspaper Dawn. Days after the attack, a man claiming to represent a new Afghan militant group inspired by LJ told the BBC that his group had carried out the attacks. Given the relative absence of severe sectarian violence between Afghan Sunnis and Shi’ites historically, there is a strong likelihood that foreign actors were involved in the attacks. Whether these were Al-Qaeda Central (AQC) operatives, anti-Shi’ite Pakistani militants, or others remains unclear.
It is possible that elements of the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an umbrella for dozens of Pakistani Pashtun militias operating in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), were involved in the attacks. The TTP’s amir, Hakimullah Mehsud, ideologue Qari Hussain Mehsud, and senior spokesman, Azam Tariq, have a history of associating with extreme anti-Shi’ite Pakistani groups like LJ and Sipah-i Sahaba and he oversaw anti-Shi’ite violence in the agencies of Orakzai and Kurram in the FATA. The TTP has reportedly participated jointly with other militant groups, including the Waziristan-based Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, in attacks inside Afghanistan. It is unclear, however, what the TTP would hope to gain in carrying out sectarian attacks inside Afghanistan.
The reaction of the Afghan Taliban is significant and stands in stark contrast to the virulent and even boastful anti-Shi’ite sectarianism of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Debates over the question of sectarianism and specifically whether anti-Shi’ism is an integral creedal principle have long plagued the transnational Sunni jihadi current. The immediate and strong reaction against the bombings by the Afghan Taliban supports the argument that the movement is focused mainly on conducting a nationalist insurgency and thus must assign significant weight to local sentiments, which largely oppose such manifestations of extreme sectarian violence.
Any successful insurgent movement has to take into account local dynamics or risk turning the local population against it. Insurgents rely, at the very least, on the acquiescence of locals in waging their military campaigns. Since they are usually already outnumbered and outgunned by the central government, insurgents cannot afford to increase the level of active opposition they face by provoking locals. When insurgent movements and other militant groups have actively gone against local sentiments and even attack local actors, such as the ISI’s attacks on Iraqi Sunni tribal leaders, they have faced severe setbacks that have caused them to lose much of the ground they had previously gained. Outreach to locals, particularly local leaders, rather than open confrontation makes much more strategic sense. The Afghan Taliban, which is waging a nationalist, or nation-centered, insurgency with broad-based support, is keenly aware of the need to not alienate the very people it seeks to win over. Afghan Taliban leaders have little to gain from perpetrating attacks like those which took place on December 6. Foreign actors such as AQC and extreme Pakistani Sunni sectarian groups, however, may hope to create further chaos in Afghanistan for their own strategic reasons.