Yesterday’s bombing of the Shia Ashura in Kabul, that left 58 dead, is yet a new horror to a country that has seen all too many. But if the Taliban’s denial and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi’s claim of responsibility are true it highlights a new dimension to the complex Af-Pak wars.
Can the Taliban be believed – they are Deobandis who do not like the Shia and during their period of rule did massacre them. But in fighting NATO, the Taliban have tried to present themselves as Afghan nationalists and not sought to play up sectarian and ethnic issues within Afghanistan. They have not attacked the Shia yet – so why now?
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) is a Pakistani terrorist group with roots in the Jhang area. Is is the armed wing/offshoot of Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP.) Jang, in Punjab, is a fertile region for sectarian conflict because there is a substantial Shia population which includes the areas dominant feudal landlords. This class conflict was exacerbated after the Iranian revolution when, inspired, the Shia of Jhang began becoming more assertive. SSP was founded as a Sunni counter to the new Shia stridency and received support from the ISI which was worried about growing Iranian influence. Hundreds were killed in sectarian fighting in the 1990s. They also attacked Iranian diplomats and cultural centers After attempting to assassinate then prime minister Nawaz Sharif in the late 1990s Pakistani security turned on them. Dozens of SSP operatives were killed in “encounters” with the police.
LeJ has carried out major operations in Pakistan (such as the Marriott Bombing and the cricket attack) but they have not carried out attacks in Afghanistan. However, LeJ was close to the Taliban before 9/11 and one LeJ hero (Riaz Basra who assassinated an Iranian diplomat) fled to another jihadi group’s safehouse in Afghanistan.
The environment of jihadi groups in Pakistan is probably best understood as a stew with its many ingredients mixed thoroughly. Members of one group shift to or assist members of others. While groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (one of the most disciplined of the Pakistani terror groups) carefully coordinate with the Taliban, other groups freelance and seek targets of opportunity. So it is not difficult to imagine LeJ moving operative into Afghanistan along the routes followed by the other groups.
One big question is whether the ISI was linked. The ISI, which is preparing for the NATO withdrawal, may not want the Taliban to be too strong. A potent Taliban, coming off of a “victory” over NATO might be well positioned to, working with the Pakistani Taliban, make trouble in Pakistan. Alternately, cowing Afghanistan’s Shia might help keep Iran out.
It is difficult to say which scenario would be worse: if the bombing is the result of Machiavellian planning by the ISI or if it indicates that a situation spinning out of control.
Pakistan has long used the strategy of asymmetric warfare against stronger opponents, keep the fire going but not letting it boil over into open war. But it appears that sooner or later, Pakistan’s jihadi soup will get too hot to handle.