Deadly blasts at Afghan shrines that left 59 people dead on Shiite Muslims’ holiest day have raised fears the war-weary nation now faces the prospect of an eruption of Iraq-style sectarian violence.
The Afghan Taliban has denied responsibility for the blasts in Kabul and the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif on Tuesday, and leading Shiites in Afghanistan have pointed the finger of blame at groups in Pakistan.
Analysts say the response of Shiite leaders is now key to determining whether splits emerge between Afghanistan’s Sunni Muslims and Shiites, who make up roughly 20 percent of the population.
The scale of the attacks was unprecedented in Afghanistan, which until now had not been hit by the kind of sectarian violence that devastated Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion in a bid to sow civil war.
The Afghan state is already fragile, with different ethnic groups, including Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks, living together, sometimes uneasily, under one flag as a decade-long war rumbles on with no end in sight.
It remains unclear who would have the most to gain from whipping up sectarian conflict in Afghanistan, where people have voiced increasing fears of civil war after the scheduled departure of NATO combat troops in 2014.
So far, Shiite leaders have urged calm in the aftermath of the unprecedented attacks.
The Shiite ulema council, seen as a figurehead for Shiites in Afghanistan, promptly issued a statement condemning the attack, while urging the community not to respond with violence.
Mohammad Mohaqqiq, an ethnic Hazara and leader of one of Afghanistan’s main Shiite political parties, issued a statement calling on Afghans to approach the aftermath of the violence “thoughtfully and carefully.”
Some leading Shiites voiced optimism that insurgents would not succeed in opening up divisions.
Alemi Balkhi, a Shiite lawmaker, said people were “aware of the conspiracies” and would be patient.
However, analyst Ahmad Saeedi said the threat of longer-term implications from the attack was real.
He claimed that elements in Pakistan, which boycotted Monday’s Bonn conference on Afghanistan’s future after a NATO airstrike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, were worried about developments, including Kabul’s ongoing negotiations with the US over a strategic partnership deal.
“It is a danger as despite the relative peace, relations between Afghan Shiites and Sunnis have remained fragile,” he said.
“We have witnessed some sectarian violence in the past. Sectarian violence can erupt here if provoked. This would lead to chaos from which the perpetrators can benefit,” he said.
Many Afghans are deeply skeptical of Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan, accusing it of offering safe havens to insurgents and orchestrating attacks.
Islamabad counters by saying that it too has suffered at the hands of the Taliban and insists it has a key role to play in any moves toward peace negotiations, currently badly stalled.