The fallout from this week’s deadly suicide bombing in Kabul has further splintered Afghanistan’s relations with neighboring Pakistan and set back the US-led military campaign to stabilize the region before international troops leave at the end of 2014.
The attack that killed 56 people and wounded more than 160 others outside a Shiite shrine highlighted a marked decline in security in the Afghan capital over the past year. Afghan forces, who have been in charge of security in Kabul for more than a year, have had successes in foiling plots and minimizing casualties, but insurgents increasingly slip through checkpoints and conduct complex assaults.
Ties between Afghanistan and Pakistan were already frayed when Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Wednesday blamed a Pakistan-based extremist group for the bombing at the shrine. Pakistan challenged Karzai to provide hard evidence.
The evidence, Karzai suggested, was that a man claiming to be from Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al-Alami, a Pakistan-based splinter group of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi that has carried out attacks against Shiite Muslims in Pakistan, called various media outlets on Tuesday to claim responsibility for the Kabul bombing and a nearly simultaneous attack that killed four Shiites in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
“We are investigating this issue and we are going to talk to the Pakistani government about it,” Karzai said, standing outside a Kabul hospital after visiting victims of the bombing.
Until now, the decade-long Afghan war has largely been spared sectarian violence, where civilians are targeted simply for their membership in a particular religious group. Tuesday’s attack suggests that at least some militant groups may have shifted tactics, taking aim at ethnic minorities such as the Hazara who are largely Shiite and support the Afghan government and its Western partners.
However, there was some doubt that a little-known splinter group could carry out the coordinated bombings in Afghanistan, where neither it nor the main Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has a history of conducting operations.
Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Basit said Pakistan would encourage Kabul to share any evidence it has that the group was responsible.
Later, he sent a text message to reporters, condemning the attack on the shrine.
“The government and the people of Pakistan are grieved and stand by the brotherly people of Afghanistan at this difficult time,” he said.
Pakistani military spokesman General Athar Abbas dismissed any suggestions that Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has links to the country’s intelligence agencies or that the government was not doing everything it could to quash the group.
“Lashkar-e-Janghvi has declared war on the security forces in Pakistan,” he said. He said the group has been implicated in some of the worst attacks on Pakistani security forces.
“They are being hunted down,” he said.
Karzai began to sharpen his criticism of Pakistan several months ago after a suicide bomber, pretending to be a peace emissary from the Taliban, assassinated former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was leading efforts to broker a deal with the insurgency.
Afghan officials said the Sept. 20 assassination was planned on the southern outskirts of Quetta, the Pakistani city where key Taliban leaders are based. Afghan officials shared evidence with Pakistani officials, but Afghan-Pakistan cooperation on the investigation into Rabbani’s murder so far has been tenuous.
Previous attacks in Kabul have been blamed on the Haqqani militant network, which is based in Afghanistan and is thought to have ties to the Taliban, al-Qaida and Pakistan’s spy agency.
To the mourners burying the dead in Kabul and planting red flags in dusty cemeteries to mark the fresh graves, achieving stability in Afghanistan is more important than which militant group was responsible for the latest attacks.
Mohaqeq Zada, a member of the Shiite council in Kabul, said the bombing showed no one can count on the government for protection.
“There have been so many attacks, even against government officials, and still they can’t stop these things,” Zada said.