Who Is Targeting Afghanistan’s Shia?

Attacks on Shia Muslims in Afghanistan claimed by a Pakistani militant group are a disturbing omen -- for sectarian ties and the prospects for a peace deal with insurgents, says counterterrorism expert Brian Fishman.

December 14, 2011

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Terrorism and Counterterrorism

A Pakistani terror group’s affiliate has claimed responsibility for the December 6 attacks on Shia targets in Afghanistan, the largest sectarian attacks since the Taliban were ousted in 2001. Counterterrorism expert Brian Fishman says if it’s proved that Lashkar-e-Jhangvi-al-Alami, a splinter of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, carried out the attacks, it may have had support from another militant group, the Haqqani network. He says the latest attacks will make the Afghans even more suspicious of Pakistan and undermine any efforts toward a peace deal with the insurgents. Fishman believes developments in Afghanistan point to a civil war post 2014 after the withdrawal of international forces. He says the United States should prioritize improving "the Afghan government’s ability to raise revenue and spend it effectively, before 2014."

These are the first sectarian attacks since the Taliban were toppled from power. Is this the beginning of new challenges in the Afghan insurgency? What does this signify?

This attack was so discordant from what we’ve come to expect in Afghanistan, not in the scope of the violence but in its clearly sectarian nature, that this is a really worrisome trend if it continues. But we need to wait and see if it’s going to continue.

This group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which is a Pakistani terrorist organization well known for its sectarian attacks in Pakistan, has been fingered for this. But why analysts are appropriately skeptical of at least those initial claims is that this is an organization that is fundamentally an urban organization in Pakistan. It’s not a group that is known to have deep ties in Afghanistan. It’s not even a group that is based in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the Afghan border. It’s more of an urban organization in the heartland of Pakistan.

So there is a complicated story if it is indeed true that Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is the organization that was responsible for these attacks, because it’s not plausible that the organization could have done these things on its own. It would have required cooperation with -- at a bare minimum -- Pakistani Taliban groups based in the FATA, but most likely needed some sort of support from the Haqqani network that has demonstrated the ability to reach out across Afghanistan and has conducted major attacks on Kabul before. But that’s an analysis based on the assumption that LeJ was indeed the group that did this, but that’s still unproven.

But it wasn’t LeJ but a splinter group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi -al-Alami that claimed responsibility. Do you think the parent group LeJ was also involved?

This is the dynamic that we see in all of the established Pakistani terrorist organizations, whether it’s Lashkar-e-Jhangvi or Lashkar-e-Taiba. The leadership of these groups has stayed relatively steady in their traditional approach, especially these urban groups that have attracted some support from the Pakistani state and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is one of those. Elements of the ISI [Pakistan’s military intelligence agency] have manipulated LeJ’s sectarian approach in order to satisfy militants and folks with an ideological agenda and keep them loyal to the state in the past.

But over the past decade, one of the things we’ve seen is that these groups in Pakistan have begun to fray and lose some of their ability to control everybody that is at least nominally a member of the organization. Much of the blame for that has to go to al-Qaeda, which despite the fact that it has been operationally decimated in the Pakistani arena, has had success in conflating its global mission with opposition to the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan, and that has been a compelling argument to the young members of the militant milieu in Pakistan.

I’m very much in the camp that thinks that after 2014 -- maybe not immediately, but in the years after 2014 -- there is likely to be a civil war in Afghanistan.

It’s very plausible that people in the organization [LeJ] conducted the attacks, but it may have been a splinter group. Many of the Pakistani militant organizations have been not exactly splintering in a formal sense. It’s just that members of their groups have been freelancing by coordinating with other organizations. We’ve seen that with LeT, probably most notably, but also with LeJ and HuJI [Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami] guys and those folks when they wanted to get involved with action that is non-traditional for their group. And non-traditional means direct participation in the violence in Afghanistan because those groups have traditionally had agendas either focused on India or domestically in Pakistan.

Do you see the stamp of al-Qaeda or the Haqqani network in these attacks?

It’s certainly tempting to say that this is reminiscent of attacks that al-Qaeda has done. We know that al-Qaeda’s organization, particularly in Iraq, has adopted sectarian attacks, and in many ways the attacks earlier this month resemble those. But it’s important to remember that the central al-Qaeda leadership [and] Ayman al-Zawahiri, now the leader of al-Qaeda, is an organization that has been very careful in the past not to get bogged down in sectarian fights, to stay more focused on political goals. I’m skeptical that this was an attack that was sanctioned by Zawahiri himself and al-Qaeda’s most senior central leadership.

Crisis Guide: Pakistan

It is plausible that the Haqqani network was involved in some respect, not necessarily that they sanctioned the sectarian nature of the attack, but that they were utilized to provide logistical support for attackers on their way to various locations in Afghanistan.

The Taliban condemned these attacks. Why?

The Taliban wants to be seen as a legitimate movement that can represent Afghans. Certainly we don’t think of them in those terms, but that’s how the traditional Taliban leadership conceives of themselves, as an organization that has a claim to a leadership role in Afghanistan. [This attack] was clearly aimed at civilians -- even if it as aimed at a sect that is despised by many members of the Taliban, it was still aimed at Afghans--and the Taliban wants to maintain their ability to have a claim on control on all of Afghanistan. An attack like this doesn’t accord with that, so that is why they have condemned the attack, and will probably do so in the future.

Is there any significance of the timing of the attack?

It’s easy to understand why there are going to be large-scale attacks in Kabul right now. The ISI would like to send a message. The Haqqani network would like to send a message, both to the international community and to Afghans, that it has authority. The Afghan Taliban has an incentive to send a message so that it can try to negotiate in Afghanistan from a position of strength. So it’s easy to understand the timing, even if you don’t know exactly who conducted the attack. There’s real incentive at the moment for a variety of players to do something like that.

One of the biggest things we have not done, but need to do, is to improve the Afghan government’s ability to raise revenue and spend it effectively before 2014 when the withdrawal comes.

But the attack on the Shia is more complicated. I don’t fully understand that rationale, except that perhaps there is a sense that some of these minority groups may be allies of ISAF [international security forces] even after a pullout, and it’s plausible at least that this is sort of the first blow in what some Afghan militants see as a potential for a civil war after the ISAF pull out. But that’s really hard to impute when we still don’t know exactly who did the attack.

Some analysts have suggested that this attack is the latest in a growing trend of events which shows that the Taliban is losing control of the battleground (ForeignPolicy) and things are going to get worse in Afghanistan. What’s your view?

That’s accurate, but that’s been happening for a long time. First of all, it depends what you mean by Taliban, and what you’re getting at is the traditional Afghan Taliban leadership, Mullah Mohammed Omar. The Taliban leadership, much of it has been based in Pakistan for a decade now. They’re not on the ground [in Afghanistan]. They don’t have the ability to rally people directly. They have to rely on proxies. We know from infinite case studies that militant organizations like that have real principal-agent problems, meaning that the principal decision makers have a hard time getting their agents to do what they want because they aren’t always in a position to enforce those dictates. That is a problem for the Afghan Taliban.

It’s also important to recognize that much of the violence that has been conducted in and around Kabul by Taliban factions has been organized or facilitated by the Haqqani network. The Haqqani network is an independent political and military organization from the Afghan Taliban. But they clearly see themselves as subservient to the Afghan Taliban, or at least they portray themselves publicly in that way. Down the road, it’s plausible that the Haqqanis will distance themselves from the Afghan Taliban and really try to consolidate authority in their corner of Afghanistan -- the Khost, Paktia, and Paktika [provinces].

But the devolution of authority or decision making power downward within the Taliban militant movement is a bad thing for negotiation. What all this points to is that a deal in Afghanistan that means something is not going to be cut. I’m quite skeptical of the ability of the Afghan state to develop a deal with Taliban members that means very much. And I’m very much in the camp that thinks that after 2014 -- maybe not immediately, but in the years after 2014 -- there is likely to be a civil war in Afghanistan.

How do these attacks complicate the situation for the United States and the international community and what do you recommend they do?

They have to work across the borders. It complicates things for the United States and the ISAF, but it doesn’t really change what they can do. We need to do our best to train the Afghan security forces. We need to fund them. One of the biggest things we have not done but need to do is to improve the Afghan government’s ability to raise revenue and spend it effectively, before 2014 when the withdrawal comes.

But in terms of the social and political dynamics inside of Afghanistan, the Afghans need to do that. Much of the problem in Afghanistan that we’ve seen over the last ten years is that, when something like this happens, we, as the United States, [say] "what can we do to fix this?" But we can’t fix this. The Afghans have to fix this.