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War-Torn Afghanistan Suffers Worst Sectarian Violence in Years

December 6, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
After twin suicide bombings killed dozens of Shiite worshipers Tuesday in Afghanistan, a Sunni militant group in Pakistan claimed responsibility. Afghanistan's worst sectarian violence in years happened a day after a major conference in Germany about stabilizing the country. Judy Woodruff gets two views on the violence.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: A suicide attacker killed 56 people and wounded more than 160 others in Kabul, Afghanistan, today. It was the worst of several attacks that shook the country.

Penitent worshipers ritually beating themselves on Shiite Islam’s holiest day, Ashura, had flooded central Kabul streets when the bomber struck. The crowds were commemorating the seventh century death of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed.

GEN. MOHAMMAD AYUB SALANGI, Kabul Police Chief (through translator): The ceremony was about to finish. A new group arrived, and the suicide bombers placed themselves among the new group.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A short time later, the shoes of the dead and wounded were piled in the gutters near the Abul Fazl Mosque. The shrine is in the Murad Khani area of the capital near the presidential palace and many government ministries.

A second attack in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif killed four more Shiites. A third attack in Kandahar killed one person. Major sectarian violence in Afghanistan between Sunnis and the 20 percent of Afghans who are Shiite had been nearly unknown since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

The Taliban denied any role in today’s attacks, but in Pakistan, where such violence is commonplace, a spokesman for a Sunni militant group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, did claim responsibility.

AFGHANISTAN PRESIDENT HAMID KARZAI: The first time that, on such an important religious day in Afghanistan, terrorism of that horrible nature has taken place.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Afghan President Karzai was in Berlin today meeting with German Chancellor Merkel.

ANGELA MERKEL, German Chancellor (through translator): This shows that we must continue to work hard in order to ensure the security situation in Afghanistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The leaders spoke one day after a major conference held in Bonn, the agenda, stabilizing Afghanistan after 10 years of international involvement and after the 2014 withdrawal date for U.S. forces. The Afghans said they would need a further decade of assistance beyond that date, until 2024.

Another important player, Pakistan, boycotted the gathering over last week’s NATO airstrike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. The government had already barred NATO convoys from border crossings into Afghanistan.

Secretary of State Clinton lamented the Pakistani decision to stay home from Bonn.

SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: It would have been better if they had come. Today’s conference was an important milestone toward the kind of security and stability that is important for Pakistan, as well as for Afghanistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Pakistan’s Prime Minister Gilani said yesterday the boycott did not mean his country has abandoned the mission to stabilize Afghanistan.

YOUSUF RAZA GILANI, Pakistani Prime Minister: We are committed, and despite that we are not attending. But we are committed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Over the weekend, Gilani and Pakistan’s President Zardari fielded calls from Clinton and President Obama, seeking to repair the relationship that bears so heavily on the international enterprise in Afghanistan.

For more on the situation in Afghanistan, we get two views. Celeste Ward Gventer was a deputy assistant secretary of defense in 2006 and 2007. She’s now at the University of Texas in Austin. Andrew Wilder is the director of Afghanistan and Pakistan Programs at the United States Institute of Peace. He has worked in both countries for more than 20 years, running humanitarian organizations and doing research.

And we thank you both for being with us.

Andrew Wilder, to you first on today’s bombings. These are rare, as we said. It has been years since something like this has happened in Afghanistan, sectarian violence on Shiites. What is the significance that it is happening now?

ANDREW WILDER, Director of Afghanistan and Pakistan Programs, United States Institute of Peace: Well, it is tragic, and as if Afghanistan needed a new kind of violence, because we haven’t seen this kind of sectarian attack in Afghanistan.

It’s quite frequent and common in Pakistan to see this kind of attack, but not in Afghanistan. And that’s why it’s very unusual, and, again, a coordinated attack in three cities at the same time, really unfortunate to see this kind of Sunni-Shia type of violence in Afghanistan, when the attacks to date have been mostly directed at official targets, military targets, but not sectarian targets like the Shia community.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Celeste Ward Gventer, we reported that a Pakistani Sunni militant group claimed responsibility. How do you see this, the significance of this taking place right now?

CELESTE WARD GVENTER, University of Texas at Austin: Good evening, Judy. Thank you so much for having me.

I agree it’s a tragic and troubling event that we’re seeing this kind of sectarian attack in Afghanistan now. And it’s not a pattern that we have seen before, but I think the administration has to keep its eye on the ball, despite this event, and keep working toward a negotiated settlement to end the conflict in Afghanistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Staying with you, do you think there’s reason to believe there will be more attacks like this, Sunni on Shiite?

CELESTE WARD GVENTER: There may well be. And that would be very troubling, indeed.

But, again, the administration, I think, is on the right course by helping to internationalize the problem, for instance, through the Bonn conference a few days ago and continuing to make this a regional and international problem, which is really what it is, which often Americans tend to forget because we have been involved for so long. But it’s critical that we view it as a regional and international problem requiring a regional and international solution.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Andrew Wilder, what about that conference? This was supposed to be a place for Afghanistan to cement aid from other Western countries, but the timing of today’s attack, coming at the same time, especially unfortunate. Is the conference — did the conference produce what it was expected to produce?

ANDREW WILDER: Well, unfortunately not, because the original purpose of the conference was to be much more a significant step in the peace process.

But long before — you know, the last several months, it was clear the peace process really wasn’t moving forward. So the agenda shifted to be much more of an international conference, where the international community could express support for Afghanistan, longer-term commitments, that we’re not going to abandon Afghanistan again.

And yet, at the end, there was still quite a discrepancy between what President Karzai, I think, was asking the international community to do in terms of long-term financial commitments to Afghanistan and what I think the international community at this point is ready to do, which I think is unfortunate, because we can’t walk away from Afghanistan prematurely, like we have done in the past.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Celeste Ward Gventer, what about the expectations for that conference and what actually came out of it?

CELESTE WARD GVENTER: Well, I agree.

It seems that the administration initially, when it put together the conference, was expecting a lot more to come of it. And certainly they were expecting the Pakistanis to attend, which they decided not to. And there are some reports that they were hoping that certain members of the Taliban who perhaps they are negotiating with might also be there. And those didn’t come to pass. So these are clear setbacks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about — and again staying with you — what about what we heard just yesterday from President Karzai, that he’s now looking for aid from the West, from other countries for 10 years beyond when U.S. and international troops leave Afghanistan? Is that realistic?

CELESTE WARD GVENTER: Well, I certainly don’t think it’s realistic to expect that we would continue to provide aid at the levels that we have over the last decade. That would be unsustainable for the United States and also for many of its international partners.

But I don’t think our choices here are to — quote — “abandon Afghanistan” or to continue providing aid at the level we have. We can continue to help them even after a reduction in U.S. military forces with a variety of aid and training and other kinds of support. So I don’t think U.S. forces going down means the U.S. is abandoning Afghanistan. And that’s an important distinction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andrew Wilder, how do you see — realistic do you see President Karzai’s insistence that his country is going to need a high level of development and aid from other countries after the troops are gone?

ANDREW WILDER: Well, I would agree with Celeste. I can expect him to expect that, but I don’t think he’s going to get that.

And I think, in some ways, I would argue and have argued that we have probably spent too much money in Afghanistan too quickly, and created this bit of a war and aid economy, bubble economy. But now the last thing we should do is pop that economy, because that would be very destabilizing. We need to start letting air out of that bubble in a somewhat controlled manner, and then have a longer-term, sustainable-level engagement in Afghanistan, not at the levels we have now, but certainly not down to zero.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me turn the question around, because many of the other countries that were there said to President Karzai, in effect, OK, we will consider giving you this aid if you will clean up the corruption, if you will promise us this country will be stable, and if you will do other things to put Afghanistan on track to a — to being a normal — a country that is stable in the universe of nations.

Is that a reasonable and realistic request for these other countries to make?

ANDREW WILDER: I think absolutely. I mean, I think if President Karzai wants the international community to support his country and his government, then he’s also going to have to demonstrate that he’s willing to actually buy into a reform agenda, make clear what his own transition strategy is.

His term comes to an end in 2014, and he needs to be clear that he’s going to step down, support a democratic transition. So I think that he needs to demonstrate a lot if he’s going to keep the international committee — community engaged in supporting him.

But even — even if he doesn’t, I think we need to make sure that Afghanistan is going to have very significant humanitarian needs, that regardless of President Karzai’s government performance, we’re going to have to support the Afghan people, especially — there’s a devastating drought on now and the war situation that is going to need longer-term commitments of support. But I think he is going to get more support if he can demonstrate good — better governance on his part.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Celeste Ward Gventer, how do you see these demands, in effect, expectations from other countries that, we will consider this money if you will do these things, move to a rule of law, get rid of the corruption and so forth?

CELESTE WARD GVENTER: Well, I think those demands, I agree, are absolutely appropriate, especially given the legacy of corruption which is endemic in Hamid Karzai’s regime.

Whether or not he can fulfill those requirements or not is a different question. Of course, the U.S. has been asking him to make those reforms for a long time now. And it’s not clear whether he can or is willing to. But we are right to put those kinds of restrictions on — on the aid.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But are — so are you saying the demand, the expectations raised by other countries is not realistic?

CELESTE WARD GVENTER: Well, so far, we don’t have much of the past to go on to suggest to us that indeed he can fulfill those requirements.

But that doesn’t mean we should stop asking him to do so. I think we need to insist that he deal with the corruption in his government. But, again, so far, he hasn’t been able to or hasn’t been willing to. So there’s not a great reason for optimism on that front, but we should nonetheless require him to.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly, Andrew Wilder, what should the West, the rest of the world realistically expect from President Karzai in the short term?

ANDREW WILDER: Well, I think to demonstrate that he is serious about allowing a reform agenda to move forward. And to date, he’s demonstrated that — not a lot of support for that.

And I think, as I said before, to make very clear his own transition strategy, because, if people are unclear that he’s going to be leaving, I think that’s really confusing matters in terms of the possibility for a successful peace process. The Northern Alliance opposition movements don’t trust him.

In addition to building — reaching out to talk to the Taliban, President Karzai needs to really reach out to his own opposition in the country. And I think improving the performance of his own government would be a really good step — first step in that direction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we will leave it there for now.

Andrew Wilder, Celeste Ward Gventer, thank you both.

ANDREW WILDER: Thank you. Thank you.

CELESTE WARD GVENTER: Thank you so much.