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What Makes Recent Attacks on Shiites in Afghanistan So Unusual?

Afghan policemen stand guard after an explosion in the capital Kabul. Photo by Daud Yardost/AFP/Getty Images.

Afghanistan saw the worst sectarian violence since the Taliban’s fall from power when two suicide bombers struck Shiite Muslims celebrating the holy day of Ashura on Tuesday.

The rare attacks on Shiite worshippers killed at least 60 people and injured more than 160, and prompted condemnation from the Taliban.

“We strongly condemn this wild and inhuman act by our enemies, who are trying to blame us and trying to divide Afghans by doing such attacks on Muslims,” said Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman.

An al-Qaida-linked group in Pakistan, called Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al Almi, claimed responsibility for the attacks.

“This is a very clear religiously motivated message, rather than political or ethnic, and that’s quite unusual in the past 10 years,” said Scott Worden, a senior rule of law adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Afghanistan had largely not seen attacks on a religious basis since the 2001 Bonn agreement, which established a plan for a new Afghan government after the U.S.-led invasion, though ethnic violence continued, he said.

“It’s interesting that the Taliban are taking such umbrage at this because when they were in power there were a lot of atrocities committed against Hazara (the minority Shia Muslims in Afghanistan) that were largely because they were Shiites,” said Worden. “So they (the Taliban) seem to have switched their position.”

The Taliban don’t want to be blamed for actions by other extremist groups, Worden said. And for the sake of political acceptance, the Taliban have been making overtures of wanting to reduce violence against Afghan civilians. They use as their rallying cry the unintended civilian deaths from NATO strikes, but the Taliban’s own attacks against foreign military forces and the Afghan government and security forces often result in the deaths of civilians as well.

The test of whether the attacks represent a new front or an escalation of the conflict will be how all ethnic groups respond, said Worden. “If there are conspicuous incidents of silence it could exacerbate political rivalries and could be a blow to stability. I think it’s important to watch the collective reaction to see if it unites or divides them.”

The assaults came at the end of an international conference in Bonn, Germany, on Afghanistan — the first such conference chaired solely by the Afghan government.

The conference was more notable for what it didn’t do, Worden said. “It was not the beginning of a formal peace process with the Taliban or the unveiling of a strategic partnership with the U.S. It also was not a pledging conference, although that was the number one topic of discussion with (Afghan President Hamid) Karzai asking for continued political and economic aid for the next decade.”

The conference communique, however, did include an amendment about Afghanistan making electoral reforms — inserted at U.S. insistence and approved by the Afghans. Karzai also said he will abide by the constitutional restriction that prevents him from running for a third term in the 2014 presidential election.

On Tuesday’s NewsHour, Celeste Ward Gventer of the University of Texas in Austin and Andrew Wilder of the U.S. Institute of Peace will discuss the future of Afghanistan after U.S. troops leave. View all of our World coverage and follow us on Twitter.

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