You would think that, after ten long and bloody years, there would be little new the Afghan war could offer in terms of brutality. But Tuesday’s twin suicide strikes on Shi’a Muslim processions in Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif, leaving 58 dead and more than a hundred wounded, marks an unprecedented insurgent assault on civilians. Never before in the current war have Afghanistan’s Shi’a been deliberately targeted, and rarely has an attack been so completely devoid of a military target.
What do the bombings say about the evolving nature of the Afghan insurgency? On the one hand, they don’t seem to be the work ofthe Afghan Taliban at all, but of a Pakistani group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al-Alami (LeJ-Alami), whose specialty is assassinating Shi’a in Pakistan and who claimed credit for the attacks. LeJ-Alami was behind the kidnapping and executionof Taliban godfather and spymaster Col. Imam (despite Taliban efforts to stop it), and is seen by many in the Afghan Taliban leadership as dangerous and uncontrollable. In fact, in a rare move, the Afghan Taliban issued a strongly worded condemnation of the attacks. Over the years, the Afghan Taliban have assiduously strived to portray themselves as a national movement, representing the aspirations of all Afghan ethnicities and sects. They have developed detailed guidelines for their foot soldiers and field commanders, put forth political representatives to explore the possibility of talks, and have even begun to circulate documents that examine in a serious way the nature of a post-American government. One document, meant internally for the Taliban leadership, decried the country’s ethnic and sectarian divides and declared they should "try to bring an environment of fraternity among all [ethnicities] of Afghans."
But none of this, it seems, matters. If indeed LeJ-Alami turns out to be the culprit, then they appear to be one of the first foreign insurgent groups to succeed in operating within Afghanistan so unilaterally. In years past, foreign militants — al-Qaeda, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Taiba, and others — operated strictly under thesupervision of Afghan commanders. Small, mobile groups of foreigners were closely controlled; those who stepped out of line would be sent back toPakistan or, in some cases, killed. Groups of foreigners, like the "Zarqawis," a band of Pakistanis in Kandahar, or the so-called "White Taliban," a collection of Europeans and Uzbeks who operate in Zabul province, were given a degree of tactical freedom, but would have to operate strictly within the Afghan Taliban’s strategic guidelines. A unilateral LeJ-Alami attack would mark a significant erosion of the Taliban’s control over the battlefield.
This, however, would only be latest in a string of incidents indicating that things were slipping away. The assassination of former President and High Peace Council (HPC) chair Burhanuddin Rabbani earlier this fall was likely a rogue operation, unsanctioned by the leadership. Locals and Taliban figures tell me that in anumber of cases around the country, field commanders have defied the orders of their superiors. According to my sources, last summer, when a commander delivered night letters in parts of Kandahar and Nangarhar provinces threatening to kill all tribal elders in the area, Taliban leaders were powerless to stop him. In another province, a field commander decided that he no longer wanted to transfer taxes he had collected to the leadership, as per the rules, and kept the money and weapons for himself, fighting anyone who tried to take it away.
To add to the troubles, those within the Taliban’s political leadership, based in Karachi, and their military leadership, in Quetta and Peshawar, have been embroiled in rivalries, squabbles over money, and petty jealousies. More than once, top Taliban figures have even come to blows. All of this has been spilling into the rank-and-file, creating further discord. Meanwhile, other groups, such as the Haqqani Network, are increasing in power and prestige, allowing foreign militants an easier entryway into Afghanistan while staying outside of the Taliban’s writ.
If this process continues, are we heading towards the day where the Taliban no longer have the monopoly over the strategic course of theinsurgency? It’s too soon to say. But if so, a dark question poses itself — how do you end a war that no one can control?
Anand Gopal is an independent journalist covering Afghanistan and the Middle East, and the author of the New America Foundation paper "The Battle for Afghanistan: Militancy and Conflictin Kandahar." Follow him on twitter @anand_gopal_