KABUL: This week's deadly sectarian attacks in Afghanistan will not kick off a cycle of Sunni versus Shia Muslim violence in the country, the US ambassador to Kabul said on Saturday.
The bombings, which killed nearly 60 people, have raised fears that more violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims is to come, following a pattern that has been part of the Pakistani and Iraqi political landscapes for years but not Afghanistan's.
"Whoever the architects were, they don't have much Afghan support," Ambassador Ryan Crocker said. "I do not see this turning into a sectarian conflict, just looking at the reaction on the part of the Shia leadership, calling for calm."
Tuesday's attacks, including a huge suicide bomb blast which killed 55 at a shrine in Kabul thronged by Shia Muslims, a minority in Afghanistan, marking a holy day.
A new, sectarian aspect to the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan would severely stretch security forces, and raise questions about the ability of the Afghan army and police to cope after foreign combat troops leave by the end of 2014.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said after the attacks that Pakistan-based group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi had claimed responsibility, and that he would raise the matter with the Pakistan government.
"I'm not in a position to say authoritatively this was carried out by Lashkar-e-Jangvi," said Crocker, who served as a diplomat in Pakistan and Iraq before being posted to Afghanistan earlier this year.
He also told reporters he had seen no evidence that the Haqqani network, which Washington has blamed for a number of attacks in Afghanistan, was involved in the blasts.
"As we've all seen, the Haqqanis have been the most lethal in delivering ordnance on target, but I've got nothing that would say they were part of this," he said, though there is a trend of Afghan strikes having been plotted in Pakistan.
"Virtually every significant attack I'm aware of ... either came out of tribal areas (in Pakistan) or Pakistani
Baluchistan," Crocker said.
Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the network, recently told Reuters that it is no longer based in Pakistan and is comfortable operating in Afghanistan.
The United States and Afghanistan are in talks about drawing up an agreement that would govern many aspects of the U.S-Afghan relationship after the end of 2014.
"I'm feeling pretty good about where we are sitting in terms of being able to conclude a strategic partnership," the ambassador said. "Some aspects of that will be security. It will not set troop levels," he said, adding that no date had been fixed for the expected finalisation of the agreement.
Beyond the end of 2014, there may well be scope for an ongoing military presence, as the Afghan army will need training and technical assistance.
"There is nothing in the Lisbon declaration on 2014 that precludes an international military presence beyond 2014," Crocker said. "That is to be determined by the parties ... as we get closer to that date. We've said it's going to be an Afghan request, they would need to ask for it, but I can certainly see us saying 'yes, it makes sense'," he said.
American plans to withdraw many of its near-100,000 Afghan-based troops by next September, bringing numbers down to 68,000.
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