With Barack Obama’s reelection, withdrawal of U.S. and other NATO combat troops from Afghanistan in 2014—except for trainers of an Afghan national army—remains high on his agenda. The leading rival Islamic powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, are meanwhile competing for future influence over the mountainous Central Asian country.
The Saudis intend to erect a megamosque and school complex in Kabul, the Afghan capital. The design includes a mosque with a capacity for 15,000 people at prayers, and a university with a library, hospital, gymnasium, and dormitories for 5,000 students.
The Saudi Islamic center would be established next to the tomb of Afghanistan’s last king, Muhammad Zahir Shah (1914-2007), on a hilltop overlooking the city. It has been planned for 10 years, since the reign of Saudi King Fahd, who died in 2005. In its present conception, however, it appears to reflect the reforming and educational ambitions of King Abdullah, Fahd’s successor. Agence France-Presse (AFP), as republished in Gulf regional media, reports the installation will be named in honor of Abdullah.
The relationship of the royals in Riyadh with governance and religion in Afghanistan has been convoluted. The monarchy financed and recruited mujahideen who helped expel then-Soviet occupiers from Afghanistan in 1989. Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates were the only three countries in the world that recognized the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” imposed by the Taliban in 1996.
The Taliban are adherents of Deobandism, a fundamentalist Sunni Muslim sect that has much in common with, but is not identical to Wahhabism, the sole religious interpretation recognized officially inside Saudi Arabia. Saudi Wahhabis who participated in the war against the Russians tried to implant their specific doctrines in Afghanistan, and some observers suspect that the new mosque and university in Kabul will be a center of Wahhabi indoctrination. The Saudi Ministry of Religious Affairs will cooperate with the Afghan Ministry of Religious Affairs in their administration. By contrast, other Afghan universities are supervised by the Ministry of Higher Education.
Dayi-Ul Haq Abed, the acting head of the Saudi ministry, said the agreement between the two countries for establishment of the mosque and university was signed in Jedda at the end of October, with construction to begin early next year. The Saudi center in Kabul will reportedly resemble the huge King Faisal mosque built with Saudi financing in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, in the 1980s. The King Faisal mosque is known chiefly for its bizarrely modernistic design, including four minarets that resemble giant rockets.
According to Frud Bezhan, a correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the proposed Saudi-subsidized mosque and university in Kabul will cost between $45 million and $100 million. The site is scheduled to open its doors to worshippers and students in 2016—if Afghanistan can be secured against a Taliban return to power. Bezhan notes that Saudi Arabia has unsuccessfully sought to mediate between the Taliban and the government of Hamid Karzai. The Taliban view the Saudis as having betrayed them. In the aftermath of the al Qaeda assault on America in 2001, and the refusal of the Taliban to hand over the late Osama Bin Laden, a Saudi citizen, to the Riyadh authorities, Saudi Arabia shifted its support from the Taliban to Karzai.
While Obama, in Bezhan’s words, is convinced that Saudi influence in Afghanistan “could shape the success of the NATO-led mission,” the rapid departure of U.S. and allied troops could leave Afghanistan, more than ever, an ideological battleground. The factions will include the moderate Pashtun Sunnis represented by Karzai, the hard-line Pashtun Deobandis in the Taliban, the modernizing Saudi agents of King Abdullah, intransigent Saudi Wahhabis discontented with Abdullah’s reformist posture, and the Iranians and their various allies and pawns.
Bezhan points out that Iran opened a “massive” religious school, the Khatam al-Nabyeen Islamic University, in western Kabul in 2006, serving Shia Muslims. Tehran spent about $17 million for this Afghan facility, with a mosque, classrooms, and dormitories for 1,000 students. Bezhan described the new, oversized Saudi undertaking as intended clearly to challenge local Iranian influence.
In the past 10 years, Bezhan discloses, Iran has allocated “millions on infrastructure, including roads, power grids, and railway projects [in Afghanistan]. Tehran also leaves its mark through its export of cultural and political views via its strong media presence and funding of religious schools.” Saudi Arabia, by contrast, maintained a low profile in the country after 2001.
Afghan Shias account for about 15 percent of the country’s 30 million citizens, and belong mostly to the Hazara ethnicity, a community of nearly 8 million descended from Mongol invaders, who typically now speak Persian. The Hazaras, concentrated in the high peaks of central Afghanistan, were massacred repeatedly by the Taliban. Their district, known as Hazarajat, continues to suffer economic discrimination, leaving it even more impoverished than the rest of Afghanistan. Many Hazaras have fled to Iran, which repatriates them to Afghanistan. The Hazaras have appealed to the government of Mongolia for sanctuary, although Mongolia is a Lamaist Buddhist country with only about 4 percent of its 3 million people following Islam. The Hazaras have also been targeted for homicidal attacks in the Pakistani city of Quetta, the center of Taliban activity.
Pakistan has, meanwhile, seen renewed attacks on the local spiritual Sufis. On October 28, the shrine of the Pashtun Sufi Kasteer Gul in Nowshera, a suburb of Peshawar in the country’s northeast, was bombed, with three dead and 20 injured. The blast occurred at the gates of the shrine, which was crowded with celebrants, on the second day of Eid Al-Adha, the Muslim holiday at the conclusion of hajj pilgrimages to Mecca. Hundreds of Pakistanis turned out to demonstrate against the atrocity.
Within a week, three more Sufi shrines in the Peshawar and Nowshera region had been assaulted. On November 2, an improvised explosive device (IED), aimed at Muslims attending Friday prayers, was defused at the Mian Umar Baba shrine in Nowshera. The Mian Umar Baba mausoleum had been blown up by the Taliban in 2010. On November 3, a bomb went off in the nearby Phandu Baba shrine. Peshawar and Nowshera have become the scene of frequent extremist outrages. In 2007, the Abdul Shakoor Malang Baba shrine in Peshawar was nearly completely devastated by explosives. The area has been chosen by the radicals as a major theater of terrorist operations because of its numerous Sufi monuments, which are reviled by the fundamentalists.
In March 2008 near Peshawar, the terrorist Lashkar-e-Islam (Islamic Army) killed ten villagers in an ambush with rockets at the 400-year-old shrine of Hazrat Abu Saeed Baba. Next, the Ashaab Baba shrine in Peshawar was bombed. In 2009 the Afghan Taliban blasted the Peshawar tomb of the poet Rehman Baba, and, the next day, devastated the shrine of Bahadur Baba in Nowshera. Soon after, the Shaykh Omar Baba shrine in Peshawar was demolished.
Obama’s rhetoric about bringing peace to Afghanistan and Pakistan may play well among Americans weary of conflict in the Muslim lands. But the Iranians, Taliban, and Wahhabis are merely waiting for the two countries to fall into their hands. And the ordinary, innocent citizens of both look toward 2014, and the Obama scheme for their disposition, with deep anxiety.