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As bombs rock Afghanistan, whispers of civil war grow louder

The words "civil war" were spoken everywhere in Bonn, Germany, when foreign ministers gathered to discuss Afghanistan this week – except, nobody mentioned those fears during the conference itself.

That failure to speak directly about the looming problems as foreign troops withdraw seemed even more egregious on the morning after the conference, when delegates woke up to the news of twin attacks that killed more than 50 people.

Some officials in Bonn cast doubt on the idea that the bombings represent the beginnings of sectarian war between Sunni insurgents and the Shiite minority in Afghanistan, but it's hard to avoid the fact that the Sunni-dominated Taliban committed mass killings of largely Shiite Hazara groups during the 1990s. As international forces pull out of the country, the Shiite enclaves may once again become vulnerable.

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Sectarian attacks have been almost unknown in Afghanistan over the last decade, as main battle lines followed patterns of ethnicity, not religion. Much of the violence is concentrated in the south and east, dominated by ethnic Pashtuns, many of whom resent the influence of ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks in the capital.

The Taliban have always claimed to be fighting a religious jihad, however, and disagree with any description of a tribal or ethnic basis for their campaign. If the insurgents succeed in sowing hatred between Shiite and Sunni groups in Afghanistan, they could drive apart the northern groups that now stand against their southern movement. In other words, the attacks may represent advance planning for a civil war.

Even if such concerns were not contained in any of the ministers' statements in Bonn, they were certainly voiced by delegates as they wondered what will happen after foreign troops pass responsibility for security to their Afghan allies in 2014.

"On the sidelines, there's a lot of concern about civil war after 2014," said Candace Rondeaux, a Kabul-based senior analyst for the International Crisis Group.

Massouda Jalal, a former Afghan minister of women's affairs, said that clear battle lines between north and south may not be the worst-case scenario. The international community gave up on disarming local warlords in recent years, she said, and even reversed the process by supporting militias. With so many guns scattered around the countryside, she said, there's a risk of anarchic warfare among many groups.

"We will have a thousand Gadhafis, a thousand Saddams," Ms. Jalal said.

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