An influential Afghan Shi'ite leader is visiting Pakistan, where members of the minority sect are still reeling from the brutal killing of 11 Shi'ite coal miners, nine of whom were Afghan immigrants, earlier this month.
The miners, who were abducted and killed by militants from the Islamic State group in southwestern Balochistan Province, were members of the Hazara minority. They were buried on January 9, following a week of protests in Pakistan that sought to highlight the community's plight.
The visiting Afghan leader, Karim Khalili, is also an ethnic Hazara. Members of the mostly Shi'ite community live in both Pakistan and Afghanistan and have suffered persecution from the majority Sunni Muslims in both countries.
The Sunni militant Islamic State group, which is headquartered in Afghanistan's eastern Nangarhar Province bordering Pakistan, as well as Pakistani Sunni militant groups have repeatedly targeted Shi'a.
Khalili's visit is seen as part of an effort to repair the troubled relations between the two neighboring countries in parallel with the peace talks under way in Qatar between the Afghan government negotiators and the Taliban. The warring sides are trying to find a political roadmap that would bring an end to decades of war in Afghanistan.
Khalili's visit is part of Pakistan’s policy “to reach out to political leadership in Afghanistan to forge common understanding on the Afghan peace process," Pakistan's Foreign Ministry said in a statement. The Shi'ite leader, who was a vice-president under Afghan ex-President Hamid Karzai’s government, is also to meet with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Khan travelled to Afghanistan late last year, while several senior Afghan leaders, including the head of the country’s reconciliation council Abdullah Abdullah, came to Islamabad in recent months in an effort to reset a relationship that has been marked by deep mistrust and relentless accusations that the other was supporting insurgent enemies.
Kabul accuses Islamabad of harboring the Taliban and seeking to wield influence over Afghanistan as part of a defense strategy against archrival India. Pakistan and India, two nuclear-armed neighbors, have fought three wars since gaining independence from Britain.
Meanwhile, Islamabad accuses Kabul of providing safe haven to separatists in Pakistan's Balochistan Province, as well as working with India to destabilize Pakistan.
Stakes are high for the region as the United States proceeds to reduce its troop levels in Afghanistan -- expected to go down to just 2,500 this month, with the remainder scheduled to leave by April along with other NATO service members -- in line with a U.S.-Taliban agreement signed last February.
President-elect Joe Biden has expressed support for a small contingent of U.S. intelligence troops in Afghanistan to hunt down and monitor terrorist groups, but the incoming administration's plans have not been made public.
Violence, meanwhile, has continued unabated across war-weary Afghanistan. After 20 years and billions of dollars spent in the country, a U.N. statement on January 11 warned that nearly half of all Afghans will need humanitarian aid just to survive this year -- something the world body blamed on “the ongoing conflict, natural disasters, chronic poverty and the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Many Afghans also blame runaway government corruption and lawlessness for the dire economy.
The U.N and its humanitarian partners will seek $1.3 billion to provide “life-saving” aid this year, according U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric, who added that money is needed to help 16 million Afghans. That's up from last year, when an estimated 2.3 million Afghans needed life-saving assistance.
“It’s a huge increase in people who need aid,” Dujarric said.