Afghanistan: Is Another Syria in the Offing?

by Akram Gizabi |                                 

Afg flag              

Sept, 2017: An ominous trend is in the process in Afghanistan. If it continues, it would undo what the international community built with enormous costs in lives and money. Simply put, it is a new sectarian conflict that threatens to disrupt the very fabric of the society and would give the conflict in Afghanistan a new dimension.

The problem is less home grown and internal and more regional and international with two regional Islamic oil producing powers trying to square off in yet another proxy war.

Ever since the withdrawal of the bulk of the US and NATO forces, the Taliban have been on the offensive and on the ascendance.

Pakistan drove most of its own “bad Taliban” with the Zarb-e-Azb operation out of the country which included not only Pakistanis but also Uzbeks, Chechens and Uighurs. Most of them went to Afghanistan and some even with their families perhaps to make Afghanistan their home.

At the same time with the notoriety that ISIS gained with its ruthless tactics in the region, some of the diehard zealots and those who did not find the Taliban ruthless enough left the their rank and file to enter the so called Khorasan state of ISIS. They chose to settle first in eastern Afghanistan where they had some high profile operations forcing people among others to sit on mines that were blown up under their feet.

They gained so much notoriety that Mr. Trump sent the “mother of all bombs” to quash them. Not all were quashed, however, and some that survived the ordeal opened shops elsewhere.

They are the people that were at one time or another trained and indoctrinated in more than 20,000 madrassahs or religious seminaries established in Pakistan with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf state finances. Some of these madrassahs produced the likes of Mulla Omar and company who made a name for themselves in zealotry and criminality.

The Pakistani trained and the Saudi inspired and financed extremists have targeted the Hazaras in Pakistan for the last 15 years. Thousands of civilians were targeted with suicide bombings at mass gatherings as well on the streets and roads. There are clear indications that the Pakistani security apparatus is complicit in these killings. Of the more than 1500 cases of attacks and target killings recorded, some in broad day light and in close proximity to police stations or check posts, not one person has been arrested or put on trial. They have brazenly claimed responsibility for some of their forays but no arrests were made of their leaders or the perpetrators with known addresses or whereabouts. 

They had vowed to take their anti-Shia war to Afghanistan and now they have. For the last year, most of the operations carried out by Taliban/ISIS were directed against Hazaras.

Religious institutions and places of worship as well as peaceful gatherings in a square in western Kabul were targeted. In the more recent ones a mosque in the western city of Herat and on Friday another one in Kabul were targeted, killing 32 and 30 people, respectively, and injuring scores of others including women and children. There are reports that the death toll from the Friday bombings has risen to 138 with fear more fatalities as some more of the seriously injured succumb to their death.

About three weeks ago, a village, Mirza Walang, in the northern province of Sar-e-Pul was attacked by combined forces of the Taliban and ISIS. They brutally and systematically murdered and dismembered men most of them non-combatant old men and boys that Afghan Human Rights Commission termed a war crime and crime against humanity. Normally Taliban and ISIS are at odds with each other and at times and places such as northern Afghanistan have been at each other’s throats, but in attacking and butchering Hazaras, they cooperated, and each let the other side raise its own flag. So as far as the Hazaras are concerned, they are both equal opportunity killers.

What makes the situation worrisome is the obvious absence of the Afghan government. Although it cannot prevent every terror attack directed against the Hazaras, it has abstained from or has neglected willfully or in one case officially refused to provide security. Just as in Pakistan, no one group or individuals are held or arrested. Some of the attacks were carried out by suicide bombers, but there were cases of individuals who were caught during the operations but no further arrests were made.

These are some of the terrorists that are trained and sponsored by Pakistan as its “veritable” arm to effect its foreign policy in the region.

With the departure of most of the American and Western forces, a vacuum was created in Afghanistan. With central government unwilling or unable to quell the disturbances or quash the armed opposition due to its ethnic and tribal affiliation, the northern part is increasingly destabilized. The war and fighting are literally shifted from the south and east to the north. There have been reports of people moving to the north from other parts especially east and south who actually don’t know the language and culture of the region. There have been bus-loads of people moving to the north who are not questioned by local authorities. The same situation was witnessed before the fall of Kunduz province where most of the fighters were from out of the region.

Much of this scenario as seen by local observers is played by the government itself. There is an ever increasing polarization felt in the country that has come as the result of the ethnic policies taken by president Ghani. The marginalization of non-Pashtun ethnic groups is increasingly threatening to unravel the ethnic fabric of the country. The first vice president is literally “exiled” in Turkey; the CEO who is effectively the prime minister is sometimes not met or consulted for months; the Tajik foreign minister and his brother in law, the director of the Good Governance department are ousted. Worse yet, their sworn enemy, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a warlord known as the “butcher of Kabul” is brought back from obscurity to join the government. Three ethnic leaders from Uzbecks, Tajiks and Hazaras have formed an alliance Coalition for Afghanistan Salvation. There is a lot of saber rattling and a war of words carried out between the Tajiks and the Pashtuns led by Mr. Hekmatyar. Given the history of recent past and the amount of blood shed among the factions in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, it is not very unlikely that this war of words develop into a war of weapons.

Mr. Ghani and his ethnic brethren have always argued that the concentration of the war and fighting in the east and south of the country was a conspiracy against Pashtuns. So if there was a fighting in Afghanistan it has to be in the north rather than in the south or east. Given the animosity towards Russia in the West, the Western supporters of Mr. Ghani share the same view of moving the disturbance and insurgency to the north, especially if it affects Russia and its allies. Mr. Ghani may score a point against his ethnic rivals who hail from the north and center and who form the core of the alliance against him but he may lay the foundation for dividing Afghanistan.  

With the increase in violence and insurgency in the north, Russia has warned that if the Afghan government cannot provide security, it will act to protect its allies in the region. At the same time Iran is increasingly trying to put its mark on the events in Afghanistan. It has already started to support some groups of the Taliban that would further its interest in Afghanistan.  Iran has had a rapprochement with the Taliban and in fact prepared the ground for the same between Russia and the Taliban. So it is a known secret that Iran and Russia are helping and arming the Taliban in the north, presumably to counter the ISIS. There have been local reports about unidentified helicopters dropping supplies in some regions.

Iran also has another card up its sleeve that it has used in Syria, namely the Fatemiyoun brigade. These are Shi’ite fighters that have been used successfully in Syria against SIS and Saudi supported proxies to keep Bashar al Assad in power. Iran wants to eventually bring back these fighters to Afghanistan. Consequently,  we will have Pakistani trained and Saudi financed groups on one side and Iranian trained and financed groups on the other with both the US and Russia watching with interest and giving a helping hand if needed. A similar scenario of Syria, Yemen and Iraq are to be repeated in Afghanistan. The main protagonists are the Saudis and Iranians who have their proxies while the two cold war adversaries are also trying to face off in a new arena with the US trying to destabilize Russia’s sphere of influence in Central Asia and Russia trying to perhaps avenge the defeat in Afghanistan. In any case the whole region would be engulfed in turmoil with Afghanistan on the burner again.  Given the history of Afghanistan, the coming war will not be anything like we have seen before, nor would its reverberations stay local.

Akram Gizabi

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Akram Gizabi

The writer is a former VOA journalist. He is an analyst on Hazaras, Afghanistan, and South Asia. Twitter: @AGizabi

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