Shi’ites in Afghanistan – difficulties and persecutions

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KABUL, Afghanistan – In the middle of the Cold War, the Soviet entry in 1979 to the country at the request of the Afghan government, only aggravated the war in Afghanistan, the Sunni Afghans and Islamist Shi’ites united as a resistance (forming the so-called mujahideen guerrillas) with the support of the United States. But this union did not last because differences of all kinds came to the fore in a radical way. Sunnis and Shi’ites share the same religion, Islam, but disagree on who is or who are the legitimate successors of Muhammad. Sunnis recognize the four well-guided Orthodox caliphs, or Rashidun, (Abu Bakr, Omar, Othman and Ali) while the Shi’ites only recognize the latter, Ali, who was the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, taking him as their first imam. Currently, in the world, Shi’ites make up 12% of the Muslim population and Sunnis 85%, in Afghanistan, the Shi’ite population around 20% while the Sunni occupies the remaining 80%. In addition, the vast majority of Afghan Shi’ites are Hazara.

The Hazara

Although it is said that the Hazara are a people of Mongoloid origin, everything suggests that it is an ethnic mixture between native, Mongoloid and Turkish populations. The Hazara inhabit the Hazarayat region in central Afghanistan and comprise about 15% of the Afghan population. This region was independent in the 19th century, and they have been persecuted by Sunni radicals since the time of Emir Abdul Rahman, who decided to submit Hazarayat to Afghanistan. After two years of Hazara resistance they were finally subdued and enslaved. Others managed to escape from the country, which explains the presence of Hazaras in Iran (majority Shi’ite) or Pakistan (especially in the city of Quetta), where they are also targets of violence often due to the numerous Sunni extremist groups in the country.

In 1979, the Hazaras carried out a rebellion promoted by Iranian agents that allowed them to gain control of several peoples. Months later there was another revolt in the city of Kabul that failed, implying the arrest of hundreds of Hazara. In September of the same year, through a meeting of signatories of Hazarayat, the so-called Shura-e Itifaq was created, a council (led by Ali Behishti) that would serve to administer the region by collecting taxes, recruiting soldiers and issuing identity documents. Although the majority of the members of the Shura were intellectuals and landlords, the clergy soon took control. This meant positioning the Shura in favor of Ruhollah Jomenei, the supreme leader of Iran at that time.

In 1980, with the Soviets already on Afghan soil, a new Hazara revolt took place in Kabul. This time more controlled. Little by little the revolt spread through several districts, leading, during the next decade, to different Islamist organizations and the expulsion of Behishti, which caused the new administration of the country to focus more on religious differences. In 1989, after the Soviet withdrawal, the Islamic parties created an interim government that excluded the Shi’ites, massacred again in 1992 after the takeover of Mujahideen (Sunni) president Burhanuddin Rabbani. Finally, in 1995 Rabbani’s troops were expelled from the region by Muhammed Karim Kalili and their status as an independent region (despite their official membership in Afghanistan) has been maintained after the arrival of the new Afghan government that replaced the Taliban regime of Rabbani.

The Sunni threat

During the years following the fall of this Taliban regime (a Sunni fundamentalist politico-military faction founded by veterans of the Afghanistan War), which took place in 2001 after the invasion of the United States in response to the attacks of September 11, the differences between Sunnis and Shi’ites have not led to any serious confrontation; except for an altercation in 2006 in Herat that left five dead and a December 2011 a suicide attack claimed fifty lives in a sanctuary in the center of Kabul in full celebration of Ashura, a Shi’ite event. The Ashura is the most important festival of Shi’ism, it is the month of mourning for the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Muhammad and son of Ali, and therefore one of the legitimate successors of the prophet. Although, due to the strong repression  the Shi’ites endured, was celebrated almost in secret until the fall of the Taliban regime, in this party the faithful are autoflagelan while parading through the streets full of black flags as a duel.

Although today this festival is openly celebrated thanks to the bias of the new government, we can also verify that there is a resurgence of the Taliban movement, which is increasing its military strength and gaining territory in Afghanistan.

Since 2011 there have been other Taliban attacks such as the attack on the presidential palace in Kabul and the consulate of the United States in Herat, both in 2013 or the attack on the Spanish embassy in 2015, which left 10 dead. This means a resurgence of Sunni radicalism, which is not good news for the Afghan Shi’ites, who will probably have to hide the signs of their festivities again. In addition, the Shi’ites have against the so-called Islamic State, formed by Sunni radicals, who claimed responsibility for the suicide attack on December 28, 2017 in a cultural center and a Shiite news agency (Afghan Voice Agency) in Kabul associated with an organization financed by the Iranian government. Iran, being a majority Shia country, supports this Afghan minority, although being an ally of the Iranian government is a double-edged sword. Being a friend of Iran means being an enemy of countries like Saudi Arabia, also the Islamic State or even the United States. Although the Americans are not going to support the Taliban regime, because it was the Americans who started the 2001 war against the Islamist group, they will not lend aid to the Iranian government, with which they broke relations after the 1979 revolution against Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlaví of Persia (what is now Iran).

The Islamist influence in Iran

The fact that almost 95% of the population of Iran is Shi’ite and that, after the fall of the Shah, Iran has become an Islamic republic dominated by the clergy (where the figure of the ayatollah is the most important, not only within of the country, but for Shiism worldwide), means that the country places religious interests at the top of its list of geopolitical priorities with an aspiration to lead the Shiite world.

Over the years, Iran has financed and trained Shiite Islamist groups throughout the Middle East. Some of these groups, such as Hezbollah (emerged in Lebanon in response to the Israeli invasion in 1982), are considered terrorists by a large number of countries (including the USA, Bahrain, Egypt and the EU) while some of the countries Arabs consider them to be totally legitimate resistance groups. In turn, there are more groups of this condition that are taking part in the Syrian war such as the Pakistani Liwa Zainebiyoun or the Afghans Liwa Fatemiyoun, both founded in 2014. Most of the members of Liwa Fatemiyoun are Hazara refugees, to whom They are promised Iranian citizenship and salaries of between $ 500 and $ 800 a month for fighting in Syria generally along with the Syrian Armed Forces of President al-Assad (Alawita) and in opposition to the Islamic State, Sunni in nature. In this way, Iran promotes Shiism beyond its borders, which would entail an expansion of this religious tendency that has as its head Ayatollah. In this way Iran would collaborate in the establishment of an order, however precarious, in Afghanistan, therefore, should religious interests reach their goal, Iran’s and Afghanistan’s relationship would improve markedly.

Here we find a second objective of the government of the ayatollahs. If good relations were established between the two countries, a new “silk route” would be opened, where Afghanistan would go from being a buffer country to a country of great commercial traffic that would connect the countries of the Persian Gulf with Central Asia. In this way, Iran would become a country of entry and exit of all types of merchandise, that is, it would increase its commercial flow, thus helping to achieve the goal it has been pursuing for decades: becoming a regional power.

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Persistence of Pakistan

It would be necessary to greatly expand the objective on the map to fully understand Pakistan’s intentions in Afghanistan, so we will limit ourselves to taking on some issues.

For starters, Pakistan is a relatively small country that lives under the constant threat of India and the tension between the two countries has led, since its inception, to the Pakistani government is concerned about a possible armed conflict with its Hindu neighbors. This fear gives a fundamental role to Afghanistan, which would serve as a rearguard for the Pakistani army in case of an invasion by India, but, for this, the government of Pakistan has to have a good relationship with the Afghan government, which has always been complicated due to territorial disputes on the border, especially its traditional confrontation in the NWFP (North West Frontier Province), where most of the Pakistani Taliban as well as Hazara refugees are concentrated.

Due to this difficulty of understanding with the Afghan government, Pakistan is interested in destabilizing the administration of the country to not only have an ally but to subdue it. In the probable event that the government of Afghanistan falls for the Taliban advance supported by the Pakistanis, the government of Islamabad would be favored by the supposed affinity with the armed group, whose fanaticism would prevent an alliance with the Hindus. But the reality can be quite different.

Despite the traditional support that the Taliban have received from Pakistan and the many meetings for peace negotiations (some very recent), the Afghan rebels began to distrust the ISI (the Pakistani intelligence service) since its collaboration with the government of Afghanistan and the United States after the attacks of 9/11 in the year 2001. This means that it is quite probable that the Taliban have an ace up their sleeve and, when the truth is, Pakistan is left empty-handed. Meanwhile, all aid to the Sunni fundamentalist group is welcome by them.

The future of Afghan Shiism

Looking at this landscape, we see that the future of the Shia, and especially the Hazara, is quite uncertain. Afghanistan is a totally failed state. The current government is extremely corrupt and incapable of establishing the necessary institutions for the development of a country that has been at war since the Saur Revolution in 1978. Furthermore, from a social perspective, more than 30% of the population of Afghanistan is illiterate ( one in three people can not read or write) and their average age is around 18, which leaves a complicated situation: a really young population without employment or studies, in an environment marked by the radicalism of the Taliban, which puts the end of violence between Sunnis and Shiites on an almost unattainable horizon.

It is precisely for this reason that the Taliban forces are growing so rapidly. The low morale of young Afghans leads them to a feeling without a homeland and their limited knowledge makes them jihad flesh. In addition, the majority of the Afghan population lives in agrarian areas where opium poppy is cultivated, a plant from which opium is extracted, the main source of funding for the Afghan Sunni radicals. Initially, the Taliban found their financing in the sale of this material but later they realized that with it they could manufacture heroin. In this way they sell a more expensive product and therefore can increase their capital notably becoming an increasingly threatening faction for the Afghan government of Ahmadzai and the Shia of the country.

It is likely that Shi’ites in Afghanistan will have Iran’s military aid if necessary, which would play against a possible alliance with the United States. This closeness with the Iranian government can be as positive as it is negative. Iran is not fully complying with the agreement it had signed with the United States, among others, in 2015 under Barak Obama, in which it undertook not to develop nuclear technology for non-peaceful actions. In other words, the advances achieved by the Iranian government in recent years in terms of nuclear technology make it a powerful ally, but this also creates an almost palpable tension between the government of Ali Khamenei and that of Donald Trump, so the Shiites have to be very careful with the alliances they establish. On the other hand, the cause of the Afghan Shiites would be a perfect excuse to agree on an alliance between Iran and Iraq, which also has a majority Shia population. This would turn the two countries together into a superpower thanks to their extreme wealth in natural resources, which would destabilize the control of the United States over the Middle East, something that Donald Trump is not willing to tolerate. In addition, the Afghan Taliban have the unconditional support of the Pakistani Taliban and the Islamabad government and probably the Arab countries would not directly engage in the conflict since moderate Sunnism generally covers most of its territories.

They may currently enjoy relative calm, but given the limited alliances they can establish, the weakness of the government, the rapid growth of the army and the Taliban, the Shiites are caught in an extremely complex, dangerous and far-off scenario. of a peaceful solution.

Translated from Descrifrando la Guerra.

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