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Amid IS Attacks, Hazaras Fear Dangerous Sectarian Divide In Afghanistan

FILE: Demonstrators from Afghanistan's Hazara minority protest in Kabul.
FILE: Demonstrators from Afghanistan's Hazara minority protest in Kabul.

Hazaras, a Shi’ite minority group in Afghanistan, are increasingly concerned about the security of their communities after targeted attacks by the hard-line Sunni Islamic State (IS) militant group killed hundreds of members in the Afghan capital, Kabul.

Amid mounting violence by the Taliban and IS, the Afghan government is struggling to answer accusations that it is failing to protect Hazaras. The community is widely fearful of efforts to foment a Shi’a-Sunni divide in Afghanistan that could plunge the country into sectarian and political rifts not seen since the fratricidal civil war of the 1990s.

Shi’a make up between 10 and 15 percent of Afghanistan’s predominantly Sunni Muslim population of nearly 30 million.

Western’s Kabul’s Dashti Barchi neighborhood, the main hub of the Shi’ite Hazara community, was the epicenter of twin deadly attacks on September 5 claimed by the Khorasan Province wing of IS.

The first explosion hit the Maiwand wrestling club. Minutes later, a second bomb attack killed at least 26 people, including two journalists from the local TOLOnews TV channel, and wounded more than 90.

Aref Rahmani is a Hazara representative for the southeastern province of Ghazni in the Wolesi Jirga, or lower house of the Afghan Parliament.

He told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website that if the government fails to take decisive steps to maintain the security of the minority group, they would act on their own initiative.

‫ “If we feel disappointed finding out that the government is involved in these killings or if it responds with silence, failure, and flaws, we will strive to defend our people and take measures against this full-scale genocide of Hazaras,” Rahmani added. “We have reached out to the international community, and we are in discussions with the government, as well.”

Ahmad Behzad is another Hazara in the Wolesi Jirga and a member of the Junbesh-e Roshnayee enlightenment movement.

Speaking with RFE/RL Gandhara, he said the government is unwilling to safeguard Hazaras from terrorist attacks because of systemic discrimination. “On the one hand, the terrorist groups target Hazaras with deadly attacks and, on the other hand, the Afghan government removes Hazaras from the government [posts] and tries to prevent Hazara areas from prosperity in development and economic policies,” he said.

In a protest in the western Afghan city of Herat, members of the Hazara community hold a banner reading in Dari 'the whole nation calls for Peace' as they rally to demand the government to bring security and stability to the country.
In a protest in the western Afghan city of Herat, members of the Hazara community hold a banner reading in Dari 'the whole nation calls for Peace' as they rally to demand the government to bring security and stability to the country.

Behzad called on the international community to do its utmost to prevent another civil war.

“The international community, our colleagues at NATO, have a responsibility to pressure the government of Afghanistan to bring reforms and maintain the security of its citizens so people won’t have to take up arms,” Behzad said.

Afghanistan has so far avoided a sectarian war despite the high incidence of violence. But IS’s attacks on Hazaras are apparently aimed at fomenting sectarian infighting, the likes of which has ravaged Iraq and destabilized neighboring Pakistan.

Kabul seems keen to prevent a sectarian conflict. The Dashti Barchi attacks prompted President Ashraf Ghani to meet with representatives from the west of Kabul, including youth and the Ulema, a body of influential scholars, on September 7.

Ghani said that, for enhanced security, Kabul should be divided into four security zones.

Interior Ministry spokesman Najeeb Danish said the plan was yet to be finalized.

Speaking with RFE/RL Gandhara, Danish added that the security plan's sole objective is to beef up security, especially in western Kabul.

“We have created a temporary security post that will gradually become permanent. In this zone, different institutions work together to improve the security situation in the area and resolve the existing problem,” Danish said.

However, for some like Ali Akbar Qasimi, a member of the Hazara community and deputy chief of the defense committee in the Wolesi Jirga, such actions would do little to prevent future attacks.

Speaking with RFE/RL Gandhara over the phone, Qasimi said that after each deadly security breach, Ghani makes a display of sympathy to placate popular anger.

The government’s purported plan “will achieve nothing except deceiving the people and convincing the international community that have fulfilled their responsibility regarding the lives and security of the people. But we will not see any meaningful changes,” he added.

IS, which considers Shi’a, including Hazaras, to be heretics, has carried out several deadly attacks on the minority group this year in Kabul and across Afghanistan.

On August 16, IS militants targeted the private educational center Mawoud Academy in Dashti Barchi, where students were preparing for university entrance exams. That incident claimed 34 lives.

On August 4, IS attacked a Shi’ite mosque in Gardez, Paktia Province, killing at least 39 people and wounding 80.

Speaking with RFE/RL Gandhara, London-based security analyst Valey Arya suggested such attacks would undermine the government’s legitimacy and further alienate Hazaras.

“The only way to prevent these attacks is to give utmost priority to them, i.e. the same priority that is given to other national issues. The Shi’a and Hazaras should also be proactive,” he said.

Jawid Kohistani, a Kabul-based senior security analyst, said the broader Middle East issues have links to the attacks on Shi’a in Afghanistan.

“Similar to the actions that IS undertook against Shi’a in Iraq and Syria, the followers of IS in Afghanistan also carry out such attacks against Shi’a in the country,” he told RFE/RL Gandhara. “They consider the attacks to be in line with the rulings of IS leadership. It is also likely that regional rivalries, such as the one between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as the Syrian war and the support of others, will play a role in these attacks.”

In the long run, he added, such deadly attacks can undermine empathy, unity, and solidarity among Afghans.

“Such attacks will at least make a section of the Afghan people more distrustful toward the rest of the population and cause differentiation and a violent view against each other,” he said.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps has reportedly recruited thousands of Afghans -- mostly Hazara refugees -- to deploy to Syria to fight for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Some 10,000 Afghan fighters have been assembled under the umbrella of Liwa-e Fatemiyoun, or the Fatemiyoun Brigade. Analysts believe IS has targeted Shi’ite Hazaras in Afghanistan partly in response to Iranian-led Afghan Shi’a fighting in Syria.

Last November, Mohammad Mohaqiq, a senior Hazara politician and second deputy to Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, faced criticism after praising Iran’s role in fighting IS in Syria and the role of Afghan fighters there.

“I thank all the warriors who cooperated in these wars from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other parts of the world who attended the wars. In fact, it was the war of Islam against infidelity and against the conspiracies of world arrogance,” Mohaqiq told the gathering in Tehran.

He hinted at future participation in the fight against IS. “Iraq and Syria got rid of the issue of Daesh. But it's not over. There are other terrorist groups. More than 10,000 IS fighters from Central Asia and elsewhere have been moved into Afghanistan,” he added, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

Speaking at a seminar in Kabul hours after the September 5 attacks, Ghani said the enemies of Afghanistan would not reach their goal of dividing the people.

“Afghanistan is a model of tolerance and religious co-existence in the region. The enemies of our unity will never reach their vile goals of creating divisions. Despite their religious differences, our people have lived in peace. Our enemies can never stop our progress and advancement,” he said.

But Rahmani remains skeptical. “The Afghan government and our people should be vigilant not to fall into the trap of the [Taliban's military wing the] Haqqani network,” he said. “But we cannot guarantee there will not be a religious war in Afghanistan.”