Fear of the Islamic State is making for strange bedfellows in the land of warlords and the Taliban.
- By Leela JacintoLeela Jacinto is an award-winning international news reporter at France 24 specializing in the Middle East and South Asia.
Shortly after 5 p.m. on Feb. 24, Ismail Keyhan arrived at Kabul’s central bus station to pick up his father, Amini, a day laborer working on construction sites in Iran. It had been nearly a year since the 20-year-old university student had last seen his dad, and as the evening sun inched toward the western mountains ringing the Afghan capital, Keyhan kept a close watch for the bus.
Amini had boarded the bus in the western Afghan city of Herat earlier that day and had called his son around noon, when the convoy of two buses he was traveling in arrived in the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. From there, the Kabul-Kandahar highway passes through the badlands of rural Kandahar, Zabul, Ghazni, and Wardak provinces — areas best passed at breakneck speed.
But Amini, a member of the minority Hazara ethnic group, was originally from Ghazni and knew these parts well. Back when the Taliban controlled most of Afghanistan, the Hazaras — a historically oppressed, mostly Shiite minority — faced mass starvation, collective punishment, and even massacres in Kabul and the central highlands. With their distinctive, easily identifiable Central Asian features earning them derogatory monikers such as chalpak, or “flat-noses,” Hazaras have a history of persecution that has fed what Afghans call oqda — or bitterness over wartime atrocities — which, in turn, is framed in the broader Shiite narrative of persecution by their Sunni oppressors. But those were the bad old days.
As the sun slipped behind the foothills of the Hindu Kush, ethnic identity was not on Keyhan’s mind. He just wanted the bus to show up. But after waiting nearly three hours, the wiry, soft-spoken young man made his way to the bus company office, where he was given the bus driver’s phone number. When he finally got through, the bus driver told him the convoy from Herat had been attacked in the Shajoy district of Zabul province by gunmen who had singled out and kidnapped around 30 Hazara men from the passengers.
“The driver said he was on his way to Kabul with the rest of the passengers and was not authorized to reveal more details,” explained Keyhan, his face blank as he recounted his tale.
In the coming days, the kidnappings of what turned out to be 31 Hazara passengers made national and international headlines. The targeted nature of the attack was particularly worrisome. Most Afghans — no strangers to violence — quickly grasped the ethnic and religious implications of the incident. Even under the dreaded Taliban, atrocities against the Hazaras occurred in the context of war, in a country that has never paid much heed to the spirit of the Geneva Conventions.
But these kidnappings were different: more sinister, more targeted, more alarming. So when early reports emerged that the Islamic State was behind the kidnappings, a believable narrative unfolded. With the Taliban denying responsibility for the abductions and local police telling reporters they were the work of the Islamic State, panic soon spread.
As protesters demanding the release of the captured passengers took to the streets in Kabul and the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, Hazaras began to voice concern on social media sites over whether they might face the same fate as Iraq’s Yazidis. And an op-ed in Daily Open Society by respected academic and newspaper founder Aslam Jawadi warning of massacres targeting the community went viral.
But as the days turned into weeks, doubts began to emerge over whether the Islamic State was really behind the kidnappings. In a country awash with arms, militants, militias, criminals, warlords, and drug lords, it could have been any of the above.
As Afghan security forces have launched a so-far-unsuccessful operation to rescue the 31 kidnapped passengers, there have been two subsequent kidnappings of Hazara travelers. On March 15, gunmen attacked two cars in Ghazni’s Jaghori district, a predominantly Hazara area, and kidnapped eight Hazara passengers. All but one of the passengers were released hours later. In a second incident two days later, at least six more Hazara passengers were kidnapped on the Herat-Farah highway, according to Afghan TV station TOLOnews. These attacks have only further fueled rumors and fears that “Daesh” — the Arabic acronym by which the Islamic State is known across Afghanistan — is behind the attacks.
As Afghan President Ashraf Ghani starts his U.S. tour this week, Afghanistan’s security is set to top the agenda, with Ghani likely to call for — or push for – a slowdown of the withdrawal of U.S. troops. At a press briefing in Kabul shortly before leaving for Washington, the Afghan president publicly acknowledged the Islamic State threat for the first time, noting that “Daesh’s characteristic is that it is man-eating. It swallows its competitors” and adding, “Here, it is not [the] physical presence of people from Syria or Iraq. It is the network effect.”
The new threat has spurred some unusual alliances in a country that’s no stranger to shifting allegiances. Over the weekend, a group of Hazara elders in Ghazni met with local Taliban commanders to seek protection from the masked men operating in the region who call themselves Daesh, according to a Reuters report. One elder present at the meeting told Reuters that the Taliban commanders agreed to help.
The fact that the Hazaras could turn to their old, dreaded foe in order to confront a new threat is an indicator of what could be the changing nature of the Afghan insurgency. In this shifting context, it should come as no surprise that hard-line Sunni Taliban commanders are willing to lend a hand to their derided Shiite brothers. The Islamic State is fast becoming a major threat for the Taliban, one that threatens to steal the Pashtun Islamist group of its jihadi thunder.
Nearly 14 years after the U.S.-led coalition ousted the Taliban from power, dissent is growing among the Afghan Taliban rank and file. Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s reclusive, one-eyed leader, hasn’t shown any sign of life in years, and disgruntled fighters are publicly wondering whether he’s dead or alive. Meanwhile, Islamic State chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appears to be leading from the front, and his men have captured huge swaths of land while the Taliban has been scrapping for more than a decade for hamlets and security posts in remote, outlying districts. “The Taliban has a leadership problem,” explained Graeme Smith, senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Kabul. “Discontent is brewing over the absence of Mullah Omar, and it has reached boiling point with the emergence of Daesh.”
“Daesh” is a word that frequently pops up at dinner tables, coffee shops, tea stalls, and briefing rooms across Afghanistan. In Kabul chattering circles, the Islamic State threat is being scrutinized to determine whether it’s significant or is simply being blown out of proportion by Afghan officials desperate to keep the U.S. assistance drip flowing. “The Afghans have every reason to hype this thing to keep us involved,” Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, told the Wall Street Journal in October 2014, when Afghan officials began sounding the alarms. But Neumann also admitted that, “our own eyes in the provinces are very limited.… Not seeing something is not a guarantee it is not there. We need to be aware that we are losing visibility.”
But just four months later, U.S. intelligence in the provinces was sharp enough to identify and kill Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim, a former Taliban commander turned Islamic State recruiter, in a drone strike in the southern province of Helmand. Khadim was appointed deputy commander of the Khorasan Group, the Islamic State affiliate in the region, just weeks after announcing his split from the Taliban and declaring his allegiance to the Syrian-based jihadi group.
At dinner tables this month in Kabul’s affluent neighborhoods, such as Wazir Akbar Khan, Afghan elders and intellectuals were at pains to tell me that most of their compatriots do not identify with the ideology of the Islamic State, which is at odds with their centuries-old Pashtun culture and tradition. As armed guards behind concrete barriers and sandbags monitored the streets outside, dinner discussions dipped into the minutiae of Pashtunwali, the ancient Pashtun code of conduct, and differences between the predominantly tolerant South Asian Hanafi school of Islam and the traditionally hard-line Arab Salafi strain.
But in the Islamic State’s short history, securing majority support has never been a prerequisite for gaining influence and taking territory, or wreaking havoc. The Islamic State threat in Afghanistan is less about raw military might than what President Ghani calls the “network effect” of disgruntled fighters and fractured insurgent groups jumping onto the latest global jihadi bandwagon. But as the situations in Libya, Yemen, and Tunisia (with the March 18 museum attack) have shown, it’s a bad enough threat. And in Afghanistan, history has shown that nothing good ever comes out of ignoring threats in the cradle of modern jihadism.
Decades of conflict on the Afghan side of the Durand Line and of state accommodation with virulent Islamism on the Pakistani side have taken their toll on the traditionally tolerant, syncretic form of Islam practiced in South Asia. This is not a new phenomenon. In the late 1990s, as the Taliban underclass that emerged from Pakistani madrasas swept through Afghanistan, a common refrain among the Pashtun diaspora, where families, tribes, and clans are well known, was “Who are these people?” If the Islamic State can attract converts from Europe, ranging from petty criminals radicalized in French and Belgian prisons to A-level London schoolgirls, then recruiting impoverished, disgruntled fighters in the Pashtun badlands of what the Islamic State calls Khorasan should be fairly easy.
While the differences between Pashtunwali and Islamic State ideology are being discussed at dinner tables in Kabul’s heavily fortified, affluent neighborhoods, out in the terribly insecure provinces, many Afghans say they are already confronting the Islamic State threat — in whatever shape or form — on a daily basis. During a meeting I attended in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif this month, Afghan women who run shelters for victims of domestic violence from over a dozen provinces recounted reports of seeing the black flag of Daesh in place of the Taliban’s white flag in districts. They also reported that family members had joined — or threatened to join — the group.
With Pakistani military operations in Waziristan pushing militants into Afghanistan, tales of foreign fighters, mostly Chechens and Uzbeks, speaking unfamiliar languages are everywhere. Daesh is paying fighters more than the Taliban, I was told by locals from the provinces. Meanwhile, Russian officials have been warning that Afghanistan, with its plentiful opium supply, is turning into a cash cow for the Islamic State. In Moscow, where officials have a historical grasp of Afghanistan, the head of the Russian Federal Drug Control Service recently told the government-owned news agency TASS that the Islamic State “makes up to $1 billion annually on Afghan heroin trafficked through its territory” in Iraq and Syria.
Little wonder then that panic is spreading across Afghanistan, inspiring militias and vigilantes to take up arms. In late February, the Washington Post reported on a new anti- Islamic State militia in Mazar-e-Sharif called Marg, which in Dari means “death.” “In the last 13 years, there have been so many killings, so many kidnappings, so much lawlessness. And the Taliban was not destroyed,” the leader of the ragtag group of volunteers noted. “The people cannot sit and do nothing. They don’t want to wait for another terrorist group to base itself in Afghanistan.”
And so the armed groups proliferate, on top of the U.S.-sponsored pro-government militias, modeled on similar programs in Vietnam and Iraq as part of an exit strategy. The village-level Afghan Local Police (ALP) is not as well funded or accountable as the Afghan National Army (ANA) or the Afghan National Police (ANP), sparking warnings from the United Nations over “a significant increase in human rights abuses committed against the civilian population by pro-Government armed groups.”
Yet the ALP is increasingly being placed on the front lines of the fighting in some of Afghanistan’s most dangerous districts. “Senior Western officials here worry that the Afghan government will increasingly lean on semi-regular government forces,” explained Smith, of the International Crisis Group. “For example, in Sangin [a district in Helmand] the ANA often stays in its bases and delegates the small-scale fighting to the ANP, which in turn hands it over to the ALP. So you end up with poor, hastily recruited ALP guys fighting other poor, hastily recruited guys from the Taliban.”
Into this combustible mix, the entry of the Islamic State, the new jihadi group in town, is not good news. With its brutally sectarian track record, it’s no wonder the threat has seriously rattled Afghanistan’s Hazaras. When reports began to circulate that the Islamic State was behind the abduction of the 31 bus passengers in Zabul, some Hazaras began questioning the community’s security situation in Afghanistan. “The Hazaras may have some political power, but they don’t have military power,” noted Jawadi, who’s a professor at Kateb University and founder of Daily Open Society. “If Daesh is empowered in Afghanistan, the Hazaras will be the first minority to be sacrificed. Maybe it will not be at the level of the Yazidi massacres in Iraq. But there could be atrocities such as kidnappings.”
The threat of an Islamic State-inspired sectarian dimension to Afghanistan’s volatile insurgency brings back dark memories of the 1990s civil war, when ethnic warlords waged a deadly, internecine battle for power. Some of those old warlords are still around, garbed in the post-9/11 sheep’s clothing of a former warlord turned politician. This year, Ghani’s first vice president, former Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, raised eyebrows when he visited his northern strongholds in what was widely reported to be a bid to empower a military force that would pledge its loyalty to him. The anti-Taliban fighting force would not be a militia, a spokesman for Dostum told the Wall Street Journal, since it would technically fall under the ANA. But that’s a technicality that counts for nothing in such circumstances. Dostum’s plan was met with open resistance by Afghan officials and was promptly rejected by Gen. Murad Ali Murad, commander of the ANA ground forces. Still, in Kabul circles, Dostum is widely believed to be trying to build a militia. Meanwhile, in Herat, former Tajik warlord Ismail Khan sent shivers down Afghan spines two years ago when he called upon his Tajik supporters to take up arms against the Taliban. He was also reined in, but nobody knows for how long.
Hazara leaders, as far as I could gauge, are so far concentrating on the political, not military, game. Mohammad Mohaqiq, Afghanistan’s deputy chief executive officer and a Hazara, is pushing for more Hazaras in Ghani’s still-to-be-announced cabinet, which has been more than six months in the making. In an interview from his office in Kabul’s Karte Seh district, another Hazara leader, former Vice President Karim Khalili, emphasized a more kinetic strategy. “On behalf of the Hazaras, I am strongly determined to support the government and the Afghan national security services to confront the Daesh threat,” said Khalili. “In the current situation, our security services are doing a good job, and we [think] the presence of the international community is at the required level. We have a saying here that we should not take off our boots before we see the level of the water. There’s no need for premature action,” said Khalili.
But, ominously, he also noted: “If, God forbid, the government does not act as a government or the Afghan national security forces can’t be united and fight effectively, then self-protection would be a legitimate right of the people as a last resort. If — and if — it happens, then the history of Afghanistan has shown the people will protect themselves as they did in the past and they will not allow themselves to be massacred.”
It’s this history that most Afghans are determined to avoid. “The Hazaras don’t have a good warlord,” joked Jawadi. “But that’s a good thing. For the long term, there’s no question that it’s better to rely on the armed services because we have seen the pathological effects of armed groups in society.”
Weeks after writing the op-ed warning of future Hazara massacres in the immediate aftermath of the Feb. 24 bus-passenger kidnappings, Jawadi has toned down. “When I wrote that, I was alarmed,” he admitted. “I don’t think massacres like those in Iraq will happen. I think the armed forces are doing a good job to try to rescue the captured men. They have launched an operation in Zabul, and they’re sending a clear message. But still, the Hazaras are vulnerable,” said Jawadi.
It’s a state Keyhan knows all too well. Recounting his phone conversation with the bus driver that fateful evening, the taciturn young man fell silent for several minutes when asked about his reaction to the news. “When the driver said the people kidnapped were Hazara, I understood. I understood my father was Hazara,” he finally managed. “I lost myself,” he continued. “I waited for a long time at the bus station and then I left. I wasn’t able to think, to imagine what to do next.”
He got more animated when prodded about what must be done to bring his father back home. “I can’t do anything because it’s the government’s job, and they have to bring them back. My father was kidnapped because he’s Hazara. There are 30 people who are alive, who are hostages. They have to be rescued.”
WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images