When attacked and vulnerable, some Afghans form their own armies
KABUL, Afghanistan – The slaughter of students, mostly teenagers, at a tutoring center. The death of young athletes in a suicide attack on a wrestling club. Mothers shot with newborn babies in their arms.
These relentless killings of Hazaras, a persecuted minority in Afghanistan, proved too much for Zulfiqar Omid, a Hazara leader in the center of the country.
In April, Mr. Omid began mobilizing armed men into militias to defend Hazara territories against the Taliban and the Islamic State in Afghanistan. He said he was now commanding 800 armed men in seven staging areas, grouped into so-called “self-protection groups”.
“Hazaras are killed in cities and on highways, but the government does not protect them,” Omid said. “Enough is enough. We have to protect ourselves.”
As US and NATO forces withdraw from Afghanistan and talks between the Taliban and the US-backed government stall, ethnic groups across the country have formed militias or say they plan to arm themselves. The rush to raise fighters and arms is reminiscent of the mujahideen wars in the early 1990s, when rival militias killed thousands of civilians and reduced parts of Kabul to rubble.
A concerted and determined militia movement, even if nominally allied with Afghan security forces, could break the insecure government of President Ashraf Ghani and split the country again into fiefs ruled by warlords. But these makeshift armies could eventually serve as the last line of defense as security forces’ bases and outposts continue to collapse in the face of fierce attacks by the Taliban.
Since the US troop withdrawal was announced in April, regional strongmen have posted videos on social media showing armed men hoisting assault rifles vowing to fight the Taliban. Some militia leaders fear that the flagging peace talks in Doha, Qatar, will collapse after the withdrawal of foreign troops and that the Taliban will intensify a widespread attack on the capture of provincial capitals and the siege of Kabul.
“For the first time in 20 years, power brokers are publicly speaking about the mobilization of armed men,” writes the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a research group in Kabul June 4th report.
The most prominent commander of the Hazara militia is Abdul Ghani Alipur, whose militiamen clashed with government troops in Wardak province, a mountain area on the border with Kabul. Mr. Alipur was involved in the downing of a military helicopter in March. In an interview, he denied any involvement, although an aide said at the time that Mr. Alipur’s militiamen shot the plane.
“If we do not stand up and defend ourselves, history will repeat itself and we will be massacred like in the times of Abdul Rahman Khan,” said Alipur, referring to the Pashtun “Iron Emir” who was the late 19th century massacre Enslavement of Hazaras. Afghan folklore says he showed towers made from severed Hazara heads.
“They forced us to pick up weapons,” Alipur said of the government that failed to protect Hazaras. “We have to carry weapons to protect ourselves.”
Over the past two decades, Hazaras have built thriving communities in western Kabul and in Hazarajat, their mountainous home in central Afghanistan. But without their own militias, they were vulnerable to attack.
Hazara’s demands for an army escalated after up to 69 schoolgirls were killed in a bomb attack in Kabul on May 8. Less than a month later, three public transport minivans were bombed in Kabul’s Hazara neighborhood, killing 18 civilians, most of them Hazara. Among them were a journalist and her mother, the police said. According to the New York Times, at least 766 Hazara have been killed in 23 attacks since 2016 in the capital alone.
“Tajiks have weapons, Pashtuns are armed,” said Arif Rahmani, a Hazara parliamentarian. “We Hazaras must also have a system to protect ourselves.”
Mahdi Raskih, another Hazara MP, said he has counted 35 major attacks on Hazaras in recent years – a campaign of genocide, he said. He said he had lost patience with the government’s pledges to protect Hazara schools, mosques and social centers.
“If they can’t provide security, be honest and admit it,” said Mr. Raskih. “People think the government doesn’t feel responsible for them, so our people have to take up arms and fight.”
Hazara soldiers, police officers and intelligence officers have resigned or been forced out of the security forces for discrimination, Mr. Raskih said, providing the militia with a valuable source of trained men. Many Hazara politicians, including Mr Ghani’s second vice president Sarwar Danesh, have called on the government to stop what they call the Hazaras genocide. Hundreds of Hazaras have visited Twitter at #StopHazarasGenocide calling for government protection.
Although some Hazaras are mobilizing, some Tajik and Uzbek groups never fully disbanded the militias that helped US forces overthrow the Taliban in 2001. Other ethnic commanders have recently started forming militias while the Taliban continue to raid government bases and outposts.
Many of these power brokers are embroiled in an ongoing battle with the Ghani government, vying for control as they seek to gain the upper hand in a post-exit Afghanistan.
At the national level, Ahmad Massoud, 32, the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, a charismatic Northern Alliance commander who helped US forces evict the Taliban in late 2001, is a prominent leader in maintaining a militia.
Ahmad Massoud has put together a coalition of militias in northern Afghanistan. Massoud calls his armed uprising the Second Resistance and is reportedly supported by several thousand fighters and about a dozen aging militia commanders who fought against the Taliban and the Soviets.
Some Afghan leaders say Mr. Massoud is too inexperienced to lead an armed movement effectively. But some Western leaders consider it a valuable source of information on Al Qaeda and Islamic State groups in Afghanistan.
Elsewhere, the appeal of the regional leaders, who seem to be mobilizing, reads like the who’s who of the country’s civil war in the 1990s. But their troops are nowhere near as commanding.
The brutal Uzbek strongman, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, has long maintained a private army of thousands from his base in Jowzjan Province. General Dostum, accused of war crimes and sodomizing an Uzbek rival with an assault rifle, would nonetheless be a central figure in any armed uprising against the Taliban.
Another power broker whose actions are closely monitored, Atta Muhammad Noor is a former warlord and commander in Balkh Province, which includes Afghanistan’s Mazar-i-Sharif trading center. He said Tuesday he would mobilize his militia along with government forces to try to retake areas that had fallen to the Taliban in the past few days after the insurgents’ swift offensive in the north.
In the province of Herat in the west, the former Tajik warlord Mohammed Ismail Khan, another commander of the Northern Alliance who helped defeat the Taliban, recently aired a loud Gathering of armed men on his Facebook page.
Mr. Khan told supporters that half a million people in Herat are ready to take up arms to “defend you and protect your city” – a clear signal that he intends to mobilize his militia if peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban collapsed.
Also in Herat, Kamran Alizai, a Pashtun who heads the provincial council, said he had commanded a large number of armed men ready to mobilize at any time.
“I don’t want to tell you how many armed people I have, but everyone in Afghanistan is armed,” Alizai said.
If the government forces could not hold Herat, he said: “We will stand by them and fight the Taliban.”
The Afghanistan Analysts Network reported that Abdul Basir Salangi, a former militia commander and former police chief in Kabul, said in a speech in January that if talks fail, militias would be formed in the Salang district of northern Afghanistan. “Such talks have become even more open since the US troop withdrawal was announced,” the report said.
For Hazara militias, thousands of former Hazara fighters from the Fatemiyoun division, who were trained by Iran and sent to Syria from 2014 to 2017, are a wild card, allegedly to protect Shiite Muslim religious sites from the Sunni-dominated Islamic State. Others were sent to Yemen to fight alongside the Houthi rebels against the Saudi-backed government.
Many Fatemiyoun fighters have returned to Afghanistan and fear that they will be integrated into the Hazara militias and provide Iran with a deputy in the country. However, analysts and Hazara leaders say former Fatemiyoun have been turned away because of their Iranian connections and possible prosecution by the Afghan government.
In Kabul, many Hazaras say they are ready to take up arms. Mohammad, a shopkeeper who, like many Afghans, has only one name, said he crossed a bloody ditch when he ran out of his shop to help after they went home on the 8th.
“I’m 24 and there have been 24 attacks in my life” against Hazaras, he said. In May 2020, he said he was visiting his pregnant mother in a maternity ward when gunmen killed 15 people, including mothers cradling newborns.
Mr Mohammad said several of his friends had recently joined militias led by Mr Alipur and Mr Omid.
“If this situation continues,” he said, “I’ll take a gun and kill anyone who kills us.”
Asadullah Timory contributed the coverage from Herat Province, Farooq Jan Mangal from Khost Province and Taimoor Shah from Kandahar Province.