afghanistan

Afghanistan's Painful, Never-Ending War Takes a New Bad Turn

The return of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Butcher of Kabul, is the latest symbol of the country's destruction.

This past May, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, sometimes known as the Butcher of Kabul, Afghanistan's most famous and probably most hated warlord, returned to Kabul through a negotiated deal with the government. He arrived in a convoy of trucks, with armed followers brandishing their military hardware. The country's president, Ashraf Ghani, said that Hekmatyar's return would “pave the way for peace” with the Taliban. A holy warrior who once refused to shake hands with then-President Ronald Reagan, Hekmatyar reached a hand out to the Taliban: “Come forward, let's talk about peace and prosperity.”

Peace processes are painful. For the sake of the country, victims are asked to forgive what was done to them. If the prospects for peace are real, some are willing to do it so that the war does not go on. So it is worth looking at what Afghans are being asked to forgive, and what relationship Hekmatyar's return has to peace.

The war in Afghanistan today is not a war about ideology, progress, or what kind of society Afghanistan will be. The belligerents are the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan on the one side and the Taliban on the other. Both sides are coalitions that spend resources and lives on infighting. There are defections and local understandings, alliances made and broken. Local life is determined by warlords. This is how the Afghan war has been fought for more than 25 years.

Hekmatyar has been active for much longer than that. When Hekmatyar's career started in the 1970s, Afghanistan's war had a very different character. Afghanistan wasn't always an eternally conservative place: people like Hekmatyar had to kill a lot of Afghans to make it seem so.

The debate about reform in Afghanistan is an old one. One reform-minded monarch, Amanullah Khan, defeated the British imperial armies in 1919 and spent the next 10 years building girls' schools, overturning dress codes for women, putting forward a constitution, and trying to weaken tribal ties. There were revolutions and changes happening all over that part of the world, from East Asia to the newly created Soviet Union. Such reforms, 100 years ago, did not seem so unusual for a progressive government in Asia to attempt.

The Afghans are being used!

 

The Fatimeyoun division. I found myself wondering if ethnicity or sect could be discerned from a photo like this.

 

Five months ago I wrote an article for TeleSUR English following the story (more of a meme, really) about, and this should pronounced as a single phrase, "Afghan Shia Militias in Syria". I compared it to the older story about Gaddafi's "African Mercenaries", used to good propaganda effect in that war. I spent some time trying to get to the bottom it and find what sources writers were basing their stories on when they wrote about the "Afghan Shia Militias in Syria". What I found was thin indeed: anonymous Syrian opposition fighters who talked about facing off with these (fast running, death-defying) Afghans on the battlefield; pseudonymous Afghan fighters who told journalists unverifiable stories; and finally poorly-sourced statements by anonymous Iranian officials. Based on these shoddy sources, journalists were building up to some outrageous conclusions: that the Afghans were an "inexhaustible reservoir of the desperate", that they "run faster" than the Syrians they were fighting, and that they had the miraculous ability to "keep shooting even when surrounded."

There was an Afghan community in Syria at the start of the war; some of these Afghans did join the civil war on the government side. As for Afghan fighters from Iran, the most promising reports to continue following the story were on the Iranian side. There are millions of Afghan refugees in Iran; many of them (perhaps most) are Shia, from the Hazara ethnic group. Some of the young men from this group have fought with Iran's military in their own unit (the "Fatimeyoun") in Syria. Since my story came out in May, I have seen reports from Iranian news agencies about such fighters - specifically about their bodies being returned to Iran for burial. 

Who is ISIS afraid of? Popular outrage in Afghanistan sees the Islamic State avoiding responsibility for beheadings of families

Kabul is Afghanistan's capital, a city of over five million people that has transformed completely since 2001. Kandahar was, and remains, a stronghold of the Taliban. The highway between Kabul and Kandahar, which passes through Wardak, Ghazni, and Zabul, is sometimes called the Highway of Death. One British journalist, writing in 2012, called it a “bomb-cratered, 300-mile long shooting gallery”. Most Afghans have no option but to travel along it. Tens of people are killed taking the highway each year.

In early 2015, survivors of the highway told journalist Samad Ali Nawazesh about the pattern of attack:“When we go off the Kabul-Kandahar highway towards Jaghoori we are accosted by many types of robbers and armed individuals. They search the passengers, rob and release some. Sometimes they behead passengers”.

Before that, in 2014, the Kabul-Behsud highway (that intersects the Kabul-Kandahar highway) had become famous as a “Death Road” where Afghanistan's minority Hazara were specifically targeted for murder by the Taliban. The Hazara are a traditionally oppressed minority. In recent decades, they have begun a resurgence, attaining opportunities in education and employment that had traditionally been closed to them. The Taliban's persecution of them has been partly sectarian (Hazara are Shia, while the Taliban are Sunni), partly traditional oppression (trying to keep the Hazara in their lower-status place through terror). Many factions in the civil wars Afghanistan has suffered since 1979 have targeted Hazara civilians with a particular ferocity.

So, when, a few months ago, a group of Hazara civilians – four men, two women, and a child – were abducted on the Kabul-Kandahar highway, held for a month, probably by ISIS-Afghanistan (a split from the Taliban), and then beheaded, the authors of the atrocity, as well as the country's government, may have expected the same kind of terrorized response that they have grown accustomed to.

The response was not what they expected. The families of the victims refused to bury the bodies. They marched with the coffins in Kabul.

'Despicable murderers and scumbags': Canada in Afghanistan

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A Change of Tone

On July 11, 2005, Canada’s Chief of Defence Staff General Hillier discussed the forces arrayed against NATO forces in Afghanistan with great nuance and understanding: "These are detestable murderers and scumbags, I'll tell you that right up front. They detest our freedoms, they detest our society, they detest our liberties.”