Asia (West & South)

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. 

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The Afghans are Coming!

There's a phrase that keeps popping up in discussions of Syria. It's a string of words that always appear together, without variation, which is a tell for propaganda phrases and talking points. In the context of Libya, there was a line about “African Mercenaries”. The one I keep hearing about Syria is that Assad has "Afghan Shia militias" fighting for him.

The phrase caught my attention, because when I heard it used, it was by people who don't know Afghanistan. The country has sectarian and linguistic differences: there are two official languages (Dari and Pashto), there are different self-identified ethnic groups (Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara), there are rural-urban differences, and there are differences of sect within the main religion (Sunni and Shia Islam). For the first few centuries of its existence, including the first several decades of the 20th century, Afghanistan's leaders tried to create a nationalism that transcended these differences. Then came the war and the foreign interventions that played the differences up for short-term gain, destroying the country so thoroughly that it now sits near the bottom of the UN Human Development Index.

The phrase "Afghan Shia" doesn't mean much in Afghanistan. There are rare exceptions, but if you are talking about "Afghan Shia", you are probably talking about the Hazara, a group of people traditionally oppressed along caste and ethnic lines. The one book many Westerners have read about Afghanistan, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, prominently features the oppression and violence against a Hazara boy, a friend of the protagonist. During the Afghan wars, sectarian warlords and the Taliban singled Hazara communities out for massacres and atrocities. Millions of Afghans fled to Iran during these wars -- many of them Hazara – and were mistreated there, often charged with trumped-up crimes and even executed en masse. Nonetheless, there is a long-term community of Afghans living in Iran, many of whom are Hazara.

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[TRANSCRIPT:]

Justin Podur: Hello and welcome to the Ossington Circle. Today I’m here with Max Ajl, PhD student at Cornell University, and editor at Jadaliyya and a Palestinian solidarity activist. We’re going to talk today about Palestine a little bit, but mainly about Syria. Max, thank you for joining me.

The much-maligned views of Rania Khalek on Syria

When journalist Rania Khalek's lecture was cancelled on February 27, the group that invited her, Students for Justice in Palestine – University of North Carolina (SJP-UNC) issued a statement saying that the cancellation was because of Rania's “views” on Syria, and that they believed “her invitation would mistakenly imply SJP to hold such views”. They also added that they “do not endorse nor reject her views on the Syrian civil war as they remain relatively unclear according to our members’ diverse opinions of Rania's analyses.”

Image of RK

In response to the cancellation, a large number of signers, many of whom have been involved with Palestine solidarity, signed a statement against Rania's blacklisting but also against blacklisting in general. That statement concluded:

“The signers of this statement hold a range of views on Syria. Some agree with Khalek; others disagree – in some cases quite vehemently. But we feel that when a group seeking justice in Palestine subjects speakers or members to a political litmus test related to their views on Syria, it inevitably leads to splits, silencing, confusion, and a serious erosion of trust. It runs contrary to the possibility of people learning from one another, changing their minds, and educating one another through their activism. Disagreements about political issues exist inside every movement coalition. They must not be made fodder for targeted vilification of activists in the movement.”

The statement “against blacklisting” triggered another wave of slanders, as many of the same people who had pressured the SJP to cancel her talk approached signers to argue that they should not have signed. Among their arguments was that there is and should be a political litmus test, one that Rania fails. As an initial signer myself, I was approached more than once by friends who suggested that I didn't really know Rania's views.