If one looks at a timeline of recent attacks in Afghanistan, the pattern does not suggest growing tensions between common Sunnis and Shiites. The pattern suggests an attempt, generally from foreign-based militant groups, to undermine trust in the Afghan government, writes Zarifa Sabet for South Asia Monitor
By Zarifa Sabet
It is important to know the nature of Afghan society and the different groups in Afghanistan and how they are associated with each other to understand the ethnic divisions in Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, the notion of ethnic identity is more important even than national identity. Every one identifies themselves by their ethnicity rather than as an Afghan.
There are four major ethnic groups in Afghanistan; Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara. Pashtuns, who live on both sides of the Durand line between Afghanistan and Pakistan, reside in the southern part of the country. Tajiks, who live along both sides of the border between Iran and Afghanistan, are located in the western part of the country. The Uzbeks are located in northern Afghanistan and the Hazaras are usually located in the central part of the country called Hazarajat.
In Afghanistan domestic politics revolves more around ethnicity than differences between Sunnis and Shias. When there is domestic conflict it tends to be more ethnic in nature than religious. So Afghanistan is a complex and ethnic- sensitive society where sometimes ethnic identity is associated with religious identity. While it has been said the Hazaras, who are mostly Shia, are associated with Iran, the Pashtun are affiliated with Pakistan.
Everything is judged by ethnicity. For instance, Hazaras are more liberal compared to other ethnic groups, so conservative Afghans label them as infidels, which is why they are the target of systematic discrimination, due to both their ethnicity and their religion.
Their situation has improved since 2001, but equality and democracy eludes them. There are Hazara leaders in high government posts including Sarwar Danish (Second Voice President), Karim Khalili (Chief of the Peace Commission), Mohammad Mohaqeq (Second Chief Executive Officer) and many others to show that it is a democratic government and everyone has a share in it. People try not to show any kind of discrimination in public, but in practice it still exists.
Hazaras have been targeted for years, but recently, especially after 2014, the situation has worsened. Since the establishment of ISIS in 2015, Hazara Shias in Afghanistan have been continuously targeted. However, they have long felt that they face systemic discrimination in the country.
Islamic State was behind the abduction of 31 bus passengers in Zabul, for which Hazaras were purposely identified and taken hostage. The incident occurred after the tragic beheading of a nine-year-old girl Shukria and her relatives in Zabul province, which highlighted local and International attention about the brutality of ISIS in Afghanistan.
The second deadly attacks were against peaceful protests of the Enlightenment Movement, in which they were demanding justice and distribution of equal resources against alleged marginalization of the group from the benefits of a major infrastructure project. Their demand was about the TUTAB line to pass through Bamiyan. The government denied their demand and failed to ensure security of the protestors, as a result of which, in July 2016, more than 80 people were killed and hundreds injured after two suicide bombers struck a peaceful protest in Kabul.
The assault on the Jawadya mosque in Herat, which is close to Afghanistan's border with Iran, came a day after ISIS claimed a deadly attack on the Iraqi embassy in Kabul. In the most recent case, ISIS killed more than 50 civilians, including women and children, in Mirzaolang village of Sar-e Pol. the latest attack highlights the country's deteriorating security situations.
ISIS tries to sow sectarian violence with its attacks. Analysts argue that ISIS take advantages of the chaos and tries to create a power vacuum to extend its influence in Afghanistan. The mass killing of Hazara Shias is not limited to Afghanistan. Shias, mostly Hazara, are targeted in Pakistan too by anti Shia extremist groups.
Analysts believe that regional players still have a stake in Afghanistan's instability. Regional countries including Iran and Pakistan are involved in escalating the security situation in Afghanistan. It has been said always by the international community and the Afghanistan government that a neighbouring country is funding, hiding and supporting the extremist groups and sending them to Afghanistan, while the neighbours deny such claims.
The leaders of some extremist groups have been found in Pakistan, so they cannot deny their involvement in creating instability in Afghanistan. Tehran’s recruitment of vulnerable Afghan immigrants to fight in Syria escalated the situation, so ISIS retaliated against them in Afghanistan.
Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia may support various factions within Afghan society, but none is in a position to deliver the knockout blow and come to power. Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirate and Pakistan were the countries that recognized the Taliban government in Afghanistan in spite of their brutalities and terror activities. So they support particular ethnic groups and religious sections in the country. They try to keep their influence by supporting some of the top authorities inside government or they try to make their Madrasas religious centre to have ideological influence in the country. They have succeeded to some extent, with supporters in Afghanistan helping to escalate the gap between different religious and ethnic groups.
ISIS aimed to spread the roots of sectarian violence and Shia and Sunni divide from the Middle East and gulf countries to Afghanistan. Targeting Shia Hazara is clear evidence of this.
Recently, ISIS was defeated in Mosul in Iraq so they retaliated in Afghanistan by attacking the Iraq embassy in Kabul. ISIS tries to attract the world’s attention by spreading its Jehadi networks beyond countries and the region to create an image of their power.
Observers say the ‘Daesh’ attacks are aimed at undercutting the government's credibility and exacerbating the sectarian tensions. The Monitor’s man in Kabul, Tom Peter, points out that greater tension in Afghanistan exist between insurgents and their government than among various religious or ethnic groups vying for power.
If one looks at a timeline of recent attacks in Afghanistan, the pattern does not suggest growing tensions between common Sunnis and Shiites. The pattern suggests an attempt, generally from foreign-based militant groups, to undermine trust in the Afghan government. Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran are regional rivals. So both the countries try for dominance in the region, and the ensuing power struggles have aggravated conflicts in countries such as Syria and Yemen.
When there is a weak central government, there are internal fissures between President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah over the power-sharing deal of the National Unity Government (NUG). There is a big division inside Ashraf Ghani’s cabinet itself the foreign minister Salahuddin Rabbani is the chief of the Jamiat-e Islami party that is in opposition to the government. There is tension between the President and his vice- president Rashid Dostum.
So there is the chance for the ISIS and other extremists groups to widen this gap by creating sectarian tension. Basically these extremist groups want to show up the central government as weak by targeting civilians, especially Shia Hazaras, to raise criticism against government and to hurt the emotional sentiment of the specific group. ISIS tries to create a gap between the government and people so this would benefit them. Is it a sign of ISIS weakness that they cannot face Afghan Security Forces, or have they any other aim or do they want to extend the root of sectarian violence?
Islamic State is taking the responsibility of attacks on Shias and Hazaras proudly, unlike the Taliban in recent years, which tries to focus more on image-building. When it come to civilian deaths, Taliban denies taking responsibility, even though Taliban and ISIS were both responsible for killing innocent civilians of Mirzaolang, but the Taliban said they just killed numbers of Afghan police. Although the Taliban regime targeted Hazaras during their time in power in Afghanistan in late 1990s, the group has distanced itself from recent attacks on Shiite mosques. Nevertheless, some Taliban members and IS still view Shiite Muslims as apostates, and carry out attacks on their mosques and public gatherings. Taliban, unlike ISIS are more concerned about how their operations are perceived. In most cases the attacks by ISIS are condemned by the Taliban. There is report of some tension between Taliban and ISIS recently there was report of fight between Taliban and ISIS in some part of the country.
ISIS is trying to sow the roots of sectarian violence by targeting Hazara civilians. Ethnicity is an inseparable part of the country’s political culture and it plays a crucial role in extending the roots of sectarian violence in Afghanistan.
There is no doubt that the weak central government, neighbouring and regional players and the complex ethnic divisions give effective tools to ISIS and other extremists group to extend their targets. There are no parallels between Middle Eastern religious divides and Afghanistan. This country has its own complexity and different political situation, but the conflicts in the region influence Afghanistan.
(Zarifa Sabet is a graduate student in International Relations at South Asian University, New Delhi. She can be contacted at email@example.com)