As the United States draws up plans to leave Afghanistan, some factions inside the country are drawing up battle lines for the post-American phase. This includes the ethnic Hazaras, a Shiite minority that makes up an estimated 20% of the country's population. On April 13, pictures of Zulfiqar Omid, an Afghan politician once known for "his smiling eyes, bubbling laughter, and mastery of English," according to an unclassified Wikileaks report, began circulating across social media. In the photos, Omid is surrounded by dozens of men armed with a variety of assault rifles, their faces hidden behind shemagh scarves. A caption, allegedly written by Omid, claims that a second resistance militia has been created in central Afghanistan’s Daykundi province.
From all accounts, Omid’s force is an extension of the Hazara Resistance Front, an armed community defense militia that operates within the mountainous region of central Afghanistan known as Hazarajat. The group was originally formed to protect the region from the annual migration of Kuchi nomads into Hazara pasturelands. The decades-long feud results in annual bloodshed and is one of many internal conflicts that successive Afghan administrations have failed to resolve.
It is not just the Kuchi nomads that the Hazara Resistance confronts, however, but also the Taliban. The Taliban accuses the Hazaras of being apostates and have consistently targeted them in horrific attacks and bombings. On May 12, 2020, an attack on a Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) maternity ward in the Dasht-e Barchi hospital, located in a predominantly Hazara community in Kabul, resulted in the deaths of 24 people, including 15 mothers and two young children. The following day, Omid, who writes posts in both Dari and English on his Twitter page, posted the following message: "Talibans do not understand the language of peace. They killed innocent mothers, newborn babies, [doctors] and nurses in Kabul maternity hospital. Taliban and their violent ideology need to be wiped out." Although the Taliban denied the attack and the United States subsequently pointed fingers at ISIS, Omid's kneejerk reaction is testament to his past experiences with Taliban violence.
The Hazara Resistance Front has become increasingly aggressive as well. It made international headlines this year when its commander, Abdul Ghani Alipur, shot down a military helicopter in March, resulting in the deaths of nine Afghan Air Force personnel. This was not Alipur's first clash with the central government, but his use of a laser-guided missile certainly turned heads. In 2018 he was arrested and detained in Kabul for his alleged illegal activities, provoking violent protests that rocked the capital city. Alipur and his armed supporters have since been labeled terrorists by the central government, and he was on the run at the time of the writing of this article. Many accounts on social media continue to publish statements attributed directly to him.
What the government considers a terrorist organization, however, many view as local heroes. I have followed multiple Facebook accounts that support the Hazara Resistance Front for several years now, and the online narrative has always been one of defense, not aggression. This defense narrative is grounded in a history of oppression that began during the reign of Abdur Rahman Khan in the late 1800s. His campaign to bring Hazarajat under his control resulted in the mass killing and enslavement of thousands. Although later rulers tried to reconcile with the Hazaras, pro-Pashtun policies continued to alienate them. On May 3, a popular Facebook post was being circulated in which Alipur allegedly states: "Let me be clear: Our people didn't deserve the past and we will never go back to the past. It is our responsibility to fight for a dignified life."
To make matters more complicated, the government has accused Alipur of having affiliations with the Fatemiyoun Brigade, a militia formed and trained by Iran and composed entirely of Afghans. Nasrat Rahimi, spokesperson of the Ministry of Interior, used his official Facebook page as a forum to lambast Alipur, referring to him as a terrorist and declaring him a threat to the people and country of Afghanistan. In a post dated March 22, several days after Afghan Security forces conducted an operation against Alipur and his men in the Behsud District, Rahimi wrote that "[w]e will prevent the Fatemiyoun's propaganda."
Iranian presence in Hazarajat is nothing new. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Iran supported a set of Shiite militias collectively known as the Tehran Eight. The most well-known of these was the Victory Organization spearheaded by Hazara hero Abdul Ali Mazari, who was killed in 1995 by the Taliban. Today, his picture is featured prominently on Facebook posts by accounts claiming association with the Hazara Resistance Front. In June 2020, a social media post claimed that it was time to revive the Victory Organization and that organizers were hoping to open an office soon.
With the United States pulling out and a Taliban resurgence expected, the future seems clear to Hazaras and other like-minded minorities inside the failed state of Afghanistan: There is no political solution. The Iraq quagmire should have taught U.S. policymakers a valuable lesson, and that lesson seems likely to soon be repeated in Afghanistan. With no state monopoly on violence and no authentic relationship between the state and some peripheral communities, outside actors will sweep in to fill the void.
Emily Stranger is a PhD student in Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University. The views expressed are the author's own.