KABUL, Afghanistan – The massacre of students, mostly teenagers, at a tutoring center. The death of young athletes in a suicide bombing in a wrestling club. Slaughtered mothers with newborn babies in their arms.
These relentless killings of Hazaras, a persecuted minority in Afghanistan, ultimately proved too much to bear for Zulfiqar Omid, a Hazara leader in the central part of the country.
In April, Mr. Omid began mobilizing gunmen in militias to defend the Hazara areas against the Taliban and the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan. He said he now commanded 800 armed men in seven assembly areas grouped together in what he called “self-protection groups”.
âThe Hazaras are being killed in cities and on the highways, but the government is not protecting them,â Omid said. “Enough is enough. We have to protect ourselves.”
As US and NATO forces pull out of Afghanistan and talks break down between the Taliban and the US-backed government, ethnic groups across the country have formed militias or said they were planning to arm themselves. The rush to raise fighters and weapons is reminiscent of the Mujahedin wars of the early 1990s, when rival militias killed thousands of civilians and left parts of Kabul in ruins.
A concerted and determined militia movement, even if nominally aligned with the Afghan security forces, could shatter the unstable government of President Ashraf Ghani and again divide the country into strongholds ruled by warlords. Yet these makeshift armies could eventually serve as the last line of defense as the bases and outposts of the security forces gradually collapse in the face of a fierce Taliban attack.
Since the announcement of the US troop withdrawal in April, strongmen in the region have posted videos on social media showing gunmen wielding assault rifles and vowing to fight the Taliban. Some militia leaders fear that the peace talks in Doha, Qatar, will collapse after the departure of foreign troops and that the Taliban will step up a general assault to capture provincial capitals and besiege Kabul.
“For the first time in 20 years, the powerful are speaking publicly about the mobilization of armed men,” the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a research group in Kabul, wrote in a June 4 report.
The Hazaras have the most to fear from a return to power by the Taliban, who slaughtered thousands of members of the predominantly Shiite group when Sunni Muslim militants ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. The Taliban consider the Hazaras as heretics.
The most prominent Hazara militia commander is Abdul Ghani Alipur, whose militiamen in Wardak province, a mountainous region bordering Kabul, clashed with government forces. 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 fired at the plane.
“If we don’t stand up and defend ourselves, history will repeat itself and we will be slaughtered like in the days of Abdul Rahman Khan,” Alipur said, referring to the “iron emir” Pashtun who reigned at the end of the 19th. century, slaughtering and enslaving the Hazaras. Afghan folklore says it showed towers constructed from severed Hazara heads.
âThey forced us to collect weapons,â Alipur said of the government, which failed to protect the Hazaras. âWe have to carry weapons to protect ourselves.
Over the past two decades, the Hazaras have built thriving communities in western Kabul and in Hazarajat, their mountainous homeland in central Afghanistan. But without their own militia, they were vulnerable to attack.
Hazara’s demands for an army escalated after up to 69 schoolgirls were killed in a bombing in Kabul on May 8. Less than a month later, three public transport minibuses were bombed in the Hazara neighborhoods of Kabul, killing 18 civilians, most of them Hazara. Among them were a journalist and her mother, police said. Since 2016, at least 766 Hazara have been killed in the capital alone in 23 attacks, according to data from the New York Times.
âThe Tajiks have weapons, the Pashtuns are armed,â said Arif Rahmani, a Hazara MP. âWe Hazaras also need to have a system to protect ourselves. “
Mahdi Raskih, another Hazara member of parliament, said he had counted 35 major attacks against the Hazaras in recent years – a campaign of genocide, he said. He said he had lost patience with the government’s promises of protection for Hazara schools, mosques and social centers.
âIf they can’t provide security, be honest and admit it,â Raskih said. âPeople believe that the government does not feel responsible to them, so our people must take up arms and fight. “
Hazara soldiers, police and intelligence operatives have resigned or been forced to leave the security forces due to discrimination, Raskih said, providing the militias 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 a genocide of the Hazara. Hundreds of Hazaras have taken to Twitter, at #StopHazarasGenocide, to demand government protection.
Even as some Hazaras mobilized, some Tajik and Uzbek groups never completely disbanded the militias that helped US forces topple the Taliban in 2001. Other ethnic commanders have recently started forming militias as the Taliban continue to invade government bases and outposts.
Many of these powerful are locked in an enduring struggle with the Ghani administration, vying for control, while trying to gain the upper hand in a post-withdrawal Afghanistan.
Nationally, Ahmad Massoud, 32, son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, a charismatic Northern Alliance commander who helped US forces rout the Taliban in late 2001, is a prominent leader to maintain a militia.
Ahmad Massoud has assembled a coalition of militias in northern Afghanistan. Calling his armed uprising the Second Resistance, Mr. Massoud is allegedly backed by a few thousand fighters and a dozen aging militia commanders who fought the Taliban and the Soviets.
Some Afghan leaders say Mr. Massoud is too inexperienced to effectively lead an armed movement. But some Western leaders see it as a valuable source of intelligence on Al Qaeda and Islamic State groups in Afghanistan.
Elsewhere, the roll call of regional leaders who appear to be mobilizing sounds like a who’s who of the country’s civil war in the 1990s. But their forces are nowhere near as strong.
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 nevertheless be a central figure in any armed uprising against the Taliban.
Another power broker whose actions are closely watched, Atta Muhammad Noor, is a former warlord and commander of Balkh province, which includes Afghanistan’s trade hub, Mazar-i-Sharif. He said on Tuesday he would mobilize his militia forces alongside government troops in an attempt to reclaim territory that had fallen to the Taliban in recent days after the insurgent offensive in the north.
In western Herat province, former Tajik warlord Mohammed Ismail Khan, another Northern Alliance commander who helped defeat the Taliban, recently broadcast a rowdy rally of gunmen on his Facebook page.
Mr Khan told his supporters that half a million people in Herat were about to take up arms to “defend yourself and your town” – a clear signal that he intended to mobilize his militia though peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban collapsed.
Also in Herat, Kamran Alizai, a Pashtun who heads the provincial council, said he was in command of large numbers of armed men ready to mobilize at any time.
âI don’t want to tell you how many armed people I have, but everyone is armed in Afghanistan,â Alizai said.
If government forces were unable to hold Herat, he said, âWe will stand by their side 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 militias were forming in the district of Salang in north-central Afghanistan. Afghanistan, in case the talks fail. “Such discussions have become more flagrant since the announcement of the withdrawal of American troops,” the report said.
For the Hazara militias, thousands of former Hazara fighters from the Fatemiyoun division, trained by Iran and deployed to Syria from 2014 to 2017, are ostensibly to protect the Shia Muslim religious sites of the Sunni Muslim-dominated Islamic State. . Others were sent to Yemen to fight alongside Houthi rebels against the Saudi-backed government.
Many Fatemiyoun fighters have returned to Afghanistan, raising fears that they will be incorporated into the Hazara militias, providing Iran with proxy force inside the country. But analysts and Hazara leaders say the former Fatemiyoun has been turned away because of his ties to Iran and potential lawsuits by the Afghan government.
In Kabul, many Hazaras say they are ready to take up arms. Mohammad, a trader who, like many Afghans, has a name, said he crossed a bloodstained ditch when he fled his store to help after explosions rocked the nearby Sayed Ul-Shuhada high school on May 8, killing dozens of schoolgirls so they left for home.
“I am 24 years old and there have been 24 attacks in my life” against the Hazaras, he declared. In May 2020, he said, he was visiting his pregnant mother in a maternity hospital when gunmen killed 15 people, including mothers cradling newborn babies.
Mr. Mohammad said that several of his friends have recently joined militias led by Mr. Alipur and Mr. Omid.
âIf this situation continues,â he said, âI will take a gun and kill anyone who kills us. “
Asadullah Timory contributed reporting from Herat Province, Farooq Jan Mangal from Khost Province and Taimoor Shah from Kandahar Province.