By Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management
On March 7, 2019, at least 11 people were killed and another 95 injured when militants carried out a mortar attack at an open-air rally marking the 24th death anniversary of Shiite leader Hazara Abdul Ali Mazari. Mazari, the head and co-founder of Hezb-i-Wahdat, a Shia political party that was formed from a coalition of several political parties after the withdrawal of Soviet Union in 1989, was killed by the Taliban on March 13, 1995, along with nine of his followers.
Given their history of sectarian violence against Shia Tajiks and Hazaras, and despite the attack being claimed by the Islamic State (aka Daesh) and denial of responsibility by the Taliban, Nasrat Rahimi, acting Interior Ministry spokesman, blamed the Taliban for the attack. Incidentally, the rally was attended by prominent political leaders, including Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, former President Hamid Karzai and Presidential candidate Abdul Latif Pedram. Pedram was among the 95 persons injured.
On September 6, 2018, at least 22 civilians were killed and more than 75 wounded, when militants carried out an attack on a sports centre located in Kabul’s western Dashti-i-Barchi suburb, which has a dense Shia population.
On August 15, 2019, at least 40 students were killed and 67 others injured 67 when a suicide attacker walked into the Mahwood Education Centre in Kabul and detonated an explosive vest in a classroom crowded with students who were preparing for their university entrance exams. The Mahwood Education Centre, also located in Dashti-i-Barchi neighbourhood.
These incidents are only recent examples of an established trend of the targeting of Shia’s in Afghanistan. According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) there were 19 incidents of sectarian-motivated violence against Shia Muslims in 2018, resulting in 747 civilian casualties (223 deaths and 524 injured). In 2017, UNAMA had documented eight sectarian-motivated attacks against Shias resulting in 418 civilian casualties (161 deaths and 257 injuries). UNAMA documented 378 civilian casualties (87 deaths and 291 injured) in 2016, and 56 civilian casualties (42 deaths and 14 injured) in 2015, due to deliberate sectarian attacks targeting the Shia Muslim minority.
Indeed, a special report released by the UNAMA on November 7, 2017, had observed “a disturbing increase in attacks against places of worship, religious leaders and worshippers, particularly attacks targeting Shi’a Muslim congregations”.
Most Shia Muslims in Afghanistan are of Hazara and Tajik ethnicity and constitute a minority in the primarily Sunni Muslim Afghan population.
Apart from the Shias, other minorities are also targeted. For instance, on July 1, 2018, the Afghan Sikh and Hindu community leader Ottar Singh Khalsa, who was running for parliamentary elections, was killed in a suicide attack in Jalalabad city of Nangarhar Province.
Not surprisingly, in the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom’s (USCIRF’s) April 2018 report, Afghanistan was put in group of 12 ‘Tier 2’ nations. These are nations, as per USCIRF, “‘in which the violations engaged in or tolerated by the Government during 2017 are serious and characterized by at least one of the elements of the “‘systematic, ongoing, and egregious’ CPC [countries of particular concern] standard”. The report observed,
Despite a rise in socioeconomic status for Shi’a Muslims in recent years, attacks against this community—especially by the Islamic State in the Khorasan Province (ISKP)—continued during 2017, and in some cases worsened… Non-Muslim groups like Hindus, Christians, and Sikhs remain endangered minorities and lack the ability to publicly take part in their religious traditions. Aspects of the country’s constitution and other laws are contrary to international standards for freedom of religion or belief…
Overall casualties among civilians (of all ethnicities), at 3,804 in 2018, are the highest ever recorded by UNAMA since 2009 [when the UNAMA first began counting civilian fatalities]. The previous high of 3,701 fatalities was recorded in 2014. The fatalities in the civilian category remained under 3,000 for four out of the five years between 2009 and 2013. Civilian fatalities stood at 3,133 in 2011. There were a total of 3,565 civilian fatalities in 2015; 3,527 in 2016; and 3,440 in 2017.
Amidst a growing chorus for talks, Afghanistan is hurtling towards greater chaos. Civilians, particularly the minorities are facing, an increasing threat, and there appears to be little possibility of any respite in the unremitting tragedy of this war torn country.