By Syed Zafar Mehdi

Afghan Shia militia commander’s arrest raises many questions

November 29, 2018

TEHRAN_ While the 17 year old war perpetuated by the Western powers on the pretext of fighting terrorism has taken its heavy toll on life in Afghanistan, the issue of ‘warlordism’ and ‘illegal militias’ has also been an integral part of conflict-centric discourse in Afghanistan.

The recent history of the war-ravaged country bears testimony to the fact that warlords have existed in all forms and manifestations, across the ethnic lines, and some with overt or covert support of the government and law-enforcement agencies.

The grave issue of ‘illegal militias’ in Afghanistan is also a reality that cannot be dismissed. Some of these militias are actively supported by security and intelligence agencies for a host of reasons.

However, there is no clear definition of who is a 'warlord' and what constitutes 'illegal militias' and how they can be differentiated from groups operating under the ambit of Afghan constitution and international humanitarian norms. That's where the problem arises.

Some of these militia leaders claim to fight against the terrorist groups to protect their respective communities as Afghan security forces are not always able to defend the people. According to international human rights charters, any armed group working outside the purview of government and security institutions is illegal but in a conflict-ridden country like Afghanistan, the issue becomes extremely complex.

The latest case of Alipoor, a pro-Hazara and anti-Taliban militia commander from central Afghanistan, is not only curious but very complicated. While government agencies, including the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the country's top spy agency, categorically dubbed him a 'warlord' who has committed human rights abuses, some others defended him as a champion of human rights and a fierce fighter against the Taliban and other terrorist groups.

Alipoor was arrested earlier this week over allegations of human rights abuses, which triggered two days of violent protests across the country in which many demonstrators were killed and dozens of policemen wounded.

There had been few attempts to detain him in the past as well and finally he was arrested in the western province of Ghor earlier this week following a shoot-out that killed 12 people.

The legion of his supporters poured into the streets in the county's heartland and protested against the government’s decision to arrest him. They questioned the selective treatment of government towards militia groups, suggesting that this Hazara commander was singled out because of his ethnicity. There are many militia groups among other ethnic groups like Pashtuns and Tajiks.

According to some reports, protestors burnt down many police checkpoints. The protestors were particularly enraged after half of dozen of them were killed by security forces, which led to intense street clashes in which many security forces were also wounded.

Demonstrators and eyewitnesses said the police opened fire "indiscriminately" to disperse the crowd, which resulted in many civilian casualties, including six killings.

While the government officials claimed that no live ammunition was used against demonstrators, protestors like Ahmer told Tehran Times that live ammunition was used and guns are pointed directly at the demonstrators. “It was a direct assault on the people protesting peacefully and it has once again exposed the government,” he said.

After two days of protests that rocked the country, including the capital city of Kabul, Alipoor was released. But it again revived the debate pertaining to ‘warlords’ and ‘militia groups’ with considerable influence in Afghanistan.

Alipur's release, as President Ashraf Ghani flew to Geneva to attend a United Nations conference on Afghanistan, was announced by Vice President Sarwar Danish's office. Danish, who also belongs to Hazara community, was apparently under tremendous pressure to secure his release.

After his release, Alipoor was taken in a convoy to the office of VP Danish. According to some reports, he thanked the vice president and committed that he would be ready to respond to allegations leveled against him and will lay down his arms if found guilty.

What makes Alipoor's case so complicated is the fact that he is seen as an anti-Taliban commander from the Shia Hazara minority. He claims to be protecting his people from the Taliban and ISIS, as he has often said that government forces alone are not able to protect them.

According to reports, he was active in Jaghori and Malistan districts of Ghazni province recently when Taliban fighters launched coordinated attacks on predominantly Hazara Shia areas. The local people there in the absence of Afghan security forces were able to repel the attacks, with the help of Alipoor.

Known widely as 'Commander Sword', Alipoor has built a large army of his supporters who swing into action everywhere minority Hazara of the country come under attack.

Alipur formed the army among the Hazara people in Maidan Wardak province after a number of civilians were killed in militant attacks three years ago.

In conflict-ridden Afghanistan, Hazaras have often been targeted and feel extremely vulnerable. There has been growing resentment among many Hazaras against the government, which they believe does not support them from terrorist groups, leaving them with no choice but to defend themselves.

The country has a grim history of ethnic violence, especially when it comes to targeted killing of Hazara Shias. In the late 1900s, brutal Pashtun ruler Abdul Rahman Khan had ordered extermination of all Shias in central Afghanistan, which led to the gory massacre of thousands of Hazara Shias.

The recent attacks targeting the community have brought back chilling memories of 1990s when the Taliban would raid houses, identify and kill Hazara Shias, mostly in northern provinces.

NDS Chief Mohammad Masoom Stanikzai, addressing the Afghan parliament, defended the decision to arrest Alipoor, saying parliamentarians and people should check online videos which show Alipoor breaching the law.

The issue was discussed threadbare on social media with netizens lambasting the government decision to arrest the commander at a time when Hazara Shias are facing unprecedented attacks from the terrorist groups including Taliban and ISIS.

Ahmad Zubair, a government employee, said peaceful demonstration is people’s legitimate right and the government has to protect the peaceful protestors. “Afghanistan government arrested Alipoor who defends Hazarajat against Taliban. Hundreds of protests in Kabul and provinces seeking his release. Kabul police opened fire and killed 3 including a young girl,” he tweeted.

Arif Suleimani, a university student, said government must provide a clear definition of “enemy”. “Either #Taliban who kill civilians, blast & burn schools & villages are terrorists or #AliPoor who fights against #Taliban and defends people is a terrorist. Being terrorist is based on ethnicity or violence and crimes,” he tweeted.

Mahdi Mesbah, a Twitter user, said Alipoor is the “servant of the honor and dignity of this country.” Baqir Haidery, a social media activist, said by arresting anti-Taliban commanders like Alipoor, government was paving a safe passage for Taliban to continue their long and dirty war in the country.

Alipoor’s arrest and release has not only revived the debate over warlords and militia groups but it has once again demonstrated how the government in Kabul looks at different ethnicities.

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