Iran's sectarian proxy war in Afghanistan after US withdrawal
Amid the US pullout from Afghanistan and the Taliban's rapid territorial gains, Iran has formed a new Shia militia Hashd Al-Shi'i (Shiite Mobilisation) in the country by rebranding the Fatemiyoun Unit. The Jomhouri Eslami, Iran's conservative daily, reported on July 19 that Hashd Al-Shi'i is like Hashd Al-Shabi (the Popular Mobilisations) which the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) deployed in Iraq and Syria. The move is part of Iran's "forward defence policy" to strategise its Afghan policy after the US pullout by August 31.Welcoming the US withdrawal from Afghanistan as a "positive move," Iran is exploiting Afghanistan's security vacuum by increasing its footprint in the country.
Iran established the Fatemiyoun Unit in the 1980s, comprising Afghanistan's Hazara Shias, during the Iran-Iraq war. The IRGC redeployed the Fatemiyoun Unit during the Syrian civil war. Now it is being (re)introduced in Afghanistan to protect and by extension, control Afghanistan's Shia population and use it as leverage in the country's future political order. Afghanistan's Shia community is nearly 15 percent of the total population and most of it resides in central Afghanistan, with some pockets living in the north, west and southwest.
Tehran exploited the poor socio-economic conditions of the Afghan Hazara Shia workers in Iran by threatening and blackmailing them with deportation, withdrawal of the residency permits and detentions for illegally working in the country to fight its proxy war in Syria. Several accounts of the Fatemiyoun militants who returned from Syria indicate that IRGC used the Afghan Shias as an expendable force.
Iran does not trust the Taliban, notwithstanding its tactical cooperation with the militant group to oust the US from Afghanistan. In January 2021, the head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, met with a Taliban delegation led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Tehran. Though Shamkhani praised the Taliban's steadfastness in battling the US, he warned that Iran would not recognise any government in Afghanistan formed through a military takeover. The Iranian Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif, present in the same meeting, echoed a similar sentiment.
Following Daesh's defeat and the Al-Assad regime's triumph over the Sunni opposition, the Fatemiyoun Unit was demobilised and withdrawn from Syria. However, it was not disbanded. Since the Fatemiyoun Unit's mandate was Syria-centric, therefore it has been renamed as Hashd Al-Shi'i. It is led by Saeed Hassan al-Heydari, who is based in Afghanistan’s Baghlan province. Following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, a large number of the Fatemiyoun militants have been returning to Afghanistan from Iran. Some estimates suggest that around 3,000 Afghan Shia militants have made their way to Afghanistan from Iran.
Hashd Al-Shi'i will prove to be a liability for Iran if the Taliban take over Afghanistan. On the contrary, it will be an asset providing Tehran with tremendous leverage if the Taliban and Kabul reach a political compromise.
Abdul Basit Khan
Given their troubled past, the Taliban's complete takeover of Afghanistan makes Tehran nervous. In 1998, the Taliban and Tehran almost went to war after killing eight QF guards at the Iranian consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif. Iran's deep-seated historical apprehensions towards the Taliban were revived in July when the group took control of two Shia towns in the Bamiyan province.
Amid the US pullout from Afghanistan, Iran has deployed IRGC and the national armed forces (Artesh) along the 945-kilometre-long border with Afghanistan coupled with moving battle tanks, armoured personnel carriers, and surveillance systems on forward security posts. Iran is trying to create a buffer zone in Farah, Nimrouz and Herat provinces between Taliban-controlled areas in Afghanistan and its border through sectarian proxies. Currently, the battle is raging between the Taliban and Afghan forces and the anti-Taliban militias led by commander Ismail Khan for the control of Herat, keeping Tehran at tenterhooks.
Iranian meddling in post-US Afghanistan through proxies will have far-reaching implications on Afghanistan's evolving security situation. It will adversely impact Tehran's ties both with Kabul and the Taliban. At the same time, this development will compel Iran's Middle Eastern competitors to throw their weight behind the anti-Iran groups in Afghanistan. Notwithstanding its battle-hardened fighters who defeated Deash and defended the al-Assad regime in Syria, Hashd Ali-Shi'i pales into insignificance compared to the Taliban. Hashd Al-Shi'i will prove to be a liability for Iran if the Taliban take over Afghanistan. On the contrary, it will be an asset providing Tehran with tremendous leverage if the Taliban and Kabul reach a political compromise.
Furthermore, the creation of Hashid Al-Shi'i will add a sectarian dimension to Afghanistan's pre-existing political, ideological, ethnic and tribal fault lines. It will tremendously benefit the South Asian chapter of Daesh, which maintains a limited but dangerous footprint in Afghanistan. Parallel to the Taliban-Kabul fight, Daesh has been trying to stir Afghanistan's sectarian dispute by deliberately targeting the Shia community. Iran's sectarian response is a boon for Daesh as it will strengthen its sectarian recruitment narrative.
If the escalatory deadlock between Kabul and the Taliban prolongs amid the stalled peace process and the Sunni-Shia sectarian fault line takes roots, Afghanistan could go down the Syria path. The protracted impasse between the al-Assad regime and the Sunni opposition allowed spoilers like Daesh, Al-Qaeda-supported militant factions and Iran-backed Shia militias to emerge as potent conflict actors in Syria. The Taliban-Kabul deadlock will allow spoilers like Hashd Al-Shi'i and ISKP to entrench themselves on the margins of the main conflict.
The purported Iranian efforts of Syrification or Iraqification of the Afghan conflict are concerning. The Taliban will stay neutral if Tehran does not meddle in Afghanistan. On the contrary, Iran's efforts to bring its Middle Eastern rivalries into Afghanistan will reverberate closer to the Iranian homeland. Keeping in view the US ouster from Afghanistan, the Taliban reprisals can hurt Iran grievously.
- The author is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. Twitter @basitresearcher.