In June this year, Esmail Qaani, commander of Quds Force, the wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), visited Albu, Syrian border town to rally a group of Shi’ite fighters. Most significant part of Qaani’s trip is his meeting with the members of Fatemiyoun Division, an Iran-backed proxy force whose foot soldiers are Afghans from the Shiite Hazara community. Since the withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan, Iran has become ambitious of establishing its absolute control in the country and bring it under the flag of Shi’ite caliphate. It may be mentioned here that, while fighters of the Fatemiyoun Division remain active in Syria, so far they have been sidelined in Afghanistan. But analysts say, that could change. The Fatemiyoun constitute a small but potent force with longstanding and extensive ties to Iran and could prove useful to Iranian officials as they craft their Afghan policy, especially if the Taliban continue to press their military advantage.
According to media, reports, on July 7, Iran’s political leaders hosted talks between Taliban and Afghan government representatives in Tehran. While Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif used the meeting to celebrate the US departure from Afghanistan, he also warned that continuing clashes between Taliban fighters and the Afghan government would be costly. With the American military exit from Afghanistan due to be completed by Aug. 31, Iranian policymakers are strategizing about their future approach toward Afghanistan. They face a difficult set of decisions, including how they will balance their country’s strong ties to Afghanistan’s minority Hazara community against Iran’s diplomatic dance with the Taliban and the Afghan government.
The Fatemiyoun pale in comparison to the Taliban both in numbers and capacity. But they could prove either to be a lever of influence for Iran, if the Taliban and Afghan government do ultimately cut a deal, or a political liability, if an all-out civil war ensues in Afghanistan and the Taliban continue to target the country’s Shiite Hazara community.
Meanwhile, China, which also is showing willingness of establishing cordial relations with Taliban has pledged to support Afghanistan’s reconstruction under Taliban rule, only if Taliban will cut-off its relations with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a radical Islamic militancy group blamed by Beijing for attacks in its Xinjiang region and providing support to Uyghur jihadist groups.
During a recent China visit of Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said: “The Taliban in Afghanistan is a pivotal military and political force in the country, and will play an important role in the process of peace, reconciliation and reconstruction there”.
Commenting on ETIM issue, Wang Yi said, China would support Afghanistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, but he also demanded the Taliban cut off any connection with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).
In my opinion, this particular pre-condition of China will not be either accepted or honored by the Taliban. Instead, once Taliban succeed in establishing its full control over Afghanistan it will provide extended support and patronization to East Turkestan Islamic Movement and even may start giving training to terrorists from China’s Xinjiang province.
Commenting on Iran’s possible relations with Taliban or possibility of Tehran’s success in establishing its dominance in Afghanistan, experts of the issue said, there is significant risk of blowback for Iran if Afghanistan’s conflict takes on an even more sectarian cast with Afghan Hazara Shiites pitted against the predominantly Pashtun Sunni Taliban. If the history of the Afghan conflicts is any guide, such a scenario could draw in Iran’s regional rivals, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, who would be likely to support the Taliban, as they have in the past. Plus, the United States has already demonstrated, with recent retaliatory airstrikes against Iran-backed proxies in Syria and Iraq, that it is prepared to use any means necessary to check threats to American interests in the region. Going forward, Iranian officials will likely feel a need to tread carefully with both the Fatemiyoun and the Taliban.
Furthermore, we have to remember, the links between Iran’s revolutionary guard and Afghan and Pakistani Hazaras have their roots in the Iran-Iraq War.
During the 1980s, Iran’s effort to stand up an Afghan paramilitary force underwent several phases, name changes, and reorganizations. As well as training Shiite fighters in Iran, the guard also dispatched several of its officers to serve as cultural and military advisers in Afghanistan, where they embedded with cells in the resistance movement that was fighting the Soviet Union’s occupation of that country. Ever since Soviet retreat from Afghanistan, Iran provided support to Afghan Shiite groups and the Northern Alliance in their fight against the Taliban. Qassem Soleimani was among the revolutionary guard personnel involved in that effort. From these longstanding links to Afghanistan’s Shiite Hazara community, in 2012 Iran established the Fatemiyoun Division as part of its wide-ranging effort to support Syria’s Assad regime in its fight against an armed rebellion. Under the supervision and direction of Soleimani, the revolutionary guard recruited today’s Afghan Hazara foreign fighters for that purpose. It also established the Fatemiyoun’s Pakistani sister unit, the Zeynabiyoun Brigade.
Fatemiyoun have been a significant propaganda asset for the revolutionary guard, which works to persuade constituents in the Shiite community across the region to support the Iranian government and its policies. Iran-financed propaganda about the Fatemiyoun employs strategic narratives related to differences in Sunni and Shiite interpretations of Islamic law and just governance, and it stokes fears among the Hazara about the potency of the predominantly Sunni Taliban and Islamic State forces in Afghanistan and Syria.
Qassem Soleimani was the key architect and star of Iran’s propaganda strategy. He made a habit of snapping frontline selfies with the Fatemiyoun and recounting their heroics. The Fatemiyoun achieved a substantial social media following on YouTube and Twitter until both platforms took down their accounts. Even so, the Fatemiyoun remain active on other social media as a result of Iran’s investment. They have thousands of followers on encrypted social media platforms such as Telegram and its Iranian government-controlled counterpart, Soroush, which they use to showcase their battlefield exploits in Syria. Fighters shared videos of combat on social media, which proved to be an effective recruiting tool — among those who joined the cause were a significant number of American-trained former soldiers in the Afghan National Army and elite Afghan special operations forces.
In my opinion, while Taliban as its Sunni affiliates will try to transform Afghanistan into a Sunni Caliphate, Iran will also make similar efforts in empowering the Shiite community and terrorist outfits with the agenda of succeeding in bringing Afghanistan under Shiite dominance. Meaning, during the coming years, Afghanistan will witness series of conflicts between Sunni and Shiite blocs.
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