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Afghanistan Maoists on the clashes between Sunnis and Shiites in Herat

1 May 2006. A World to Win News Service.

There have been many indications that the US occupation forces have worked to encourage the sectarian fighting between Shias and Sunnis in Iraq. They have organized a puppet government along religious ad ethnic lines.  Most basically, the occupiers have revived and allied themselves with feudal warlords, tribal sheiks and religious authorities, each fighting for supremacy. The following article analyses how the American-led occupation of Afghanistan is having similarly disastrous effects on that country. It is edited and excerpted from the March 2006 issue (no. 11) of Sholeh, newspaper of the Communist (Maoist) Party of Afghanistan.

The Shia religious holiday Ashura (9 February) this year saw a kind of religious warfare Afghanistan has never known before. It is estimated that in the three days of bloody clashes between Shiites and Sunnis in the northwest province of Herat, more than 50 people were killed, mostly Sunnis, and more than 300 injured, some by security forces.

How the clashes started

A Shia religious procession marched towards the city centre and the city’s biggest mosque, the Jamme, where they were to hear a speech by the new governor of Herat, Seyed Hussein Anvari, a Shiite. As they approached, people already in the mosque heard a rumour that Hazaras (a minority nationality in Afghanistan who are mainly Shiite) had torn up Sunni banners. Seyed Hussein Husseini, at that time provincial chief of labour and social affairs, stood up and said, “two Sunnis have been killed and their holy beliefs insulted, and I will kill those responsible with my own hands.” This statement goaded the Sunni audience in the mosque to attack the arriving Shiites and expel them from the mosque.

This set off the clashes. The intervention of the security forces made the situation worse and prolonged the violence. They provoked the Sunnis, while failing to prevent armed Hazaras from entering the city. The Karzai central government in Kabul sent a delegation headed by the warlord and former Herat governor Ismail Khan to calm the situation, but he could not. For three days all the shops were closed and complete chaos swept through the city. Sunnis patrolled the streets in groups of 5 to 50. When they came across a Hazara, they beat him with sticks and stones so fiercely that it was hard to imagine he would escape alive. In particular they targeted youth wearing black  (a Shia symbol).

The Army was stationed all over the city. The security forces took over all major chokepoints, supposedly to protect the city. All the gates to the city were closed. Martial law was enforced for the next three days. Despite these “security measures” a protest against the governor of Herat was launched. The authorities used 400 of the Special Guard Forces who had arrived to protect governmental buildings in general and had them focus exclusively on protecting the town hall, where the governor’s office is located, against protestors demanding his resignation. These forces were equipped with shields and body armour. Three American tanks and several US soldiers were also stationed in front of the town hall. Protestors also attacked the Iranian embassy, but they were dispersed when security forces fired over their heads. On Saturday there were protests in other parts of the city, such as Bakrabad, Ghor Darwaza, and demonstrators attacked the police with stones, bottles and wooden sticks. When the clashes intensified, an Army commander was killed and some police critically injured. Crowds attacked Shiite mosques, the market, stores, cars, motorcycles and rickshaws belonging to Hazaras.

Immediate backgrounds and causes

The roots of this incident go back to seven month ago, when Anvari was appointed governor of Herat. Anvari started to distribute birth certificates to fellow Shias who were really born in other regions. This enraged some Sunni officials in Herat and in Kabul too. Eventually Karzai came to Herat to put a stop to it.

Anvari also started to sell government lands, including the lands around the border with Iran and the Siavashan district, to Shiite Hazaras. This also enraged people such as the local warlord of Sivashan, Gholam Yahaya, who was also the head of Defence and Protection of Herat and practically controls the districts. He prevented further land sales and even expelled those Hazaras who had already bought land. He was later sacked as the head of Herat Defence in a dispute with Kabul, apparently accused of not handing in all his arms. This encouraged Anvari to arm some of the Hazaras in Herat.

It is clear that Anvari encouraged the Shia religious procession to march towards the Jamme mosque. It is also clear that the rumour about Shia insulting a Sunni sacred figure was untrue. There is no precedent or even social basis for this kind of thing to take place on a mass scale in Herat. Many people believe that Iranian regime, governor Anvari and the head of Hezbolah (a political and religious group connected to the Islamic republic of Iran) were behind one side, and former governor Ismail Khan and two influential Sunni mullahs were involved on the other side. Labour and Social Affairs minister Seyed Hussein Husseini played a direct role, as did the head of the university and a student group linked to the Islamic Party of Golbedin Hekmatyar, the notorious Pashtun warlord, now a Taleban ally, and the Jamiate Islami, the organization of the warlord Burhanedin Rabbani and the late Ahmad Shah Massoud.

Anvari and Ismail Khan indirectly accused each other of involvement in the incidents. Anvari openly said that the clashes were politically motivated. The role of the army and police was also noteworthy: the army mainly supported the Shiites, and the police force supported the Sunnis.

Some background on the development of Shia-Sunni relations in Herat

When the Shia of Herat first tried to march into the city on this religious holiday in the early 1990s, after the fall of the Islamic state established by the Jihadi warlords who had fought the Soviet occupation, governor Ismail Khan stopped them. This yea,r after Anvari became governor, the Shiites were encouraged to march to the city’s big mosques.

The mainly Shia Hazara nationality make up 15 percent of Afghanistan’s population nationally. They were one of the minorities that suffered most during the civil war among the Jihadi forces, especially in Kabul, where they were isolated. After that civil war ended, many of them wanted to escape the capital. A plan was proposed for them to settle in Afghanistan’s border regions, specifically the provinces of Herat and Balkh. The Islamic Republic of Iran supported the plan, but the powerful warlords General Rashid Doustum and Ismail Khan stopped it. When Anvari became governor, he restarted construction for Hazara settlements. Again, some Sunni warlords put up resistance. It is widely believed that the Iranian regime is supporting these projects financially and has paid enormous amounts to buy these lands, sometimes many times more than the normal price.

Political and economical considerations

Religious motives were only the apparent cause of these clashes. There are also political motives arising on the local, regional and international levels.

Herat borders Iran and Turkmenistan. This has made its capital city one of Afghanistan’s most important trading and commercial centres. The warlords who are in fact among the biggest feudal landowners and comprador bourgeoisie (imperialist-dependent capitalists) covet influence there and compete with each other for that influence. That is why Hazara markets and shops in particular were destroyed.

An even more important object of contention involves two projected oil pipelines, one by Iran to cross Pakistan into India, and the other from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to India. The US doesn’t want the Iranian pipeline built and has warned Pakistan about that. The Karzai government is going all-out to support the US’s choice, the Turkmenistan pipeline. If the Iranian pipeline gets built, this would be not only a political and economic blow to Karzai’s regime, but also a defeat for the US. This means that instability in Herat, where the Turkmenistan pipeline would pass, benefits the Iranian regime.  For the same reason, Karzai and his international allies seek to weaken the Iranian regime’s influence in Herat, whose Shia warlord governor has close connections with Iran. The imperialist pressure on the Iranian Islamic Republic affects the respective Afghan allies of the various international forces too, although the sectarian warfare they have encouraged represents both a problem and an advantage for them.

But the most important point is to assess this incident in the context of the US imperialist invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Contrary to imperialist claims, these invasions have not brought democracy and rights for the people of Afghanistan. Instead they have strengthened the reactionary forces and in particular reactionary political religious forces on both sides, both those who support the occupation and those who oppose it. This situation has provoked sectarian strife and drawn many masses into these reactionary wars. The history of numerous countries is full of examples of this kind. Imperialist powers have often directly planned and carried out provocations to religious warfare.

Coincidence alone is unlikely to explain why there were Ashura incidents this year between Shiites and Sunnis in Pakistan, Afghanistan and especially Iraq. At least a thousand people were killed and injured in these three countries. The unfortunate thing is that we have not seen the last of such incidents; they will continue as long as the imperialists intervene in other countries and dominate world affairs. The highest ranks of the US-installed Kabul government and forces – which are tools of the big powers and regional powers – were all directly involved in the tragic events in Herat.

Many people remark that in all of Afghanistan’s history there has never been the kind of large-scale religious clashes seen this year. It can be said that these three days of bloody incidents were a “gift” of the US invaders and other imperialists and their puppet regime, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.