Despatch from Kabul | International

Amid escalating U.S.-Iran tensions, Afghans fear getting ensnared

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.   | Photo Credit: Matt Dunham

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Kabul maintains close ties with both; Qods Force used Afghan fighters in its anti-IS battle

 The assassination of Qassem Soleimani has had reverberations across the border in Afghanistan, a country that holds close ties to Iran.

The Afghan government and its political leaders have been careful when it comes to condemning the assassination, as they wanted to avoid any sending any negative signal to the U.S.. “Today, during talks with the U.S. Secretary of State, I once again emphasised that Afghan soil must not be used against a third country or in regional conflicts,” President Ashraf Ghani tweeted after his conversation with Mike Pompeo.

Reiterating the stand, Javid Faisal, a spokesperson for Afghan National Security Council, told this writer that the government remained concerned about recent developments.

“We hope the two countries will find a smooth way forward through dialogue,” he said. Despite rivalries, both the U.S. and Iran remain close allies of Afghanistan, raising fears that the war-torn nation could get caught in the escalating conflict. However, Mr. Faisal assured that the government was committed to not allow the use of Afghanistan against other countries.

“We assure our neighbours that the Afghan soil would not be used against other countries and expressed the hope that Iran would continue to play a positive role in Afghanistan,” he said.

A haven for fleeing Hazara Shias

Millions of Afghans sought refugee in Iran at the height of the Afghan war, and the U.S.’s arch-rival also remains one of the largest hosts to displaced Afghans, the majority of whom are from the Hazara Shia minority. This dynamic is further complicated by the fact that many Afghan refugees have been recruited into the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Qods Force to fight as foot soldiers in Syria. Over 20,000 Afghans were drafted into the Fatemiyoun division of the Qods Force and deployed in Syria.

Meanwhile, the Taliban’s leadership has also condemned the killing of Soleimani by “barbaric American forces,” according to a report. It has also warned of consequences, a surprising development considering that Solemani had reportedly supported Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance in its fight against the Taliban.

Soleimani, who commanded the Qods Force, was responsible for strategising the recruitment using a combination of financial incentives, coercion and ideological motivators. “In the last five years that I have followed the issue, I have seen Soleimani meet with commanders and fighters on the front-line. He met families of fallen Fatemiyoun...,” remarked a senior Afghan analyst. On the other hand, Soleimani’s replacement, Esmail Qa’ani, hasn’t really had much of a public profile, he said. “I don’t ever remember Qa’ani in any of those photos. Also, I haven’t seen him mentioned in any of the Fatemiyoun propaganda reports, which are replete with mentions of Soleimani,” he pointed out.

According to the analyst, Qa’ani is a more cautious operator, and prefers to stay in the shadows. “You can tell this is true by looking at his history in Afghanistan: He has visited the country and met with Governors, but few people noticed it,” he said.

However, despite the discreet nature of Qa’ani’s personality, his appointment raised concerns among Afghans. Photos have surfaced on social media showing Qa’ani in the central province of Bamiyan, and another of him inspecting maps of the Salma Dam. However, the Afghan analyst dismissed these concerns. Salma Dam,  located in western province of Herat that shares a border with Iran, was rebuilt by the Indian government in 2017. The dam reduced Afghanistan’s power dependency on neighbouring countries and also irrigates 75,000 hectares of land. However, the project in effect cut down the downstream flow of Harirud river into Iran, causing discontentment and concern.

No change in direction

The analyst also pointed out that Iran had decided much earlier that Qa’ani would succeed Soleimani. “Qa’ani was second in command and came up automatically. That’s how Fatemiyoun works; there’s no new headhunting for a leader...,” he explained, adding that real clues were more in the statements coming from Iran.

In a decree issued on Friday, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said, “The orders for the (Qods) Force remain exactly as they were during the leadership of martyr Soleimani. I call on the members of the force to be present and cooperate with General Qa’ani.” This indicated that the Qods Force, as under Soleimani, will continue to operate in the same capacity, including with the involvement of the foreign militia.

(Ruchi Kumar is a journalist based in Kabul)

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2020 1:03:10 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/amid-escalating-us-iran-tensions-afghans-fear-getting-ensnared/article30545119.ece

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