‘People Will Defend Themselves to Their Last Drop of Blood’: Is the U.S. Leaving Afghanistan on the Brink of Civil War?

July 20, 2021

As President Joe Biden withdraws U.S. troops nearly 20 years after the U.S.-led invasion, Afghanistan faces instability on a number of fronts: The Taliban is resurgent; fears of civil war are rising; and a new threat is emerging — Iran’s growing influence.

Those are some of the key takeaways from Leaving Afghanistan, a special FRONTLINE report premiering Tuesday, July 20 from acclaimed Afghan journalist Najibullah Quraishi, who has covered the war between the Taliban and the American-led coalition since the beginning.

“I grew up in the war,” Quraishi says in the film. “I have seen everything with my own eyes, but this time is more and more dangerous than the past.”

Quraishi uncovers claims that an Iranian-backed Afghan militia, the Fatemiyoun Brigade — drawn from Shia Afghan refugees in Iran, and also from members of the Hazara Shia minority living in Afghanistan — that has fought in Syria is now operating on the ground inside Afghanistan. Some say the Fatemiyoun is even present within the country’s government and military. Iran’s foreign minister said Iran had supported Afghan fighters in Syria but that they are not active in Afghanistan now.

Quraishi gains access to a militant wing of the Taliban that’s fighting what it says are Fatemiyoun members sent from Tehran. The leader of that Taliban branch vowed to kill thousands of Hazara people as a “lesson” to future generations.

And Quraishi examines how, as a Shia minority within Afghanistan, the Hazaras have long been the target of persecution and attacks by the Sunni Taliban — a drumbeat that’s intensifying in light of both the U.S. withdrawal, and the association of some Hazaras with the Fatemiyoun and Iran, a Shia power.

In the above excerpt, at a Hazara cemetery, Quraishi meets Nooria, a woman whose husband was killed by the Taliban, leaving five children behind.

“We have lost the head of the family,” she says. “God has brought such a day on these children.”

Quraishi meets another woman, Hamida, who says the Taliban has been launching deadly attacks on her community. Her grandson was killed in the fighting.

“We are poor and have nowhere to go,” Hamida says. “The Taliban are after us, and the government does not support us.”

In response, Quraishi reports that some of the Hazaras — like other ethnic groups — are forming militias, hoping to protect their communities from the advancing Taliban. One senior commander, Abdul Ghani Alipur, claims to have thousands of fighters at his command.

The Hazaras’ mobilization has also brought them into conflict with the Afghan army. Earlier this year, as Hazaras demonstrated in the town of Beshud, government troops opened fire on the crowd, killing 11 people.

Quraishi spoke with a mourner at a funeral for Hazaras killed in Beshud.

“People will defend themselves. Too much has happened,” the man says. “People will defend themselves to their last drop of blood.”

Seven weeks after the attack on Hazara demonstrators in Beshud, the film recounts, video captured an Afghan military helicopter being shot down by what was later identified as an Iranian-made guided missile. After announcing that his forces had taken revenge, Alipur later denied his Hazara militia was involved, but an Afghan parliamentary commission confirmed his responsibility. The government has vowed to punish those responsible for the attack, which left nine people dead.

With civil war seemingly coming closer every day, Quraishi finds, the only constant is the suffering of the Afghan people.

“Afghanistan is on the brink of a very dangerous civil war,” Muhammad Mohaqiq, the spiritual leader of the Hazaras and a member of the Afghan parliament, tells Quraishi in the film. “I am in favor of a responsible NATO withdrawal, but leaving a situation where everyone is fighting each other, that’s not right. They should only leave when peace and security in Afghanistan are assured.”

For the full story, watch Leaving Afghanistan, part one of an hour-long FRONTLINE broadcast on Tuesday, July 20 that concludes with India’s Rape Scandal. With Quraishi as correspondent, Leaving Afghanistan is directed by Jamie Doran. Both Leaving Afghanistan and India’s Rape Scandal will be available to watch in full at pbs.org/frontline and in the PBS Video App starting Tuesday, July 20 at 7/6c. The hour will premiere on PBS stations (check local listings) and on YouTube at 10/9c.

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



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