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Afghan Gov’t Hastily Moves to Arm Shiite Civilians, Prompting Concerns

(KABUL, Afghanistan) — Though Afghanistan is an impoverished country, it is awash with weapons, the result of unceasing wars and civil strife that plagued the nation for decades. Now that the central Afghan government fails to fully protect its Shiite minority on the eve of the sacred day of mourning, it has decided to arm Shiite civilians.

Analysts and civil society activists in Afghanistan have expressed concerns over the government’s move to arm local Shia community to protect themselves against evidently surging Islamic State attacks.

As the minority religious group of Shiites braces for the annual procession in various cities to mark Ashura, the holiest day on its calendar, and gatherings at main mosques, growing threats from the militants are making lives even more difficult for the Afghan people. This year alone, eight terrorist attacks aimed at the Shia community have claimed multiple lives.

The attack on Imam-e-Zaman mosque in Kabul on August 25 killed up to 28 civilians – including seven women and children. It was after the attack when the Shia community members demanded that the government provide them with arms so that they can protect themselves from the imminent threat.

According to Gen. Afzal Aman, the commander of the Kabul security garrison, the Interior Ministry had distributed a total of about 500 weapons to civilians in the capital to help them protect mosques. There are some 10,000 Shiite mosques across the country and 400 in Kabul. The Shia elders reportedly demanded at least five armed guards for each mosque.

Masooma Rezaey, a resident of Kabul’s western Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood, told The Globe Post the newly armed young men have in fact added more tension to the already anxious atmosphere in the city.

“This is absolutely appalling! Now there is literally no distinction between an armed bandit, terrorist or someone who has been armed by the police for the safety of the mosques. How would we know who is legitimate and who is not, and would these people hand over the guns back to the government after the Ashura processions are over?” she asked.

There is, however, no question about the threat posed by the militants.

Unlike in neighboring Pakistan, India or parts of the Middle East, Sunnis and Shiites in Afghanistan had been living in relative harmony for years until the emergence of ISIS – Khorasan militants, who started going after the minority Shiite community. Last July, a twin-suicide attack claimed by ISIS killed more than 90 people. The incident was followed by a string of suicide and other deadly attacks mainly on mosques.

Human Rights Watch has called these latest attacks a war crime.

“An attack on a place of worship during prayers is a horrific crime meant to maximize civilian deaths,” Patricia Gossman, senior Afghanistan researcher at HRW, said.

Thomas Ruttig, co-director and co-founder of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, said that by approving the Shia community’s demand for arms, the government is simply reassuring people that it is “doing something,” and not achieving a real improvement in security.

Crowds of civilians are among the most vulnerable targets and the most difficult to protect, so the implemented measure may be the best that could be done. However, the warning signs are also there, derived from previous experiences of arming civilians and giving them little training and providing mediocre oversight.

The longer groups of armed civilians exist, the more opportunities for weapons’ misuse will arise, as different stages of militia programs have already shown, Mr. Ruttig noted in his analysis of the plan.

Gen. Atiqullah Amarkhail, the former chief of Afghanistan Air Force, has also not been impressed with the government’s move to promote “gun culture” in the already heavily armed Afghan society.

“This [arming of civilians] is absolutely against the law and is not going to yield positive results,” he said.

Mr. Amarkhail said the best way to ensure peace, law and order is to strengthen the regular and trained security forces rather than risking the chance of further crimes and misuse of arms.

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