New Afghan Militia Sets Its Sights on ISIL

‘Marg’ vigilante group vows to safeguard northern Afghanistan from armed factions amid reports of ISIL infiltration.

By Shereena Qazi for Al Jazeera English

Every day they hear the thunderous sound of motorcycles approaching their houses.

Minutes later, residents of Balkh province see a group of about 25 armed men – their faces covered with black scarves, the Afghanistan national flag wrapped around their bodies – performing security checks.

This is not an unusual sight for people living in a country that has seen decades of war and conflict, except this particular gang is not looking for trouble – quite the opposite in fact.

This is the Marg – a new homegrown paramilitary organisation in Afghanistan that has vowed to fight off various armed groups – including the latest threat by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – that have little concern for the civilian population.

Marg, meaning “death” in the Afghan Dari language, plans to fill the gap left by the United States when it pulled the bulk of its troops out of Afghanistan last year.

Enough is enough

“We have witnessed enough of war, beheadings, killings, suicide attacks, and suppression of women for many years,” said Haji Mohammed Mahdiyar, the leader of Marg in Balkh province on Afghanistan’s northern border with Uzbekistan.

“Until when are we going to remain silent? It is now the time to stand up for our country.”

The Afghan National Army retains control of Kabul and other large cities in the country but has had little success quelling attacks or quashing the Taliban in the countryside.

Now, further destabilising the situation ISIL is also sending fighters into the country, Afghan and American officials say. In southern Afghanistan, dozens of Shia Hazara Muslims were abducted on Tuesday with police pointing the finger at ISIL members.

Marg fighters portray themselves as part of a grassroots movement among ordinary people who oppose religious hardliners and thugs.

“If we find out about a sympathiser of the Taliban and ISIL, or someone who wants to join them, we will kill that person without any doubt,” Mahdiyar said.

Formed a year ago, the group claims to have more than 5,000 members from five northern provinces in Afghanistan. Their uniforms are black, red and green – the colours of the Afghan national flag.

“We don’t have funds to buy weapons, but once we do we will not spare anyone who tries to wrongfully kill people in the name of Islam,” said Yad Ullah Khan, a Marg member. “To reach our people they will have to first fight us.”

Currently, about 300 commanders who were a part of the Northern Alliance militia in Afghanistan are using personal arms and ammunition to train Marg members.

Most were part of the mujahideen who fought against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, but don’t subscribe to the Taliban’s harsh religious orthodoxy.

“I fought in the Soviet War in Afghanistan in the past. I have been a mujahid and a part of the guerrilla war,” Mahdiyar said.

“If I have to repeat history to fight against ISIL and the Taliban, I will not hesitate to use the same tactics we used in the Soviet War. We’ve all come together to fight against those people who are destroying our country.”

Challenging established players

But some Afghan leaders are concerned Marg could undermine the central government’s efforts at asserting its authority over the country.

“Homegrown groups like this can lead to instability in the country,” said a member of the Balkh provincial council who spoke on condition of anonymity over concern for his safety.

“They don’t have any operational funds for weapons, or a plan to execute the fight against the Taliban or ISIL. Every Afghan should have faith in the Afghan National Army.”

Sami Yousufzai, a journalist and Taliban analyst, expressed similar concern.

“Every single day a member of the Afghan National Army is killed fighting the Taliban,” said Yousufzai.

“Is this group trying to question the efforts of the Afghan National Army? Do they not trust them? This group will come with a lot of side effects for the country. Everyone will start to question the law and order and no one can guarantee the security of people living in Afghanistan if such groups emerge.”

ISIL arrives

But the Marg’s emergence comes as many Afghans are also concerned about the government’s reaction to the arrival of ISIL in the country.

ISIL spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani released a statement in May 2014 declaring the group’s expansion into Khorasan, a region spanning Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkmenistan.

“We call upon all the mujahideen in Khorasan to join the caravan of the caliph and abandon disunity and factionalism. So come to your state, oh mujahideen,” said Adnani.

Many Afghan officials have rejected assertions that ISIL is in the country, but Interior Ministry spokesman Seddiq Sediqqi admitted ISIL recruitment efforts were under way in Afghanistan.

“Many people are being recruited to join ISIL,” Sediqqi told Al Jazeera. “ISIL and their sympathisers are active in the northern areas of Afghanistan. Our intelligence reports confirm it.”

The Marg militia in northern Afghanistan has formed to fight armed groups such as the Taliban – and now ISIL [Kobra Akbari]

Mahdiyar said Marg was formed in direct response to ISIL. “Our sources have informed us of their presence, which is why we are active now and will fight until we die,” he said. “They have started their operation in southern and northern Afghanistan.”

A Taliban commander who calls himself Qari Sahib who is based in Faryab, a province in northern Afghanistan, would not acknowledge the Marg by name.

“We have heard a lot of groups emerging like this to fight against us, but we are fighting to bring back Islamic law in the country and nothing can stop us,” he said. He denied his cohorts were working with ISIL.

“I admit the fact that there are some activities under way linked to ISIL, mostly in Helmand province, but I do not want to associate with them,” he said.

Marg fighters don’t believe Qari Sahib, however.

“The Taliban have joined ISIL,” said Bakhtiyare Khan, a 23-year-old Marg fighter. “But we will not surrender.”

Meanwhile, Marg members said they have no intention of establishing prisons, because for them, any person who sympathises with the Taliban and ISIL will be put to death.

The article was originally published in Al Jazeera. View here: New Afghan militia sets its sights on ISIL

Afghanistan’s Addiction to Opium Ravages Adults, Infants

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By Shereena Qazi, Special for USA Today

MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan — Men, women and children sit listlessly on the unkempt lawn of a hospital for drug addicts in this northern Afghan city. Inside, the waiting area is packed with women clad in light blue burqas, each with three or four kids in tow. Ana Gul, 35, an opium user for eight years, says she came here after failing to kick her habit because opium cures her head and body aches. “No other medicine works effectively on me now,” she said. Her 3-year-old daughter is also addicted because Gul smoked opium while pregnant. Gul and her daughter are among an alarming and rapidly growing number of opium addicts in a country that is the world’s main supplier of heroin. And the problem is only getting worse as American combat troops withdraw amid evidence that U.S. counter-narcotics programs here have failed despite $7 billion in taxpayer funds spent to tackle the source of the problem: poppy fields. The U.S. government has paid the poppy farmers to switch to legitimate crops, such as wheat, yet poppy cultivation has proven too lucrative to slow. In a report last year, the Pentagon said Taliban and other insurgent groups are expanding their use of illicit drug trade to fund their operations because the U.S. withdrawal has hurt Afghan government counter-narcotic activities, which had relied on U.S. air support and other assistance. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates the export value of opium trade at about $4 billion, “with a quarter of that being earned by opium farmers and the rest going to district officials, insurgents, warlords and drug traffickers.” In 2014, opium cultivation rose to record levels: more than 553,000 acres, up 7% from the year before, according to the UNODC’s recently released Afghanistan Opium Survey 2014. That is turned into some 380 tons of heroin and morphine annually, 85% of the global supply, according to U.N. figures. The domestic toll is heavy. The number of Afghans addicted to opium and other drugs has soared 60% since 2009 to as many as 1.6 million, or 5% of the population, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction reports. Most Afghans view opium as a medicine that treats everything from a headache to cancer. Often, it’s the only palliative available in the rugged country’s remote regions. “If pharmacists sell an expired Panadol (a painkiller) to a lady in exchange for money, it will not work for her,” said Lutf Rah Man Lutfy, who oversees the U.N.’s drug programs in northern Afghanistan. “After getting tired of an ineffective medicine, she will opt for opium, which is very common and known to give temporary relief to pains.” A pale-skinned, underweight woman at the hospital named Aisha Jan from the Jowzjan province in the north said she and her family fell into the trap of using opium to treat cancer. “My daughter had cancer, and we thought opium would cure her cancer,” she said as her body shook from an opium craving that began before her daughter’s illness. “She died a month after she was diagnosed.” Jan said she has been trying to remain in the hospital for as long as possible so she won’t relapse into drug use. “If I go back home, I will be addicted to opium once again,” she said.

Death toll reaches 141 in massacre at Pakistan school

By Shereena Qazi, Naila Inayat and John Bacon, Special for USA TODAY

Dec 17th 2014

LAHORE, Pakistan – Taliban gunman stormed a military-run school in Peshawar on Tuesday and massacred 141 people, nearly all children, an act of barbarism that left Pakistanis in shock as they mourned the loss of relatives and friends.

“In every street of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa, someone has lost a dear one today,” said Qazi Murtaza, 24, of Peshawar, whose cousin and aunt were killed in the attack. “My aunty lost her son – his funeral is tonight – and then I have to go to my uncle’s house. He lost his wife.”

The attack on the Army Public School in the northwestern city near the Afghan border was one of the worst incidents of extremist violence in Pakistan since a 2007 suicide bombing in the port city of Karachi killed 150 people. Peshawar has been the target of frequent militant attacks — in September 2013 a twin suicide bomb blast in a church killed at least 85 people.

Asim Bajwa, spokesman for the Pakistani military, said 132 of those killed Tuesday were children and the other nine were staff members. An additional 121 students and three staffers were wounded at the school, which includes more than 1,000 students and staff.

Bajwa said seven gunman stormed the school wearing explosive vests. They did not take hostages but instead fired indiscriminately as they entered the school.

“Their sole purpose, it seems, was to kill those innocent kids. That’s what they did,” Bajwa said.

Some students said the attackers detonated a bomb when all students were gathered for an exam. The surviving students described a horrifying scene.

“They were wearing plain white shalwar kameez (pajama-like trousers with a long shirt) and had very long beards. They were speaking in Arabic with each other,” said Abdul Rehman, 14. “I saw them killing the students. I escaped by hiding under the chair. My best friend was also murdered, though he pleaded for his life.”

Hamza Khan, 15, said many students initially thought maintenance work was being done on the building.

“At first we thought there is some repair work going on in the backyard. But then the bullets were fired in the back door of the main hall and the terrorists entered the hall and opened fire on the students,” said Khan. “I won’t be able to forget the horrid images for the rest of my life. I promise to take revenge for my fellow students — I will fight these cowards and destroy them.”

Army commandos moved in, exchanging fire with the gunmen while students scrambled to safety. All seven gunman died in the assault, Bajwa said. It was not clear if they were killed by commandos or blew themselves up.

Pakistan’s Taliban spokesman Mohammed Umar Khorasanin said the assault was “a revenge attack” for an army offensive in North Waziristan in June that targeted militants.

“We targeted the school because the army targets our families,” he said in a statement. “We want them to feel our pain.”

Bajwa tweeted that “several ops” had been launched by Pakistan after the attack, including 10 airstrikes.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif vowed that the push to drive militants from the area would not be deterred. “The fight will continue. No one should have any doubt about it,” Sharif said.

People who lost loved ones were in shock at the huge loss of life in the dusty northwestern outpost of Pakistan.

Murtaza’s cousin, Syed Afaq Ahmed, 16, got up, got dressed and went to school Tuesday morning to take a biology exam. He wanted to be a doctor like his older sisters. When he didn’t return, his mother, frantic with worry, kept trying to call but was sure her youngest, headstrong and lively, would survive. She called the hospital. She learned she was wrong.

“My husband passed away four years ago and now my son,” said Bibi Amina. “What did he do to deserve this? He got ready for school this morning for his biology exam – but instead lost his life.”

President Obama was among numerous heads of state condemning the attack.

“Our hearts and prayers go out to the victims, their families, and loved ones,” Obama said in a statement. “By targeting students and teachers in this heinous attack, terrorists have once again shown their depravity. We stand with the people of Pakistan, and reiterate the commitment of the United States to support the government of Pakistan in its efforts to combat terrorism and extremism and to promote peace and stability in the region.”

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Rajnath Singh, India’s minister of home affairs, also condemned the attack. “This dastardly & inhuman attack exposes the real face of terrorism,” Singh tweeted.

“This massacre represents a savage and qualitative escalation of the attacks by the Pakistani Taliban,” said Fawas Gerges, a professor at the London School of Economics’ Middle East Center. “This particular attack cannot be understood except as a direct attack against the Pakistani army, attacking the sons of officers who are attending the school.”

He added that the Pakistan Taliban is the most extreme faction that exists in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The radical Islamists have been fighting to regain control of Afghanistan since being ousted by U.S. forces in 2001 and have been a source of instability against the Pakistani government along the two countries’ border.

Gerges compared the brutality of the Taliban to that of the Islamic State: “two sides of the same coin that celebrate extremism and killing.” The Taliban group in Pakistan is “an extreme Islamist faction that wants to create a similar Islamic state. … The Pakistani Taliban has always been closer to al-Qaeda than the Taliban in Afghanistan,” which had provided al-Qaeda sanctuary.

The attack also highlighted the vulnerability of Pakistani schools, which have been targeted before, most famously in an attack two years ago on Malala Yousafzai. The Pakistani schoolgirl was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman outside her school in Swat Valley for being outspoken about girls’ rights. The Taliban opposes formal education for girls.

Malala has never returned to Pakistan for security reasons but has gone on to become a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and global advocate for girls’ education.

On Tuesday she condemned the killings. “I am heartbroken by this senseless and cold blooded act of terror in Peshawar that is unfolding before us,” she said in a statement. “I, along with millions of others around the world, mourn these children, my brothers and sisters, but we will never be defeated.”

In Peshawar, residents mourned their losses while feeling on edge. “I can’t believe my cousin passed away,” said Murtaza. “Everyone in Peshawar is terrified now.”

The article was originally published on the USAToday website. View here: Death toll reaches 141 in massacre at Pakistan school

My Reflection on the Peshawar School Attack

By Shereena Qazi for Al Fanar Media

DOHA—It was early morning here and I settled at my desk with a cup of coffee. Being a journalist, part of my morning routine is to read the news. I was hovering over my Twitter feed when I saw posts about an attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, Pakistan.

I felt a cold sweat. I come from the same city, although my immediate family has been settled in Qatar, where there are many South Asian immigrants, for 25 years. I knew a lot of my relatives had children who attended that school. I vigorously started investigating what had happened. Once I got a general idea, I started calling my family in Peshawar.

“Afaq passed away in the attack,” said one of my cousins. I could hear screaming, ambulances and women crying in the background. “What? Afaq? Afaq died?” I asked. “Yes he did. He was shot!”

Syed Afaq Ahmed was a ninth-grade student. My mother talked a lot about how ambitious he was, just like his siblings. He was a bright student and wanted to become a doctor.

I started calling all my possible contacts and contributed to an article in USA Today. I talked to a lot of students and found they were all devastated, yet more determined than ever before to get an education.

Some international media outlets covered the attack as a war against education, but it was carried out as revenge against the Pakistani Army operations in North Waziristan. “We killed these children so they can feel our pain when our children were killed in the army operation,” a Taliban militant based in Waziristan told me in a telephone interview.

But whatever the motive, the end result is the same. The school was the battle zone. One hundred and thirty two children and 10 teachers died in its classrooms.  “I witnessed one of my teachers tied up to a chair by two Talibans who then chopped her hair off and set her body on fire,” a 12th-grade survivor told me. “I cannot forget those images.”

What happened in Peshawar was not unique to Pakistan. According to a report by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, there were 9,600 attacks on educational institutions in 70 countries between 2009 and 2013.

Even though most people probably didn’t want to hear the Taliban’s justification for the attack, I felt it was also important to try to understand it. “Every action has a reaction,” said the Taliban militant. “Our children were brutally killed too.” An Afghan Taliban member, on the other hand, condemned the attack on women and children. “I would say this was more of a revenge attack and has nothing to do with Islam,” he said.  “In Shariah, it is not allowed to kill the family members of the wrongdoers. They are innocent and have not committed any crime.” 

Iraq, Syria, Yemen and many other Arab countries are facing similar situations. Schools and universities have become psychological weapons of war. In Iraq, the Islamic State is recruiting children to join its army. Its goal appears to be to use education as a brainwashing tool to nurture a new group of supporters.

Whether attacks on educational institutions will create a generation that seeks peace or one that is locked in war remains to be seen. In some of my past reporting on Afghanistan, I found that many people in the country are promoting peace education, to try to counteract the violence that so many young people have seen. But some children who see war just want more of it. That may be happening in Pakistan.

“I wanted to be a first-rate astronomer, but now I want to join the Pakistani Army after completing my education, so I can take revenge,” said Aakif Azeem, a 12th-grade student in Peshawar.

“I will definitely go back to school,” he adds. “Even right now I’m ready to wear my school uniform and go back there where my friends, mentors and teachers were killed. Who do they think they are messing with?”

The article was originally published in the Al Fanar Media website. View here: A reporter reflects on the Peshawar school massacre

Women of Afghanistan and Pakistan

By Shereena Qazi for the MyBlueBurka
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Sajida, 34, waiting to be treated for her addiction

Sajida waited outside the ’50 Bed Drug Treatment Centre’ in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan to be admitted to the centre for her long time drug addiction. She started taking opium as a subrogate to medicines to cure her post pregnancy pains after giving birth to eight children. According to Sajida, most medicines are expired at local pharmacies in Mazar hence making them ineffective, “I didn’t know opium was such a deadly addictive drug, but since it relieved me from my post pregnancy pains, I kept taking it for more than 10 years.”

Watch the trailer of my documentary on opium Addicts in Afghanistan


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Mariam, 11, an Afghan refugee

Mariam, an Afghan refugee in Peshawar was born in the Charsaddah district 11 years ago. Her day job is washing dishes, cleaning and babysitting in at least three houses per day. Her dream is become a teacher – but she has never been to school.

The Afghanistan’s Minister of Refugees and Repatriation announced that his ministry would establish 48 towns in Afghanistan for the returning refugees from Pakistan and Iran. “The ministry plans to establish 48 towns in 22 provinces of the country with the cooperation of the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees in the next three years to provide shelters for those returning from Pakistan and Iran.”


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Naheed Rateb, 12, helping her sisters in homework

When a country witnesses’ decades of war and conflict, children of that country are expected to grow up learning violence, at home and at school. Many non-profit organizations in Afghanistan are providing basic education to under privileged children, but what about training children to reject violence and all forms of aggressive behavior in a war torn country?

Watch my story for Euronews on Naheed Rateb joining the Peace Education Program introduced by Suraya Sadeed in Afghanistan.


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Women Celebrating the Birth of a Baby Boy

Pakistan still remains a male dominant country where a birth of a boy is celebrated more than the birth of a girl. Normally, two sheep or goats are slaughtered as a part of the celebration followed by a grand lunch, mostly rice and mutton. The ceremony is called as “Aqiqa” in Urdu and “Oma” in Pashto – Both means celebration. In this particular case, the mother of this baby boy already had two daughters and she desperately wanted a son this time. She was the most happiest after the birth of her son.