Book Review: The Shadow Commander by Arash Azizi

I got interested in the life and activity of the late Iranian general Qassem Soleimani after reading a 2013 article about him, with the same title as this book which was published in the New Yorker magazine. Since then had been following his activities till his death in January 2020. This book by Iranian scholar and journalist Arash Azizi, is not only the biography of Major General Soleimani, chronicling his life, but also about the general events that shaped and conditioned his life, making him the second most powerful man in contemporary Iran after the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

My main takeaways;

  1. Born in 1957, in a village in Iran’s Kerman province he moved to the provincial capital at the age of 18, to work in the water department there. As a teenager new to the capital, he was more interested in honing his karate skills than in religion or politics. Ironically when he sought to join the emerging Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC), he was rejected by the young recruiter. He could join the organisation only later, thanks to the Iran Iraq war where the general population needed to be mobilised for ‘sacred defence’ of Iran. In course of time, IRCG became the most powerful armed force in Iran, eclipsing even the Iranian regular army. So it was Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in 1980 which shaped Soleimani’s destiny. As Azizi notes, “Were it not for Saddam’s attack on Iran and the mass mobilization that came with it, the likes of Soleimani might have continued their lives on the margins.”
  2. Starting his career in the IRCG where his first assignment was to guard the provincial airport at Kerman, he soon rose through the ranks, thanks to his devil may care attitude and desire to lead from the front. He got seriously injured twice in the battlefield. Impressed by his leadership capability and bravery, he was given command position at the age of 25. During this war, he also developed and honed his rhetorical skills, invoking God and “the religious folkloric tradition that every Shi’a boy or girl would instantly recognize,”, a skill he later used effectively to inspire and motivate the future militias that he commanded in battlefields across the Middle East.
  3. After the war ended, he was given the responsibility of taking on the powerful drug smuggling gangs in Iran’s southeast, an area over which the central government of Iran had never managed to exercise total control. He dealt major blows to these gangs through his hands-on military approach, leading from the front as well as enlisting the support of the locals. Being a tribal himself from these areas, he understood how to handle the tribes and win their loyalty.
  4. During the Afghan conflict Iran firmly sided with the Northern Alliance and the legendary Ahmad Shah Masood with Soleimani being the point man dealing with him.  In 1998 when he was promoted as the Commander of the IRGC’s extraterritorial Quds Force, Soleimani oversaw Iran’s campaign against the Taliban.
  5. After 9/11 when the United States attacked Afghanistan to drive out the Taliban, Iran whole heartedly cooperated with the United States. The Americans were quite taken aback by the support the Iranians were providing them, and that too so openly. It looked like a new beginning was being made in the relationship of the erstwhile foes, but then as it happens many times in history, one false statement ruins it all. Much to the surprise and chagrin of seasoned diplomatic hands like Ryan Crocher, who was coordinating with the Iranians, President Bush in his State of the Union Address, written by the neo- con David Frum, categorised Iran as an ‘Axis of Evil’. This completely derailed all cooperation that Iran was affording the USA, the liberals led by President Khatami (who were calling for cooperation with the USA) panned and discredited by the hardliners. Iran and USA’s loss was Pakistan’s gain, for if the relationship between USA and Iran had continued its positive trajectory, Pakistan would have lost much of its geo strategic primacy for the USA in the Afghan war, as an alternative GLOC could have been available through Iran.  
  6. After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, overthrew Saddam Hussain, Soleimani set about cementing Iran’s influence in the New Iraq. This was followed by expanding Iran’s influence in the region – in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan. He was not only a Military commander but also controlled the foreign policy of Iran for these regions. He declared in his infamous communique to U.S. General David Petraeus in Iraq, “I, Qassem Soleimani, control the policy for Iran when it comes to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan.” Constantly on the move, the book recalls how stories circulated about him “having breakfast in Beirut, lunch in Damascus, and dinner in Baghdad,” all in pursuit of his tireless effort to build “a transnational army”. Various Islamist groups of the region like the Hezbollah in Lebanon, Badr Organization and Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad were either controlled or deeply influenced by the Iranians.
  7. In 2014, when ISIS captured Iraq’s second city Mosul and rampaged across northern Iraq, Soleimani once again took a hands-on approach, organizing Shi’a militias and sending arms to the besieged Iraqi Kurds. He helicoptered into the besieged Iraqi Shi’a Turkmen city of Amerli to help organize Shia militias and Kurdish Peshmerga to repel ISIS. His photographs on many battlefields across Iraq and Syria made him a celebrity both in USA and in Iran. I remember, his walking on the streets of Saddam Hussein’s hometown Tikrit, shortly after the IRGC controlled militias displaced IS in 2015, was repeatedly shown on TV.
  8. And as they say- pride goes before a fall. Drunk on the feeling of his invincibility he did the thing which cost him his life. My study of IR and geo politics has taught me two basic facts – (a) you do what you want to do, but don’t get USA so worked up that it loses its sense of proportion and (b) never ever attack the Russians in Russia, in history all powers doing so have been ruined. While President Trump and Soleimani were exchanging a war of words in December 2019 a Kataib Hezbollah rocket attacked and killed a U.S. civilian contractor in Kirkuk. In response the U.S. launched a series of airstrikes killing several members of the group in both Iraq and Syria. Azizi writes, “One would now expect Soleimani to back off,”..“But he had no such intentions. On his direct order, Kataib Hezbollah supporters marched on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, putting it under effective siege. The shadow commander had played his hand badly” (by making USA really angry and lose its sense of proportion). An angry President Trump, fearing the repeat of the siege of the American Embassy in Tehran, ordered the killing of Soleimani, who was blown up at Baghdad Airport on 3 January 2020 in a drone strike. The Iranian Supreme Leader however, seemed to have learned his lesson….he hectored on revenge…but the missiles that the Iranians launched on the American bases in Iraq as a retaliatory measure,  landed far enough from the base that no American soldiers was killed. J  
  9. Interestingly, it is his daughter Zeinab Soleimani who has been declared his successor, who has been calling for the revenge of her father’s death during his funeral. As it is her name has a special resonance with Shia Islam! She later married the son of Hezbollah’s Chief, Hassan Nasrallah’s cousin, Hashim Safi Al-Din, who many argue might succeed Nasrallah. Esmail Qaani, has succeeded Soleimani as the Chief of the Quds Force, but so far he has been no match to Soleimani, much to the relief of many in the region.

A nice read.

Sectarian violence in Pakistan

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“Yeh jo dehsatgardi hai, iske peeche wardi hai”: Slogan by Shia Hazara protestors against killings in Kohistan.

In another case of unending sectarian killings in Pakistan on 9 June 2014 nearly 30 people were killed and many more injured in a suicide attack on Al Murtaza hotel hosting Shia pilgrims in Taftan, a district bordering Iran. A suicide bomber purportedly belonging to the banned Sunni sectarian outfit Jaish-ul-Islam entered the hotel and detonated the explosives strapped to his body among the Shia pilgrims returning from their pilgrimage to their sacred shrine in Iran. Newspaper reports (Express Tribune) suggested that intelligence agencies had warned of possible attacks on pilgrims one month ago, but the authorities had failed to put in place adequate security to thwart Sunday’s attack. While threats to Pakistan’s security from terrorism unleashed by organizations like Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Al-Qaeda etc make regular headlines across the globe and bring expressions of concern, the rising tide of sectarianism in Pakistan poses no less a threat to the stability to that beleaguered nation.

The rise of sectarianism in Pakistan had both an internal as well as external dimension. Internally, sectarian differences in Pakistan were set in motion by General Zia’s controversial Islamization programme launched in 1979. Shias resisted General Zia’s policy of introducing Islamic Sharia laws based on a radical brand of Sunni Hanafi system of jurisprudence. When Zia’s regime sought to implement Sunni laws of inheritance and Zakat (the obligatory alms tax) in 1980, it was vehemently opposed by the Shias. An important Shia cleric, Mufti Zaafar Hussain argued that if Pakistan was to have Islamic laws, Shias should be allowed to follow their own jurisprudence (Jaafariya fiqh). On 5 July 1980, Shias openly defied martial law and congregated in Islamabad, virtually shutting down the government. Faced with strong Shia protest Zia capitulated, granting Shias exemption from all Islamization rules which contravened Shia law. This ‘defeat’ though, was not taken kindly by the military and the ruling regime. The formation of the Shia outfit Tehrik-e-Jafaria Pakistan (TJP), it’s militant student wing the Ithna Ash’ariya Students Organisation and the rise of charismatic ‘Khomeini-like’ leaders amongst the Shia’s- notably Allamah Arif Hussaini also made the military regime uncomfortable. In 1983 much to the discomfiture of the regime TJP joined Benazir Bhutto’s Movement for Restoration of Democracy (MRD). Externally, the success of the Islamic revolution in Iran (1979) had filled the Shias of Pakistan with a new self confidence and ‘set in motion, first, a power struggle between the Pakistani State and its Shia community, and later a broader competition for power between Shias and Sunnis’ (Vali Nasr).

To check this Shia assertiveness the military regime of Zia began investing in strengthening various Sunni institutions and organizations. It poured money into the existing Sunni madrasas (seminaries) and set up new ones. Madrasas were strengthened in those areas where the threat was perceived to be the greatest i.e. in the areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Baluchistan bordering Iran. Military governors of Punjab, KP and Baluchistan assisted the elite intelligence agency ISI, in creating and organizing Sunni sectarian outfits to tackle the so called ‘Shia problem’. With state support radical Sunni organizations like the Sawad e Azam Ahle Sunni, Anjuman e Sipah e Sahaba, Sunni Tehrik, Tehrik Nifaz Shriat-e-Muhammadi, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Lashkar-e-Taiba etc were created and allowed to flourish. The founder of Sawad e Azam Ahle Sunni, Maulana Salemullah Khan in 1980 demanded that Pakistan be declared Sunni state and that Shias be declared non-Muslims. This demand was later reiterated by Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhanghvi of Anjuman e Sipah e Sahaba. Concerned with the growing influence of Iran in the region and seeking to limit its politico-religious influence in Pakistan these Sunni sectarian outfits were supported externally by Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The Afghan Jihad being waged by Pakistan in the 1980’s also resulted in the free flow of arms, money and training for Sunni Islamists. Pakistan soon emerged as the battleground for the proxy war of influence between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. These groups acquired further legitimacy and power when they and their off shoots became the instruments of the Pakistani state in its proxy war with India in Kashmir.

As these sectarian groups gained ascendancy since the 1980s Pakistan began witnessing the scourge of sectarian violence which targeted various ethnic groups, minorities, professionals and even women and children. Sectarian violence involved groups on both sides; however, anti-Shia violence has now become more prominent. Other minority groups like the Hindus, Christians, Ahmediyas and Sufis have also been at the receiving end of the Sunni extremist outfits. Muhammad Amir Rana, Director of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) was quoted in the Washington Post (January 15, 2014) as saying, “We are on a very dangerous trend where sectarian violence is increasing, and it is starting to take the shape of structural violence. We are now seeing sectarian tensions triggered not only by terrorism incidents, but average clashes within the sectarian communities.” As per the report of PIPS, 687 people were killed in sectarian violence in the country in 2013, which represented an increase of 22 per cent over 2012. Similarly, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, which monitors violence in the region, Pakistan’s death toll from sectarian violence last year was the highest since the organization began tracking the statistic in 1989, when 18 people were killed.

The question then arises is why does the Pakistani state allow these groups to survive or even flourish when all round instability is being created by them in the country? Several reasons can be attributed to this. First is the nature of the Pakistani state and its nationalism. These groups draw legitimacy from the ‘ideology’ of the Pakistani state which legitimizes faith and sect based discrimination.  The Objective Resolution of 1949, the Second Amendment act of 1974 (which declared Ahemdis as non-Muslims) and anti-minority laws like the blasphemy laws (Article 295 of the Pakistani Penal Code) institutionalize these discriminations.  The latest US State department report on religious freedom states that Pakistan’s minority Ahmadi sect has become the target of rising sectarian violence, with its burial grounds, mosques and homes coming under assault. According to Islamabad based Centre Research and Security Studies (CRSS), since 1990 at least 60 people have been killed outside the Pakistani justice system in cases related to blasphemy.  During the period 1977 to 2012, 327 blasphemy cases were registered and 19 people are serving life sentences.

The official school text books promote intolerance containing blatantly anti-religious minority, anti western material. “Such textbooks try to create and define Pakistani nationalism in a very narrow sense. It tries to define it in term of an Islamic identity,” says Abdul Hameed Nayyar, a well-known historian, activist, and former physicist. When these text books were partially revised in KP under the government of Awami National Party (ANP), the newly elected government of Pakistan Tehriq-e-Insaf (PTI) and its coalition partner Jaamat-e-Islami (JI) decided to restore violent Jihadist contents in school text books.  In a press conference on August 21, 2013, Shah Farman, KP’s minister for information and culture said that the government would rectify the holes and mistakes in the existing text books published by the previous secular ANP government. “What kind of sovereignty, freedom, and Islamic values is this when Islamic teachings, jihad, and national heroes are removed from textbooks?” he reportedly asked. Is it then any surprise then that radicalization and sectarianism have taken deep roots in Pakistani society and Pakistani public opinion demonstrates considerable support for the world view of radical Islamic and sectarian organizations?

Secondly, sectarian groups (especially Sunni) have been receiving active patronage by institutions of the state like the army and political parties. The Pakistani military has been using these groups as an arm of the state to wage proxy wars against Afghanistan and India. In 1988 the Federal government allowed the Sunni activists to raid the town of Gilgit, the only Shia majority province of Pakistan in reaction to their uncooperative attitude in the Afghan Jihad. Nearly 150 Shias were killed, their houses burnt and shops looted. Sunnification of the Northern areas was also a part of the military’s strategy to use Sunni Secterianism in Kashmir war. Groups like Harkat ul Ansar (later renamed as Harkat ul Mujahideen), who fought the proxy war in Kashmir were the offshoots of the Sipah a Sahaba. The Hizb ul Mujahadeen formed in 1989 was the armed wing of the Jamat i Islami of not only Jammu and Kashmir but also of Pakistan. Maulana Masood Azhar’s Jaish e Mohammad and Harkat ul Jihad ul Islami drew members from various Deobandi sectarian groups. Shia (Hizbul Momineen) and Salafi (Tehrik ul Mujahideen) sectarian groups were also drawn into the proxy war in Kashmir by the Pakistani army. The influence that these sectarian groups now wield can be gauged from reports that when GHQ of the Pakistan Army at Rawalpindi was attacked in December 2009 by Tehrik e Taliban, Pakistan (TTP), Maliq Mohammad Ishaq, one of the founder members of the LeJ, Maulana Mohammad Ahmed Ludhianvi, the chief of Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, Maulana Fazalur Rehman Khalil, the ameer of Harkat ul Mujahideen, and Mufti Abdul Rauf, the younger brother of Maulana Masood Azhar who is also the acting ameer of Jaish-e-Mohammadwere specially flown on chartered planes to negotiate with the members of the TTP who were holding some military officials hostage.

Besides the military both the mainstream political parties of Pakistan i.e. the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) have from time to time courted and taken support from these sectarian outfits to further their political interests. PPP tied up with the Sipah e Sahaba, Pakistan (1993-96) in the province of Punjab giving them ministerial positions to get their support. In 1994, it formed a tacit alliance with Sipah e Mohammad, the radical Shia group to check its earlier alliance partner TJP with whom it fell out after the local elections in the Northern Areas in which the latter got more seats than PPP and demanded to lead the coalition. In the by-polls held in Jhang district of Punjab in 2010, the then law minister of PML (N) government in Punjab, Rana Sanaullah was openly seen campaigning with Maliq Ishaq of the SSP and LeJ. In its budget of 2013-14, Punjab government of the PML (N) provided funds of 61 million rupees to the Jamat ud Dawa, the front organisation of the Lashkar e Toiba.

Thirdly, the capacity constraints of the law enforcement agency, archaic anti terrorism laws and sympathetic judiciary have all contributed to the strengthening of these organisations. Members of these groups maintain active links with the intelligence agencies and there have been reports of interventions for their release by these agencies when they are apprehended by the law enforcement agencies. The criminal justice system in Pakistan fares poorly when dealing with these secterain groups and their members are often acquitted by the courts for the lack of evidence. In May 2014, Maliq Ishaq who was named a ‘Specially Designated Global Terrorist’ by the U.S. State Department was acquitted by an anti-terror court in Pakistan for the lack of evidence despite his open admission to journalists that he had killed over hundred Shias.  A report published in Dawn (13 October 2013) quoting an official government report revealed that since 2007, 1,964 alleged terrorists have been released by courts of which 722 had rejoined terrorist groups and 1,197 were active in anti state activities. The virus of radicalization has also pervaded the judiciary  as can be seen in the photographs published in several newspapers where Justice Sauqat Aziz Siddiqi, recently appointed as the judge to Islamabad High court, in his earlier avatar as a lawyer was seen kissing the murderer of Salman Tasser (the then Governor of Punjab), Mumtaz Qadri.

It can thus be seen that the virus of sectarianism and radicalization has pervaded the entire body politic of Pakistan, infecting both its society and organs of the state. This virus can only be cured with a complete reorientation of the ‘ideology’ and ‘nationalism’ of Pakistan which is based on radical Islam and institutionalized discrimination of minority groups and the ‘other’. Unless that happens Pakistan would continue to be plagued by sectarian violence and terrorism.  The spread of sectarianism in Pakistan not only threatens the stability of Pakistan but has the potential to spill over to its neighbors, destabilizing the entire region. This is so because many of these sectarian groups have developed linkages with pan-Islamic terrorist organizations like the Al-Qaeda and subscribe to its ideology. Pakistan’s neighbors like Afghanistan, Iran and India need to watch out.

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