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As President Joe Biden withdraws U.S. troops from Afghanistan nearly 20 years after the U.S-led invasion, FRONTLINE presents Leaving Afghanistan — a timely and revelatory report on the rising fears of civil war in the increasingly unstable country, and a new, emerging threat: Iran’s growing influence.
From acclaimed Afghan journalist Najibullah Quraishi, who has covered the war between the Taliban and the American-led coalition since its inception, this special report reveals what America is leaving behind: a country that may be on the verge of a deadly sectarian civil war, with the Sunni Taliban on the rise and majority-Shia Iran seeking to expand its power.
“It’s worse than the past. It’s worse than what I’ve seen in my life,” says the Peabody Award-winning journalist. “I can see a civil war in Afghanistan again.”
Quraishi exposed the Islamic State’s presence in Afghanistan in 2015’s ISIS in Afghanistan. In last year’s Taliban Country, he reported that not only was the Taliban once again wielding power in Afghanistan, but the threat from ISIS continued to loom large. Now, Leaving Afghanistan shows how the U.S. withdrawal is paving the way for increased sectarian violence — and expanded Iranian influence.
Quraishi uncovers claims that an Iranian-backed Afghan militia, the Fatemiyoun — drawn from Shia Afghan refugees in Iran and also from the Hazara Shia minority in Afghanistan — is operating on the ground inside Afghanistan, and, some say, even present inside the government and military. Iran said it had supported Afghan fighters in Syria, but that they are no longer active.
“They intend to build a Hezbollah in Afghanistan amongst Afghans themselves,” a veteran of the Iran-backed Fatemiyoun militia tells FRONTLINE. Another Fatemiyoun member says, “In every military division, even inside the government, there are Fatemiyoun.”
Quraishi gains access to a militant wing of the Taliban that’s fighting what it says are Fatemiyoun fighters sent from Tehran, and whose leader vowed to murder or enslave every Shia in Afghanistan when the Sunni Taliban return to power. He finds that some members of the Hazara people, long the targets of Taliban persecution and attacks, are taking up arms and forming militias to defend themselves now that the U.S. is leaving and the Afghan army is in retreat. And he explores the possibility that Iran may use the threat to the Hazaras as a reason for direct military intervention.
“Afghanistan is on the brink of a very dangerous civil war,” Muhammad Mohaqiq, the spiritual leader of the Hazaras, tells Quraishi. “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.”
With civil war seemingly coming closer every day, Quraishi finds, the only constant is the suffering of the Afghan people.
“People will defend themselves. Too much has happened,” says a Hazara man whose brother was killed by Afghan government forces while peacefully protesting. “People will defend themselves to their last drop of blood.”