The rapid collapse of the US-backed government of Afghanistan was entirely unforeseen and took everyone by surprise. The melting away of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and the swift vapourization of political and military resistance against Taliban and the ultimate escape of former president Ashraf Ghani sent shockwaves through Afghanistan, particularly among women and vulnerable ethnic groups such as Hazaras.
As much as the removal of Taliban regime at the hands of US-led international forces had caused a sigh of relief, their return to power brought back harsh memories of their traumatic past. The Taliban had mercilessly massacred thousands of Hazaras in Bamiyan, Yakaolang, Mazar-e-Sharifand rest of Hazarajatwith impunity from 1998 to 2001.
Hazaras were given, for the first time in the country’s history, constitutional guarantees to practice their rights as a full citizen. They had placed their faith solely to the newly established democratic system supported by the international community and therefore voluntarily submitted their weapons, military equipment and surrendered their militias wholeheartedly to the central government. They flocked instead to schools, colleges and universities, women more than men in some districts.
A Hazara woman, Dr Habiba Sarabi, became Afghanistan’s first governor in Bamiyan, partly because the people of Bamiyan had no issue with a female governor. The country’s internationally respected Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) was founded and led by a Hazara women, Dr Sima Samar. The country’s first ever gold medal in the Olympic games was brought home by a Hazara, Rohullah Nekpai. They thrived relatively well in the presence of the international community, despite facing widespread discrimination In society.
All these achievements will be nullified under Taliban rule. The Hazaras fear – rather rationally – that history is going to repeat itself, for several plausible reasons:
Contrary to the misperception that Hazaras are allied with Iran and have their backing, the clerical regime of Iran has been supporting Taliban against the US-led Western forces over last two decades, in their own larger national interest. None of the prominent Hazara leaders has fled to Iran
The Taliban are stronger than ever
The Taliban have returned to power after 20 years of intensive war and ultimately ‘defeating’ the world’s largest and strongest military alliance led by the US. They are much more arrogant, brutally experienced and more self-righteous this time around. They will therefore establish an exclusive ethnocentric emirate based on Sharia as per their own fundamentalist interpretation, which will surely have no space followers of the Shia branch of Islam and Hazaras at large. All laws and regulations, including personal and family law jurisprudence, will most certainly be based on Taliban’s interpretation of Sharia.
Hazaras are weaker than ever
As such, Hazaras are totally defenseless now and lack the necessarily tools to put up a meaningful resistance against the Taliban. This is because they have no weapons to pick up if the Taliban decide to fully subjugate them to persecution. As opposed to the 1990s when Hazara resistance forces were armed top to toe. A couple of former militiamen who tried to establish their footprints in Hazarajat in recent years were crushed by Ashraf Ghani, who also refused to deliver arms to anti-Taliban uprising forces until the very last. Hazaras have no more an organized political party lead by a strong charismatic leadership. Hizb-e-Wahdat is split into various factions, of whom Karim Khalili and Mohammed Mohaqiq are currently in Islamabad trying to secure some place for themselves in the future. They lack the political and military capabilities to put up a fight if Taliban deny them power-sharing.
Contrary to the misperception that Hazaras are allied with Iran and have their backing, the clerical regime of Iran has been supporting Taliban against the US-led Western forces over last two decades, both militarily and financially, in their own larger national interest. None of the prominent Hazara leaders, for instance, has fled to Iran after Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan.
As mentioned above, Khalili and Mohaqiq have effectively taken refuge in Pakistan, quite ironically. Even former president Ashraf Ghani’s second vice president, a Hazara, Sarwar Danish, who was educated in Iran, has fled to Turkey instead. Lack of external support makes the community even more vulnerable as there is no regional player who would bargain on their behalf while negotiating with the Taliban.
No amnesty for Hazaras
The Taliban have already proved by their actions – contrary to what their spokesmen say to the foreign media – that Hazaras’ lives do not matter. Scores of Hazara civilians, including children, were massacred in Malistan district of Ghanzi in July after the Taliban took over the district. Their announcement of general amnesty seems not to apply to Hazaras. They have largely taken over the provincial capitals and military check posts through stick-and-carrot policy. But when it comes to Hazaras, they have shown no mercy as they summarily executed a group of their former soldiers after they had surrendered last week.
There is a serious disconnect between the Taliban’s political faces on the one hand, who talk of amnesty for all, and their ideological rank-and-file, who will not easily adapt the policy of inclusion – even if Taliban leadership wishes to
As a historically persecuted ethnic group, it is almost certain that Hazaras will not be given any meaningful representation in the upcoming government or emirate run by Taliban. A couple of very symbolic faces may be included in the new setup, if only under pressure by the international community. But the Taliban will ultimately run the country as per their own wishes. It is widely believed that the Taliban will systematically limit educational and job opportunities for Hazaras. It can be said with utmost certainty that Hazara people will be immensely marginalized under Taliban rule; economically, socially and politically.
Hazaras fall victim to the Taliban’s internal conflicts
The Taliban are not a totally unified entity. There are internal conflicts, largely between the Haqqani network and the Hibatullah group. One group is not in unison with another due to tribal, ideological and regional rivalries. Conflicts over share of power and control of major cities, particularly Kabul, is one of the reasons why the group has failed to form a government. And then there is a serious disconnect between the Taliban’s political faces on the one hand, who talk of amnesty for all, and their ideological rank-and-file, who will not easily adapt the policy of inclusion – even if Taliban leadership wishes to. If they are pushed hard, there is a huge risk that their foot soldiers will defect and make their own factions, who may target the weakest of all – the Hazaras – to attract attention. This dynamic is already evident from the actions of their local commanders: such as those who blew up Abdul Ali Mazari’s statue in Bamiyan after Zabihullah Mujahid’s press conference in Kabul, in which he had declared a general amnesty and promised protection of citizens’ lives and safety of their properties. Taliban spokespersons admit, when confronted by the media, that they need some time to bring discipline into their rank-and-file. If they don’t give heed to the leadership’s advice and recommendations now, there is no indication they will do it in the future when the dust settles down and the focus of media attention goes away from Afghanistan.
Rise of ISIS-Khorasan
Last but not least, even if we accept – for a second – that the Taliban have changed and they will not subject Hazaras to further subjugation and persecution, the very fact that Taliban opened the doors of all the prisons across Afghanistan and let all the fighters of ISIS-K, Al-Qaeda, TTP, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al-Alami, IMU, ETIM et al go free as the air, sets off alarm bells.
Many of those terrorists were reportedly captured in relation to some of the most gruesome attacks on civilians, particularly mosques, hospitals and schools in Hazara-populated areas. Disguised as Taliban, ISIS-K fighters have already infiltrated many strategic areas, acquiring military equipment and financial capacity that make them far stronger than before. The group might keep a low profile for some time, mostly to be able to increase their influence, regroup and get ready for a powerful reemergence. In order to compete with Taliban, both in terms of ideology and recruitment of more fighters from inside Afghanistan and abroad, it will try to stage some gruesome attacks, mostly on helpless civilians. If such a situation develops – and it is feared that it will, indeed – there is no evidence so far that Taliban will protect the Shias, and Hazaras at large, against the ISIS-K or its affiliates such LeJ-al-Alami.
This fear has resulted in a great sense of hopelessness and helplessness among the community members. And so, they try to flee the country – but, as always, only those who can.