Hazara Community Left With Few Choices in Taliban-Controlled Afghanistan

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Senior Hazara cleric Ayatollah Waezzada Behsudi.

When Kabul fell six months ago, the Taliban told the Hazara leader Dr. Jafar Mahdawi that it would be better if he left Afghanistan for a few weeks; they couldn’t guarantee his safety in the event of an attack by ISIS or even by factions within the Taliban that have proven difficult to control.

The Afghan politician and former parliamentarian refused to leave Kabul. “I had a big responsibility to keep up morale among Hazaras and to show the Taliban that the Hazaras will not fight them,” he says in his home in Kabul.

The swift Taliban take-over was not what Mahdawi had been hoping for.

He, along with former president Hamid Karzai, the Tajik leader Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and Pashtun warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, had all been due to travel to Qatar on 15 August to agree to an interim government with the Taliban that would govern following the US withdrawal. It would have had cross-community support from the ethnic factions within Afghanistan.

The negotiations were derailed by the decision of Ashraf Ghani, the president of the US-backed government, to flee Afghanistan on 15 August.

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Hazara leader Dr. Jafar Mahdawi at his home in Kabul.

“We just needed two days to complete the trip to Qatar and we could then have returned to Kabul and announced a new government,” says Mahdawi.

Ghani’s decision to flee caused the security vacuum which led Taliban forces to take Kabul on 15 August and precipitated the chaotic and deadly evacuation of civilians and troops from Afghanistan.

The Hazara politician was a Ghani critic in the last Afghan parliament. “He was not popular,” said Mahdawi “he stirred ethnic tensions and appointed traitors to high government positions.” Hazara representation in government also diminished under Ghani’s government.

Mahdawi said he had assumed that the Afghan president would flee at some point. He oversaw corruption while in power, he says, and his resignation was a key demand of the Taliban.

But the last few months would have been different in Mahdawi’s view if Ghani continued in government for long enough for the negotiations to be completed in Qatar.

The unexpected ease with which the Taliban took Kabul in August drastically weakened the bargaining position of minority and opposition groups in their negotiations with the Taliban.

Taliban efforts to form an inclusive government since their takeover have been piecemeal while opposition and minority leaders have been left in a vulnerable position.

Abdullah and Karzai have been effectively under house arrest. When asked about any concerns he had regarding this, Mahdawi carefully said he thought that the Taliban constraints being placed on them were “minimal.”

While he has avoided house arrest, Mahdawi has been given no Taliban security despite the series of sectarian ISIS attacks on members of the Shia Hazara community over the last year.

Hazaras represent 10 to 20 percent of Afghanistan’s around 38 million population and have been persecuted for centuries in the Sunni majority country. The Taliban, in particular, brutally oppressed the Hazara community in the 1990s.

Since last August, political outreach to the Taliban has been the only avenue realistically available to Mahdawi.

At the end of last year, he gathered hundreds of Hazara elders and senior Taliban officials in Kabul to discuss peace between the two communities.

No women spoke at the event. One Hazara elder said that there should have been a Hazara woman speaking at the event but Mahdawi thought it was “too political” to have female speakers.

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A Hazara at the meeting between between Taliban officials and Hazara elders at the end of 2021.

One Hazara woman who had come to attend the meeting said that she wanted to hear what Mahdawi would say about women’s rights. She owned a business until the economic crisis triggered by the withdrawal of Western funding and aid forced it shut down.

Addressing the full hall, Mahdawi said that the Taliban had promised him that women would be able to return to education and work in the new year and that an “inclusive Islamic government” would be formed soon.

At the meeting, Mahdawi said that the Taliban has promised him that women will be allowed to go to school and work in the New Year – a promise that has failed to materialise, as girls education remain a negotiation ploy for the Taliban in negotiations with the US in Qatar.

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The Taliban leader and spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, addressing the meeting.

The Taliban leader and spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, addressed the meeting and said that the Hazaras were smart, educated people and that the Taliban needed them.

At the meeting, senior Hazara cleric Ayatollah Waezzada Behsudi said: “we, the Hazara people, respect all religions” and that “we do not understand each other until we live together.”

He called for Afghan unity over sectarianism: “Sunni brothers: Shia in Afghanistan will attend your funeral but the Sunni in Saudia Arabia will not. Shia brothers: Sunnis in Afghanistan will attend your funeral, but the Lebanese Shia will not.”

At his home in West Kabul, Behsudi was, however, keen to note that Hazaras had not yet given the Taliban their official support. He remembered “the dark times” that Hazaras experienced under the last Taliban regime.

The Taliban needed to provide security first and then deliver services and support to the Hazara community, he said.

In the Hazara neighborhood of Dasht-e-Barchi in West Kabul, three teenage Hazara girls were skeptical of the Taliban’s ability to bring security.

Their school had been targeted by suspected ISIS militants in a brutal and calculated attack last May which left 85 dead. The girls returned to school a few days after the attack but were banned from attending in August when the Taliban took power.

The girls said that if the international community accepts the Taliban government, it needs to obtain a very strong promise that they will accept women’s rights in Afghanistan.

One girl said: “If they will not do these things, they should not trust the Taliban government.”

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Students outside the girls’ school in Dashte Barchi in West Kabul that was attacked by ISIS in May 2021. 85 girls from the local Hazara Shia neighborhood died.

Hannah McCarthy is an Irish journalist and lawyer currently based in Beirut.