Afghanistan’s Hazara community is caught between attacks by Taliban and Islamic State militants, and neglect by the government.
It started with a Facebook post: “I can’t bear it anymore. I am going out. Will you join me?” Within an hour, by midnight local time on November 11, hundreds took to the streets and passed security barricades to march toward Afghanistan’s presidential Arg Palace. Desperate and angry, the protesters, including many women, demanded action against Taliban attacks on the Hazara communities in Ghazni and Uruzgan provinces. Tragically, the protest itself was brought to an end by a suicide attack claimed by ISIS that killed 6 and wounded 20 people near Kabul’s Pashtunistan Square.
More than two weeks of relentless attacks by the Taliban, first in Khas Uruzgan and later in Jaghori and Malistan districts on the southwestern edge of Afghanistan’s Hazarajat region, have left hundreds dead and wounded, and forced thousands to flee their homes. The exact number of casualties is not yet known, but at least 25 Afghan National Army (ANA) commandos and 15 civilians were killed in a single Taliban attack on Jaghori in the early hours of November 11.
In the past few weeks, in an obvious change of strategy, the Taliban has turned its attention on Hazarajat, Afghanistan’s safest region, which had hitherto been spared. Taliban fighters first attacked Hazara villages in Khas Uruzgan district, leaving many dead and wounded, and many more displaced to neighboring districts. Then they attacked Jaghori, followed by Malistan. Outmanned and outgunned, the local people’s cries for help have gone largely unheeded.
The Taliban has concentrated on the Hazara areas for different reasons. First, it wants to open a corridor to the north of the country to expand territorial control and supply lines. Second, Hazarajat has for years remained one of the most secure areas in the country, with high levels of access to education for girls and women’s participation in socio-political affairs, which the Taliban wants to put an end to. For years now the Taliban had surrounded the western parts of the Hazarajat, impacting security, but these direct attacks are different. Third, The Hazara areas do not have defensive forces, and the government doesn’t provide much security, making the areas vulnerable to the Taliban.
The attacks have increased humanitarian concerns in Hazarajat. The roads are blocked, and food and other basic materials are the main concern after security. The Taliban brought down communication systems, making the situation more difficult for the people and threatening the progress along democratic lines that started in the region in 2001.
After the initial attacks, the government in Kabul remained silent for days. When finally the office of President Ashraf Ghani responded to the incident in Khas Uruzgan, it described the Taliban attacks on the Hazaras as “ethnic conflict.” For the Hazaras, however, the president’s statement was as divisive as it was dangerous. Framing the conflict as an ethnic one creates hostility between the Hazaras and the Pashtuns in the region on the one hand, and reduces terrorist attacks to the scale of a local conflict on the other.
Facing a backlash, the statement was altered, with the contentious phrase removed the following day. Ghani also assembled a fact-finding delegation to visit Uruzgan, investigate and report its findings back to him. But the man appointed to head the delegation, Abdullah Fallah, a presidential adviser on local disputes, rebuked Ghani’s initial response, stating that what was happening in Uruzgan “was not an ethnic conflict” and that those who call it as such are “in fact helping the Taliban re-establish their Islamic Emirate.” The chief executive of the National Unity Government, Abdullah Abdullah, also rejected the president’s definition of the conflict in Uruzgan.
Near a week after the #Taliban aggressive attacks on #Jaghori & #Malistan districts, thousands residents of #Kabul, #Mazar & #Ghazni provinces lead out to streets and accuse government for the late action.#JaghoriUnderAttack#Afghanistan pic.twitter.com/aFbsV4DJHY
— Hadi Sahar (@HadiSahar2) November 12, 2018
When the Taliban began its attack on Jaghori, catching the locals by surprise, the government remained oblivious and reluctant to act. After a day of silence, in response to mounting pressure from Hazara politicians and activists, an ANA commando unit was dispatched to the district. However, without further support from the government, the unit was exposed to a Taliban attack and lost 25 men during a single night, sparking a widespread perception of collapse of security in the region.
In recent years, the Taliban has expanded its influence in the northern parts of Afghanistan. Kunduz province fell several times to the Taliban, followed by an attack on Ghazni city in August this year. Both times, the government failed to prevent the assaults. This provides opportunity for the Taliban to challenge the government, winning a stronger position in peace negotiations. Despite Ghazni’s strategic location 70 miles south of the capital, President Ghani took his time to formulate a response. Government failures have raised questions about the decision-making and information sharing processes within the president’s inner circle.
This has raised concerns whether those around President Ghani, who is a Pashtun, understand the situation beyond ethnic presumptions. Afghanistan has a highly centralized system, which means the president is the one making the big decisions. Under Ghani, the system has become more centralized and exclusive, with one-man leadership on show. Particularly, security organizations like the Ministry of Defence, the National Security Council and the National Directorate of Security are under Ghani’s core circle’s tribal control.
In the past, some of President Ghani’s close aides have been revealed to hold a discriminatory attitude toward other ethnic communities. In September 2017, a leaked memo from the president’s office set off a storm of accusation of systematic ethnic favoritism. The memo insisted that “Tajiks and Uzbeks, who work completely under us, should be appointed symbolically so that people think every ethnicity is represented here.” In November, another memo was leaked, “sparking an uproar and provoking new accusations of systemic ethnic favouritism” in the Ghani administration.
Dismissed and Neglected
In addition, the president’s inner circle tends to be dismissive of reports by local journalists, and whenever local media reflect on issues the government doesn’t like, it is dismissed as foreign propaganda. However, they are responsive to media reports in English, particularly by American media, as they value how their image is presented in the West. Therefore, the Afghan media reporting on the Taliban’s attacks in Uruzgan and Ghazni are not considered credible. That is why the president decided to send a delegation to Uruzgan to find out the facts.
Government inefficiency, negligence and a crisis of leadership provided an unprecedented opportunity for the Taliban to expand its control. It has intensified its attacks to strengthen its position in the peace talks. However, the government is reluctant to fight for and protect its people. Moreover, Kabul failed to create a regional consensus against the Taliban. For example, the latest round of talks in Moscow, which took place on November 9, will not help the peace process in Afghanistan; it is instead a display of Russian regional influence and adept diplomacy. On the other hand, the talks legitimize the Taliban vis-à-vis the American and Afghan forces, which will only help the group continue to perpetrate violence across the country.
Aside of the wider international dimensions of the war in Afghanistan, a lack of leadership and capacity at the strategic level in the government has worsened the situation. Given the history of Taliban atrocities against the Hazaras, recent attacks have provoked unease across the region. Despite the terrible fear of further terrorist attacks against their community, as the last resort, the Hazara people came out to the streets to protest against the government negligence in the middle of a night, only to have their biggest fear confirmed in the most violent of ways.
*[Correction: An earlier version of this piece stated that thousands participated in the Kabul protests, while it was hundreds.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.