The South Asia Channel

Peril and Persecution in Afghanistan

Kidnapping, infertile land, and poor aid distribution are only some of the troubles the Hazaras face. They are victimized by militants, the Taliban, and maybe even the Islamic State.

BAMIYAN, AFGHANISTAN - SEPTEMBER 2:  A girl carries some washed clothing as Afghans living in the caves head home September 2, 2009 in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Many of the impoverished families living in the caves say they are too poor to live anywhere else even though the government insists that they are doing damage to an the area, near the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan, which is a rare archaeological site. All are refugees who fled areas of fighting during the Taliban era, and have now returned from the other parts of Afghanistan.  The cave dwellers are all Hazara, who are religiously and ethnically distinct and survivors of intense persecution by the Taliban. The Bamiyan region is the stronghold of the Hezb-i-Whadat party, the principal faction representing the Shia Muslims of the central area of Afghanistan.  (Photo Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
BAMIYAN, AFGHANISTAN - SEPTEMBER 2: A girl carries some washed clothing as Afghans living in the caves head home September 2, 2009 in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Many of the impoverished families living in the caves say they are too poor to live anywhere else even though the government insists that they are doing damage to an the area, near the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan, which is a rare archaeological site. All are refugees who fled areas of fighting during the Taliban era, and have now returned from the other parts of Afghanistan. The cave dwellers are all Hazara, who are religiously and ethnically distinct and survivors of intense persecution by the Taliban. The Bamiyan region is the stronghold of the Hezb-i-Whadat party, the principal faction representing the Shia Muslims of the central area of Afghanistan. (Photo Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

Hazarajat — the central part of Afghanistan where the ethnic Hazara people live — has witnessed an increase in violence. On the highways to Kabul, Hazara passengers are often singled out and abducted, to be ransomed off or even killed. Hazaras are not targeted because they have political standing or power to wield. They suffer because they are easy targets, isolated from society due to their distinct physical features and Shiite religious affiliations.

On July 25, 2014, the Taliban killed upwards of 15 Hazara civilians in Ghor province. On Feb. 24, 2015, 31 Hazara men were kidnapped by gunman in Zabul province, and after three months, 19 were released in exchange for Taliban prisoners; the remaining 12 are still captive. On June 8, 2015, the Taliban kidnapped four Hazaras including two women and a child from Ghazni province. From February to April 2015, eight abductions of Hazaras have been reported, and that number will only rise.

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to witness the abduction of Hazaras to pressure the government to meet certain political demands or to try and make easy cash. This has led many Hazaras to speak out against what they see as a money-making business. To prevent that, Afghan government officials have stated that paying a ransom to the Taliban or releasing more Taliban prisoners in exchange for abducted Hazara cannot become a tradition.

On the Kabul-Bamiyan highway, also called the “Road of Death,” in one 15 kilometer (9.3 mile) stretch in the Jalriz district of Wardak province there are pro-government militia checkpoints every 100 meters (328 feet). The over-militarization of the area, however, has failed to stop the Taliban from abducting people.

Kidnappers are motivated by a combination of factors; from money to ethnicity to religion. And the Hazaras are easy targets due to the socio-economic sanctions imposed by the Taliban and the mountainous and harsh geography of central Afghanistan. Hazaras face a cold, harsh climate, largely infertile land, poor aid distribution, and active militancy that all contribute to their deteriorating situation. Hence, insufficient food during winter, the lack of access to healthcare, weather-related stalls in development projects, and a poor education system prevent upward mobility. This problem was aptly captured in President Ashraf Ghani’s electoral campaign when he said that Hazaras live in what he coined “geographical siege.”

In the post-Taliban era, the anti-Hazara sentiment was intensified in early 2013 when Amrullah Saleh, a former director of the National Directorate of Security, accused Iran of interfering in Afghanistan through Shias. (Both the majority of Hazaras and Iran adhere to Shia Islam). It was accelerated a few months later by Gulbuddin Hykmatyar, amir of the Hezb-e-Islami and an ally of the Taliban in 2013, in his Eid message where he accused the Hazaras of being infidels and harboring pro-Iran sentiments.  His message presented a divisive agenda and attempted to incite the majority Pashtun community and convince them that Hazaras posed a threat to their dominance.

With the emergence of the Islamic State — an extreme anti-Shia group — in Afghanistan, the dangers the Hazaras face has only increased. Having been the frequent victims of persecution and subjugation dating back to the 1880s due to their religious and ethnic status, this new turn of events is invoking fresh fears in the community. The Islamic State is yet another group poised to harass, marginalize, and threaten the Hazaras.

Considering that both the Taliban and the Islamic State are radically anti-Shia, can we expect collaboration between the two to target the Hazaras? While many claim that a clash between the two groups is likely, it is worth considering their ideological similarity — both are anti-Shia — and their similar quest for political order — the establishment of an Islamic state with ruled by Sharia. The reported clashes between the Taliban and the Islamic State in eastern Afghanistan seem to be temporary in nature, issues that arise when the status quo is disturbed by new entrants in the power game.

Overlooking the hardships Hazaras endure will not only impact the looming parliamentary elections, rather its repercussions can influence how foreign donors define their approach towards Afghanistan. In addition to this, and more importantly, ignoring the plight of the Hazaras calls into question the very status of Afghanistan as a democratic country. How can Afghanistan be ruled by a limited social class that is willing to ignore the persecution of an entire group? An answer to such questions will be instrumental in Afghanistan’s ability to pass the test of democracy.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Rustam Ali Seerat is a student of International Relations at the South Asian University in New Delhi.

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