Analysis

Afghanistan’s Hazaras Get Mixed Messages From the Taliban

The Islamic State-Khorasan has come to represent a greater threat to the persecuted minority.

By , a journalist from New Zealand who writes about crime and conflict.
A Hazara woman holds her child as she attends an event on International Women’s Day.
A Hazara woman holds her child as she attends an event on International Women’s Day in Bamiyan province, Afghanistan, on March 8. Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

Twelve-year-old Fatima Khawari’s parents tried their best to keep her away from the war and violence that had blighted their own childhoods. Like so many in Afghanistan’s Hazara Shia community, they had endured a campaign of persecution during the civil wars of the 1990s and the first Taliban rule that forced them to flee to Pakistan in 1998. After the U.S. invasion and the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, Fatima’s parents returned to Kabul, believing they were safe and determined to make a better, happier life for their family.

As I sat in the Khawaris’ house in Dasht-e-Barchi, the Hazara district in western Kabul, in June, Fatima smiled as she flipped through her sketchbooks, which were full of meadows, farmhouses, portraits of herself and her family, and the Kabul skyline.

The drawings suggested an innocence so at odds with her life and surroundings. On May 15, a series of bomb explosions had ripped through Fatima’s school, the Sayed ul-Shuhada high school, killing over 80 young women from the Hazara community. Fatima was one of the only girls in her class who survived the blast.

Twelve-year-old Fatima Khawari’s parents tried their best to keep her away from the war and violence that had blighted their own childhoods. Like so many in Afghanistan’s Hazara Shia community, they had endured a campaign of persecution during the civil wars of the 1990s and the first Taliban rule that forced them to flee to Pakistan in 1998. After the U.S. invasion and the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, Fatima’s parents returned to Kabul, believing they were safe and determined to make a better, happier life for their family.

As I sat in the Khawaris’ house in Dasht-e-Barchi, the Hazara district in western Kabul, in June, Fatima smiled as she flipped through her sketchbooks, which were full of meadows, farmhouses, portraits of herself and her family, and the Kabul skyline.

The drawings suggested an innocence so at odds with her life and surroundings. On May 15, a series of bomb explosions had ripped through Fatima’s school, the Sayed ul-Shuhada high school, killing over 80 young women from the Hazara community. Fatima was one of the only girls in her class who survived the blast.

“She is so precious to us, you have no idea,” her father said as he recounted the story. “The thought of losing her would be unbearable.”

The Islamic State-Khorasan has made headlines for the Aug. 26 attacks on the Kabul airport, which killed nearly 200 people, including 13 U.S. servicepeople. But the group has been wreaking havoc on Afghans for years. The Islamic State sees Shiism as heresy to Islam, and its attacks against the Hazara minority in particular have killed hundreds—striking terror into the lives of an already vulnerable population.

Many Hazaras fear a return to the large-scale persecution of 20 years ago.

The Hazaras assume that the Islamic State-Khorasan is responsible for the Sayed ul-Shuhada high school bombing, the most gruesome of a series of targeted mass killings of Hazaras in Afghanistan over the past several years. It followed a similar pattern to the attack on the airport. In both cases, an original explosion created panic that caused people to flee towards the exits, where other bombs were waiting to be detonated to attain the highest possible number of casualties.

Fatima’s 26-year-old brother Hamid was teaching at the school when the first explosion struck. As the distraught children attempted to flee, he realized that any further attack was likely to come on the road directly outside the school and slammed the front door shut, blocking it with his body and preventing students from exiting. Hamid’s hunch proved correct when two bombs exploded on the streets adjacent to the school exits. His quick thinking likely saved the lives of Fatima and many of her peers.

Now, with the Taliban back in control of Afghanistan, many Hazaras fear a return to the large-scale persecution of 20 years ago. Yet others are cautiously hopeful that the end of the current conflict is their best chance for peace.

The Taliban are proclaiming they will have an “open, inclusive” Islamic government that represents Afghans of all ethnic groups. How well their actions will match their rhetoric is yet to be determined. But the way the Taliban treat the Hazara over the coming months will be an important bellwether as to the nature of the group in its current form—and how it may govern Afghanistan as a whole.


Hazaras, who are overwhelmingly Shia Muslims, have faced hundreds of years of privation and persecution under the Sunni rulers of what are now Afghanistan and western Pakistan. They suffered especially during the civil wars between Afghan mujahedeen groups that raged during the 1990s. The Taliban is believed to have carried out numerous massacres against the Hazara during its own reign, including a particularly brutal one in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998.

As a result of the violence under the Taliban, hundreds of thousands of Hazaras fled to neighboring countries such as Iran and Pakistan. Like the Khawari family, many Hazara returned to Afghanistan after the U.S. military forced out the Taliban in 2001 and were initially supportive of the new government. Hazara militias were some of the first to lay down their arms and support the U.S.-backed Hamid Karzai administration. Particularly after seeing education rates rising among women and girls, many initially believed in the international reconstruction effort.

But over the last two decades, as attacks against Afghan Shia communities soared, this optimism faded.

Shortly after the Sayed ul-Shuhada high school bombing, I attended a meeting of Hazara community leaders in Kabul. Some had lost their daughters in the explosion. “The government has done less than nothing for us. We have no hope in them anymore,” one told me. “They have done nothing to investigate the bombing, and they refuse to send security to patrol our district.” The community leader spoke on the condition of anonymity, as he had been involved in trying to organize a local militia for protection.

“All we want is a way to protect ourselves, and they don’t even allow us that.”

Looking around the city, it was obvious that he was right. The streets of Kabul are normally full of armed men, but during my stay in Dasht-e-Barchi, I had not seen a single policeman or member of the military. When the Hazara tried to arm themselves, the community leader said, the government raided their homes and seized their weapons. “All we want is a way to protect ourselves, and they don’t even allow us that,” he said. Hazara were despondent both about the actions of the government and the prospect of a Taliban takeover.

Four months later, the Taliban takeover secured, Taliban leadership seems to be trying to court the Hazara community—even reassuring them of their safety. Over the weekend, the Taliban allowed celebrations of Ashura, one of the holiest days of the Shia calendar, to be held—unopposed. In Mazar-i-Sharif, Hazara leaders told reporters that the Taliban had provided them with security and allowed women to participate in ceremonies. One commander even attended a majlis—a council gathering—in Dasht-e-Barchi to hear Hazaras’ concerns. All of this is unprecedented.

Yet there are fears among the Hazara community that the Taliban’s actions in the rest of the country show its real intentions for the people.

An Aug. 19 report by Amnesty International described how Taliban fighters massacred nine Hazara men after a battle in the Ghazni province in early July. Three had been brutally tortured. Amnesty International’s director, Agnès Callamard, wrote, “The cold-blooded brutality of these killings is a reminder of the Taliban’s past record, and a horrifying indicator of what Taliban rule may bring. … These targeted killings are proof that ethnic and religious minorities remain at particular risk under Taliban rule in Afghanistan.”

Photographs shared on social media this month showed that Taliban fighters in Bamiyan province destroyed the statue of Abdul Ali Mazari, a prominent Hazara commander who was killed by the Taliban in 1995. These scenes were reminiscent of the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001.

The Taliban are not a cohesive political organization under a tight command structure. Instead, there are many Taliban groups that have varying degrees of loyalty to the political leadership. This leadership has, until recently, been based out of Doha, Qatar, where it was conducting fruitless negotiations with the United States—leaving various more radical factions to carry out its military operations on the ground. The situation is murky, and still evolving, but based on recent appointments in Afghan ministries and the Taliban’s leadership council, the radicals may now have the upper hand.

It is likely that—at least for now—the Taliban political leadership’s more pragmatic approach toward the Hazaras is necessary to maintain its fragile control over all of Afghanistan. If the Hazaras are allowed to live in peace, with their customs respected and their population centers kept safer from violence, it could signal that the Taliban intends to take a softer line on issues such as women’s and minority rights, avoiding a return to the harsh interpretation of sharia law that underlaid its rule in the 1990s.

But it is just as possible that, once the last foreign troops have gone and international media attention has moved on from Afghanistan, the Hazaras could once again face the persecution that has dominated their history. Several countries, including neighboring Tajikistan—a key ally of Russia—have said they will only recognize an Afghan government that is inclusive of ethnic minorities, including the Hazaras; and a NATO foreign ministers communique called for a government with “meaningful participation of women and minority groups.” However, most countries seem to see the treatment of women and disavowal of international terrorists as higher priorities when dealing with the Taliban than minority rights.


The wildcard in all this is the Islamic State-Khorasan, a sworn enemy of the Taliban that opposed its takeover of the country. In early June, armed men entered a demining compound in Baghlan and rounded up the workers, demanding to know if any were Hazara. “Nobody responded,” a survivor said, to which a gunman said, “Kill them all,” according to an AFP news agency report. The Islamic State-Khorasan later claimed responsibility for the attack. The HALO Trust, a demining non-governmental organization, said that a local Taliban branch actually assisted in rescuing the deminers.

Although the Baghlan attack was an isolated incident, it suggests that, for Hazaras, there may be an emerging “enemy of my enemy” situation between the Taliban and the Islamic State-Khorasan if the latter decides to step up attacks throughout Afghanistan.

But many are still reeling from the May 15 Sayed el-Shuhada high school attack, which is also assumed to have been perpetrated by the Islamic State-Khorasan.

Reyhana Hussein’s family was not as lucky as Fatima Khawari’s. Reyhana, who was 15 years old, was killed in the Sayed el-Shuhada bombing. When I met with her father Mohammed after visiting the Khawaris in June, he described the “unbelievably painful moment” when, after searching the basement of a local hospital, he recognized his daughter’s body lying next to those of several other young girls.

“I hope no parent will ever have to experience what I felt in that moment,” he said.

I spoke with Mohammed in the Husseins’ living room, where a group of men sat making cards—invitations to a memorial service they were holding to mark the end of the traditional Islamic mourning period of 40 days. They had passed around cups of tea that no one was sipping from. Anger, rage, and grief were written all over their faces.

“Whatever happens with politics or the Taliban in Afghanistan,” Mohammad sighed, “we just want peace and for the killings to stop.”

Tom Mutch is a journalist from New Zealand who writes about crime and conflict. Twitter: @tomthescribe

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