Why Are the Taliban Wooing a Persecuted Afghanistan Minority Group?

Reports that the Taliban have recruited a Hazara leader are part of broader efforts to change the militant group’s image.

Afghanistan’s most persecuted religious and ethnic minority, Shiite Hazaras, are being wooed by their most oppressive tyrant, the Taliban. According to reports, the Taliban has recruited one of its local leader from the Hazara minority community. The new governor of the Taliban’s shadow government in Balkhab district, Sar-e-Pul province in northern Afghanistan is Mawlawi Mahdi, a Shiite cleric militia leader. Previously, there have been reports indicating a few instances of cooperation between the Hazaras and the Taliban, and the presence of a small number of Hazaras in the Taliban rank and file. For instance, in 2012, reports emerged of around a dozen Shia Hazara men fighting alongside the Taliban in Qarabaghi, Ghazni province. However, such instances are an exception, and there has been no indication of widespread recruitment of Hazaras by the Taliban.

Nevertheless, by recruiting a Shiite Hazara as a new governor of Balkhab district at this particular point, the Taliban aims to achieve three objectives. First, by accommodating Hazaras, the insurgent group wants to improve its image and international legitimacy as an inclusive group and a countrywide movement ahead of the intra-Afghan dialogue. Second, by increasing its influence among the disgruntled sections of minority ethnic groups in Afghanistan, the Taliban are challenging the already fragile legitimacy of the Afghan government. Third, the olive branch to Hazaras in Afghanistan is also an attempt by the Taliban to diversify its support base beyond Pakistan and bolster its ties with Shiite-majority Iran despite the previously held ideological differences.

Predominantly a Sunni Pashtun group, the Taliban regime ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 under a radical ideology based on the combination of Salafi Islam and Pashtunwali. Trained in the Deobandi madrassas of Pakistan, Taliban leaders aimed at establishing an Islamic state in Afghanistan along Salafist lines. The Taliban regime was infamous for its inhumane laws, its ill treatment of women and ethnic minorities, especially Shiite Hazaras, and harboring terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda. The fundamentalist ideology of the Taliban considers the Shias as infidels who should “become Sunnis, leave Afghanistan, or risk being killed.”

In 1998, after taking control of Mazar-e-Sharif, the Taliban systematically massacred thousands of Shiite Hazaras. According to one report, the Taliban methodically “searched house to house for males of fighting age who belonged to the Hazara ethnic minority. Hazaras were gunned down in front of their families or had their throats slit in the same way Muslims slaughter goats for holiday feasts.” The international community heavily criticized the state-sponsored massacre of Hazaras by the Taliban regime. Due to its poor human rights record, the Taliban regime was recognized only by Pakistan, UAE, and Saudi Arabia.

At present, the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan is eager to change global perception, which views the group as a violent, radical outfit with no regard for human rights. In order to establish itself as a legitimate power in Kabul, the Taliban regime must offer something beyond its narrative of fighting the “foreign infidel powers” and their “puppet regime.” By presenting itself as a moderate group with support among all the major ethnicities in Afghanistan, the Taliban aim to quell the narrative that brands it as a fundamentalist, pro-Pashtun movement.

The Taliban have frequently recruited other communities in Afghanistan, such as Uzbeks and Tajiks, in its rank and file. The absence of Hazaras in the Taliban has frustrated the radical group’s efforts to recast itself as a moderate and nationwide movement. Therefore, by reaching out to the Hazara community, the Taliban regime aims to dissociate itself from its tainted past, when it committed the worst forms of human rights abuses against the Hazara minority in Afghanistan.

At the same time, if the Taliban can win the support of other ethnic minorities such as Hazaras, then it will indicate the eroded legitimacy of the fragile Afghan government. Prevalent corruption combined with a lack of governance, rising unemployment, and failure to provide security are some of the critical issues that have battered support for the Ghani government across all ethnic communities. As Afghan officials indicate, unemployment, poverty, and the government’s indifferent attitude are the major drivers for young men to join the insurgents.

Further, in 2016, President Ashraf Ghani antagonized the Hazara community when he decided to re-route a 500 KV line for a regional electricity project, initially proposed to pass through Hazarajat. The government’s apathy toward the socioeconomic demands of the historically marginalized Hazara community gave birth to the “enlightenment movement” or “Jombesh-e-Roshnayi.” Young activists from the community organized a series of protests against the government’s decision to re-route the electricity project. In one such rally in Kabul on July 23, 2016, Islamic State-linked suicide bombers killed 86 protesters and injured 413 others. Since then, the relationship between the Hazaras and the Ghani administration in Afghanistan has never been smooth.

Most importantly, by wooing the Shiite Hazaras in Afghanistan, the Taliban are sending an olive branch to its former ideological foe in the region, the Islamic Republic of Iran. During the 1990s, Shiite Iran was one of the leading supporters of the erstwhile Northern Alliance fighting against the Taliban in Afghanistan. In 1998, while capturing the northern town of Mazar-e-Sharif, the Taliban killed nine Iranian diplomats. After the incident, Iran conducted extensive military exercises and posted 70,000 troops near Afghanistan’s border. Iran’s grave misgivings about the Taliban regime stemmed from the puritanical version of Sunni Islam propagated by the militant group, which considers Shias as heretics.

At present, when the Taliban are finding a way to gain back power in Kabul, support of the neighboring countries such as Iran will prove crucial for the radical group in strengthening its legitimacy and claim to power in Kabul. By relinquishing its past enmity, the Iranian regime welcomed the overtures by the Taliban. For Tehran, the Taliban are a safer bet against the rise of the Islamic State on its eastern border in Afghanistan.

The bonhomie between the Taliban and Iran came to the forefront recently after the incident in which Iranian border guards allegedly drowned 20 Afghan nationals. After the incident, the special envoy of the Islamic Republic of Iran requested a meeting with Mullah Baradar to discuss the incident on the Iranian border. At the same time, the incident of the drowning of Afghan migrants resulted in a “tense meeting” between Iranian officials and Mohammed Hanif Atmar, foreign minister of Afghanistan. The proactive approach adopted by the Iranian regime in involving the Taliban to discuss the drowning of Afghan migrants — overstepping the government in Kabul — indicates the strengthening of relations between the Iranian regime and the radical group.

The Taliban’s overtures toward the Shiite Hazara minority community of Afghanistan are mainly due to the group’s strategic interests in rebranding itself as a moderate and nationalist force and strengthening its relations with Iran. It is a calculated move and does not indicate any change in the ideology of the radical group or its deep-rooted hostility toward the Shiite Hazaras.

In 2018, the Taliban launched coordinated attacks in the Hazara dominated areas of Khas Uruzgan, Malestan, and Jaghori, which killed and displaced a large number of civilians from the minority community. Further, in 2019 the abduction and killing of Abdul Samad Amiri, a Hazara and the provincial director of Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), by the Taliban indicate the threat faced by the minority group in the country if the radical group becomes the dominant power in Kabul.

The reluctance of the Taliban to be a part of the democratic process in the country is due to its puritanical radical ideology, which does not respect diversity and pluralism. Unless the Taliban agree to be a part of the democratic political structure in Kabul, any overtures shown by the radical group toward the Hazara minority community will be hollow.