What peace means for Afghanistan’s Hazara people

Neither a US-Taliban deal, nor Ashraf Ghani’s current peace plan can deliver peace and prosperity for the Hazaras.

Hazara community
Women chat slogans during a protest against the killing of seven people from the Hazara community, in Kabul, Afghanistan on November 11, 2015 [File: Reuters/Omar Sobhani]

On September 2, the Taliban kidnapped Abdul Samad Amiri, the acting provincial director of Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission in the western Ghor province, and shot and killed him two days later. His brutal killing was strongly condemned both in Afghanistan and across the world, with Amnesty International explicitly declaring it a war crime.

For the civil society and human rights communities that have burgeoned in Afghanistan after the collapse of the Taliban regime, particularly for the Hazara ethnic group to which Amiri belonged, however, this murder was much more than a war crime.

The untimely loss of a young human rights defender at the hands of the Taliban made the members of Afghanistan’s persecuted community question yet again the possibility of a future in which they feel safe, secure and empowered in their own country.

The Hazara people are a Persian-speaking, predominantly Shia ethnic group who are mainly native to the mountainous region of Hazarajat in central Afghanistan. They have a long history of persecution because of their religion and ethnicity, going all the way back to the 1890s.

They have not only faced violence at the hands of the Taliban and the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), but also decades of institutional hostility and discrimination from Afghanistan’s dominant ethnic groups. Until the 1970s, for example, Afghan law barred the Hazaras from holding office, enrolling in university, or holding any position of national authority. Discriminatory laws were also in place under the Taliban rule in the following decades.

Under former Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s administration, however, the Hazaras got a chance to reclaim their place in Afghanistan’s public and political life. They also made some gains under the Ashraf Ghani-led government, but are unhappy with their limited representation in power and some national policies that limit their social and political empowerment.

But ever since the start of the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan, the Hazaras’ worries about their future in Afghanistan have deepened. The decision of the United States to hold peace talks directly with the Taliban, a group particularly hostile towards the Hazaras, only exacerbated these concerns.

The peace talks between the Taliban and the US collapsed last week with US President Donald Trump declaring the negotiations “dead”. However, the Hazaras are still on edge, as they are aware that in the current environment, it is all but certain that the Taliban will play an important role in the building of a new, post-conflict Afghanistan. Moreover, the incumbent Afghan government appears less than committed to protecting Hazara interests in this process.

For now, the prospects for sustainable peace for the Hazaras remain distant, to say the least, for two main reasons: the Taliban’s deep-rooted hostility towards them and the Afghan government’s reluctance or inability to propose a detailed peace plan which addresses their specific concerns and fears.

The Hazaras have a reason not to trust the Taliban

Amiri was kidnapped in the Jalriz district of Maidan Wardak province, on Highway 2 which connects Afghanistan’s capital Kabul to Hazarajat – the 116,550sq km (45,000sq miles) region of highlands and pastures where Hazaras have traditionally lived.

The Hazaras have suffered so many deadly attacks, ambushes and kidnappings on this particular highway that connects their homeland to the heart of the country in the past decade that it has been dubbed “the Death Road”. According to a recent report, at least 108 Hazara passengers have been kidnapped and killed while travelling on it since 2012.

The Taliban’s targeting of the Hazaras is not limited to individual kidnappings and killings; it has involved violence on a much larger scale, as well as relentless intimidation, abuse and oppression.

In late October 2018, for example, the Taliban orchestrated attacks in the Hazara-populated Khas Uruzgan district in Uruzgan province, which resulted in the death of dozens of civilians and displacement of at least 500 families.

In early November, the group extended its attacks on the Hazaras to Malistan and Jaghori districts in the adjacent Ghazni province. In these attacks, 67 people, including 25 Afghan army commandos, were killed and 70 others were injured, while around 60 to 70 percent of the people living in the attacked areas were displaced according to a member of the government’s fact-finding delegation.

These attacks reminded the Hazaras of the atrocities the Taliban committed against them in the late 1990s. From 1998 to 2001, the Taliban perpetrated at least three documented massacres against the ethnic group.

In August 1998, the Taliban killed at least 2,000 civilians, most of them Hazaras, in the multiethnic northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Two years later, in May 2000, the group killed dozens more Hazaras in the Robatak Pass. In January 2001, yet another massacre was committed by its members in Yakaolang district in Bamiyan province.

These mass killings which are a testament to the Taliban’s deep-rooted hostility towards the Hazaras also demonstrate how the group will likely treat this ethnic minority if it were to return to power in any capacity.

While in the current climate, especially after the collapse of the peace talks with the US, such a comeback is unlikely, it is nevertheless certain that the Taliban will have some say in deciding the future configuration of the state, if and when the conflict comes to an end.

The Afghan government, which claims to be actively working to kick-start intra-Afghan talks, seems less concerned about how ethnic groups, particularly the Hazaras, will fare following a peace deal with the Taliban. 

The Afghan government’s peace plan will not deliver peace 

On February 28, 2018, President Ghani offered to recognise the Taliban as a legitimate political group “without preconditions” as part of a proposed political process that he said could lead to intra-Afghan peace talks. Nine months later, on November 28, he presented an updated version of his government’s peace plan to the international community during the Geneva Conference on Afghanistan.

This time around, he set some preconditions: the constitutional rights and obligations of all citizens must be ensured; the 2004 constitution must be accepted and any amendments must be made through legal mechanisms; the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces and civil service must be preserved; and any armed groups with ties to terrorist networks, international criminal organisations, or other state/non-state actors seeking influence in Afghanistan must be barred from joining the political process.

Supporters of President Ghani and his team have boasted that not only can his “grand plan” deliver peace, but also “justice, equality and development”. The entire peace plan is based on the idea of preserving the Afghan republic rather than transforming it into an emirate, as the Taliban has demanded.

This, however, by far does not guarantee an equitable distribution of power, resources and opportunities. A republic can be repressive towards minorities, the media, civil society organisations, and democratic processes. Examples of that abound in Afghanistan’s neighbourhood – Iran and China are just two obvious ones.

Moreover, many fundamental questions that will determine the sustainability of any peace agreement, the prospects for equitable political participation and just and balanced development were not addressed in the proposed plan.

Afghanistan is an ethnically diverse country, but the current configuration of the state, as detailed in the 2004 constitution, has largely failed to deliver equal political participation, development and stability to all ethnic groups, particularly to the Hazaras. Among many other problems, the present constitution gives too much authority to the central government and does not allow provinces and districts to elect their own local authorities, set their own development priorities, and prepare their own budgets.

Hence, a peace plan that proposes to preserve the current status quo and simply includes the Taliban into the existing system would result in nothing other than the further victimisation of minority communities, the Hazaras being the first among them.

Moreover, Ghani’s peace plan also fails to offer any protections for the Hazaras and other groups that would likely continue to be targeted by the Taliban even after the official end of hostilities between the Afghan government and the armed group.

The way forward

Talks between the US and the Taliban may be “dead”, but ultimately no US-Taliban agreement will bring lasting peace to Afghanistan. Only intra-Afghan talks between the Taliban, the Afghan government and other Afghan parties – if and when they actually take place – can determine the future of the country.

For such talks to lead Afghanistan to sustainable peace and stability, they should involve agreements on decentralisation and distribution of power at the district and provincial levels, equal political participation of all ethnic groups, social justice and an economic plan for balanced development. This would guarantee that all ethnic and religious groups feel empowered and able to participate in Afghan political life on an equal footing.

As history has shown, various regimes and constitutions the country has had since the collapse of the monarchy in 1973 failed to keep it stable and peaceful precisely because they did not manage to deliver on these issues.

The current Afghan leadership has a chance to make history and get Afghanistan out of the cycle of violence and conflict. But to do so, it needs to listen carefully to the demands of all Afghan citizens, including the most persecuted communities like the Hazaras. Only then it would be able to come up with a plan that could pave the way for peace and stability.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.