As Taliban representatives, members of the Afghan High Peace Council, and representatives of eight countries met in Moscow on November 8 for a peace conference, the war back in Afghanistan is twisting in a new direction. Until about 2012, Taliban attacks were largely concentrated on government establishments in Pashtun-dominated areas in the south and southeast provinces. These areas have been the Taliban’s traditional support bases as well.
However, in the years since 2012, the dynamics of the conflict have changed considerably. The Taliban’s activities have expanded into non-Pashtun areas, and the Taliban has demonstrated a maneuver of force with which many influential Pashtun statesmen and politicians in Kabul empathize. With the territorial spread and transfer of the conflict from the south to the north and western provinces, where a mix of non-Pashtun ethnic groups including Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras are dominant, the Taliban have strengthened their position in the conflict to the extent that they succeeded in taking the Kunduz provincial capital city twice, and stormed part of the capital of Farah province. The dominant explanation for this shift is the relative absence of international forces on the ground, but there is another dynamic at play: The Kabul government’s desire to crush the progressive non-Pashtun population across the country, even if that means collusion with the Taliban.
A more recent iteration of this turn in the Taliban’s war is demonstrated by their raids on the rural Hazara highlands, the Hazarajat. The central provinces that are dominated by the Hazara community have traditionally been hostile to the Taliban and their ideology. Following a series of targeted attacks on Hazara civilians in Sar-e-Pol province, Behsood of Maidan Wardak, and Ghor provinces in recent years, on October 27 a group of Taliban fighters led an onslaught on several Hazara villages in the district of Khas Uruzgan. The attack killed and injured 63 civilians including children, women, and elderly people and displaced hundreds of families, whose properties were plundered, destroyed, or burned by Taliban militias.
The local population had previously mobilized a group of volunteers to defend from frequent Taliban intrusions. Known as the “people’s defense forces’” the group worked under the structure of the ministry of defense of Hamid Karzai’s administration to defend the local villages. With the establishment of the National Unity Government (NUG) in 2014 and its increasing tendency toward re-establishing an exclusive Pashtun ethnic-centric regime in Kabul, the local “people’s defense forces” in rural Hazarajat regions, including Uruzgan province, were dismissed.
Despite the withdrawal of government support, the local Hazara population continued to rely on local militants who volunteered to defend their villages. The commander of one such “people’s defense force” in Uruzgan, Abdul Hakim Shujaie, and his forces had managed to guard their villages and avoid paying taxes to the Taliban.
The October 27 Taliban offensive on the Hazara people in Hussaini and Kondulan areas of Uruzgan began with a surprise raid on Hakim Shujaie, who was reportedly visiting a relative. Hakim Shujaie claimed two days later in an interview with VOA Dari to have been slightly wounded. He also said his assistant and activist, Fakouri, had been killed alongside two other soldiers and dozens of villagers. Additional attacks on two more Hazara-populated provincial districts of neighboring Ghazni province — Malistan and Jaghori — followed. Belated support from the government has not deterred the Taliban.
The Afghan people’s primary expectations from the NUG have been a relative state of stability and protection against terrorist attacks and insurgent armed groups. The NUG has failed to protect Afghan civilians, especially non-Pashtun ethnic groups, against violence. Its sluggish response to violence in Hazara-dominated areas demonstrated a clear lack of political will to do something, leading to further attacks. Beside the humanitarian consequences and undercutting government legitimacy among the Hazaras, this new turn in the Taliban’s war has the potential of fueling nationwide ethnic tension between the Hazaras and the Pashtuns.
To the surprise of many, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, in a statement appointing the commission to assess the Taliban’s attacks on Khas Uruzgan, termed it a “conflict among Uruzgan tribes.” The statement raised a wave of criticism on social media. However, a day later, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah contradicted the president in his characterization of Pashtun Taliban attacks against the Hazaras. Though Ghani recanted and the text was edited, the statement highlights a long-running unresolved controversy about the nature of the Taliban movement and how the Afghan state perceives it. The Taliban, besides showing a religious posture, have always been a Pashtun tribal force. But to Ghani, a liberal Pashtun technocrat, when it comes to the Taliban’s attacks on non-Pashtun regions or the non-Pashtun counter-Taliban local militias, he has a hard time fathoming this reality.
The actions of Ghani’s government against anti-Taliban non-Pashtun militia commanders like Qaisari in Faryab, and Alipoor in Lal Sar Jangal district of Ghor province, are perplexing and illuminating at the same time. While selling the idea to international partners as his decisive effort to disempower warlords in the country, the Ghani administration and its key members have systematically tried to target pro-government non-Pashtun militants standing against the Taliban in rural areas of the country. In the meantime, Ghani has tolerated his ethnically related networks such as Mullah Tarakhel and been “pushing for release” of convicted war criminal Zardad Faryadi — both of whom are seen as threat to the stability of the capital city and the citizens.
Given the territorial expansion of the Taliban and shrinking government control, the rationale for Ghani to dismantle anti-Taliban forces does not hold.
While Ghani enjoys the unconditional support of the United States and NATO in implementing his divisive national politics at the cost of traditional anti-Taliban constituencies, the future of peace in Afghanistan is gloomy. Ghani’s efforts to legitimize the Taliban as a Pashtun nationalist force through ethnonationalist politics might expand his base among the radical Pashtuns and gain him more votes in the next election. To the misery of all ethnic groups in Afghanistan including the Pashtuns, however, it will push the country deeper into the vicious cycle of ethnic tension and conflict. Peace conferences and talks that take place under fancy titles now and then, here and there, mean little.
Rustam A. Seerat is a research scholar at the South Asian University, New Delhi.
Rahmatullah Batoor is a former DAAD Scholar and alumni of Willy Brandt School of Erfurt at the University of Erfurt, Germany.