For nearly 18 years, Afghanistan’s hard-line Islamist Taliban movement largely refrained from attacking the country’s predominately Shi’ite Hazara minority.
But the Taliban recently began targeting Hazara-inhabited regions in the central provinces of Uruzgan and Ghazni. Hundreds have been killed and thousands displaced by the fighting, which began in late October.
The fighting was apparently provoked by the breakdown of a longstanding agreement between the two, according to former Taliban members and Ghazni locals. Hazara leaders, for their part, deny they had engaged in any written or verbal understanding with the insurgents. The Taliban regime is accused of harshly persecuting the beleaguered minority during its stint in power in the 1990s.
Nazar Muhammad Mutmaeen, a Kabul-based former Taliban official, says both the Taliban and Hazara community -- which is spread over several provinces in central Afghanistan -- largely respected an understanding that required them to keep out of each other’s affairs.
“The understanding was that the Taliban will not be harmed by the Hazaras while members of Hazara militias, too, will refrain from traveling to regions controlled by the Taliban,” Mutmaeen told Radio Free Afghanistan.
He says an increase in the number of rural territories controlled by the Taliban has prompted authorities across the country to engage in secret local deals. “The Hazaras concluded the most deals,” he said.
He says this agreement collapsed after fighting broke out between Hazara commander Abdul Hakim Shujae and the Taliban in Uruzgan Province in October.
“Shujae had gone into the areas the Taliban had banned him from traveling to. This is why the Taliban first attacked Shujae and then extended their fighting into Malistan and Jaghori districts in [neighboring Ghazni Province],” he said.
The fighting is tinged by ethnic tensions as many Taliban leaders and cadres are ethnic Pashtuns. Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, comprising nearly half of the country’s estimated 30 million people, while Hazaras make up some 10 percent of the population and have been persecuted historically.
In the past, Shujaee, a former commander in the U.S.-funded Afghan Local Police, was accused of grave rights violations and faced arrest orders from the central government for the atrocities he committed.
But in an interview with Voice Of America, Shujaee denied the abuses and participating in an ethnic war against Pashtuns but maintained that he defended himself and his community against the Taliban.
“I am fighting against the Taliban and those attacking our civilians,” he said. “I will never surrender.”
Mohammad Amin, a resident of Ghazni, agrees with Mutmaeen and says the fighting was prompted by the breakdown of the unwritten truce.
Amin says that as a mark of the Taliban’s anger, the insurgents first burned the house of a local commander he identified as Bashi. This man, he said, was the main contact between Hazaras and the insurgents in Jaghori.
“For people living here, it is clear there was an understanding between Hazaras and the Taliban for the past 17 years,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “They largely avoided interfering in each other’s affairs during all these years.”
Interviews with several Ghazni residents established that under such an understanding the Taliban allowed schools, other government institutions, services, and projects to function unhindered in Hazara communities while preventing them from operating in Pashtun-populated regions.
But Hazara lawmaker Arif Rahmani, a representative of Ghazni in the Afghan Parliament, rejected the claim that his community had ever concluded a deal with the Taliban.
“There has never been any written or unwritten agreement or understanding between the Taliban and the Hazaras,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “The Hazaras living here [in Ghazni] have no problem with their neighboring communities. But the Taliban fighters active here come from various regions and ethnic groups of Afghanistan. Many are even foreigners and not Afghan.”
As the Taliban gained large swathes of rural territories in recent years, they have postured as a national movement capable of replacing the current Afghan government. To support their claims, the Taliban have recruited disgruntled ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks. The insurgents have also taken visible steps to ease Hazara fears that the hard-line Islamist movement has an anti-Shi’ite agenda.
In 2015, Taliban militants killed dissident Taliban commander Mansoor Dadullah. He was sheltering Uzbek militants loyal to the Islamic State (IS). A Taliban report at the time said the IS militants were killed because they were attempting to foment an ethnic war by targeting Hazaras.
"They particularly targeted the Hazaras and repeatedly kidnapped them. The victims also included women," the report said.
The Taliban referred to the IS militants as Uzbekistanis to distinguish them from Uzbeks in Afghanistan.
"The repeated kidnapping of Hazara women prompted them [the Hazaras] to kidnap 14 Pashtun women and children from Gazey village in the Khak-e Afghan district [of Zabul Province]," the report said. "They [IS] were attempting to pave the way for an ethnic war between Afghan ethnic groups, which prompted the Taliban to intervene."
Mutmaeen says the episode generated some goodwill between the Taliban and the Hazaras. “In some cases, the Hazaras even militarily supported the Taliban, but they faced Taliban attacks after they backtracked from such agreements,” he said.
In the capital, Kabul, Hazaras have suffered repeated violence. Hundreds have died in the attacks, which have targeted Hazara protests, Shi’ite mosques, and shrines. IS has invariably claimed such attacks in an apparent retaliation for the participation of thousands of Hazaras in Iran-backed militias in Syria.
At least six people were killed and scores more injured after a suicide bomber detonated his explosives-laden vest near a Hazara protest demonstration in Kabul on November 12. The mostly young protesters were demanding the government do more to protect Hazara civilians in Ghazni.
Afghan authorities say the recent fighting has forced more than 1,000 Hazara families to seek shelter in the city of Ghazni, the capital of the province with the same name.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this based on reporting by Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Asmatullah Sarwan.