The Taliban and the Hazaras

By Michael Semple

26 October 1998

Fears mount in Hazarajat as the Taliban advance on the region.
Bamiyan Valley, Hazarajat. flickr / james_gordon_losangeles

Bamiyan Valley, Hazarajat. flickr / james_gordon_losangeles


They issued me the last ticket to see the Great Buddha. Then they collected the stubs and the visitor’s books and bundled them into the sacks of documents to be buried. The remaining staff of the Department for Preservation of Historical Monuments even had orders to hide things as innocuous as the books recording the impressions of the Bamiyan monuments from visitors from six continents. A potato patch will be the resting place for the archives documenting 20 years of war.

I was pleased to have a chance to wander round the site again. The rock-cut Buddhas of Bamiyan are of great cultural significance, and were once the centre of Afghanistan’s mass tourist trade. In historical times, these Buddhas were targeted by zealots. Their survival (including several friezes of original paint work) through the two decades of war is amazing. But once again there is fear that zealous conquerors might try to prove their anti-idolatry credentials by destroying them.

At night in Bamiyan there was an atmosphere redolent of the Day of Judgement. The local people, the Hazaras, tried to guess how long it would be before the Taliban arrived. The sound of haunting nocturnal congregational prayers carried across the valley. The faithful feared that the Taliban would wreak revenge for 20 years of defiance and for their share of casualties in previous Hazara-Pashtun fighting. This fighting had seen some of the civil war’s bitterest encounters, and the locals prayed for deliverance. The threat to the Bamiyan Buddhas is symbolic of the one hanging over much of the population of central Afghanistan.

I emptied my camera reel and headed for the security of Islamabad. My host, the head of the Department for Preservation of Historical Monuments, was busy closing up his office, loading his gelims (rough-woven Afghan rugs) and a few personal belongings into his jeep. He had done what he could to preserve central Afghanistan’s share of the world’s heritage. It was now time for Haji Sahib to return to his wife to share her agonising worry at the disappearance of their son, a journalism lecturer at the University of Balkh in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, which had been overrun by the Taliban a week before. Haji Sahib’s agony is shared by thousands of families, who fear that relatives in Mazar-e-Sharif may face slaughter. As the Taliban close in, the statelet of the Hazaras, built up in central Afghanistan over the past 20 years, totters on the brink of collapse.


He who is cornered must fight

Bamiyan town lies at the centre of Afghanistan’s vast, mountainous Hazarajat region. It covers about 100,000 square kilometres and is home to the Hazara tribe, which consists of anywhere between 1.5 and 4 million people. The Hazaras were prominent in the Northern Alliance that has been battling the Pashtun-dominated Taliban of the south. The Alliance has been plagued by factional infighting and misrule, and collapsed militarily in the face of a string of Taliban victories in July and August 1998. Iran has been supporting the Northern Alliance and considers itself a natural ally of the Shia Hazaras, but has been reluctant to commit on a scale that could alter the turn of events. The rapid developments of the last few months left Hazarajat, with pockets controlled by Ahmed Shah Masood in the northeast, alone in resisting the drive of the Taliban to conquer all of Afghanistan. The region is already crippled by an economic blockade which has led to near-famine conditions.

The threat to the Bamiyan Buddhas is symbolic of the one hanging over much of the population of central Afghanistan.

The Taliban capture of Mazar-e-Sharif in August 1998 had meant that Hazarajat was surrounded. It put the Taliban in control of the last remaining supply routes to the mountains and in a position to impose further hunger. The poorest of the area had survived by eating wild rhubarb, selling off their animals and entering into debt. A continued blockade meant they could not buy food to see themselves through the upcoming winter; the starvation could only get worse.

In the face of such overwhelming odds, the natural thing to do would have been to surrender. I had expected a rapid surrender once the fate of Mazar-e-Sharif was decided, and had hoped that this would at least serve to quickly bring down the price of grain. The Hazaras’ sense of desperation, however, is summed up in their proverb: tang amad, dar jang amad; he who is cornered must fight. What has made Hazarajat contemplate such defiance?

If the Taliban achieve a military victory in Central Afghanistan, and if the Hazaras’ main party, the Hizb Wahadat, melts away in front of them (as Afghan groups often do when confronted by certain defeat), then it will signal the end of a 20-year experiment in de facto regional autonomy. Whether the ultimate outcome is restoration of order and national integration (the optimistic view, at times communicated by the Taliban) or a new phase of civil strife (the catastrophic view espoused by many of the Hazaras in Bamiyan), the restoration of rule by Kabul in this part of Afghanistan will be of major historical significance.

The long period of civil war in Afghanistan has often been depicted as a period of anarchy. This has hardly been the case in Central Afghanistan. There have been three phases to the conflict here. In the 1978-83 period (immediately after the communist coup in Kabul and the subsequent Soviet intervention), popular local uprisings rapidly forced the communist government to abandon all district headquarters and retreat to the regional headquarters in Bamiyan. Meanwhile, a new Hazara political movement, Shura Ittefaq, emerged in the wake of the uprisings. It was headed by Agha Behishti of Waras and backed by the traditional religious leadership of the area.

In contrast to the Taliban areas, there was a significant expansion of female education under the Wahadat, helped in part by the recruitment of teachers from the refugees returning from Iran, and from the educated Hazaras displaced from Kabul.

The Shura was remarkably successful in quickly establishing a presence throughout Hazarajat and putting itself forward as the new regional government. However, during the 1983-1989 period, as the US and Pakistan on the one hand, and Iran on the other, poured money into the anti-Soviet jihad, there was a proliferation of armed groups operating in Hazarajat. They challenged the Shura Ittefaq’s hegemony and a bitter civil war ensued that is still remembered in Bamiyan as the bloodiest phase of the conflict. The third phase (1989-98) came as Iran put its authority behind a merger of the Hazara military and political groups under the banner of Hizb Wahadat (Party of Unity). Wahadat was able to take over the autonomy project that Shura had started.

After securing the military and political allegiance of the numerous groups operating in the vast territory, Wahadat set about developing its regional government. It established district and regional level councils, with specialist departments for justice, security, communications, commerce, women’s affairs, social welfare, health and education. When a coalition of mujahideen groups finally pushed the central forces of Najibullah out of Bamiyan, Wahadat built the headquarters for its regional government here, by the standing Buddhas.

Although the early popular risings had often targeted primary schools for their association with the communists, the expansion of access to education was an important part of the autonomy project. Official education departments were established at the district level and they began to reactivate old schools and open new ones, depending on the resources raised, primarily from local taxation. The Hazaras had a strong sense that lack of access to education was what had previously left them politically marginalised and fit only to be porters in the Kabul markets. Education was part of the national revival that was planned.

In contrast to the Taliban areas, there was a significant expansion of female education under the Wahadat, helped in part by the recruitment of teachers from the refugees returning from Iran, and from the educated Hazaras displaced from Kabul. Although the main focus was primary education, Wahadat also set up a university in Bamiyan. Until September, a team of lecturers from Balkh University was working on secondment at Bamiyan’s fledgling university.

Another practical task for the regional administration was to service the region’s infrastructure, conscripting thousands of men every spring to reopen the roads after the snow-melt. New routes were developed, in particular the road to Mazar-e-Sharif which traverses one of the world’s highest altitudes and most inhospitable terrains. The regional government was also busy developing landing strips, and levelling a mountain-top plateau as an international airport. The Department for Preservation of Historical Monuments was part of this forward-looking agenda of the Bamiyan government, a recognition that Hazarajat had numerous heritage sites of international significance. (Apart from the Gandhara Buddhist archaeological sites, Bamiyan Valley is the location of two famous citadels ransacked by Genghis Khan.)

Alongside the building up of regional civilian institutions, Wahadat also began developing its war machinery. Initially, it was composed of a patchwork of local commanders who had emerged over the years of fighting other communities of Afghanistan and the communists. Since the fall of the Najibullah government, Wahadat gradually tried to fashion a conventional army, with commanders receiving commissions from the movement’s leadership and conscripts from the districts. However, the army remained poor in resources, weak in command and control, and lacking in professional officers of proven quality. It would be safe to say that what victories it achieved were probably due more to desperation than military effectiveness or discipline.

It is striking that the international assistance groups, which in July decided to make Hazarajat a showpiece for the UN’s new “Common Programming” approach, could do nothing to allay the civilian population’s fears of an impending massacre.

Hazara vs Kochi

Underlying the Hazaras’ regional autonomy project was a long history of conflict in the area. Hazaras, thrown into a state of urgent activity by the news of the Taliban advances northwards, were mindful not just of the track record of the Taliban movement itself but also of the (ethnic Pashtun) conquerors that had come long before. Hazarajat was only fully assimilated into Afghanistan in the 1890s by Kabul’s Amir Abdur Rahman (r. 1880-1901) in a series of military campaigns. Hazara resistance to this integration was ruthlessly put down, and folklore abounds with tales of towers of skulls erected by the victorious Amir. After the fighting was over, hundreds of members of the Hazara ruling castes, the mirs and the syeds, were picked up by the Kabul forces and ‘disappeared’.

Following the annexation, much of the fertile valley land at the base of the mountainous region was confiscated in favour of the Pashtun tribes. Most significantly, in 1894, Abdur Rahman issued an edict granting rights over the pasture lands in the region to the Pashtun nomad tribe, the Kochis, who had helped the Amir conquer the area. For 90 years the Kochis exercised these rights in their annual migration.

If there is sectarian bitterness in Hazarajat, it is largely directed at the Kochis. In a classic case of agriculturalist-pastoralist rivalry, the Kochis are remembered for terrorising the peasants (backed by the Pashtun administration), for strong-arm tactics in petty trade and money-lending, and for forcibly acquiring land. Ultimately some of them set themselves up as landlords and their Pashtun-style mud fortresses, now in ruins, still dot the Hazarajat countryside.

The reality of the civil war in Hazarajat is that it was directed against communism only momentarily. The Hazaras’ first and most significant acts in their autonomy project were to bar entry to the nomads, restore the arable land that they had bought or grabbed, and repeal the edicts of Abdur Rahman and Sardar Mohammed Daoud (President of Afghanistan, 1973-1978) granting the Kochis control of the rangelands. For 20 years, therefore, the Hazaras have controlled these natural resources. The panic in Hazarajat now stems from the fear that history will repeat itself and that the Taliban advance means nothing more than a Pashtun reconquest. The Hazaras fully expect their region to be pillaged in the days ahead, as during the conquest by Abdur Rahman.

The mood was summed up by a woman hotelier in Bamiyan (Hazarajat has its share of roadside chai khanas managed by enterprising women returned from Iran or Kabul). She roars defiance, claims to have killed eight looters in the war for West Kabul, and promises to again shoulder her Kalashnikov if the old rulers try to return. Elsewhere, people were plunged into deep depression at the prospect of becoming serfs again. In Pushte Ghorgurey, former tenants now graze their animals on pastures once reserved for the Kochis, and they are now able to plant rain-fed wheat and barley on the hillsides. They point to a single decaying wall, all that is left of their old lord’s fort, and tremble at the thought of how they will be punished for their audacity.

In Waras, despairing tenants of one of the big Pashtun landlords contemplate what their returning master would demand in lieu of 20 years’ back rent. In Panjao I met Sohaila, a woman educated in Kabul who, as a literacy instructor, is the only earning member of two families. Her work at an NGO winter school last year saved her family from starvation. She is terrified that the UN will be forced to abandon the education project for which she now works. But most impressive is Haji Sahib himself. He discreetly lets it be known that he has little hope of surviving a Taliban purge. But he repeatedly quotes Arnold Toynbee and laments that the coming changes defy “the spirit of the people”; he warns that peace cannot be achieved in this way. Military pacification, which does not address the old enmities underlying the struggle for the resources of the mountains, cannot be the way to enduring peace.

It is striking that the international assistance groups, which in July decided to make Hazarajat a showpiece for the UN’s new “Common Programming” approach, could do nothing to allay the civilian population’s fears of an impending massacre. All international staff from the UN and most NGOs, plus most of the national staff, were pulled out of the area at the first indication that the Taliban were advancing. The Bin Laden affair has made them even more cautious about returning. The agencies’ concern to take no risks with their own staff’s security means that they are unable to play the kind of witness role that many in the civilian population expected them to. International aid agencies are confined to a peripheral role while the Hazaras take their chances with their new rulers.

Michael Semple served as deputy to the European Union special representative for Afghanistan from 2004-07, lived in Pakistan and Afghanistan for over

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