KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Outside a Shia shrine in Kabul, four armed Taliban fighters stood guard on a recent Friday as worshipers showed up for weekly prayers. Beside them was a guard from Afghanistan’s predominantly Shia Shiite minority, an automatic rifle slung over his shoulder.
It was a sign of the strange and new relationship brought by the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. The Taliban, Sunni hard-line supporters who for decades targeted the Hazaras as heretics, are now their only protection against a more brutal enemy: the Islamic State group.
Sohrab, the Hazara guard who watches over the Abul Fazl al-Abbas shrine, told The Associated Press he got along well with the Taliban guards. âSometimes they even pray at the mosque,â ââhe said, giving only his first name for security reasons.
Not everyone feels so comfortable.
Syed Aqil, a young Hazara visiting the ornate shrine with his wife and 8-month-old daughter, was disturbed that many Taliban still wear their traditional attire – the appearance of a jihadist insurgent – rather than a uniform from police.
âWe can’t even say if it’s Taliban or Daesh,â he said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
Since taking power three months ago, the Taliban have presented themselves as more moderate, compared to their first regime in the late 1990s when they violently suppressed the Hazaras and other ethnic groups. Courting international recognition, they vow to protect the Hazaras as a sign of their acceptance of the country’s minorities.
But many Hazaras are still deeply suspicious of insurgents turned leaders, who are predominantly of Pashtu ethnicity, and are convinced that they will never accept them as equals in Afghanistan. Leaders of the Hazara community say they have met repeatedly with Taliban leaders, asking to participate in the government, only to be rejected. The Hazaras complain that individual fighters continue to discriminate against them and fear it will be only a matter of time before the Taliban resumes repression.
“Compared to their old regime, the Taliban are a little better,” said Mohammed Jawad Gawhari, a Hazara cleric who heads an organization helping the poor.
âThe problem is, there isn’t just one law. Each individual Talib is its own law at the moment, âhe said. “So people live in fear of them.”
Some changes from the previous era of the Taliban regime are clear. After taking power in August, the Taliban allowed Shiites to perform their religious ceremonies, such as the annual Ashura procession.
The Taliban first confiscated the weapons the Hazaras had used, with permission from the previous government to guard some of their own mosques in Kabul. But after the devastating ISIS bombing of Shiite mosques in Kandahar and Kunduz provinces in October, the Taliban in most cases surrendered, said Gawhari and other community leaders. The Taliban also provide their own fighters as guardians of some mosques during Friday prayers.
âWe provide a safe and secure environment for everyone, especially the Hazaras,â Taliban government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said. âThey should be in Afghanistan. Leaving the country is not good for anyone.
The Hazaras’ recourse to the protection of the Taliban shows how terrified the community is of the Islamic State group, which they say aims to exterminate them. In recent years, IS has attacked the Hazaras more ruthlessly than the Taliban ever did, sparking bombings of Hazara schools, hospitals and mosques, killing hundreds.
IS is also a common enemy. Despite being hard-line Sunni supporters like the Taliban, IS militants are leading an insurgency, with frequent attacks on Taliban fighters.
Some Hazara leaders see potential for cooperation. Ahmed Ali al-Rashed, a senior Hazara cleric, praised the Taliban commanders who now run the main police station in Dashti Barchi, the sprawling western part of Kabul dominated by the Hazaras.
âIf all the Taliban were like them, Afghanistan would be like a flower garden,â he said.
Others in Dashti Barchi were skeptical that the Taliban will ever change.
Marzieh Mohammedi, whose husband was killed five years ago in fighting with the Taliban, said she was scared whenever she saw them patrolling Dashti Barchi.
âHow can they protect us? We cannot trust them. We have the impression that they are Daesh, âshe said.
The differences are partly religious. But also the Hazaras, who make up around 10% of the Afghan population of nearly 40 million, are ethnically distinct and speak a variant of Farsi rather than Pashto. They have a long history of oppression by the Pashtu ethnic majority, some of whom see them as intruders.
Aqil said that when he tried to go to a police station to get a document, the Taliban guard at the door spoke only Pashtu and slammed the door in his face impatiently. He must have returned later with a Pashtu speaking colleague.
“This kind of situation makes me lose hope for the future,” he said. ” They do not know about us. They are not open-minded to accept other communities. They act like they own this country.
A young Hazara woman, Massoumeh, said four people were killed last month in her part of Dashti Barchi, raising concerns among residents that people with roles in the previous government were targets.
She visited with a community delegation led by a former local to the area’s Taliban police station to discuss security. The only woman in the delegation, she had to wait in the courtyard while the others met with the district commander, who she said was trying to blame the security breaches on the old premises. As the delegation left, a guard told them not to bring any more women with them, she said.
âHow can you maintain security in Afghanistan if you cannot maintain security in our village? ” she said.
Massoumeh, 21, was a nurse at Dashti Barchi main hospital in 2020 when gunmen from IS stormed the maternity hospital, killing at least 24 people, most of them pregnant or recently giving birth. – one of the militants’ most horrific attacks.
Since then, she has been too scared to return to work because of death threats after speaking about the attack on Afghan television. Shortly after the attack, two activists approached her on a bus late at night, spotted her using a photo on their phone and pointed a gun at her, warning her not to return to work, she said. She and her father still receive threatening phone calls, she said.
Police from the previous government gave her some protection, she said. But she doesn’t even bother to ask the Taliban police for help.
“Of course not. We are afraid of them,” she said. “No one will come and help us.”
Other events in the heart of central Hazara Afghanistan have raised community concerns. In Daikundi province, Taliban fighters killed 11 Hazara soldiers and two civilians, including a teenage girl, in August, according to Amnesty International. Taliban officials also expelled Hazara families from several Daikundi villages after accusing them of living on land that did not belong to them.
After an outcry from the Hazaras, further evictions were halted, said Gawhari and other community leaders.
But so far, the Taliban have rejected repeated requests by the Hazaras to have a say in government. Gawhari, the cleric, said a Hazara delegation approached the Taliban and proposed 50 Hazara experts and academics to join the administration. âThey weren’t interested,â he said.
The international community is pressuring the Taliban to form a government that reflects the ethnic, religious and political spectrum of Afghanistan, including women. The Taliban cabinet is made up entirely of men of their own ranks.
Last week, Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi expressed his impatience with international demands for inclusiveness. “Our current cabinet fulfills this requirement, we have representatives of all ethnicities,” he told reporters.
The highest Hazara level in administration is a Deputy Minister of Health. Several other Hazaras hold provincial positions, but they are Hazaras who have long joined the Taliban insurgency and embraced its tough ideology. Few of the Hazara community recognize them.
Ali Akbar Jamshidi, a former member of parliament representing Daikundi province, said Hazaras would be dissatisfied with a few local positions and wanted to be integrated into the cabinet and the intelligence and security services.
The Taliban, he said, run a government “that acts like a warlord that gets it all.”
âPhysical security is not enough. We also need psychological security, feeling that we are part of this government and it is part of us, âhe said. âThe Taliban can take advantage of us. They have the opportunity to form a government for the future, but they do not take advantage of this opportunity. “
Abdul Qahhar Afghan contributed.