‘The Taliban and Afghanistan’s Hazaras’ by Rabia Latif Khan

By Sunil Pun|December 10, 2021|General|0 comments

By Rabia Latif Khan

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan culminated with the capture of Kabul on the 15th of August 2021. The Taliban now control more territory than when they ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. Their takeover has reignited fears among the country’s Hazara community about a return to the brutalities of the 1990s.  

The Hazaras’ history in Afghanistan has been tumultuous. They were formerly autonomous in central Afghanistan, an area also known as Hazarajat. However, this drastically changed in the late 1800s when the King (Emir) at the time, Abdur Rahman Khan, declared a jihad, holy war, against the Hazaras in order to consolidate his power. The war was justified on the grounds that Hazaras were ‘infidels’ due to their beliefs as Shia Muslims in a predominately Sunni state. However, the dominant historiographical sources surrounding this event do not accurately capture the ground realities that led to the community’s subjugation. Prior to the insurrection of Hazarajat there had been multiple instances of rape against Hazara women by the King’s soldiers. Instead of reassuring community leaders who met with the King, Hazaras were imprisoned and had their weapons confiscated. This in turn enraged the community and cemented the foundations for a strain in relations between Hazaras and Abdur Rahman. The war which then ensued saw countless Hazaras killed, with 65% of the community massacred, according to Hazara oral history. Many Hazara women were also raped during the war, and some of those who could not flee to neighbouring Iran and British India, were captured and kept as slaves. After the war Hazaras were at bottom of the country’s social hierarchy, in part due to their religious beliefs, but also due to their ethnicity.

Most of the available literature on the Hazaras refers to the community as being of Mongol heritage, having arrived in the region in the 13th Century. However, some Hazaras claim that they are of Turkic-Mongol heritage and have been present in the region for much longer, while others claim that Hazaras are indigenous to central Afghanistan. Despite these different heritage claims, the community’s distinct appearance set them apart from the vast majority of Afghan society and adds another layer to the discrimination and subjugation that the community has endured. This in turn lead to the manifestation of an internalised self-loathing among the community in th 20th Century, with some Hazaras choosing to label themselves as Tajiks as means to prevent discrimination and ridicule.

The 1990s marked another dark period in the history of the Hazaras. After the civil war which ravaged the country, during the early years of the decade, the Taliban captured Kabul in September 1996. During this period many Afghans suffered. Under Taliban rule women were banned from going to school or studying, banned from working and banned from leaving the house without a male chaperone. Hindus and Sikhs were forced to pay a special tax and had to publicly identify themselves with yellow patches on their clothing. Ethnic Hazara were labelled as ‘infidels’ and Mullah Niazi, a Taliban governor in the north of the country, famously proclaimed that Hazaras must either convert to Sunni Islam or leave the country, otherwise they will be killed. Hazaras were also brutally massacred during this time. Several thousand Hazara civilians were killed in the city of Mazar-e Sharif over the course of several days. Hazara civilians were also massacred in Bamiyan province in 2001. The United Nations found mass graves in Bamiyan in 2002, which locals say were the result of one of the last massacre by the Taliban against the community in 2001, before they were ousted. 2001 was also the year that Bamiyan garnered international media attention, when two ancient statues of the Buddha were destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001.    

Buddha of Bamiyan
Credit: James Gordon

The Buddha statues of Bamiyan, referred to as Salsal and Shahmama in Hazara folklore, had been a fixture of the region’s landscape since the 6th Century. Most news articles about the destruction of the statues state that they were removed by the Taliban on the orders of Mullah Omar, as they were perceived as idols, and this was done in order to bolster his supposed Islamic credentials. However, many Hazaras dispute that this was the real motivation as the why statues were destroyed. Some claim that the destruction of the statues was ethnically motivated as the statues proved their historical connection to central Afghanistan, and claim that the statues physical features matched their own[1]. However, the Taliban’s wanton destruction was short lived, as six months after the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, the Twin Towers fell, which marked a new chapter in Afghanistan’s history.

On the 7th of October 2001 a new phase of the war in Afghanistan began, ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’. President George W Bush, in his quest to bring the masterminds of the 9/11 attacks to justice, instigated a war that lasted almost twenty years. The NATO mission in Afghanistan marked the end of Taliban rule and in the same year the Bonn Conference took place in Germany, in order to establish a new Afghan head of state and implement a process of democratisation in the country. However, the Taliban were not invited to participate in the conference, although as we all know, less than twenty years after the Bonn Conference, the US initiated dialogue with the group in Doha, in 2018. From 2001 onwards the conditions for Hazaras in Afghanistan also changed. The situation for the community vastly improved in terms of access to education, as well as in public sector recruitment. Since 2001 it is Hazara youth who topped the national university entrance exam, known as the kankor. Civic gains and accomplishments among the Hazara community since 2001 are now ample. Examples of well-known Hazara accomplishments in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban include sportsman Rohullah Nikpai winning the country’s first ever Olympic medal at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Dr Sima Samar being the first Chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and singer Zahra Elham becoming the first female contestant to win the popular national music TV talent show ‘Afghan Star’ in the show’s 14-year history (in March 2019). Hazara visibility greatly increased in post-2001 Afghanistan and in the 2014 unity government, Hazara politician Muhammad Mohaqiq held a senior role, as second deputy of the chief executive.

Despite the educational opportunities presented to Hazaras since the overthrow of the Taliban regime and the better socio-economic status of Hazaras in urban centres in recent years, attacks on Hazaras in Afghanistan also increased during this new phase of the war. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Eligibility Guidelines for Assessing the International Protection needs of Asylum-Seekers from Afghanistan published in August 2018 noted that Hazaras have been killed at the hands of the Taliban, ISIS and AntiGovernment Elements. In 2016, over one-hundredHazaras were killed in attacks for which ISIS claimed responsibility[2], and in 2017 there were multiple attacks on Shia Mosques and on Shia religious processions[3], as well as growing attacks in the Dasht-e Barchi neighbourhood of west Kabul, a predominately Hazara district. Since 2016 there have been multiple attacks against Hazaras in west Kabul, including at tuition centres, sports venues, wedding halls, hospitals and Mosques.

Just before the capture of Kabul, in July of this year, the Taliban massacred Hazara men in Ghazni province, which Amnesty International would later report was a massacre[4]. The situation for Hazaras in Afghanistan in 2021 under Taliban rule looks bleak. Only three days after the fall of Kabul the Taliban destroyed the statue of Abdul Ali Mazari a pivotal Hazara political leader who was killed by the group in 1995. The Taliban killed over a dozen Hazaras in Daikundi province at the end of August and are currently also forcibly displacing Hazaras from their homes in Daikundi. While in October of this year Hazara civilians were killed in attacks in Mosques in Kunduz and Kandahar. The new Taliban government does not have a single Hazara minister, which not only means that there is no Hazara representation in the new government, but also no Shia representation either. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum also released a statement that saying Hazaras face ‘…a risk of crimes against humanity or even genocide’[5]. Consequently, the return to Taliban rule in Afghanistan not only undermines the gains of Hazaras in the last twenty years but marks the start of more repression of a historically marginalised community.   


This article was first published in German for the iz3w magazine in October 2021.

Rabia Latif Khan is a Teaching Fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. She recently completed her doctoral degree on Hazara ethnic consciousness from SOAS. She also holds an LLM in Human Rights from SOAS.


[1] See: https://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=7039902.

[2] For information on attacks on Hazaras in Afghanistan see: www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-39031000.  

[3] For news articles on attacks on Shia religious spaces in Afghanistan see:

1) www.nytimes.com/2017/08/25/world/asia/mosque-kabul-attack.html.

2) www.latimes.com/world/asia/la-fg-afghanistan-shiites-20171021-story.html.

3) www.theguardian.com/world/2017/dec/28/blast-afghan-news-agency-kabul-kills-dozens.

[4] See: www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2021/08/afghanistan-taliban-responsible-for-brutal-massacre-of-hazara-men-new-investigation/.

[5] See: https://www.ushmm.org/information/press/press-releases/museum-statement-on-the-hazara. 

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