Rout of Taliban may not trigger ethnic reprisals
By Fariba Nawa
November 10 , 2001
The San Francisco Chronicle
Islamabad — The Northern Alliance’s capture of Mazar-e-Sharif last night was a sweet victory for the opposition and United States, but for the Taliban’s most persecuted victims — Afghanistan’s ethnic Hazara minority — it was overdue revenge.
Among the opposition soldiers who seized Mazar-e-Sharif were some 2,500 Hazaras, a Shiite group whose members were massacred by the Taliban when they took the city three years ago. “Hazaras have been massacred more than anybody in Mazar, and this (victory) means more to them than any other Afghans,” said Abdul Karim Khalili, the Hazaras’ factional leader. Khalili, who heads Hezb-e-Wahdat (the Party of Unity), spoke via satellite telephone from his native Hazarajat in central Afghanistan.
Populated mostly by ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras hostile to the ruling ethnic Pashtun Taliban, Mazar-e-Sharif has witnessed horrific bloodshed between the warring clans that filled the void after the Soviets retreated in 1989.
The Taliban briefly seized the city in 1997, only to be ousted by the brutal Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum and other tribal generals, whose forces slaughtered some 2,000 Taliban fighters. Many died in ghastly ways — sealed into truck containers and left to bake in the desert sun, or thrown down deep wells with grenades tossed in after them.
A year later, Taliban troops retook Mazar-e-Sharif and exacted revenge by shooting scores of boys and old men and slitting the throats of hundreds of other mostly Hazara residents. As many as 7,000 residents reportedly died.
THE CYCLE OF REVENGE
The apparent defeat of the Taliban yesterday could usher in another round in the vicious cycle. But the Hazaras have been surprisingly tolerant of their Sunni archrivals of late, giving rise to hopes that the cycle is breakable.
Ahmed Rashid, an expert on Afghanistan and a Pakistani journalist who has written a book on the Taliban, said of the situation in Mazar-e-Sharif: “It’s going to be a huge test for the Northern Alliance and the U.S. because there’s a fear for what’s going to happen to the minorities and what will happen to the Pashtuns.
“But I believe that this time, they have learned their lesson from the past, ” Rashid said. Hazara commanders have said repeatedly that they will limit the killing to the battlefield. Khalili took that one step further yesterday by saying that he supports the formation of a broad-based postwar government that would include moderate members of the Taliban.
The Hazaras could turn out to be a linchpin of that process.
Other Pashtun factions working with American efforts to reinstall former Afghan king Mohammed Zahir Shah have included Hazaras in their meetings. Pir Sayed Ahmed Gailani, a Pashtun royalist based in Peshawar, Pakistan, invited a Hezb-e-Wahdat representative to speak at his peace and unity conference three weeks ago.
TALIBAN SHOULD JUST LEAVE
War-weary Hazara refugees in Pakistan say they want the Taliban and Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda fighters ousted without bloodshed. They oppose the U.S.-led bombings.
“We don’t know how this (can) happen, but we want the Taliban to leave peacefully so we can go back to our country,” said Abdul Wali Khidri, a 50- year-old shoemaker in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, where many Hazara refugees have found a second home.
Dr. Ghulam Hussain, a Hazara physician in Rawalpindi, has formed a movement called Wahdat Islami Shia-Sunni (Islamic Unity of Shiites and Sunnis). Its goal is to bring together members of Islam’s two major sects and reduce tensions among Afghanistan’s ethnic groups. Hussain says his faction wants Hazaras to receive proportional representation in a future government, but no more than that.
“We’re for the Tajiks or Pashtuns to rule, but with justice,” he said. “We will work by their side. We want to be left to work in our businesses and carry out our everyday life.” While Hazaras have expressed their views quietly and behind the scenes, their role in the peace process and a future Afghan government is not assured.
Analyst Rashid said, “The Hazaras will always be vulnerable, and any kind of settlement will have to have clauses to protect Shiites and Hazaras.”
Compared to the ethnic Uzbek and Tajik troops in the Northern Alliance, Hazara troops have received the least attention and military aid from the United States, according to their commanders.
But they are patiently awaiting their turn — in the form of a U.S.-backed blitzkrieg to take back from the Taliban their mountainous home region, known as Hazarajat. For several days, the Americans have been bombing the freezing, inhospitable area, located about 125 miles from Mazar-e-Sharif, opening routes for alliance ground troops, Khalili said.
OLD TENSIONS, NEW HEIGHTS
Hazaras, who account for 19 percent of Afghanistan’s 21 million people, are descendants of Genghis Khan, and their Mongol features distinguish them from other Afghans. As the country’s largest Shiite minority, they have been historically oppressed — working as servants, vendors and sheep herders.
Tensions between the majority Sunnis and Shiites are old in Afghanistan, but the Taliban heightened them to a new level. The militia, made up of hard- core Sunnis, consider Shiites religious hypocrites and have carried out an ethnic cleansing of the Hazara population. International human rights groups documented a single four-day massacre in January, when 150 to 300 civilian Hazara men were killed by Taliban troops in Yakalang.
“We invite the world to come and see for themselves at least 120 kilometers (75 miles) of ashes and dust that used to be bustling with life,” Khalili said of areas the Taliban have allegedly ransacked.
The Hazara leaders’ willingness to cooperate with moderate Taliban does not mean they forgive the militia, experts say. But it reflects the recognition by the Northern Alliance that it cannot rule Afghanistan without the support of the Pashtun majority.
Hazara refugees said they support Taliban inclusion in a future government only because Pashtuns are the dominant ethnicity in Afghanistan, while Hazaras are a small minority. “The Taliban have been cruel, but what can we do?” said Patra Sakhidar, a 63-year-old fruit seller in Rawalpindi.
Afghanistan’s ethnic diversity
- Pashtuns — An overwhelming majority of the Taliban are Pashtuns; the group makes up 38 percent of the nation’s 21 million people.
- Tajiks — 25 percent; they account for a majority of the forces fighting the Taliban.
- Hazaras — 19 percent; the largest Shiite minority, they oppose the Taliban.
- Turkmens — Less than 10 percent; they side mainly with the Northern Alliance.
- Uzbeks — 8 percent; many rally around alliance warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum.