The Taliban have a moral duty to protect Afghanistan's Hazaras

The militant group has made much of 'liberating' Afghans from foreign occupiers, but now domestic threats loom larger

A Hazara woman cries after an explosion in front of a high school in Kabul, on Tuesday, April 19, 2022. Reuters
Powered by automated translation

Were Afghanistan a very different kind of country, the densely packed neighbourhood of Dasht-e-Barchi in western Kabul might be its hub of innovation. A mere 20 years ago, it did not exist, having since sprung up as a result of migration from the countryside. The majority of its population are Hazaras, a minority ethnic group that has overcome huge economic and social barriers to attain the highest literacy and graduation rates in the country.

But Afghanistan is not a very different kind of country. Instead, it is the sort where Dasht-e-Barchi and, in particular, its pupils have become a magnet for terrorist attacks; five have struck the neighbourhood's schools in the past four years, killing more than 150 children and maiming hundreds of others. In the latest, on Tuesday, a suspected member of ISIS-K, a local offshoot of ISIS, left improvised explosive devices outside a boys' school and a nearby tutoring centre, killing six and wounding dozens.

The Taliban, Afghanistan's new government, has condemned the attack and called for national unity. But many Afghans doubt, quite rightly, that they will put much effort into bringing the perpetrators to justice. Before the militant group took power, the notion that the Taliban should be a protector of Hazaras would have seemed impossible – because for many years it was the Taliban they needed to be protected from. The group has committed plenty of its own violence in Dasht-e-Barchi in the past.

For many years it was the Taliban Hazaras needed to be protected from

In the past seven months, burdened with the responsibility of governance, the Taliban have insisted that they have turned a new leaf, making assurances of security to wary Hazara community leaders and saying that Hazaras, too, are beneficiaries of their supposed liberation of the country. But throughout that time many Taliban foot soldiers have stood accused of carrying out their own attacks on the community. After Tuesday's attack, Taliban police officers sent to the scene were filmed callously beating back grieving families.

ISIS-K, which reviles the Taliban and has replaced it as Afghanistan's terrorist scourge, has often claimed to target Hazaras for their faith. Most Afghans readily associate the community with Shiism, even though only a majority – not all – Hazaras are Shiite, and certainly not all Afghan Shiites are Hazara.

But that is only part of the story. Systemic racism against Hazaras runs deep; as late as the 1970s they were prohibited from public office or military service.

For the Taliban, who are endeavouring to sell themselves as Afghanistan's unifiers, the evidence will only lie in action, not words. A determination to seek justice for a majority-Shiite community might spark the ire of the Taliban's most hard-line flanks, but it would also be the first real demonstration of any positive vision for a diverse society under Taliban rule.

The fact that ISIS-K is the perpetrator will be a strong motivator; the irony is lost on no one that the Taliban has a counterterrorism problem. But if the group wants to rule Afghanistan in the long term, it must recognise that it faces a racism problem, too.

Published: April 20, 2022, 1:41 PM