After years of persecuting Afghanistan’s religious and ethnic minorities, the Taliban are now trying to win over and recruit from the Shiite Hazara community ahead of intra-Afghan peace talks.
The predominantly Sunni insurgents posted a video on their website last week to introduce their first local leader from the Hazara community. Mawlawi Mahdi, a Shiite cleric militia leader, was named the Taliban’s governor for Balkhab district in Sar-e-Pul province in northern Afghanistan.
In the video posted on April 22, Mahdi urges Hazaras, who have faced repeated attacks from the Taliban over the past two decades, to join the group in fighting against “Jewish and Christian invaders”, referring to the United States.
“Weren’t you in the frontline fighting the Soviet Union alongside your Sunni brothers?” he says. “Why aren't you joining your Taliban brothers in fighting this invasion?”
The Taliban are “inclusive of all people without any racism” and Shiites are very much a part of their “divine strategy”, Mahdi says in another section of the roughly edited video, in which some of his statements are cut off in mid-sentence.
The Taliban are scheduled to hold peace talks with government officials and representatives of civil society under a deal with the US administration to end nearly two decades of war in the country. The group has continued to attack the US-backed government forces as preparations for the talks make halting progress.
Bringing in minority members like Mahdi at this stage could be an attempt by the Taliban to gain more legitimacy for the negotiations, experts say.
“The Taliban has never been an inclusive force; their leadership in Quetta and Peshawar and their political office in Doha are run by Sunni Pashtuns. They have had token Tajik commanders in the field, particularly in the north, but now they are trying to include some token Shia Hazaras in the mix,” said Sabir Ibrahimi, an Afghan security analyst and research associate at New York University’s Centre on International Co-operation.
Ali Yawar Adili, a researcher with the Afghanistan Analysts Network, agrees. “In recent years, the Taliban have recruited from other communities like Tajiks and Uzbeks. They seemed to feel a gap in their effort to portray themselves as a nationwide movement due to the lack of any significant influence among ethnic Hazaras,” he said.
There is no census data available, but it is estimated that Hazaras comprise up to 15 per cent of the Afghan population.
However, Mahdi’s background is unlikely to reassure ordinary civilians in Balkhab, even though he is a native of the predominantly Hazara district.
Mr Ibrahim said Mahdi was responsible for a number of attacks on Afghan government forces, abduction and extortion, and served six years in prison on criminal charges.
After his release in 2018, Mahdi was sent to Balkhab by Afghan politician Mohammad Mohaqeq as his “viceroy”, and established himself as warlord in the region, Mr Ibrahimi said.
Mr Mohaqeq, the deputy chief executive of Afghanistan in the previous government, is leader of the Hezb-e Wahdat party of which Mahdi was once a member.
The people of Balkhab became fed up with Mahdi and there was an uprising against him in October 2018, Mr Ibrahimi said. “He then fled the town. He returned a year later and is based there now,” he said.
Mr Ibrahimi suggested Mahdi’s appointment might also be an attempt by the Taliban to appeal to Shiite-majority Iran, which has maintained a loose alliance with the insurgents despite ideological differences.
He said the Taliban had a political office in the Iranian city of Mashhad, while Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had publicly admitted that Iran had ties with the Taliban.
“This is more of a political alliance with Iran than to create sectarian harmony,” Mr Ibrahimi said.
Many Hazaras fled to Iran to escape Afghanistan’s wars after the Soviet invasion in 1979, and some of those refugees have joined the Fatemiyoun Afghan militia mobilised by Tehran to fight for the Assad regime in Syria.
But the Taliban will find it difficult to sway the Hazaras, according to both Mr Ibrahimi and Mr Adili.
“Afghan Hazaras suffered, perhaps more than any other ethnic group, under the Taliban and have continued to suffer from its insurgency. It is hard to imagine they will trust the Taliban that soon, especially given that they pushed into Hazara districts in Ghazni and Uruzgan in 2018 and have been carrying out attacks against certain Hazara villages in the north,” Mr Adili said.
But if more Shiite areas fall to the Taliban, people there might have no choice but to accept their rule or flee, Mr Ibrahimi added.