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Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan Leaves Hazaras Uniquely Vulnerable

Image via Karla K. Marshall/USACE

In recent weeks, #StopHazaraGenocide has raced to the top of social media users’ feeds, drawing upwards of six million tweets. The hashtag represents an effort to raise awareness about the atrocities being committed against the Hazara people at the hands of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Hazaras’ daily lives have frozen. They cannot attend school, visit their local mosque, or go to the hospital without the fear of being attacked. They cannot protest freely. They have close to no representation in government, despite composing approximately 19 percent of the Afghan population. 

Violence and discrimination against the Hazara community has persisted for decades. However, the period since the Taliban’s return to power in August of 2021 has witnessed an intensification of attacks against Hazaras, in combination with a brazen suppression of their social and political liberties. As much as American operations in Afghanistan were aimless and incoherent, and though its withdrawal was executed terribly, there were costs to the United States leaving. The Hazara community has since faced violent consequences, all while the international community turns a blind eye. 

The Hazara people are one of the largest ethnic groups in Afghanistan, native to Hazarajat, a mountainous region in central Afghanistan. For centuries, they have been the victims of massacres and mass displacement, subject to enslavement and corrupt treatment, and discriminated against on the basis of ethnicity and religion—most Hazaras are practitioners of Shia Islam in a Sunni-dominated country.

In the late 19th century, 60 percent of the Hazara population was murdered under Pashtun ruler Abdur Rahman Khan’s reign of terror. That violence and systematic discrimination seeped into the 20th century. In 1996, the Taliban seized the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif, slaughtering members of different ethnic groups by the thousands to the mantra, “Tajiks to Tajikistan, Uzbeks to Uzbekistan, and Hazaras to goristan [graveyard].” Hazara groups report that as many as 15,000 Hazaras were killed in this attack. 

The US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and the subsequent dissolution of the Taliban regime, yielded what Sharif Hassan, a former reporter for the Washington Post and New York Times and a member of the Hazara community, called a “communal revival” for Hazaras. In our conversation, Hassan noted that “Hazaras were in the bottom class of society, and in one decade they jumped to the top class.” Many Hazaras attributed this improvement to the United States and adopted Western values. “Hazaras saw the US as an ally,” stated Hassan. 

Large numbers of Hazaras were suddenly able to participate in Afghan elections, pursue higher education, and drive social change. They developed a sense of empowerment that fueled efforts to combat Hazara discrimination and expand opportunities for the community. For example, I had the chance to talk to Nasrat Jahed, an Afghan, Hazara, and conservationist, who established a private school to provide an avenue for Hazaras to further their educational pursuits and for teachers and staff to get jobs. “I wanted to bring benefits to my community,” said Jahed. Now in its third year, the school has 250 students and 18 teachers.

It is important to emphasize that discrimination and violence against the Hazara population did not disappear after US arrival. Jahed spoke to the long and arduous process he had to undergo in order to get permission to found the school, including bribing public officials who were averse to creating more educational opportunities for the Hazara people—“It was discrimination,” said Jahed. 2015 also marked the formation of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), an armed terrorist group that continues to this day to initiate deadly attacks against the Hazara people. 

But in 2020, without US backing, the Hazara population was left in an even more vulnerable state. Emeritus Professor William Maley, an expert on Afghanistan at the Australian National University, said in a statement that assaulting Hazaras may present a path for other groups “to establish their credentials in the eyes of the Taliban and their associates.” Indeed, the Taliban used the Hazara’s relationship with the United States to justify their attacks—in addition to the religious tensions and ethnic differences that were already fueling the Taliban’s animosity toward the Hazara people. The Taliban believe that Hazaras should “pay for their alliance” with the United States, said Hassan. 

Entire families have been torn apart because of the Taliban and ISKP’s vicious attacks. On September 30, 2022, Nasrat Jahed’s 20-year-old niece was killed, along with 35 other young women, by a suicide bomber while taking a practice university exam at Kaaj Educational Center, which is located in the Dasht-e-Barchi district of West Kabul—a Hazara dominated part of Afghanistan. “It was shocking,” said Jahed, adding that “thousands of families have suffered in similar situations—all of them Hazara.” 

All signs point to the Taliban’s iron grip over the Hazara community only tightening. The Taliban has neglected its promises to protect Afghanistan’s ethnic minorities. And there is nobody in the Afghan government with the political sway or incentive to defend the rights of the Hazara people. According to a report on the Hazara situation in Afghanistan commissioned by the British House of Commons, the Hazara community is at “serious risk of genocide.” This assessment was confirmed by the Genocide Watch, who put out a genocide emergency warning in July of 2021.  

The international community ought to honor its obligations to stand up to human rights violations. Each of the 152 states that ratified The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide are required under Article 1 of the convention to “confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.” 

Unfortunately, there is no obvious way to address the atrocities being committed against the Hazara people. Humanitarian intervention through the use of force is completely off the table. There is not a chance that the United States would even entertain the idea of reentering Afghanistan and waging what could become another “forever war.” When I asked Hassan his thoughts on solutions, he said “If you asked me this a year ago, I could give you one hundred suggestions on how the community should be protected, but now, in a Taliban’s Afghanistan, there are few options.” Still, that does not mean that international audiences should sit idly by and watch the situation unfold. 

The US, and more broadly the international community, should condemn the violence against the Hazara community. Jahed suggested that the United Nations ought to conduct a formal investigation into the history of violence against the Hazara people and come up with a strategy for addressing that violence. 

One part of that strategy might involve pressuring the Taliban into changing its discriminatory policies toward Hazaras. Hassan suggested that the United States could withhold humanitarian aid, which is now funneled directly into the Taliban’s pockets via Afghanistan’s Central Bank instead of being used to improve the country’s destitute conditions. Or, the United States can find alternative ways to send aid to the country by funding projects aimed at supporting Hazara businesses, women’s rights organizations, and schools—including Jahed’s. 

As the international community continues to paper over the Taliban’s human rights violations against the Hazara people, the Taliban and its allies only grow more emboldened. International audiences are kidding themselves if they think the violence will slow or stop. Turning a blind eye undermines the foundations of our international legal system, which denounces genocide. More importantly, it betrays the millions of Hazaras that saw the United States as an ally.