Protecting Afghanistan’s Hazara People Under Taliban Rule

Hazara elders in Behsud.  (photo by Nasim Fekrat via Flickr Creative Commons)
Thursday, August 26, 2021

The American withdrawal from Afghanistan has been chaotic and contentious. Yet the very messiness of events in Kabul has effectively obscured important questions about civilian protection needs after September 1. The Taliban’s behavior in the territory over which they have gained control since the beginning of the year, is revealed in harrowing reports of summary executions, the recruitment of child soldiers, and restrictions on the rights of women. Now, with most of the country under Taliban control, vulnerable minority populations—and in particular the Hazara, a predominantly Shia Muslim ethnic group who primarily reside in the mountainous Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan—find themselves in the Taliban’s crosshairs.

The geographically vulnerable Hazara population has faced more than a century of systemic oppression and marginalization.  As a religious and ethnic minority, abuse against Hazara Afghans dates back to the reign of Abdur Rahman Khan in the late 19th century when Hazara rebellions sought to overthrow the Afghan monarchy and Khan, in turn, declared war on the Hazaras. Estimates suggest that as much as 60 percent of the Hazara population was killed, sold into slavery, or forced into exile in the ensuing conflict. According to Niamatullah Ibrahimi, an expert on the Hazaras (and a former MacMillan Center fellow), the Emir and his successor sought to institutionalize “a Sunni and sectarian state system that was inherently discriminatory and repressive” towards the Hazaras.

The end of the monarchy brought some relief to the Hazaras. However, as the mujahideen coalition that threw out the Soviet occupiers became increasingly dominated by members of the Sunni Muslims and the Pashtun ethnic group during the 1990s, Hazaras again faced repression. Once the Taliban consolidated power in September 1996 (and until they were defeated in October 2001), the Hazara again faced violent persecution. The worst incident occurred in August 1998, after the Taliban governor denounced Hazaras as heretics: over 2,000 Hazara men and boys were massacred at the hands of Taliban fighters in the city of Mazār-e Sharī.

In 2021, as the Taliban have once again gained territory and consolidated power, Hazara civilians have been frequent targets of the Taliban and other militant groups, notably ISIL-KP (Islamic State in the Levant and Khorasan Province), a self-proclaimed branch of the Islamic State. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) documented 20 attacks targeting Hazaras一leaving 143 dead and 357 injured一in the first half of 2021 alone. Among these attacks was the car bombing of the Sayed ul-Shuhada school in Kabul, timed just as female students were leaving for home. At least 90 civilians were killed, mostly Hazara schoolgirls between the ages of 11 and 17.

Last month, Taliban fighters reportedly conducted door-to-door killings in the Malistan district, which is almost entirely populated by Hazaras. In Malistan district in the eastern Ghazni province, nine ethnic Hazara men were tortured and killed between July 4 and July 6, according to a report from Amnesty International.

The threat that the Hazara faces as the Taliban assume power, is potentially consistent with the legal definition of genocide, which boils down to “…acts [including killing] committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” The violence against the Hazara appears to be on account of their ethnic identity and religious affiliation. If attacks continued along the lines established in the past, one might equally impute that they are being undertaken with an “intent to destroy.”

Both the Genocide Convention and the United Nations-driven doctrine of “the Responsibility to Protect” commit the global community to take action when faced with evidence of imminent mass atrocity crimes. This commitment has sadly been frequently (dis)honored in the breach, and with tragic consequences in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Myanmar (among other episodes.)  However, it has also motivated principled—if, in some cases, belated or partial—coordinated international actions, such as those in Kosovo, Darfur, and Mount Sinjar, the Yazidi homeland in Iraq. While far from perfect, each undoubtedly saved lives.

The coming weeks are of utmost importance for the Hazara. While a multinational protection force for the Hazara and other vulnerable groups might seem like an ideal response, it would be practically impossible to set up effectively and the chances that such a force would be drawn into conflict with the Taliban would be high.* Moreover, a sufficient mass atrocity response operation would likely require cooperation with Afghanistan’s neighbors, Pakistan and Iran, with whom the U.S.’s relations are, to say the least, complicated.

Yet, if nothing is done, we can expect more killings and deprivation. The global community, including the Security Council powers, must prepare for the contingency that a campaign amounting to genocide, ethnic cleansing, and/or crimes against humanity could erupt. Efforts to monitor the situation comprise the minimum first step. The risks to the Hazara and Afghanistan’s most vulnerable are real and urgent.  Indeed, should they come to fruition, they would represent the greatest failure of the United States’ departure from Afghanistan.

*This line has been changed from the original— “The ideal response would be a multinational protection force for the Hazara and other vulnerable groups, although the chances that such a force would be drawn into conflict with the Taliban would be high.”— at the request of the authors.

This commentary was written by David J. Simon, Director of the Yale Genocide Studies Program at the MacMillan Center and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Political Science, and Joshua Lam, MA/MBA candidate at Yale Jackson Institute and Yale School of Management, with contributions from Olivia Mooney, Research Coordinator for the Mass Atrocities in the Digital Era initiative within the Yale Genocide Studies Program, Kate Pundyk, BA Candidate in Yale College and Research Affiliate with the Mass Atrocities in the Digital Era initiative within the Yale Genocide Studies Program, and Nathaniel A. Raymond, Lecturer at the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and  the Yale School of Public Health.