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Afghanistan returns to the Taliban. Which future for the Hazaras?

Updated: Feb 2, 2022

1. Introduction

In the complex ethnic reality of Central Asia, Afghanistan occupies a position of primary importance. As geographical, cultural and linguistic crossroads, the Afghan valleys have witnessed the passage of generations of Silk Road merchants towards Kashgar, the gateway to Xinjiang and the Celestial Empire. The Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Shiite and Sunni Muslims, Baha'is, Sikhs, Hindus communities are the heirs of the millenary ethnic-religious dynamics that have involved this territory.

The complex ethno-demographic Afghan reality remains a distinctive feature that still today influences national and international policies. In 2007[1], out of a population of about 22 million inhabitants, it was estimated that there were about 50 ethnic groups and about thirty languages spoken. However, the statistics are constantly evolving; as of today, after just 14 years, the estimates show a population of almost 39 million inhabitants[2].

Fig.1 Ethnographic map of Afghanistan and relative percentages of ethnic groups (M.Izady)

Hazara, Pashtun, Tajiki, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Arabs, Kirghizis, Jamshidi, Taimuri, Firozkohi, Taimani, Baraki, Nuri: these are just some of the largest ethnic groups present in this territory, testifying the complex cultural symbiosis.

2. The Hazara

Fig. 2 Hazara children, Bamiyan province. (balazsgardi)

The Hazaras are one of fourteen recognized [3] ethnic groups in Afghanistan. Their Persian name (هزاره, Hazāra) means "the thousand" and refers to a legend according to which this ethnic group descends from the 1.000 armies of Genghis Khan who led them to the Mongol conquest of Eurasia. In fact, the Hazaras possess physical characteristics typical of Central Asian populations, traits that make them highly distinguishable from the other ethnicities of Afghanistan. However, Alessandro Monsutti[4] reports three theories on the genesis of this population: “The first establishes that it is a group descended from the Mongols (or Turkish-Mongols) and perhaps directly from the armies of Genghis Khan; the second hypothesis favors the element of autochthony of the Hazara, for which they would have been present in the region even before the Indo-European invasions of the second millennium BC; the third hypothesis focuses on the different migratory waves that would have led to the formation of Hazara settlements with different origins…

The Hazaras represent a substantial portion of the population within the changing Afghan demographic scenario. The exact numbers are not known since the last official national census was carried out in 1979[5]. It is estimated that this ethnic group comprises between 10 and 20% of the population - between 4 and 8 million-, but other estimates[6] instead refer to about 15% of the total population of Afghanistan, settling around 6 million individuals. The Hazara community itself claims that its number is deliberately underestimated by official organizations in order to deny funding and political representation, estimating the percentage at 25%, 10 million approximately of individuals.

Figura 3 L’ Hazarestān (ISW)

The Hazaras live mainly in the Central and Western provinces of Afghanistan[7], with a sizeable population in Kabul - an estimated quarter of the residents are Hazara - and other large cities. Their traditional homeland is a mountainous region made up of the provinces of Bamiyan - considered unofficial capital by the Hazara themselves -, Daykundi, and parts of the provinces of Qazni, Qor, Uruzgan and Wardak called Hazarajat or Hazarestān. Notable communities reside in Mazar-e Sharif and Herat, where they make up around 25% of the population[8]. Most of the Hazaras are Shia Muslims of Jafarite and Ismaili current, while a minor percentage is Sunni[9].

3. Afghanistan’s current security situation

In response to the 9/11 terrorist attack the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) coalition led by NATO was established, with the task of conducting a military campaign against the Taliban government in Afghanistan, responsible for supporting Al Qaeda and hosting the leaders of the terrorist organization.

On 4/14/2021 United States President Joe Biden announced the end of military operations in Afghanistan and the end of the presence of US troops. In twenty years of international military mission, 2.300 billion dollars have been spent, there were 3.600 victims of the international coalition - of which 53 Italians - and over 70.000 Afghan civilians were killed.

Fig. 4 Annual comparison of civilian victims of hostile acts (UNAMA)

In February 2020, the Trump administration had already agreed with the Taliban leaders to withdraw the military forces by May 2021; in exchange, the Taliban would have ensured the country's security by preventing other groups, including Al Qaeda, from using Afghan soil to recruit, train or raise funds for activities that would threaten the United States or its allies.

Already in 2020 -while negotiations between the Taliban and US officials proceeded- the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) reported[10] that the Afghan territory was not completely controlled by government forces and most of it was under the Taliban and other anti-government elements control. In particular, the Anti-Government Elements (AGEs) are[11]:

- The Taliban, which are considered the most powerful anti-government group and that control much of Afghanistan by positioning themselves as a true shadow government of the country. They are accused of targeted killings and deliberate indiscriminate attacks on civilians, particularly Shiite minorities. They operate parallel mechanisms of justice based on a rigorous interpretation of the Sharia, exercising judicial power through unrecognized courts.

- The Haqqani Network, which is considered as a terrorist organization by the UN. It maintains close ties with the Taliban and it is described as a powerful faction of them, while maintaining a degree of operational independence. It is believed to be responsible for complex attacks in densely populated areas of the capital Kabul. The Network appears to collaborate and maintain close contacts with Al Qaeda, despite the agreement with the United States of America.

- The Islamic State - Khorasan Province, ISKP, that is a jihadist Salafist organization also considered as a terrorist group by the United Nations due to its affiliation with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL (also known as Daesh or ISIS). The group is responsible for deliberate attacks on civilians, particularly religious minorities, such as Shiites and Sikhs.

- Al Qaeda, that is a transnational Salafist jihadist organization, also considered by the UN as a terrorist group. Sources indicate that Al Qaeda maintains relations with the Taliban and a limited presence in Afghanistan, carrying out its activities mostly under the auspices of other EAGs, notably the Taliban, despite the agreement with the United States.

- Other minor but no less lethal groups, such as Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, Jaish-e Momammad, Lashkar-e Tayyiba, several terrorist groups and militants of the Uyghur network such as the Islamic Movement of East Turkestan, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan known also as Jundullah, Jamaat Ansarullah Tajikistan, Lashkar-e Islam.

Fig. 5 Civilian casualties by percentage (UNAMA)

The clashes between government forces and AGEs groups are very violent and cause particular damage to the civilian population. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, reported [12] that even though the number of civilian casualties in 2020 fell below 10.000 for the first time since 2013, violence against civilians increased in the months following the start of Afghan negotiations in September 2020. Between 1 January and 31 March 2021, UNAMA documented 1.783 civilian casualties (573 dead and 1,210 wounded). The number of civilians killed and injured increased by 29% compared to the first quarter of 2020. Of particular concern is the 38% increase in civilian casualties in the six months following the start of peace negotiations in Afghanistan in September 2020 compared to the same period of the previous year, showing that talks between the Taliban and the US administration did not lead to reduced threats to civilians. AGEs continued to be responsible for the majority, a whopping 61%, of all civilian casualties in the first three months of 2021, while pro-government forces caused 27 of total civilian casualties. UNAMA documented an increase in the number of civilian casualties attributed to both the Taliban, + 39%, and the Afghan National Army, + 35%, with the Taliban responsible for 43.5% of all civilian casualties and the Afghan National Army responsible for 17%.

4. Hazara under attack

The present situation of the Hazara is a direct consequence of the events of the past century. The Hazara minority in Afghanistan has been regularly subjected to violence and discrimination on identity, ethnicity and religion basis since the end of the 19th century.

The persecution of the Hazaras began in 1890 during the state-building campaign of the Emir Abdur Rahman Khan, who wanted to form a state not influenced by ethno-religious dynamics for the benefit of a totally Sunni nation[13]. 60% of the Hazaras were massacred during the campaigns of genocide and ethnic cleansing, the rest would be targeted by violence just for the guilty of not wanting to change their faith. Slavery, denial of educational rights, political rights and freedoms, expropriation of land and displacement from their territories of residence: the entire twentieth century was characterized by the persecution of the Hazara population throughout the country.

The sectarian motivations advanced by Abdur Rahaman Khan were at the basis of the wave of violence in the 1990s perpetrated by the Taliban against the Hazara, that reached a peak in 1996 when the Taliban, exploiting the instability of the government, occupied the main Afghan cities gaining political power with the support of Pakistan to. In 1998, the Hazara of Mazar-e Sharif tried to stem the invasion of their city but the Taliban repression and retaliation massacred 8.000 civilians[14] and similar mass killings occurred throughout Afghanistan during the same years. The Taliban also destroyed and targeted the cultural identity of the Hazara by blowing up ancient Bamiyan Buddhas statues and destroying hundreds of historically significant artifacts and cultural sites, such as the mausoleum built in memory of Ali Mazari, considered the spiritual father of the Hazaras[15].

The situation for Shiites has improved following the overthrow of Taliban power by ISAF. By the time Taliban integralism had regressed, the Hazaras gained significant social, political and economic[16] gains and fundamental rights such as education and the right to vote had been restored.

The Hazaras supported the peace process after the fall of the Taliban government and they were the first group to surrender to the government and to collaborate with the international community. This in turn brought the Taliban to perceive the Hazaras as both infidels and collaborators of the occupiers.

To date, targeted attacks have increased exponentially and are attributable to the AGEs, particularly the ISKP and the Taliban, who consider the Hazaras and Shiites legitimate targets. The attacks targeted gathering places such as religious commemorations, weddings and hospitals in Hazara-dominated neighborhoods in large cities, including Kabul and Herat. Among other reasons, the ISKP is targeting the Hazaras because of their support to Iran in the fight against the ISIS in Syria[17].

Hundreds were the attacks conducted by the ISKP and the Taliban. The most shocking are the unacceptable violence against childrens and infants, three examples below.

In August 2015 in Ghazni, seven individuals of the Hazara ethnic group were kidnapped by ISKP, and they were beheaded after several weeks of detention and torture. At least four of them were children between the ages of 9 and 16[18].

In May 2020, an assault was carried out on the obstetric hospital in Dasht-e-Barchi, a district of Kabul mainly populated by Hazaras. Babies and pregnant women were targeted[19] in the hospital run by Doctors Without Borders.

In Dasht-e Barchi, on 8 May 2021, an explosive attack consisting of several IEDs hit a female school, causing ninety deaths and more than two hundred injured. The majority of the victims were girls between 11 and 13 years old[20].

Fig. 6 The sorrow of a Hazara family for the loss of their daughter in the attack on the Dasht-e Barchi girls' school in May 2021 (NY Times)

5. Genocide

The serious human rights violations against the Hazara ethnic group are the result of a widespread and systematic attack against this community, continuously violating human rights and raising fears of the crime of Genocide.

The definition of this crime is given in Article II of the 1948 Genocide Convention[21]:

"In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. "

Of the 5 acts involving genocide, the first three are the most relevant to the situation of the Hazaras. By targeting and killing for ethnic-religious reasons and deliberately inflicting damage aimed at causing the physical destruction of the ethnic group, it is clear that ISIS and the Taliban have committed and are still committing the crime of genocide.

In addition to the serious violent actions, the public statements of the AGEs officers also manifest the desire to eradicate the presence of the Hazara ethnic group. The intent of ISIS and the Taliban has been publicly repeated and this is the element that constitutes the deliberate intentionality towards a specific goal. Mullah Niazi, the Taliban commander responsible for the attack on Mazar-e-Sharif and author of the 1998 Hazaras massacre, after the massacre declares: "The Hazaras are not Muslims, they are Shiites. They are kofr [infidels] ... we must kill the Hazara"[22]. In more recent times, in addition to the Taliban, the ISKP has also supported similar statements, confirming the desire to destroy the ethnic and religious minority and calling the Hazaras "rafidah", the rejected ones[23].

As for the fourth point: it could be possible to interpret the violence against children as a measure to contain Hazara births, in particular the events that occurred at the obstetric hospital and at the Dashte-e Barchi female school.

6. Conclusions

Following the complete withdrawal of the coalition forces from the Afghan territory, the newly formed government has the complex task of consolidating its authority and managing security throughout the territory of Afghanistan while respecting the identity of the ethnic groups that make up the social reality of the population avoiding tribal conflicts. As of today, July 3 2021, after the withdrawal of the italian base in Herat - the Camp Arena - and the complete eviction of the Baghram Air Base, the main aeronautical hub of the coalition, the AGEs of the Taliban has managed to regain possession of more than 160 districts out of 398 through rapid offensives, meeting almost no resistance. The future for the Afghan government is certainly not simple, similar to that of the Hazara population of Afghanistan. There is no doubt that Taliban fundamentalism will seriously endanger the existence of this ethnic group, reiterating the crimes and violent actions already committed in the past.

Since the authority of the Afghan government is not enough to protect the Hazaras, the international institutions have a duty to intervene and ensure the safety of individuals at risk on Afghan territory.

The Hazara diaspora has pushed millions of this ethnic group to leave their homeland, preferring other countries. The institutions of the host countries should simplify the regulations concerning the request for political asylum and the transfer of refugee status by cooperating with the relevant international organizations, in order to be able to rescue as many Hazara individuals as possible.

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Afghanistan returns to the Taliban. Which future for the Hazaras_Massimiliano Lacerra
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[1] Elisa Giunchi, Afghanistan. Storia e società nel cuore dell’Asia, Carocci, Roma, 2007 [2] World Bank, Total population of Afghanistan , [3] Afghanistan, The Constitution of Afghanistan, 26 January 2004, art. 4 [4] A. Monsutti, War and Migration, Social Networks and Economic Strategies of the Hazaras of Afghanistan, 2005 [5] DFAT, country-information-report-afghanistan 2020. [6] Al Jazeera, ‘Afghanistan: Who are the Hazaras?’, 27 June 2016 [7] USSD, ‘International Religious Freedom Report 2017’, (Section I), 29 May 2018 [8] EASO, ‘Afghanistan – Key socio-economic indicators...’, August 2017 [9] Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, Religion in Afghanistan, May 2018 [10] EASO, Country Guidance Afghanistan, December 2020 [11] ibid [12] United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), Afghanistan: Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, Annual Report 2020, February 2021 [13] Ibrahimi, Niamatullah. The Hazaras and the Afghan State: Rebellion, Exclusion and the Struggle for Recognition. Hurst & Company, 2017 [14] Human Rights Watch, Massacre at Robatak Pass, May 2001, [15] ibid [16] DFAT, ‘Hazaras in Afghanistan’, September 2017. [17] As part of its asymmetric strategy, the Islamic Republic of Iran supports, funds and trains armed Shiite movements across the Middle East. Since the 1980s, Iran has tried to create a resistance movement that could counter the power of the Taliban by creating Hizb-e Wahdat-e Islami-e Afghanistan, the Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan, often referred to as such as Hizb-e Wahdat (HeW). The heir to the intent of building a proxy turns out to be the Fatemiyun Brigade, an elite military body formed exclusively by Afghan expatriates and trained by the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), which has achieved excellent results in the war against the Islamic State in Syria. [18] [19] [20] [21] [22] Human Rights Watch, Incitement of violence against Hazaras by governor Niani, Report, 1998 [23] Mehdi, Syed Zafar. “Why ISIS Have Declared War On The Hazara Shias Of Afghanistan.” The Huffington Post, 26 June 2017,


- Elisa Giunchi, Afghanistan. Storia e società nel cuore dell’Asia, Carocci, Roma, 2007

- World Bank, Total population of Afghanistan ,

- Afghanistan, The Constitution of Afghanistan, 26 January 2004, art. 4

- A. Monsutti, War and Migration, Social Networks and Economic Strategies of the Hazaras of Afghanistan, 2005

- Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, DFAT, country-information-report-Afghanistan 2020.

- Al Jazeera, ‘Afghanistan: Who are the Hazaras?’, 27 June 2016

- United States State Department, USSD, ‘International Religious Freedom Report 2017’, (sezione I), 29 May 2018

- European Asylum Support Office, EASO, ‘Afghanistan – Key socio-economic indicators’, (p. 17), August 2017

- Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, Religion in Afghanistan, May 2018

- European Asylum Support Office, EASO, Country Guidance Afghanistan, December 2020

- United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), Afghanistan: Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, Annual Report 2020, February 2021

- Ibrahimi, Niamatullah. The Hazaras and the Afghan State: Rebellion, Exclusion and the Struggle for Recognition. Hurst & Company, 2017

- Human Rights Watch, Massacre at Robatak Pass, May 2001,

- Australian Government, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, DFAT, ‘Hazaras in Afghanistan’, September 2017.

- Human Rights Watch, Incitement of violence against Hazaras by governor Niani, Report, 1998

- Mehdi, Syed Zafar, Why ISIS Have Declared War On The Hazara Shias Of Afghanistan, The Huffington Post, June 2017

- European Asylum Support Office, EASO, Situation of Hazaras and Shiaas (2018-2020), 2020

- Home Office, Country Policy and Iformation Note, Afghanistan: Hazaras, 2018

- Congressional Research Services, Afghanistan: Background and US Policy In brief. June 2021

- United States Commission of Religious Freedom, Annual Report, 2020

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