KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Outside a Shiite shrine in Kabul, four armed Taliban fighters stood guard on a recent Friday as worshipers signed up for weekly prayers. Next to them was a guard from Afghanistan’s predominantly Shia Muslim Hazara minority, an automatic rifle slung over his shoulder.
It was a sign of the strange, new relationship that the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan entailed. The Taliban, Sunni Muslim hardliners who for decades have targeted the Hazaras as heretics, are now their only protection against a more brutal enemy: the Islamic State group.
Sohrab, the Hazara guard who stands guard over the Abul Fazl al-Abbas shrine, told The Associated Press that he is getting along fine with the Taliban guards. “They even pray in the mosque sometimes,” he said, giving only his first name for security reasons.
Not everyone feels so comfortable.
Syed Aqil, a young Hazara who visits the ornate shrine with his wife and 8-month-old daughter, was concerned that many Taliban are still wearing their traditional attire – the look of a jihadi insurgent – rather than a police uniform.
“We can not even say whether they are Taliban or Daesh,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.
Since taking power three months ago, the Taliban have presented themselves as more moderate compared to their first regime in the late 1990s, when they violently oppressed the Hazaras and other ethnic groups. Following international recognition, they promise to protect the Hazaras as proof of their acceptance of the country’s minorities.
But many Hazaras still have deep distrust of the rebels who became rulers, who are predominantly ethnic Pashtuns, and are convinced that they will never accept them as equals in Afghanistan. Hazara community leaders say they have repeatedly met with the Taliban leadership and asked to join the government, only to be rejected. Hazaras complain that individual fighters still discriminate against them and fear that it is only a matter of time before the Taliban return to repression.
“Compared to their previous regime, the Taliban are a little better,” said Mohammed Jawad Gawhari, a Hazara priest who runs an organization that helps the poor.
‘The problem is that there is not a single law. Every single Taliban is their own law right now, he said. “So people live in fear of them.”
Some changes from the previous era of Taliban rule are clear. Following their takeover in August, the Taliban allowed the Shiites to perform their religious ceremonies, such as the annual Ashura procession.
The Taliban initially confiscated weapons used by Hazaras, with the permission of the previous government, to guard some of their own mosques in Kabul. But after devastating IS bombings of Shiite mosques in Kandahar and Kunduz provinces in October, the Taliban returned weapons in most cases, Gawhari and other community leaders said. The Taliban also make their own warriors available as guards for some mosques during Friday prayers.
“We provide a safe and secure environment for everyone, especially the Hazaras,” said Taliban government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid. “They should be in Afghanistan. Leaving the country is not good for anyone.”
The Hazaras’ appeal to Taliban protection shows how horrified society is for the Islamic State group, which they say aims to eradicate them. In recent years, IS has attacked the Hazaras more ruthlessly than the Taliban ever did, triggering bombings against Hazara schools, hospitals and mosques, killing hundreds.
IS is also a common enemy. Although they are Sunni hardliners like the Taliban, IS militants are engaged in a revolt with frequent attacks on Taliban fighters.
Some Hazara leaders see a potential for collaboration. Ahmed Ali al-Rashed, a senior clergyman from Hazara, praised the Taliban commanders, who now run the main police station in Dashti Barchi, the vast district of western Kabul-dominated Kabul.
“If all the Taliban were like them, Afghanistan would be like a flower garden,” he said.
Others in Dashti Barchi were skeptical that the Taliban would ever change.
Marzieh Mohammedi, whose husband was killed five years ago in fighting with the Taliban, said she is scared every time she sees them patrolling Dashti Barchi.
“How can they protect us? We can not trust them. We feel they are Daesh,” she said.
The differences are partly religious. But also Hazaras, who estimate to make up 10% of Afghanistan’s population of almost 40 million, are ethnically segregated and speak a variant of Farsi rather than Pashtu. They have a long history of being oppressed by the ethnic Pashtu majority, some of whom stereotype them as uninvited guests.
Aqil said that when he tried to go to a police station to get a document, the Taliban guard at the gate spoke only pashtu and impatiently slammed the door in his face. He had to come back later with a Pashtu-speaking colleague.
“That kind of situation makes me lose hope in the future,” he said. “They do not know us. They do not have the generosity to accept other communities. They behave as if they own this land.”
A young Hazara woman, Massoumeh, said four people were killed last month in her part of Dashti Barchi, raising residents’ fears that people with roles in the previous government were targets.
She accompanied a local delegation led by a local elder to the area’s Taliban police station to discuss security. The only woman in the delegation she had to wait in the yard while the others met with the district chief, who she said was trying to blame the security flaws on the local elder. When the delegation left, a guard told them not to take a woman with them again, she said.
“How can you maintain security in Afghanistan if you can not maintain security in our village?” she said.
The 21-year-old Massoumeh was a nurse at Dashti Barchi’s main hospital in 2020, when IS-armed men stormed the maternity ward and killed at least 24 people, mostly mothers who were pregnant or had just given birth – one of the militants’ most horrific attacks.
Since then, she has been too scared to return to work due to death threats after talking about the attack on Afghan television. Shortly after the attack, two militants approached her in a bus late at night, picked her up using a photo on their phone, and pulled a gun at her, warning her not to go back to work, she said. She and her father are still receiving threatening phone calls, she said.
Police under the previous government gave her some protection, she said. But she does not even bother to ask the Taliban police for help.
“Of course not. We are afraid of them,” she said. “No one will come and help us.”
Other events in the central Afghanistan heartland of the Hazaras have raised societal concerns. In Daikundi province, Taliban fighters killed 11 Hazara soldiers and two civilians, including a teenage girl, in August, according to Amnesty International. Taliban officials also expelled Hazara families from several Daikundi villages after accusing them of living on land that did not belong to them.
Following an outcry from Hazaras, further deportations were halted, Gawhari and other community leaders said.
But so far, the Taliban have rejected repeated requests from the Hazaras to influence the government. Gawhari, cleric, said a Hazara delegation approached the Taliban and suggested 50 Hazara experts and academics be brought into the administration. “They were not interested,” he said.
The international community is pressuring the Taliban to form a government that reflects Afghanistan’s ethnic, religious and political spectrum, including women. The Taliban’s cabinet is made up entirely of men from their own ranks.
Last week, Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi expressed impatience with international demands for inclusivity. “Our current cabinet meets the requirement we have representatives from all ethnicities,” he told reporters.
The highest level Hazara in the administration is a Deputy Minister of Health. Several other Hazaras hold some provincial posts, but they are Hazaras who long ago joined the Taliban uprising and adopted its harsh ideology. Few in the Hazara community recognize them.
Ali Akbar Jamshidi, a former MP representing Daikundi province, said Hazaras would not be happy with a few local positions and wanted to be brought into the cabinet and intelligence and security services.
The Taliban, he said, are leading a government “that behaves like a warlord who has conquered everything.”
“Physical security is not enough. We also need psychological security and we feel that we are part of this government and it is part of us, ”he said. “The Taliban can benefit from us. They have the opportunity to form a government for the future, but they are not using this opportunity. “
Afghan Abdul Qahhar contributed.