Afghan Taliban look for support of Hazaras whom they once persecuted

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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - PESHAWAR, Pakistan: The Afghan Taliban’s recent appointment of a militiaman from the Hazara community as a local chief in northern Sar-i-Pul province appears to indicate a change in its attitude toward the minority group, which it persecuted for decades.

On April 22, the Taliban announced Maulvi Mahdi as its chief for the Balkhab district in Sar-i-Pul, a region dominated by the Shiite community.

The Hazaras are predominantly Shia and constitute a religious minority among Afghanistan’s majority-Sunni population. It is estimated that they account for 15 percent of the country’s 37 million people.

The Hazaras were systematically persecuted under Taliban rule between 1996 and 2001.

Hikmat Safi, a security adviser to Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, told Arab News the appointment of Mahdi was as a “diplomatic move” aimed at attracting the support of Hazara people in a fast-changing political scenario and ahead of the intra-Afghan dialogue — discussions between all Afghan stakeholders on a road map for a political settlement and a lasting ceasefire after nearly two decades of warfare.

Maulvi Mahdi, a 34-year-old Hazara militiaman appointed on April 20 by the Taliban as their chief for Balkhab district in Sar-i-Pul province, Afghanistan. (Screen grab from a video released by the Afghan Taliban)

“The choice of Mahdi is a clear message to the Hazara that the Taliban are no longer against them,” Safi said, adding that the group is now striving to win the favor and support of minorities ahead of any future agreement with the Afghan government.

According to the Taliban, Mahdi has been active in their ranks for some time.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Arab News that he has “his own group, a large number of followers (in Balkhab) and has for years contributed to jihad.”

He added: “The issue has just caught media attention, but he has been there in the field for a long time”

According to Fazal Muzhary of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, the 34-year-old Shiite militiaman is influential in the Balkhab region and has been involved in attacks against government forces. He was arrested in 2010 and sentenced to 14 years in prison, but was released before serving the full sentence.

“He developed links with the Taliban in the recent past and played a role in recruiting local fighters in Balkhab,” Mauzhary said.

While the Taliban denies that the appointment of the Hazara militiamen was a political gimmick, it is signaling a departure from its extremist stance towards Shias and attempts to gain legitimacy among other ethnic groups.

“We have clear targets such as an end to the occupation of Afghanistan and the (establishment of) an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. All ethnicities which accept these targets are to enjoy equal rights in any future settlement,” Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen told Arab News.

“What happened in the past should not prevent the parties from marching forward ... An inclusive Afghan government after result-oriented intra-Afghan talks will better identify the country’s external, internal policies and role of minorities and their rights in the future setup,” he said.  

The change in the ideology and politics of the Taliban has been acknowledged by representatives of the Hazara, who are tired of the war and for the sake of peace appear to be willing to let bygones be bygones.

“We want an end to war and we want a democratic setup under which all ethnic groups such as Pashtun, Hazara, Tajik, Uzbek and others enjoy freedom, unity and peace. We have high expectations that the imminent Afghan government-Taliban talks will yield tangible results this time,” said Asadullah Saadati, a senior politician from the Hezb-e-Wahdat party — the key vehicle of the Hazara community’s political presence.

Saadati told Arab News on Wednesday that the party could sit with the Taliban and jointly work with it for any future setup. “We should have tolerance for each other to move forward,” he said, adding that the ongoing prisoner exchange between the Taliban and the government gives a ray of hope that the intra-Afghan dialogue will take place and settle differences.

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