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The Hazāras' Struggle for Recognition and the Post-2001 Statebuilding in Afghanistan

Niamatullah Ibrahimi
Australian National University

In the early hours of the afternoon of 23 July 2016, a suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest among a crowd of hundreds of Hazāra protestors in the Dehmazang square of Kabul. A second bomber was shot dead before he could detonate his vest. According to a subsequent UN investigation (2016), the attack, responsibility for which was claimed by the so-called Islamic State (IS), was the deadliest of its kind since 2001, killing 85 and wounding 413 others.

The protest was organised by Hazāra activists who had formed the "Enlightenment Movement" (Junbesh-e Roshnāyi) to protest against an April 2016 government decision to change the route of an electricity transmission line funded by the Asian Development Bank. The line was initially planned to bring electricity from Central Asia through the predominantly Hazāra province of Bamyan to Kabul and thence to other provinces in the south-eastern part of the country, but the government decided to reroute it through the Salang Pass to the north of Kabul. For many of the younger Hazāras who took to the streets on 23 July 2016, the government decision to reroute the electricity transmission line was part of a broader government policy to exclude the Hazāra regions from major reconstruction and developmental programmes.

Struggle for Recognition

The Hazāras, mostly Shi'a in a predominantly Sunni country and recognizable for their Central Asian physiognomy, have been Afghanistan's most consistently-persecuted ethnic group, most recently by the Taliban from 1996 to 2001. They were the victims of genocidal mass killings, enslavement, and dispossession in the course of formation of Afghanistan as a modern state towards the end of the nineteenth century. For the first three quarters of the twentieth century, they became the country's socio-economic underclass, excluded from the government and subjected to a caste-like socio-economic marginalisation. In response, the Hazāras have launched a social, cultural and political struggle that is motivated by a collective demand for recognition. Central to this struggle for recognition is a demand for redefining the terms of state-society relations through making the state inclusive and representative of the aspirations of all sections of the society, and promoting universal conceptions of citizen rights and responsibilities. As part of this, the Hazāras have demanded popular elections, decentralisation of power, restructuring of administrative boundaries at the subnational levels, balanced socio-economic development strategies, and greater representation in the state institutions.

The overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001 and the subsequent efforts to create an inclusive liberal democratic government in Kabul upended a formal state policy of persecution of the Hazāras, providing them a rare opportunity for practising socio-cultural freedoms, and exercising political rights as citizens of the country.

However, many Hazāras continue to feel neglected and discriminated against by the state as they come under deadly attacks and threats of kidnapping from the IS, the Taliban, and other extremist groups. Consequently, the Hazāras have faced two interlinked sets of challenges: challenges resulting from within the post-2001 internationally-supported state institutions, and threats from violent and extremist anti-state groups such as the IS and the Taliban.

Challenges from Within

The statebuilding enterprise that followed the US-led military intervention against the Taliban regime in 2001 in Afghanistan helped form a broadly representative and democratic government in the country. Since the formation of the Interim Administration by the Bonn Agreement in December 2001, and the adoption of Afghanistan's new constitution in 2004, the state institutions in Kabul, including a bicameral National Assembly in Kabul, have generally represented the country's major ethnic group of Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazāras and Uzbeks along with smaller minorities. The idea of creating a representative government that is accountable to its population has received popular support among the ordinary people of all regions of Afghanistan. Despite immense threats of violence, the ordinary citizens of the country turned out in large numbers to participate in three rounds of presidential elections (2004, 2009, and 2014), and two rounds of parliamentary elections (2005 and 2009). Support for the creation of representative and accountable institutions has been particularly high among the Hazāras, who see the institutions of liberal democracy as solutions for their historical persecution and marginalisation.

In practice, however, the statebuilding and democratic experiments have suffered from major flaws in institutional design and implementation. In terms of design, the 2004 constitution created a highly-centralised presidential system, with a weak bicameral legislature that cannot provide the necessary checks and balance that are essential to the smooth functioning of any democratic system. The danger of presidential systems in turning elections into winner-take-all contests was powerfully illustrated by Linz (1990). In Afghanistan, the 2004 constitution charged the president with responsibilities for political leadership of a highly fractured state, leading a war against a protracted and brutal insurgency, and coordinating design and implementation of policies. This has meant that concentration of power in the office of the president has also led to centralisation of competition for control of the presidency, turning it into the epicenter of contestation for power and resources in an environment of pervasive distrust in state institutions.

In a polarized and low-trust environment, such concentration of power in one office cannot easily be separated from the real or perceived interests of the bearer of the office, and his particular social and political networks. President Ashraf Ghani, who has taken the centralization agenda to new levels, has also been accused of surrounding himself with a narrow circle of Pashtuns originating from eastern Afghanistan (International Crisis Group, 2017).

In their implementation, the international efforts at statebuilding were hamstrung by two parallel, and mostly contradictory, agendas pursued by international actors. On the one side, there was the much-talked-about agenda of building effective, representative and accountable institutions. The second agenda, however, was set by the imperative of counter-insurgency and stabilization efforts that were led by the international military actors.

Following the intensification of Taliban insurgency from 2005 onwards, the statebuilding and reconstruction efforts were subordinated to the counter-insurgency campaign of "winning hearts and minds,",which, among other things, diverted foreign aid money from institution-building and national development programmes to quick and often poorly-planned reconstruction efforts in areas where the Taliban appeared strongest. From the perspective of the Hazāras and other neighboring groups, the subordination of reconstruction efforts to the war against insurgents meant that international actors were rewarding violence with billions of dollars' worth of poorly-planned and often mismanaged spending.

The building of popular and representative institutions has been running into more serious difficulties. Electoral fraud has increased in every election since the first presidential election in 2004, reaching a scale during the 2014 presidential elections that its resultant political crisis only ended through formation of a National Unity Government by the two leading candidates; state institutions have been gradually captured by highly predatory and divided elites; and the Taliban has regrouped to challenge the writ and credibility of the state through violent means. The result has been a neopatrimonial political order where informal networks of power and patronage override formal rules, and there is little distinction between the state officials' formal duties and responsibilities and their private interests (Maley, 2013).

The descent of the state into neopatrimonialism and corruption and endless war has been dire for groups such as the Hazāras. This is not to suggest that certain Hazāra elites have not benefited from corruption. In Kabul, the new order has created an informal hierarchy among the country's major ethnic groups. Throughout this period, Ghani and former president Hamid Karzai (both Pashtuns) included a Hazāra as second vice-presidents, and Hazāras have served as ministers. However, in a highly-centralized system where informal power often overrides formal institutional designations, the Hazāra officials have been widely perceived to be ceremonial officeholders with little influence over state patronage or policy. Hazāras are nominated only as ministers in social services sectors such as planning, transport and public works. Appointing Hazāras as ministers in the security, finance or foreign affairs sectors is unofficially excluded. Those Hazāras who are occasionally hired in these ministries are usually given ceremonial roles as deputies and directors of planning and policy. Furthermore, the representation at the level of ministers has not led to a similar inclusive representation in the bureaucratic and security agencies of the state, which are often the main source of discrimination on a day-to-day basis. Younger Hazāras find it harder to accept the informal hierarchy of ethnic distribution of powers and resources. Since 2001, a particularly high enthusiasm for education among the Hazāras has expanded the Hazāra intelligentsia, who find it hard to fathom the informal limits to their social and political mobility.

Consequently, although the government does not pursue an official policy of discrimination Hazāra, the exclusion of the Hazāra areas from major reconstruction programmes such as building of roads and dams, as well as the ethnic power relations among the country's elites continue to remind many Hazāras of their continued socio-economic marginalization. Consequently, the legacy of persecution is heightened by a sense among many Hazāras that they have been punished for their good behavior, specifically for going to school and participating in the democratic process.

The Threat of Terrorism and Violence Extremism

The popular discontent generated since 2001 is only exacerbated by growing insurgent violence and weakening government control over the country's territories. The Taliban, the self-described Islamic State, and other violent groups have capitalized on the failures of the government and its international allies to deliver on the promises of building inclusive, transparent, and accountable institutions.

For several years, Hazāras have been targets of kidnapping, illegal detention, and arbitrary execution by the Taliban, and more recently the Islamic State after it established its presence in the country in 2015. According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (2017, pp. 67-68) in 2015, the anti-government forces abducted 224 Hazāras in 26 separate incidents. Though the number of abductions of Hazāra civilians dropped in 2016 to 16 incidents and 85 individual victims, a series of attacks, clearly targeting Hazāra religious centres and mass gatherings, killed and wounded hundreds in Kabul and other cities (2017, pp. 34-45). In addition to the 23 July incident, the main attacks against Hazāra documented by the UN included:

  • An 11 October 2016 attack by armed men who opened fire and threw a hand grenade at an Ashura procession in a mosque in Kabul that killed 19 and wounded 61 others.
  • A 12 October 2016 bomb explosion at a mosque in Balkh province that killed 18 and injured 67 others.
  • A 21 November 2016 suicide attack at another mosque in Kabul, which killed 40 and injured 74 others.
  • A 22 November 2016 remote controlled bomb which injured four worshipers at a mosque in the western city of Herat.

These attacks are clearly aimed at disrupting the fragile political arrangements by stoking ethnic and sectarian division and anger, and demonstrating the government's inability to protect this particular group.

The Risk of Convergence of Terrorist Violence and Ethicised Politics

The two layers of conflict—conflict over resources and power within state institutions, and insurgent violence—create a highly complex and unpredictable environment for the Hazāras' struggle, and for the country more generally. In this context, some of the most potent threats for the Hazāras, and for the stability and credibility of state institutions, come from a potential convergence of insurgent and extremist violence with ethnicized politics and divisions within the government. Such a confluence of interest between ethno-nationalist circles within the government and extremist groups is not at all unlikely. The insurgent groups have repeatedly expressed their disdain for the inclusive politics of the post-2001 period (although they benefit from the discontent generated by corruption and government ineffectiveness more than the idea of representative politics per se). Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the controversial leader of the Hezb-e Islami who returned to Kabul in May 2017 after more than fifteen years of fighting the government, represents such a dangerous constellation of ethnic divisions and extremist ideologies. In a public statement in August 2013, Hekmatyar accused the international actors of promoting minorities against majorities, and, explicitly referring to the Hazāras, Hekmatyar said,

The day will come when the oppressed people of Afghanistan will stand for their violated rights, and they will not find refuge in any corner of the country. Some of the will flee to Iran, which will also treat them with savagery and brutality (BBC Persian Service, 2013)

Such blatantly ethno-centrist positions can resonate well with some Pashtun nationalist groups who have also been pushing back against the relative political and socio-cultural pluralism of the post-2001 period by labelling demands for participation by other ethnic groups as "artificial," and promoted by foreign powers (Yun, 2017). The attempts by these groups to redefine the state and national identity around a Pashtun ethno-cultural core risks creating similar ethno-nationalist mobilisation among the country's other ethnic groups.

The challenges facing Afghanistan, and its Hazāra people, can hardly be overstated. A rich history of pragmatic politics and community-level solidarity has often served to mitigate some of the worst effects of failures of elite politics and the region's extremist violence. Despite important successes of pluralist politics since 2001, Afghanistan has a long and challenging way ahead to ensure its state represents and protects all its diverse social and ethnic groups. Given their long history of persecution, the fate of Hazāras will be an important test for the resolve of the country's elites to withstand the challenges of exclusionary politics, presented by ethnic division and extremist violence.

Niamatullah Ibrahimi is an Endeavour Scholar at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy of the Australian National University in Canberra, and author of The Hazāras and the Afghan State: Rebellion, Exclusion and Struggle for Recognition (London: Hurst & Co. 2017).


  • BBC Persian Service. (2013, August 7). Hekmatyār: Khārijihā bā hemāyat az aqalliyyathā Afghanistān rā tajziya mikunand (The foreigner will divide Afghanistan by supporting the minorities). Retrieved June 16, 2017, from http://www.bbc.com/persian/afghanistan/2013/08/130807_zs_gulbuddin_hekmatyar_eid_message.
  • International Crisis Group. (2017). Afghanistan: The Future of the National Unity Government. Asia Report No. 285, Kabul and Brussels.
  • Linz, J. (1990). The Perils of Presidentialism. Journal of Democracy, 1(1), 51-69.
  • Maley, W. (2013). Statebuilding in Afghanistan: Challenges and Pathologies. Central Asian Survey, 32(3), 255-270.
  • United Nations. (2016, October ). Attack on a Peaceful Demonstration in Kabul, 23 July 2016. Kabul: United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. Retrieved October 20, 2016, from http://unama.unmissions.org/sites/default/files/23_july_suicide_attack_against_peaceful_demonstration_-_18_oct_2016.pdf.
  • United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. (2017, February). Protection of Civilains in Armed Conflict: Annual Report, 2016. Kabul: United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. Retrieved June 15, 2017, from https://unama.unmissions.org/sites/default/files/protection_of_civilians_in_armed_conflict_annual_report_2016_final280317.pdf
  • Yun, I. (2017, June 6). Ba e'bārat-e digar: goftugo ba Ismail Yun. (H. Najafizāda, Interviewer) BBC Persian Service. Retrieved June 16, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MYaR0VbDvnk&index=2&list=PLmdEvtplre60ZJPnPHUv1MAdCbYpqcNZv
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