By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian
Afghanistan is, regardless of whatever ideological faction rules it, a Sunni Pashtun-dominated state. As a consequence, the Shia Hazaras, Afghanistan’s third largest ethnic group, have long been marginalized.
Living primarily in the country’s centre, the Hazaras account for some 20 per cent of Afghanistan’s 30 million inhabitants.
The modern Afghan state was the creation of the Pashtun Amir Abdur Rahman Khan, who ruled the country between 1880 and 1901and was determined to foster a state around Pashtuns as the ethno-cultural core of the country.
He ruthlessly quelled many rebellions against increased centralized rule. The most protracted of these was the 1891-1893 Hazara War, following which the traditional Hazara landholding elites, known as mirs and begs, were eliminated.
Tens of thousands of Hazaras died. Some were even sold as slaves. Until recent decades, few attended university or held government positions.
However, their homeland was largely spared from Communist rule and the Soviet occupation that lasted until 1989, so the Hazaras were able to regain some of the autonomy they had lost under Rahman.
Following the collapse of the Soviet-backed regime, the political party Hezb-e Wahdat was founded in 1989 and was transformed into the ethnic party of the Hazaras, sometimes co- operating and sometimes fighting with other ethnic parties during the 1992–1996 civil war that erupted following the disintegration of the country’s Communist government.
The Hazaras perceived the Taliban, which came to power in 1996, not just as a Sunni Islamist movement but as a Pashtun nationalist force, seeking to restore the historical Pashtun hegemony in the country.
One of the most brutal events took place in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998, when thousands of Hazaras were systematically executed, according to a Human Rights Watch report.
Although Afghanistan is no longer under Taliban rule, the Hazaras have also cast a wary eye on the post-2001 reconstruction initiatives undertaken by western powers after 9/11.
These projects, funded by major donors, have been mostly concentrated in the southern and eastern Pashtun provinces and so are simply another example of Pashtun hegemony. Yet Hazara provinces have remained among the most peaceful, despite the growing Taliban insurgency.
The Hazaras have taken advantage of the post-2001 political landscape. The 2004 Afghanistan Constitution granted them equal rights, and they have adapted to the current political system.
The political settlement following the disputed 2014 Afghanistan election averted a potential civil war through an ethnic power-sharing scheme.
President Ashraf Ghani is a Pashtun while his Tajik rival in the election, Abdullah Abdullah, is now the Chief Executive, a newly created position.
Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum is an Uzbek; while Mohammad Mohaqiq, a Hazara who emerged from the Hezb-e Wahdat, serves as Deputy to the Chief Executive, another new post created after the election.
In November Mohaqiq traveled to Iran and praised Shiite warriors who had taken part in the war in Iraq and Syria against Islamic State fighters.
Of course this whole edifice may come crashing down. Ghani is deeply unpopular and the coalition remains shaky. Next year’s presidential elections promise to be, at the very least, very contentious and perhaps violent. Ghani may be challenged by the Tajik warlord Atta Muhammad Noor, the governor of Balkh Province.
Menwhile, the Shia Hazaras remain victims of extremist Sunni groups. On Oct 20, at least 57 Hazaras were killed, and 100 wounded, during a suicide blast at the Imam Zaman Mosque in the Hazara-populated Dasht-e-Barchi neighbourhood of Kabul.
At least 41 people died and 84 were wounded on Dec. 28 when attackers set off an explosion outside a Shia cultural centre in the same area.
In the face of rising attacks against them, President Ghani has stepped up security measures for Hazara buildings.