Enlightenment Movement protest, 2016
Maidi Askari is a Hazara-background member of the Afghan diaspora. He is finishing his masters, on Afghanistan, at SOAS university in London.
The Hazara community in the UK is many thousands strong, with a substantial presence in lots of cities. I’d say there are over a thousand in Peterborough, where I live. Other Afghan communities are also well represented, and we have good links with them; but I’d say in general the Hazara community is more organised politically. For instance in Peterborough we have a well-established community centre. There is a Hazara Council of Great Britain which has a long history of organising social events and so on, but at the moment it is heavily focused on politics for obvious reasons.
I think the reason for this strong organisation among Hazaras is mainly that our community has experienced danger and persecution over a very long period – dating back to the 19th century, under the Emir Abdur Rahman Khan, when perhaps 60% of Hazaras were massacred. This experience has fostered a strong community solidarity.
The same factors have also made many Hazara people very keen on education, in order to improve our position in society. That has created some interesting dynamics and divisions here, because many young Hazaras have been exposed to liberal ideas, whereas some older members of the community are more religiously conservative.
I myself am a leftist, though not particularly active on the front at the moment, so in practice I guess you could say left-leaning. However events in Afghanistan have tended to push me away from the left a bit, because so many left-wing groups only oppose the Western imperial powers and do not look at what is actually going in Afghan society.
What is the situation facing the Hazara people in Afghanistan now?
It is very grim. In the last twenty years Hazaras have really become the backbone of civil society in Afghanistan, again because of that focus on education. They didn’t really gain much political power, but this was not their focus. They fought instead for a different kind of power, the power to shape their own communities and have a say about their future. In the last twenty years that was easier to do because they did not face such bitter and open persecution, at least. In that period Hazara people could at least raise their voices without being totally suppressed.
Now in the Hazara areas the Taliban are going house to house, beating people up, killing them. There have been horrible reports from Daikundi province [a central province that is majority Hazara] and many other places. It is a similar experience to living under a Nazi-type regime. You can never feel safe and if people are taken or killed there is little one can do. Now, there won’t be even a nominally independent judicial system, and no practical right to protest.
In Hazara areas of Afghanistan, quite consistently, education is more developed and advanced than most other areas. These communities have worked hard and sacrificed to build a school system and so on. In the universities many students and teachers are Hazaras. Now, the bigoted and ignorant Taliban regime have dismissed all the university teachers, and will, in practice, scare students from attending.
Even more than other Afghans perhaps the Hazaras do not believe the more measured rhetoric the Taliban have adopted in order to perform in front of the Western media and appease Western governments. Their ideology permit and propels them to attack Hazaras, who they regard as infidels because our religion is Shia, not Sunni Islam; and also as a supposedly alien, Mongolian people due to our facial features and so on.
They are part of a long history of Pashtun-chauvinist violence which stretches back to the 19th century massacres of Hazaras. When they were last in power, in the 1990s, they carried out massacres themselves. In 1998 they killed about 10,000 in Mazar-i-Sharif. They created a situation where most Hazaras did not really live but just got by and continued to exist.
Taliban spokespeople have claimed that they are no longer Pashtun sectarians, and made a big deal of having a few Hazara figures and so on. What’s your assessment of that?
If they meant that their fighters would not be allowed to carry out attacks and killings. And they would show it in the kind of governmental system they are creating. It’s clear once again it will be an exclusively Pashtun government. There may be a few Hazaras and and others in lower administrative roles, but they will be kept even further away from political power than under the old government.
In Jaghori, a place in the Hazara-dominated region which has seen some of the biggest improvements educationally and so on, and which produces very large numbers of students, the Taliban have appointed an illiterate Pashtun from their fighting forces as the governor. There are many, many Hazara people there with degrees, even masters and PhDs, but they will be excluded from the government because of their ethnicity.
The Taliban have a very small number of Hazara people in their hierarchy, but it’s window-dressing, it doesn’t change anything fundamental at all.
More generally, is your assessment that the Taliban will have policies as fierce as in 1996-2001 – particularly in regard to women – or might they ease off under pressure from foreign governments and larger cities which have more social infrastructure than in the 90s?
It will certainly be harder for them to carry out their repression this time, but I think that once the dust has settled and the glare of the world is no longer on them they will go the same way. It will be the same with the Hazaras. In terms of women, they have already made clear that women will have no place in politics or government. Again, maybe they will keep a very few in junior administrative positions.
In Kabul in particular they will find it hard to eliminate them completely. In the rest of Afghanistan they will surely move to exclude women from any share in power faster. We can see what they intend from the areas of the country they have controlled for some time.
We’ve read about some protests, do you think more of that is likely?
There is actually a history of protest in Afghanistan, of people standing up for their rights against dominant elites. In 2016 we had the Enlightenment Movement, a grassroots Hazara protest movement against systematic discrimination, which also included opposition to more privileged, conservative, Hazara political elites.
So I think that there will be people in civil society who want to resist, but the reality of Taliban repression will make it very difficult for them to do so. In the last fortnight we’ve seen small protests of women to defend women’s rights, and yet even with these small protests the Taliban have attacked them, left women with bleeding heads and so on. People have been shot in several cities for flying the old Afghan flag. All this while they are still concerned about foreign attention. I can only see it getting worse. Yes, there will be discontent at food shortages and so on, but for now I’m not convinced there will be significant protests. The situation is unfortunately such that it will often be armed rebellion or nothing.
What is your assessment of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the role of foreign powers more broadly?
In the long run I’m always opposed to colonial or imperial powers intervening in the internal politics of any country. The history of interventions in Afghanistan is disastrous, and a large part of why the country has never developed a stable political system. There is a bravado phrase about Afghanistan being the “graveyard of empires”, but actually we have continued to be dominated by outside powers and the result has been a graveyard for Afghans.
Long ago, even though Afghanistan was formally independent it was still dominated by Britain, Britain controlled the country’s foreign policy. It provided Pashtun regimes with the means to oppress other ethnic groups, particularly the Hazaras.
I should add that many Afghan regimes have themselves represented a sort of “internal colonialism”, as some historians put it, because of Pashtun rule over the majority of the people. The Taliban regime, in essence, seeks to go back to the worst periods of that.
Then of course there is the role of Pakistan. In the Panjshir valley [in Northeast Afghanistan] there has been armed resistance to the Taliban and there are reports and videos of Pakistani fighters and even Pakistani drones and planes involved and helping the Taliban. This comes as the head of ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency, was seen in Kabul.
So it’s not that I want a US presence in Afghanistan, not at all, but equally the way the US left was extremely irresponsible. After years of doing nothing serious to help people in Afghanistan, very little to build social and government infrastructure so they could govern themselves, they exited suddenly, without even really telling the Afghan government what they were doing.
Now perhaps there will be different forms of intervention, from different countries. China has recognised the Taliban, and they are looking to build a highway from Pakistan to Kabul, and to get involved in the economy of Afghanistan. In the medium-term they can take natural resources like minerals and provide the Taliban with funding in return. The Saudis and other Arab states will continue and maybe step up support to the Taliban too.
So what should have been different, in terms of the kind of government you’d want to see?
What was necessary and is still necessary is a decentralised system of government, in which people have real local and regional autonomy and self-government. If that had been developed the Taliban would never have regained their momentum. There is a long history in Afghanistan of deep mistrust of the central government.
Now a government with little popular support has collapsed and people at a lower level mostly find themselves disarmed, unorganised and unable to resist. Meanwhile, some Pashtuns – not all, far from it – support the Taliban as an opposition to the discredited government. But the Taliban are creating an even more brutal version of centralisation.
The left should try to understand these questions and not just view everything in terms of international geopolitics. Yes, international politics is important, but the most important thing is what is happening in the country and how it affects actual people.
How best to build solidarity with people in Afghanistan now?
Again, the first thing should be to end this viewpoint which only sees things in terms of certain imperial powers and take more of an interest in the actual people of Afghanistan. The left should be giving Afghan people, including from the diaspora, a voice and a platform.
We can argue for Western societies to learn from the mistaken policies of their governments, policies which benefited those governments rather than the peoples of Afghanistan, and pressure them to adopt policies now that can at least improve the situation.
For instance we can push for pressure on Pakistan to stop helping the Taliban. We should call for humanitarian aid despite the nature of the Taliban government, because it will stop suffering, save lives and help keep Afghanistan’s society functioning. We should fight for the UK to open up to and welcome Afghan refugees, and take measures to help people get here.
Pakistan has a left and labour movement and very recently Iran and India have seen big struggles by workers and farmers against their governments. If they make progress such struggles could help change the situation in Afghanistan, couldn’t they?
We should cooperate with left-wing movements in these countries to help the refugees. In terms of bigger politics, of course, upheavals and changes in Pakistan and elsewhere would certainly help, but let’s be honest, it would take a massive, massive shift from where we are now. We should not romanticise the strength of the left in the region.