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Afghanistan: Will The Hazara Be Excluded From Kabul's Power-Sharing Equation Again?

The Hazara are a Shiite Muslim people living in predominately Sunni Afghanistan. As a result of religious persecution, the Hazara have suffered perhaps more than any other ethnic group in Afghanistan. But now, as discussions continue on the ethnic composition of any post-Taliban government in Afghanistan, the Hazara are finding themselves largely excluded from the list of participants in proposals of broad-based Afghan governments.

Prague, 30 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- As U.S.-led military strikes continue on terrorist sites and Taliban military targets inside Afghanistan, discussions are underway among nations in the antiterrorism coalition concerning the makeup of any post-Taliban government that may be formed.

There are widely divergent opinions about who should be represented in such a government. Russian President Vladimir Putin said recently that the Taliban should not be represented. He has been publicly joined in that view by Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, and, not surprisingly, by former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was deposed by the Taliban in 1996 but is still recognized as Afghanistan's president by the United Nations and most nations.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell left open the possibility, while visiting Pakistan recently, that more moderate Taliban elements could be integrated into any new government.

Pakistan says Afghanistan's dominant Pashtun population, from which come the majority of the Taliban's soldiers, must be represented. It is also widely believed that ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks -- who, like the Pashtuns, are Sunni Muslims -- must be included.

One of those groups rarely, if ever, mentioned in the makeup of any post-Taliban government are the Hazara. The Hazara are an ethnic group that is something of an anomaly even in Afghanistan's rich ethnic quilt and has historically not been represented in the governing of Afghanistan.

The Hazara are believed to account for 19 percent of Afghanistan's population, placing them behind only the ethnic Pashtun (38 percent) and Tajiks (25 percent) in the order of dominant ethnic groups in the country. The Hazara are ethnically related to the Mongols who invaded Afghanistan in the early 13th century. Therefore, they are not only relative newcomers among the peoples of Afghanistan but are also Shiite Muslims among majority Sunni Muslims, which includes the ruling Taliban.

Peter Sinnott is a professor of Central Asian studies at New York City's Columbia University. In an interview with RFE/RL, Sinnott offers a brief sketch of the history and makeup of the Hazara: "The Hazara are a people of 2 million, maybe 3 million. They live in central Afghanistan, in the mountainous area. They inhabit rather steep valleys. They practice pastoral nomadism, and they're the people [who] have suffered more as a result of the Taliban being in power than any other in Afghanistan."

Patricia Gossman is an adjunct professor at Washington, D.C.'s Georgetown University and at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Gossman co-authored a recent Human Rights Watch report that was critical of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance. The Hazara are currently part of that alliance.

Gossman says the Hazara have almost always found themselves opposed to the ruling Afghan regimes: "The Hazara have long been a group discriminated against by various regimes in Afghanistan going back several centuries, and things are no different now. Under the Taliban, the Hazara were particularly singled out for abuse, too."

Gossman notes that when the Taliban took control of the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif in August 1998, some 2,000 Hazara living there were killed. Gossman says the evidence shows they were massacred simply because they were Shiite Muslims.

The Hazara were targets of the Taliban earlier this year. The Northern Alliance took the Yakawlang district of Bamiyan Province in December. The Taliban recaptured the area in the first week of January. The United Nations, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch all confirm that about 300 civilians -- all of them men -- were publicly executed by the Taliban. There was another reported massacre in May in the same region. Human Rights Watch says the majority of victims in both attacks were Hazaras.

As odious as Taliban rule has proven to be for the Hazara, there is little reason to believe the ethnic group would fare much better if the Northern Alliance should come to power. Gossman points out that when Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik, was in power from 1992 to 1996, the Hazara's fortunes were no better: "[The Hazaras] also fought against some of the other groups who were trying to take Kabul, including Ahmad Shah Massoud and [General Abdulrashid] Dostum. In fact, some of the worst fighting in Kabul between 1992 and 1995 was in west Kabul, in the Hazara neighborhoods. And in some of the atrocities that took place on both sides -- the groups were responsible for attacks on Pashtun civilians, and Hazaras themselves were the victims of both Massoud's forces and a Pashtun force. Hundreds of Hazaras were massacred."

Massoud's forces were mainly ethnic Tajiks, and Dostum's mainly ethnic Uzbeks.

As Shiite Muslims, the Hazara have often received support from Iran and are often seen as being guided by Tehran's policies. Both Sinnott and Gossman acknowledge the strong link between the Afghan group and Shiites in Iran but note the religious links do not compensate for the ethnic links enjoyed by other groups.

Both analysts say that one reason Afghanistan's Tajiks and Uzbeks have received so much attention in discussions of any future Afghan government is that Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are located just across the northern Afghan border and that these countries are known for supporting their ethnic relatives in the south.

"In broader discussions about the future from U.S. officials and the press, Hazaras do seem to get left out, and the focus is [more] on Tajiks and Uzbeks. Maybe [that's] in part because of their quite natural links to countries across the border, while the Hazaras don't have that kind of neighboring country supporting them," Gossman says.

Based on Afghanistan's history, the Hazaras have little hope of finding themselves represented in any post-Taliban government, despite the fact that nearly one out of every five Afghan citizens is a Hazara.