Tucked in a valley in the remote highlands of central Afghanistan, Jaghori has been a safe haven in recent years for members of the country's beleaguered Hazara minority.
But the peace in Jaghori, a district in Ghazni Province heavily populated by the mainly Shi'ite Hazara, was shattered last week when Taliban militants launched a major offensive to seize it. Afghan special forces and pro-government Hazara militiamen continue to battle the militants, with clashes killing hundreds of people and forcing thousands to flee their homes.
When asked why the Taliban would try to take an area that has long been considered unattainable, analysts suggest that the hard-line Sunni movement is emboldened by territorial gains made elsewhere in the country, and has something to prove.
Expanding its reach into a central region inhabited by an ethnic group renowned for its opposition to the Taliban could be a game changer in the battle for national influence.
The Taliban terrorized Hazara during its oppressive 1996-2001 rule, when the militants wrestled control of central Afghanistan through brute force and a campaign of targeted killings. Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, the Taliban has been unable to make inroads in Hazara-dominated areas.
"The Taliban want to prove that they are capable of governing non-Pashtun territories," says Haroun Mir, a Kabul-based political analyst. "They have been able to govern ethnic Tajik and Uzbek areas in the north, and they want to govern Hazara-dominated districts as well."
Apart from Jaghori, the militants have also attacked the district of Malistan, also in Ghazni. Fighting erupted two weeks ago in the Khas Uruzgan district, which has a sizeable Hazara population, of the neighboring Uruzgan Province.
'Alternative Governing Force'
The Taliban has traditionally drawn on Pashtuns to back its insurgency, but it has successfully recruited disgruntled members of other ethnic groups as it has expanded its reach. The recruits have boosted the Taliban's ability to seize territory beyond the Pashtun-majority areas in the country's south and east that serve as its base of power.
To this point, Hazara areas have been the exception.
Analysts note that the Taliban has tried to portray itself as a genuinely national movement, and to bolster that image it has tried to attract members of other ethnic groups. It has also distanced itself from sectarian and ethnic-driven attacks, although it is in fact often blamed for orchestrating incidents.
"Unlike in the case of ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks, the Taliban doesn't have Hazara in their ranks, which is a big challenge for them," Mir says. "However, if they are capable of controlling and governing Hazara territories without brutality and abuses, then it might play well in their strategy, which is to portray themselves as an alternative governing force not only in the south but in the entire country."
'Never Accept Taliban Rule'
Taliban rule would be difficult to sell to Hazara. Aside from past Taliban atrocities against the community, the group's strict interpretation of Shari'a law and its policies on women and education would threaten advancements seen in Hazara areas in recent years.
In Jaghori, for example, there is near-universal girls education, and the number of boys attending school is higher than the national average. Women also work outside their homes and can drive cars, as is the case in most urban areas of Afghanistan but which is banned in areas under Taliban control.
During its draconian rule, the Taliban denied girls the right to go to school, and women were not allowed to work outside the home. If they ventured outside, women had to don a burqa and be escorted by a male relative. Although the Taliban has relaxed some of its strictest positions, its restrictions on education and women persist.
"Hazara will never accept Taliban rule willingly, and will do their best to resist them," says Ali Adili, a researcher at the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent think tank in Kabul. "Hazara do not want to have any reversal on their civic gains."
Highlighting the anti-Taliban sentiment among Hazara, civilians took up arms against the insurgents before the central government belatedly sent reinforcement troops, including special forces and warplanes, to besieged districts this week.
The fighting between the mostly Pashtun Sunni Taliban and Shi'ite Hazara has heightened fears of ethnic and sectarian violence, even as the Taliban has denied it is specifically targeting Hazara.
Pashtuns are the biggest ethnic group in Afghanistan, constituting some 40 percent of the 30 million population. Hazara make up around 10 percent.
'Try Their Chances'
The districts of Jaghori and Malistan in Ghazni Province are strategic because they are considered the gateway to the Hazara-dominated provinces of Bamiyan and Dai Kundi, peaceful areas where the Taliban currently has no influence.
Large parts of Ghazni are under the control of the Taliban and the militants briefly overran the provincial capital, Ghazni city, in August before they were beaten back by Afghan special forces backed by U.S. air strikes. Ghazni is strategically located on the main highway linking Kabul with the southern city of Kandahar.
"The Taliban may want to try their chances at wresting control of the Hazara areas from the government as they already control large parts of the non-Hazara districts in Ghazni Province," Adili says.
The Ghazni fighting prompted demonstrations in Kabul and Ghazni by Hazara, who have complained of official neglect after a string of militant attacks targeting the community. A suicide attack close to where demonstrators had been gathering in Kabul killed at least six people on November 12.
A recent U.S. government watchdog report said the number of districts under government control or influence was at the lowest level since 2015. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said only 55.5 percent of the total 407 districts were under government control or influence, with the rest either contested or controlled by the Taliban.