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What the Fall of Balkhab Tells us about the Taliban

As part of our Resolving Conflict newsletter, Shuaib describes escalating ethnic division in Afghanistan...

It has been less than a week since the fall of Balkhab (a district located in Sar-e-Pul and bordering on the central province of Bamiyan) but all the northern provinces in Afghanistan have felt its significance. For the previous couple of months, a group of Taliban led by Mawlawi Mahdi, from the Hazara ethnic group, in Balkhab district had been quarrelling with the central government in Kabul.

The Hazara are a largely Shi’ite ethnic group, traditionally at odds with the Pashtun Sunni Taliban. The Hazara comprise just one of the four major ethnic groups in Afghanistan, the others being Pashtun (as mentioned above, the Taliban are predominantly Pashtun), Uzbek and Tajik. One of the successes of the Taliban in recent years (and one of the reasons many thought they had changed) was to win the support of Shi’ite ethnic groups in the north of Afghanistan, such as the Hazara, promising support in local conflicts and favoured access to resources. But since the Taliban have taken power, they have tried to limit the influence of and ultimately remove Hazara figures from their ranks. Mahdi refused to accept this.

Kabul tried to solve the dispute by sending committees of Shi’ite scholars, and local people to Balkhab and asked Mahdi to surrender himself with the 500 people under his command. But both sides failed to reach an agreement.

This resulted in 3 days of heavy fighting between the Taliban and the Hazara leader Mahdi. Finally on the morning of June 26, the Taliban entered the district and Mahdi’s people fled to the mountains.

Most people in Afghanistan see this as the start of a tribal war driven by the Taliban. The Taliban first attacked Panjshir province on August 31, 2021. There have since been many reports from the UN and UNAMA proving various violations of human rights, massacres, and the deportation of those of Tajik ethnicity from Panjshir. Now with the fall of Balkhab, mostly occupied by the Hazara ethnic group, everyone is afraid the story of Panjshir will be repeated but more brutally - since the Taliban and Hazaras have far from a pleasant history with each other.

The systematic persecution of Tajik and Hazara ethnic groups by the predominantly Pashtun Taliban has raised a question among Uzbeks, the fourth and final major ethnic group in Afghanistan. Will they be the Taliban’s next victims? These ethnic conflicts have put all northern provinces on emergency alert given the Taliban’s response to every national problem so far has been violence. I fear that we can now see that the Taliban have not changed, and that there is no hope for conflict resolution in Afghanistan.


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