How ethnic and religious divisions in Afghanistan contribute to violence against minorities

Eds: This story was provided by The Conversation for AP customers. The Associated Press does not guarantee the content.

(THE CONVERSATION) Almost a hundred Afghan Shiite Muslims were killed in attacks on mosques in October 2021. One of these attacks took place on October 15, when a group of suicide bombers detonated explosives in a Kandahar mosque. Just over a week before that, at least 46 people had been killed in another suicide bombing in northern Afghanistan. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for both attacks.

Ethnicity and religion are central to understanding politics and conflict in Afghanistan today. My research on Afghan affairs can explain how they created the fault lines that have influenced Afghan politics since 1978.

The four largest ethnic groups in Afghanistan

The largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, estimated at around 45% of the population and mainly concentrated in the south and east of the country, are the Pashtun Sunni Muslims.

The Pashtun population is split in two by the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, the Durand Line, and has a long history of challenging state authority and the legitimacy of official borders in the two countries. Until recently, when Pakistan built a border fence, tribal members and Pashtun fighters crossed the border as if it did not exist.

Pashtuns are often characterized as fiercely independent and protective of their land, honor, traditions and faith. The first time Pashtun fighters defeated an invading superpower was when they destroyed a British army sent to colonize Afghanistan in what is known as the First Anglo-Afghan War, which lasted from 1838 to 1942.

The martial prowess of the Pashtun tribes and clans made them very influential in Afghan politics. With two short-lived exceptions, in 1929 and between 1992 and 1994, only the Pashtun rulers have ruled Afghanistan since 1750.

The second largest ethnic group in Afghanistan are the Tajiks, a term that refers to the Tajik ethnicity as well as other speakers of Sunni Muslim Persian. The Tajiks, who constitute around 30% of the Afghan population and are mainly concentrated in the northeast and west, have generally been accepted by the Pashtuns as part of the fabric of life in Afghanistan, possibly due to their common adherence to Sunni Islam.

The third largest Sunni Muslim group are the closely related Uzbeks and Turkmens in the north of the country, who make up around 10% of the population.

The Hazaras – about 15% of the Afghan population – traditionally lived in the rugged mountainous terrain of central Afghanistan, an area in which they historically sought refuge from the Pashtun tribes who disapproved of their membership in the Shia sect of Islam. The Hazaras have always been among the poorest and most marginalized people in Afghanistan.

Communist government and Soviet occupation

Most Afghans did not react when a faction of the Afghan Communist Party seized power in April 1978, as the Afghan government had traditionally played a very limited role outside the big cities.

However, they rose up in impromptu revolts when the Communists sent their activists to conservative villages to teach Afghan children about Marxist dogma. When the Soviets invaded in 1979, resistance spread to much of Afghanistan. Mujahedin – Muslim warriors defending their land – of all ethnic groups played a role in resisting the Soviet army.

Later, a brutal Uzbek communist militia leader named Abdul Rashid Dostum eliminated most of the Uzbek mujahedin, and most of the Hazara mujahedin parties made a tacit deal with the Soviets to reduce hostilities. However, most Pashtuns and Tajiks continued to resist until the Soviet withdrawal and the collapse of the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul.

The Soviets promoted minority interests and gender equality in the areas of Afghanistan they controlled, which led to the large cities they controlled to evolve culturally to a point that made urban life unrecognizable to anyone. many rural Afghans.

The withdrawal of the Soviet Red Army in February 1989 led to the cessation of US aid to the Mujahedin parties, which transformed the Mujahedin field commanders, whose loyalty to party leaders was based on their ability to distribute financial and military resources, in militarized independent local leaders. . Likewise, the regime’s militias and units also became independent after its collapse in April 1992.

Afghanistan, particularly the Pashtun regions, has become fragmented, with hundreds of local and warlords fighting over territory, drug production, smuggling routes, and people to tax. While many local leaders cared for the well-being of their friends and relatives, some were warlords who mistreated their Afghan compatriots.

The first era of the Taliban

In 1994, a group of former Pashtun mujahedin formed the Taliban and succeeded in controlling most of Afghanistan, including Kabul, when the United States invaded in late 2001.

The rise of the Taliban has been fueled by the rural support of the Pashtuns for their agenda to end the insecurity generated by the warlords, restore importance to the Pashtuns and recreate traditional life in Pashtun villages – as they had imagined. The conservative views of the Taliban reflected the values ​​of much of the population they ruled in the south and east of the country.

The conservative rural Taliban, traumatized by decades of war, encountered a foreign cultural environment when they took control of Kabul. They reacted forcefully, limiting urban women’s access to education and work, and imposed strict restrictions on dress, appearance and public demeanor.

Afghans in urban areas, especially women, and members of Afghan minorities generally did not share the Taliban’s parochial understanding of their common faith. They were undermined, threatened or punished when they tried to challenge the Taliban’s restrictions. The Hazara Shiites, in particular, were subjected to brutal retaliatory attacks when they resisted the Taliban regime.

American occupation

The US military invaded Afghanistan and allied with local minority leaders and some Pashtun warlords to drive out the Taliban. These warlords ended up occupying most of the key positions in the regime established by the US-led coalition in Kabul.

For warlords of all walks of life, it seemed like a golden age. The rest of the Afghan population, even more in Pashtun areas than in others, has started to suffer again from the predatory behavior of the warlords.

In 2004, three years after the start of the US occupation, the mostly Pashtun Taliban reorganized into an insurgent force to combat the US-led occupation and the regime it established in Afghanistan.

Enterprising urban youth, including women, from historically disadvantaged minorities, especially Hazara Shiites, have taken advantage of overseas aid, education programs and employment opportunities to advance. In contrast, rural Pashtuns, who have borne the brunt of the war between the Taliban and the US-led coalition, have suffered an economic setback and have benefited little from investments in health and education.

One of the byproducts of the US occupation of Afghanistan was the development of a local branch of the Islamic State, the Islamic State-Khorasan (an Arabic name for the region). The organization was formed by defectors from the Taliban who felt their leadership was too gentle on the Americans. This group has engaged in attacks against Shiite civilians, whom it considers to be heretics and agents of Shiite Iran. He was responsible for attacks on US troops such as the August 2021 attack on Kabul airport. He is also hostile to the Taliban.

The return of the Taliban

The return of the Taliban to Kabul after the withdrawal of American troops in August 2021 is a return to a Pashtun rural order. Most of the Taliban leaders are rural Pashtuns who were educated in conservative madrasas in Afghanistan or in the Pashtun regions of Pakistan. Only three of the 24 members of the Taliban caretaker government are not Pashtuns – they are Tajiks.

[Over 115,000 readers rely on The Conversation’s newsletter to understand the world. Sign up today.]

And the Taliban are running the country as they imagined life in Pashtun villages before Afghanistan descended into perpetual war in 1979. The Taliban movement responds to the sensibilities of conservative rural Pashtun Muslims. Their understanding of Islam is not necessarily shared by other Afghans, no matter how religious.

Meanwhile, the Islamic State group is carrying out massive terrorist attacks on Shiite mosques, a tactic originating from the Iraqi branch of the organization. One of the purposes of the Islamic State attacks, I believe, is to stimulate recruitment which has weakened in recent years by appealing to anti-Shia sentiment among the Pashtuns, especially after the US withdrawal and the Taliban’s successes on the battlefield.

The Conversation is an independent, nonprofit source of information, analysis, and commentary from academic experts. The Conversation is fully responsible for the content.