Afghan Taliban look for support of Hazaras whom they once persecuted

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Hazara women watch the world from the ruins of a building in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. (Shutterstock photo)
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In this file photo taken on May 28, 2019, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban's top political leader, left, and Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the Taliban's chief negotiator, talk to each other during a meeting in Moscow, Russia. (AP)
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Updated 08 May 2020

Afghan Taliban look for support of Hazaras whom they once persecuted

  • Hazara political representatives express willingness to join talks with the Taliban
  • The ethno-religious minority faced repeated atrocities under Taliban rule in the 1990s

PESHAWAR, Pakistan: The Afghan Taliban’s recent appointment of a militiaman from the Hazara community as a local chief in northern Sar-i-Pul province appears to indicate a change in its attitude toward the minority group, which it persecuted for decades.

On April 22, the Taliban announced Maulvi Mahdi as its chief for the Balkhab district in Sar-i-Pul, a region dominated by the Shiite community.

The Hazaras are predominantly Shia and constitute a religious minority among Afghanistan’s majority-Sunni population. It is estimated that they account for 15 percent of the country’s 37 million people.

The Hazaras were systematically persecuted under Taliban rule between 1996 and 2001.

Hikmat Safi, an expert on Afghan security affairs, told Arab News the appointment of Mahdi was as a “diplomatic move” aimed at attracting the support of Hazara people in a fast-changing political scenario and ahead of the intra-Afghan dialogue — discussions between all Afghan stakeholders on a road map for a political settlement and a lasting ceasefire after nearly two decades of warfare.

Maulvi Mahdi, a 34-year-old Hazara militiaman appointed on April 20 by the Taliban as their chief for Balkhab district in Sar-i-Pul province, Afghanistan. (Screen grab from a video released by the Afghan Taliban)

“The choice of Mahdi is a clear message to the Hazara that the Taliban are no longer against them,” Safi said, adding that the group is now striving to win the favor and support of minorities ahead of any future agreement with the Afghan government.

According to the Taliban, Mahdi has been active in their ranks for some time.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Arab News that he has “his own group, a large number of followers (in Balkhab) and has for years contributed to jihad.”

He added: “The issue has just caught media attention, but he has been there in the field for a long time”

According to Fazal Muzhary of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, the 34-year-old Shiite militiaman is influential in the Balkhab region and has been involved in attacks against government forces. He was arrested in 2010 and sentenced to 14 years in prison, but was released before serving the full sentence.

“He developed links with the Taliban in the recent past and played a role in recruiting local fighters in Balkhab,” Mauzhary said.

While the Taliban denies that the appointment of the Hazara militiamen was a political gimmick, it is signaling a departure from its extremist stance towards Shias and attempts to gain legitimacy among other ethnic groups.

“We have clear targets such as an end to the occupation of Afghanistan and the (establishment of) an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. All ethnicities which accept these targets are to enjoy equal rights in any future settlement,” Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen told Arab News.

“What happened in the past should not prevent the parties from marching forward ... An inclusive Afghan government after result-oriented intra-Afghan talks will better identify the country’s external, internal policies and role of minorities and their rights in the future setup,” he said.  

The change in the ideology and politics of the Taliban has been acknowledged by representatives of the Hazara, who are tired of the war and for the sake of peace appear to be willing to let bygones be bygones.

“We want an end to war and we want a democratic setup under which all ethnic groups such as Pashtun, Hazara, Tajik, Uzbek and others enjoy freedom, unity and peace. We have high expectations that the imminent Afghan government-Taliban talks will yield tangible results this time,” said Asadullah Saadati, a senior politician from the Hezb-e-Wahdat party — the key vehicle of the Hazara community’s political presence.

Saadati told Arab News on Wednesday that the party could sit with the Taliban and jointly work with it for any future setup. “We should have tolerance for each other to move forward,” he said, adding that the ongoing prisoner exchange between the Taliban and the government gives a ray of hope that the intra-Afghan dialogue will take place and settle differences.

India faces worst locust crisis in decades

Updated 05 June 2020

India faces worst locust crisis in decades

  • Indo-Pak border a breeding ground for bug; worst attack in over 20 years, says expert

NEW DELHI: Suresh Kumar was sipping tea on the balcony of his Jaipur house on Friday when the sun suddenly disappeared. Thinking it was probably a black cloud that was filtering out the daylight, he looked up and saw swarms of locusts covering the sky of the capital city of the western Indian state of Rajasthan.

Within a few minutes, short-horned grasshoppers were everywhere —walls, balconies and nearby trees — as they forced people to take refuge in their houses.

“It was unprecedented,” Kumar, who lives in Jaipur’s walled city area, told Arab News on Thursday. “Never before have I witnessed such a scene. Suddenly millions of aliens invaded our locality. Some residents of the neighborhood tried to bang some steel plates to shoo them off, but the jarring sound did not make much of an impact. However, the swarms left the area within an hour or so.”

More than a thousand kilometers away, in the Balaghat district of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, farmer Dev Singh had a similar experience, although the bugs not only occupied his farmhouse, they destroyed the budding leaves of different kinds of pulses which he had sown in his field.

“Only a few weeks ago I harvested the wheat crop,” he told Arab News. “In a way, I’m lucky that the locusts have come now … otherwise the damage would have been much greater,” but he added that “with the pulse plant damaged in good measure, the yield will not be great this year.”

His area has been cleared of the locusts after the intervention of local authorities, which sprayed chemicals to kill the bugs and blared out sirens to shoo them off.

India is already grappling with an alarming surge of coronavirus cases and struggling to cope with the devastation caused by a recent cyclone. The country is also dealing with rising unemployment figures after more than 100 million people went jobless due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is facing security issues, too, in the form of a seething border dispute with China. The locust invasion has added to beleaguered India’s laundry list of woes.

Scientists said it was a serious crisis.

“This is the worst locust attack in more than two decades,” Dr. K. L. Gurjar, of the Faridabad-based Locust Warning Organization, told Arab News. “Compared to the past, these locusts are younger and have traveled a longer distance. This should be a cause of concern. The states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh will be badly impacted. We are controlling and containing the situation on a daily basis.”

According to media reports, around 50,000 hectares of farmland have been destroyed by desert locusts in the two states during the last four weeks.

“The problem will persist until the invasion of swarms continues from across the border in Pakistan and Iran. The Indo-Pak border has become the breeding ground for the bug,” Gurjar added.

But he remained hopeful that the country would get rid of the menace through its measures, despite the present danger.

“There is a danger of locusts remaining alive for a longer period, though we are hopeful to ultimately sort them out.”

The Jawaharlal Nehru Agriculture University (JNAU) of Jabalpur has also been monitoring the situation in Madhya Pradesh, noting that locusts damage the crop completely wherever they go.

“Desert locusts stay immobile throughout the night and their movement begins again in the morning and they fly along the direction of the wind,” JNAU’s Dr. Om Gupta told Arab News. “Wherever they find shelter, they damage the crops in totality. In some areas, locusts have created havoc.”

She added that spray was generally used in the evening or early morning to kill the bugs. “They breed very fast and we focus on killing their eggs. What we are dealing with is nothing short of a catastrophe, and we are not going to get respite from this anytime soon.”