Outside a Shiite shrine in Kabul, four armed Taliban fighters stood guard as worshippers filed in for Friday prayers. Alongside them was a guard from Afghanistan’s mainly Shiite Hazara minority, an automatic rifle slung over his shoulder.
It was a sign of the strange, new relationship brought by the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August. The Taliban, Sunni hard-liners who for decades targeted the Hazaras as heretics, are now their only protection against a more brutal enemy: the Islamic State group.
Sohrab, the Hazara guard at the Abul Fazl al-Abbas Shrine, told The Associated Press that he gets along fine with the Taliban guards. “They even pray in the mosque sometimes,” he said, giving only his first name for security reasons.
Not everyone feels so comfortable.
Syed Aqil, a Hazara visiting the shrine with his wife and 8-month-old daughter, was disturbed that many Taliban still wear their traditional garb — the look of a jihadi insurgent — rather than a police uniform.
“We can’t even tell if they are Taliban or Daesh,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.
Since seizing power, the Taliban have presented themselves as more moderate, compared with their first rule in the 1990s when they violently repressed the Hazaras and other ethnic groups. Courting international recognition, they vow to protect the Hazaras as a show of their acceptance of the country’s minorities.
But many Hazaras still deeply distrust the insurgents-turned-rulers, who are overwhelmingly ethnic Pashtu, and are convinced they will never accept them as equals in Afghanistan. Hazara community leaders say they have met repeatedly with Taliban leadership, asking to take part in the government, only to be shunned. Hazaras complain individual fighters discriminate against them and fear it’s only a matter of time before the Taliban revert to repression.
“In comparison to their previous rule, the Taliban are a little better,” said Mohammed Jawad Gawhari, a Hazara cleric who runs an organization helping the poor.
“The problem is that there is not a single law. Every individual Talib is their own law right now,” he said. “So people live in fear of them.”
Some changes from the previous era of Taliban rule are clear. After their takeover, the Taliban allowed Shiites to perform their religious ceremonies, including the annual Ashura procession.
The Taliban initially confiscated weapons that Hazaras had used to guard some of their own mosques in Kabul. But after devastating IS bombings of Shiite mosques in Kandahar and Kunduz provinces in October, the Taliban returned the weapons in most cases, Gawhari and other community leaders said. The Taliban also provide their own fighters as guards for some mosques during Friday prayers.
“We are providing a safe and secure environment for everyone, especially the Hazaras,” said Taliban government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid. “They should be in Afghanistan. Leaving the country is not good for anyone.”
The Hazaras’ turn to Taliban protection shows how terrified the community is of the Islamic State group, which they say aims to exterminate them. In past years, IS has attacked the Hazaras more ruthlessly than the Taliban ever did, unleashing bombings against Hazara schools, hospitals and mosques, killing hundreds.
IS is also the Taliban’s enemy, frequently attacking Taliban forces.
In Dashti Barchi, the sprawling district of west Kabul dominated by Hazaras, many were skeptical the Taliban will ever change.
Marzieh Mohammedi, whose husband was killed five years ago in fighting with the Taliban, said she’s afraid every time she sees them patrolling.
“How can they protect us? We can’t trust them. We feel like they are Daesh,” she said.
The differences are partly religious. But Hazaras, who make up an estimated 10% of Afghanistan’s population of nearly 40 million, are also ethnically distinct and speak a variant of Farsi rather than Pashtu. They have a long history of being oppressed by the Pashtu majority, some of whom stereotype them as intruders.
Aqil said that when he tried to go to a police station for a document, the Taliban guard only spoke Pashtu and impatiently slammed the gates in his face. He had to come back later with a Pashtu-speaking colleague.
“This sort of situation makes me lose hope in the future,” he said. “They don’t know us. They are not broadminded to accept other communities. They act as if they are the owners of this country.”
Frictions in the Hazaras’ central Afghanistan heartland have raised concerns. In Daikundi province, Taliban fighters killed 11 Hazara soldiers and two civilians, including a teenage girl, in August, according to Amnesty International. Taliban officials also expelled Hazara families from several Daikundi villages after accusing them of living on land that didn’t belong to them.
After an uproar from Hazaras, further expulsions were halted, Gawhari and other community leaders said.
The international community is pressing the Taliban to form a government that reflects Afghanistan’s ethnic, religious and political spectrum, including women. The Taliban’s Cabinet is comprised entirely of men from their own ranks.
The highest level Hazara in the administration is a deputy health minister. A few Hazaras hold provincial posts, but they long ago joined the Taliban insurgency and adopted their hardline ideology. Few in the Hazara community recognize them.
Ali Akbar Jamshidi, a former parliament member from Daikundi province, said the Hazara want to be brought into the Cabinet and intelligence and security agencies.
“The Taliban can benefit from us,” he said. “They have the opportunity to form a government for the future, but they are not taking this opportunity.”