Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

The case of Mawlawi Mehdi and Balkhab District: Are the Taleban attracting Hazaras?

Thomas Ruttig 19 min

Recently, a story appeared in the media reporting that the Taleban have appointed a Shia Hazara as a shadow district governor in Sar-e Pul province. This ethno-religious group is barely represented in the insurgent movement, and stands in the way of the Taleban’s attempt to present itself as nation-wide. Mehdi, however, is not physically present in the district he has been appointed to, showing that his relevance on the ground is limited. Nevertheless, this case is relevant for looking at how successful Taleban attempts to bridge the Sunni-Shia gap are. AAN’s co-director Thomas Ruttig finds that Mehdi’s case is rather exceptional and not a ‘breakthrough,’ and that the overwhelming majority of Hazaras continue to strongly reject the Taleban movement (with input from Ali Yawar Adili, Obaid Ali, Rohullah Sorush and Sayed Asadullah Sadat).

Road to Abkalan (Sar-e Pul province), one of the areas of activity of Mawlawi Mehdi, the Taleban's shadow governor for Balkhab district. Photo: Etilaat-e Ruz.

On 22 April, the Taleban posted a 25-minute video on their al-Emara website, introducing Mawlawi Mehdi Mujahed as their district governor for Balkhab in the northern-central province of Sar-e Pul. What distinguished him from many other provincial or district level Taleban commanders and officials interviewed for the website over the years was his ethno-religious background: he is a Shia Hazara (and is introduced as such in the video), a rare occurrence in the ranks of the movement which is dominated by Hanafi Sunni Pashtuns and, at times, has displayed a violently anti-Hazara/anti-Shia stance. (1)

In the video, Mehdi appealed to his co-Hazaras and co-Shia Afghans to join the Taleban’s fight against the US-led “Jewish and Christian invaders.” He reminded them that they had already fought alongside their “Sunni brethren” during the Soviet occupation of the country from 1979-89 and hailed the Taleban as “inclusive“ and devoid of “any racism.” The video did not give any detail about his background, apart from his father’s name, and also did not specify the exact time of his appointment by the Taleban.

Mehdi’s public introduction by the Taleban was quickly picked up by Afghan and international media. The Dubai-based daily The National, for example, interpreted it as the appointment of the Taleban’s “first local leader from the marginalised Hazara community.” The Taleban, the newspaper wrote, “are now trying to win over and recruit from the Shiite Hazara community ahead of intra-Afghan peace talks” – that is, a follow-up of the Taleban’s successful recruitment of representatives of minority communities in northern Afghanistan, such as the Uzbeks, Tajiks and Aimaqs (for example, see AAN reporting here and here). Those communities had almost entirely rejected and even actively resisted the Taleban during its 1996-2001 reign. Jan Koehler, a researcher at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, quoted in the German-based Middle East-focused web journal Zenith, saw a “symbolic effect” in the appointment. AAN colleague Ali Yawar Adili told The National that the Taleban “seemed to feel a gap in their effort to portray themselves as a nationwide movement due to the lack of any significant influence among ethnic Hazaras.” 

Screenshot of the Taleban video introducing Mawlawi Mehdi.

Taleban presence in Balkhab and nearby

Mehdi’s district of origin, Balkhab, the same place he has been appointed as a Taleban official, is not controlled or even dominated by the Taleban (see the Long War Journal’s interactive map). The district has been under the control of Mohammad Mohaqeq’s faction of Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami-ye Afghanistan (now a separate party called Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami-ye Mardom-e Afghanistan) since the Taleban regime was toppled in 2001 (AAN reporting here).

A member of Sar-e Pul’s provincial council (PC) and other sources told AAN in early May that the Taleban do not have any presence in the district, which is the southeastern-most of Sar-e Pulprovince and the only one there with a Hazara majority population. The Taleban may have an interest in this district, however, as it has a copper deposit which makes control over it attractive (see this media report).

The PC member, however, said the Taleban run checkpoints along the routes leading into Balkhab district. For instance, they have a checkpoint in the Dahmorda area in Sancharak along the road leading north from Balkhab to the provincial capital Sar-e Pul. There the Taleban extort ‘tax’ from passenger and freight vehicles and issue receipts. Women cannot travel without mahram (male relative) and hejab (veil). Sancharak, which is ethnically dominated by Tajiks, has some Taleban presence; the insurgents had unsuccessfully besieged its district centre Tokzar in April 2019. The PC member also said that government employees cannot go through this area, otherwise they run the risk of being kidnapped and/or killed. According to the PC member, the Taleban also have checkpoints in several villages (Tunj, Andarab, Dehyak, Safed Koh) in the adjoining district of Zari to the northeast, in neighbouring Balkh province; this road leads north to Mazar-e Sharif. Local sources told AAN that Mehdi had assured the local Hazara community that the Taleban would not harm civilians.

Mountainous and remote Kohestanat district, to Balkhab’s west, however, has been under full Taleban control since July 2015, with a short interruption between late August and early October that same year (media reports here, here and here). The district has an Aimaq majority population, and one of the Taleban’s first two prominent commanders in the province after 2001 came from that community. According to the PC member, a Hazara and Shia dominated village called Kushan wa Safid Maidan in Kohestanat at the border of Balkhab is sometimes frequented by Taleban. There is also frequent Taleban activity in the districts of Upper and Lower Dara-ye Suf in Samangan province to the east. Dara-ye Suf-e Payin (Lower) has a mixed Tajik and Uzbek population (2) and some Shia Hazaras and is largely controlled by the Taleban; Hazara/Shia-dominated Dara-ye Suf-e Bala (Upper) is government controlled but came under Taleban attack several times in April 2020.

As AAN had reported in 2012, factional conflict – between Jombesh, Jamiat and the two main factions of the Hazara-dominated Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami (Mohaqeq’s and Khalili’s) – had allowed the Taleban to establish bases in Sar-e Pul as early as 2006. It started in Sayad district in the northwest, which has an Uzbek majority, and which has been a relatively important poppy-producing area and is traversed by an important weapons and drug smuggling route. By 2009 this had turned into a stable Taleban presence in a trans-provincial area, with Sayyad (although not fully under Taleban control) and Kohestanat in Sar-e Pul and Darzab, Qushtepe and Belcheragh to the west in Jowzjan province. Up to 2015, three districts – Balkhab, Gosfandi and Sancharak – had been plagued by illegal armed groups.

Since that time, the Taleban in Sar-e Pul have expanded further, with the districts of Suzma Qala, Gosfandi and Sancharak as well as the provincial capital Sar-e Pul’s district now labelled as “contested.” There are also Pashtun enclaves near the town in which the Taleban have footholds (media reports here and here). In 2018, provincial authorities claimed that the Taleban had tried to capture the provincial capital. Kabul-based security observers counted 14 Taleban-initiated attacks in the province in the second half of April 2020, one per day on average. They also seem to be able to pull together fighters from across this area and from Balkh for larger attacks.

Mehdi’s background

Mehdi’s family originated in Hush village in Balkhab. There, Mehdi attended a government-run school up to grade eight, according to Abbas Arefi, writing for Kabul-based news service Reporterly on 2 May, and quoting local sources and eyewitnesses. Mehdi’s father Morad uses the takhallus (moniker) Mujahed, indicating a role in the anti-Soviet war. According to AAN sources in the area, he was a low-level local commander for the Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami faction led by Muhammad Akbari (3) in the mid-1990s. The father’s family, according to Arefi, now lives in neighbouring Sancharak district, also in Sar-e Pul province, but it is not clear whether in an area of government or Taleban control. 

At some point, according to Arefi, Mehdi’s family had fled their home area because of a dispute over land in the area of Kil Kawa, a part of Hush village, with another local commander named Ali Joma Akbari (not related to Akbari, the party leader mentioned above). This Akbari was the local representative of Mohaqeq’s rival Hezb-e Wahdat faction. This, apparently, led them to Iran, from where Mehdi returned in 2010, according to Arefi. After his return, Mehdi and his friends abducted Akbari’s son. Local elders mediated between them, and “the two sides agreed that Mehdi would release Akbari’s son and the opposite side return the land and 4 Kalashnikovs he had obtained by force from Mehdi’s family.” Also, both families were to visit each other for reconciliation meals, but on that day Mehdi found his home surrounded by police and, after an exchange of fire, was arrested along with his five comrades on charges of kidnapping. According to Arefi, Mehdi was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment and sent to neighbouring Jowzjan’s provincial jail in Sheberghan.

There, according to local AAN sources, he spent time along Taleban members, including Mawlawi Abdul Haq Mansur from Dahmorda village of Sancharak district, and studied religious texts. This, apparently, earned him the title Mawlawi (a title given to scholars of Islam). It is known from other prisons that jailed Taleban often organise religious study groups and thus gain influence over co-prisoners. According to local sources who know Mehdi, this “changed his mind and ideology.” ­But this does not mean that he converted to Sunni Islam: he was still introduced as “Shia” in the Taleban video.

A look at Abkalan. Photo: Etilaat-e Ruz.

Playing the factions

Mehdi did not serve his entire sentence, however. According to a December 2018 Facebook post by Mohaqeq, the rest of Mehdi’s prison term was waived according to general rules.

According to local sources AAN consulted, Mehdi was released in 2017 already and “received warm receptions and welcoming parties” by various Hazara parties who wanted to pull him into their ranks. Among them were those led by Mohaqeq and Muhammad Akbari. They were concerned about his Taleban links resulting from his time in prison. According to Mohaqeq, Mehdi had established communications with the Taleban and received weapons and other resources from them. A Sar-e Pul MP said that Mohaqeq and Akbari called Mehdi and told him that he was a Hazara and it did not behove him to work with the Taleban.

Mehdi seems to have opted for Mohaqeq, who is more influential in Balkhab. Mohaqeq is reported to have provided him with transportation and an escort from jail back to Balkhab, and even to have hosted him personally in Kabul, offering social and political backing and providing him with a car. Mehdi’s links to Mohaqeq’s party were confirmed by other local sources quoted in Afghan media (for example here). But it also seems that Mehdi – as many local commanders do – was using support from all sources to establish himself in Balkhab, using the cleavages between different factions.   

According to Arefi, Mehdi “began to extort money and sometimes fight with the local government.” He also started publicly agitating against the ‘corrupt local administration,’ a result of his pro-Taleban radicalisation in prison. AAN’s local sources, however, did not confirm reports that Mehdi had been made the commander of an Afghan Local Police (ALP) unit (AAN background on the ALP, here for example). So, his description by several other Afghan media (see here and here) as a commander of an “irresponsible” (ie, out of government control) or “illegal armed group” without clear factional commitment seemed to be more to the point. AAN’s sources also said that Mehdi does not have more than 20 Hazara fighters, a relatively small group. 

According to Arefi and other Afghan media reports, Mehdi’s activity continued in the run-up to the 2018 parliamentary election when Mehdi “extorted money from some candidates…, but in the end, he did not let any of the candidates run their campaigns in Balkhab.” According to Mohaqqeq, he attacked Balkhab’s district centre six days before the election in order to prevent the poll. In October 2018, Afghan media outlet Ava Press reported, quoting a local elder, that Mehdi had “fallen out of [Mohaqeq’s] influence” by then.  Some local sources told AAN that they believe that Mehdi had already carried out his disruptive activity before the election on behalf of the Taleban, a claim echoed by Mohaqeq.

There are different versions of how Mehdi was pushed out of Balkhab and ended up with the Taleban. Saber Ibrahimi, research associate at New York University’s Centre on International Co-operation, told The National there was an uprising of the people of Balkhab against him in October 2018. Arefi spoke of a security forces clearance operation one week before election day against Mehdi’s checkpoints in Dahana-ye Tarkhoj village of Balkhab in which Public Uprising Forces participated. Mohaqeq confirmed this version and said it happened after Mehdi’s attack on Balkhab. According to various media reports, there were between 15 and 34 casualties in the fighting that dragged on for several days, including pro-government forces, civilians and fighters on Mehdi’s side. According to one report, Muhammad Hussain Mujahedzada, provincial council member from Balkhab, was among the injured. Mehdi himself was then already called “Mawlawi Mehdi” or “Mehdi Mujahed,” the same titles that were used in the Taleban video. But at that point, Mehdi apparently was not yet in his shadow district governor position.

Mehdi took refuge in Kata Qala village in Suzma Qala district in the northeast of the province which is Uzbek-dominated and has been under Taleban control for some years. Together with 13 other villages in the area, it fell to them on 28 June 2015 when two local ALP commanders reportedly made a deal with them according to then district governor, Hayatullah Hayat. (4) A provincial council member told AAN the village was of strategic importance in the area as it provided the Taleban with easy access to Suzma Qala’s district centre, parts of Sar-e Pul city, Kohestanat district and parts of Sancharak.

Local sources told AAN that Mehdi was driven out from there in early 2019, after an armed clash between him and Abdullah Ansari, the Mohaqeq-affiliated district governor for Balkhab. As a result, six people were killed and several others wounded. Mehdi then fled to Taleban-held areas in Sancharak district and officially joined them. Over that year, local Hazara elders made several attempts to mediate between Mehdi and the district governor, but their efforts remained fruitless. The reason why Mehdi refused to meet those elders was his lack of trust in them after his experience in 2010, which ended with him in jail. 

In any case, Mehdi first went to the Dahmorda area in Sancharak where the Taleban already had a presence. According to Arefi, it was then that he was appointed as district chief of Balkhab. From Dahmorda, as Kabul-based daily Ettilaat-e Ruz reported on 21 November 2018, ten days earlier the Taleban had attacked and temporarily taken over a number of villages in the Abkalan area, a strategic area of Sancharak district, known as Shakh-e Sar-e Pul(the Horn of Sar-e Pul). According to the newspaper report, the Taleban attack on Abkalan had led to the displacement of “more than 1,500 families.” 

The paper also reported that Mawlawi Mehdi had played a role in that operation, and that another Taleban commander involved was Sher Muhammad, alias Ghazanfar, who had already been involved in the August 2017 massacre during an attack on the village of Mirza Olang in Sayad district (AAN analysis here). The article dated Mehdi’s joining the Taleban a month before the Abkalan attack, that is, immediately after the 2018 parliamentary election, quoting both Mohaqeq and Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed as sources. Sar-e Pul MP Muhammad Hassan Sharifi Balkhabi had told the newspaper that Mehdi was the “Taleban intelligence deputy,” but it was not clear whether for the district or the province, and whether that was even correct in general. 

AAN’s sources also said that, in 2019, Muhaqeq’s supporters established several pubic uprising groups and invested a huge amount of money to fight Mehdi, by then an established local Taleban commander. There were also ANSF operations against Mehdi’s group. On 28 February 2019, the regional army corps also reportedly said that security forces had carried out air and ground operations against Taleban positions in Taghai Khwaja and Gajwa in Sancharak district and that 28 fighters, including Mohebullah, Mehdi’s brother, were killed in the operation. They also reported Mehdi, Timur Shah, a “Taleban key commander for Sancharak” and Mawlawi Nematullah, the Taleban’s judge for Suzma Qala district of Sar-e Pul, as “severely injured.” In December 2019, Ava Press reported that a group of nine fighters led by Muhammad Sedaqat, one of Mehdi’s sub-commanders, surrendered to the government in Balkhab and that only Mehdi’s family members were still with him, indicating that his originally small group was further weakened militarily. 

Following this episode, Mehdi seems to have relocated to Taleban-controlled Kohestanat. It is also possible that he shifts between there and Sancharak. Last winter, Mehdi spent some time in Pakistan, and the above-mentioned video was broadcast upon his arrival back in the province, according to Kabul-based security observers. The previously mentioned security observers also said that the Taleban had simultaneously appointed commander Ghazanfar, an Aimaq from Sayad district, as their provincial military commander. According to AAN information, however, this post is held by Mawlawi Abdul Zaher Zahed, an Arab/Tajik from Sar-e Pul, and that there is no separate military commander for Balkhab. (5) This would unite both positions in Mehdi’s hands. But it also reflects the fact that he (and the Taleban) currently do not have any presence in the district.

Earlier precedents of Hazara-Taleban alliances

Mehdi’s alignment with the Taleban is not a first or unique case of an alliance between the Taleban and Hazara leaders or field commanders. It is rather typical of the Taleban’s tactics to instrumentalise local or factional conflicts to recruit fighters in communities usually not prone to joining them. Some of these cases will be briefly outlined here.

The most well-known case is that of Muhammad Akbari, leader of one of the factions of Hezb-e Wahdat. During the factional war in Kabul in the mid-1990s, a split occurred within Hezb-e Wahdat (then led by Abdul Ali Mazari, killed by the Taleban in 1995). Akbari’s faction allied with Jamiat, which was at war with Mazari’s Hezb. When the Jamiat-e led so-called Northern Alliance was defeated by the Taleban in Kabul in 1996, both Wahdat factions retreated into the Hazarajat but were routed there, too, by the Taleban. After the fall of Bamian in August 1998, Akbari made a deal with the Taleban that, according to the 2005 Afghanistan Justice Project (AJP) report, “allowed him to stay on in Hazarajat as the most senior Shia leader in country and to nominate his affiliated commanders to administrative positions, although he himself avoided taking any official position.” In an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in December 2005 (in the author’s archive), Akbari said this happened after he had “resisted the Taliban,” but that “all our positions were destroyed” by them and he wanted to avoid a “massacre.”

Michael Semple, an expert on Hazarajat affairs, in a 2009 paper for USIP wrote:

In Hazarajat, the Taliban were acutely aware of the challenge of subduing an area where they had no prior alliances and no known natural supporters. After a successful military campaign, in which they militarily routed the Hezb-i-Wahadat [sic] defenders, the Taliban pursued a diplomacy which amounted to reconciliation. In the first place, they identified the top political leader cum commander who had stayed in the area, Ustad Akbari. They selected appropriate envoys and made a successful approach to him. Although Ustad Akbari never accepted any official position in the Taliban administration, he played a crucial role in helping them to establish that administration and stabilizing the region until the military tide turned again.

Akbari’s forces were still holding Bamian when this author visited in early 2001, but were under supervision of a contingent of Kandahari Taleban. 

During this time, there was also a non-Hazara Shia Taleban commander in Bamian province, Sufi Gardezi (background about the Shia community in Paktia in this AAN report). The BBC’s Dawood Azami said in a recent tweet that he also served as Taleban district governor in Yakaolang. Gardezi also used his position to protect the local Shia population and for example, as it is pointed out in the AJP report, he “alerted U.N. staff members in advance“ of the 2001 Taleban attack on Yakaolang “and warned of the likelihood of abuses against the civilian population.”

There was also forced recruitment. In 1998, the Taleban “forcibly recruited fighters” from the Hazara Ismaili community in the Nekpai valley in Doshi district of Baghlan province when it came under their control, according to an Afghan media report. The report said “Each family had to give a man.”

At the same time, the Taleban committed a number of massacres against Hazara communities. The most-well known example occurred after the Taleban recaptured Mazar-e Sharif in August 1998. According to the AJP report, they “massacred at least 2,000 people, mainly Hazara civilians, exacting revenge for the massacre of their own troops the previous year,” as collective punishment.A year earlier, after the Taleban had captured the city for a first time in May 1997, “[a]rmed Hazara men, some of whom were regular Wahda[t] fighters […] ambushed Taliban troops in the streets of Mazar-i Sharif.” This led to the Taleban’s Uzbek allies joining, capturing “thousands of Taliban soldiers.” “At least 3,000 were executed over the following weeks,” mainly by the forces of General Malek Pahlawan, the former deputy head of Uzbek-dominated Jombesh; Pahlawan had initially switched sides to the Taleban, but switched back when the Hazaras started resisting the incoming Taleban. According to AJP, this was “the single largest known massacre of prisoners by any of the parties to the Afghan conflict.”

In January 2001, the Taleban carried out the “summary execution of civilians and combatants hors de combat” (placed out of action because of sickness, wounds, detention or for any other reason) in Yakaolang, also detailed in the AJP report. The Taleban, at that time, “no longer respected any local authority or their previous interlocutors and collaborators.”

The Taleban maintained these were military operations aimed at crushing armed resistance, in the Mazar case pointing to the 1997 uprising and massacre of their fighters, and in the Yakaolang case to the temporary fall of the district centre to forces of Hazara parties. The targeted population perceived the Taleban’s revenge massacres as an expression of their anti-Shia/anti-Hazara feelings. This was bolstered by the statements of local Taleban authorities such as then Taleban provincial governor Abdul Mannan Niazi and the behaviour of the Taleban fighters. According to a contemporary Human Rights Watch report quoted in the AJP report, based on eyewitnesses’ accounts, Niazi 

… delivered speeches at mosques throughout the city, threatening violence against Hazaras in retaliation for the killing of the Taliban prisoners in 1997, warning them that they should convert to the Hanafi Sunni sect or leave the city, or face the consequences, and threatening punishment for anyone who tried to protect Hazaras.  In another speech he reportedly said, “Hazaras are not Muslim, they are Shi’a. They are kuffar [infidels]. The Hazaras killed our force here, and now we have to kill Hazaras.” As Human Rights Watch noted, “These speeches, given by the most senior Taliban official in Mazar at the time, clearly indicate that the killings and other attacks on Hazaras were not the actions of renegade Taliban forces but had the sanction of the Taliban authorities.”

According to Arefi, Niazi’s statements were based on a verdict of Taleban founder Mullah Muhammad Omar, saying, “There is no difference between heretics and Shiites and it is an obligation to fight them. It is ok to interact [a euphemism for rape] with their women.”

It is important to note that there are a number of events that have deeply traumatised the Afghan Shia community: Amir Abd ul-Rahman’s (r 1880-1901) bloody conquest of the Hazarajat from 1891 to 1893 and the subsequent enslavement of Hazaras and occupation of Hazara land, an episode never admitted to – particularly in regards to its far-reaching effects – by Pashtun ruling elites; the terrorist campaign by anti-Shia sectarian groups in Pakistan, starting from 1983, with thousands of victims; and a series of attacks on Ashura celebrations, other events (such as the 23 July 2016 TUTAP rally in Kabul, media report here) and on travellers in Afghanistan, starting from 2006 (AAN background here and here), all of which has been exacerbated by the rise of the Afghan chapter of the Islamic State (Daesh) since 2014. This latest development was reflected by the NYU’s Ibrahimi, a Hazara from Afghanistan, who tweeted after the horrible attack on 12 May 2020 against a hospital and birth clinic in Kabul’s Dasht-e Barchi neighbourhood: “West of Kabul was safe before the emergence of the so called Islamic State of Khurasan,” a hint at the fact that IS is the leading anti-Shia terrorist outfit and possibly behind the latest attack.

After 2001, the Taleban leadership has attempted to assuage the fears of the Hazara and Shia communities that originate from the pre-2001 atrocities, and officially adopted a policy of non-discrimination. In his October 2006 ‘Id message, Taleban leader Mullah Omar for the first time appealed to his fighters “not to go for sectarian hatred[; a]ll Muslims of different schools of thought are brothers and there is no difference among them.” However, this has not convinced the target group of this message, the Afghan Shia, that the Taleban assurances are genuine. Occasional outbursts of anti-Shiism have cemented their perception of the Taleban. Also, the Taleban attacks on a Afghan Local Police unit and villagers seen as associated to it in Mirza Olang village of Sar-e Pul’s Sayad district in August 2018 (AAN reporting here) and the Taleban’s large-scale military campaign into Hazara areas in districts in Uruzgan and Ghazni provinces in October/November 2018 (AAN reporting here and here) were perceived as anti-Shia/anti-Hazara by the targeted communities. 

In practice, a certain number of Taleban commanders and fighters have certainly internalised anti-Shia/anti-Hazara feelings which also exist as a bias in the wider Sunni population. (6) As, particularly, the Mirza Olang example showed, the chance of anti-Shia atrocities is greater when the Taleban commanders involved have Salafi leanings.

Nevertheless, before Mehdi, there were a few local Hazara commanders who chose to collaborate with the Taleban, such as Sedaqat in Khedir district, Turan Amanullah in Kejran and Ettemadi in Gizab (all Daykundi province). But rather than formally joining the Taleban, they used to float back and forth between them and the government, basically constituting what has been called an “irresponsible” or “illegal armed group” combining political aims (mainly local control) and criminal activity while taking support from wherever it is offered, not unlike Mehdi before he formally joined the Taleban. (7)

The BBC’s Dawood Azami also pointed to another type of incident of possible Taleban-Hazara collusion in 2010 in which a former Hazara member of the ANSF named Taleb Hossain (which sounds like a nom de guerre) had committed an insider attack on British soldiers in Helmand and then fled and joined the Taleban. This also seems to be a rare exception.


The case of Mawlawi Mehdi, a Hazara joining the Taleban, is an exceptional case. It even seemed to be the first time a Hazara has accepted an official position within the Taleban administration, either before or after 2001. There have been earlier cases of temporary local Hazara-Taleban collaboration, however, before and after 2001. The fact that Mehdi only commands some 20 fighters, does not have a presence in his home district and was even forced to flee it – after losing the support from a major Hazara faction – does indicate that he cannot expect much local support. His military relevance is low. His moving toward the Taleban during his jail time also cost him previous support he had from a mainstream Hazara faction.

Mehdi’s case, however, reflects how shifts in the often complicated local power balance can lead to actors switching sides in the armed conflict, including some unexpected directions. The Taleban have frequently proven that they are often successful in capitalising on local personal, tribal and factional conflicts.

The highest hurdle for the Taleban in recruiting Hazaras and other Afghan Shia is their past of anti-Hazara/anti-Shia atrocities and the frequent outburst of anti-Hazara/anti-Shia violence based on the prevalent biases among parts of the Sunni majority population. An official non-sectarian Taleban policy has not convinced Hazaras that the insurgents have changed their nature.

Edited by Christian Bleuer and Ali Yawar Adili

(1) Afghanistan’s Shia community goes beyond the Hazaras. For example, there are Shia minorities among the Tajiks and Pashtuns. On the other hand, there are also Sunni Hazaras. Also a part of the Shia community are the Sayeds (also Sadat). However, there are also Sunni Sayeds/Sadat, as they all trace their origin to the family of the Prophet. Therefore, they are sometimes labelled (or label themselves) ‘Arabs’. Apart from them, there are small Arab communities in northern Afghanistan who are not Sayed and do not speak Arabic but rather the languages of the larger communities around them. Smaller communities have not only often adopted the language of the larger community living around them; their members also occasionally chose to identify with these groups ethnically.

(2) It is widely believed that many of the ‘Tajiks’ in this district are actually Sunni Hazaras. Smaller communities have not only often adopted the language of the larger community living around them; their members also occasionally chose to identify with these groups ethnically which, under certain circumstances, gives them better protection (see footnote 1). There are some Sunni Hazaras present in the Taleban leadership.

(3) Akbari is originally from Waras district of Bamian, where he obtained his first religious education. He later also studied in Iraq. He is of mixed Qezelbash/Hazara origin. Before the creation of Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami (Islamic Unity Party) as the united Hazara party for Afghanistan in 1989, Akbari was leading Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Islami, a Shia mujahedin group founded in Iran, mirroring the Iranian Pasdaran, and supported by the regime in Tehran. 

After the defeat of the Taleban regime in late 2001, he came back to Kabul in November and was invited to attend the inauguration of Hamed Karzai as new head of state in December of that year. He registered his Wahdat faction as a separate party, Hezb-e Wahdat-e Melli Islami-ye Afghanistan (National Islamic Unity Party) which was renamed Hezb-e Herasat-e Afghanistan (Islamic Protection Party) in 1394 (2015/6). In 2005 and 2010, he was elected to the Wolesi Jirga, but failed to repeat this in 2018. President Ashraf Ghani has now appointed him a senator.

(4) As ever so often in Afghanistan, there is also another version of this event. According to a report by the Pajhwok News Agency Nur Habib Golbahari, the provincial chief of police of Sar-e Pul, then provided a different account, saying that “Based on the consultation of the people of Dara-ye Bala and Kata Qala, there has been peace with the [armed] opposition, and the local police [forces] who were based in that area, surrendered their weapons to the government, not to the Taleban. The local police also left these villages as per the people’s demand who had said that they are neither with the Taleban nor with the government.” This version was confirmed by a Radio Azadi report which quoted former head of Sar-e Pul provincial council, Asadullah Khorram, saying that “security forces left the posts without any clash.” 

Radio Azadi, however, also reported the district governor as saying that the villages had fallen because of the two commanders joining the “insurgents.” This was also reported by Markazipress, quoting Abdul Rahman Rahmani, a provincial council member, as also saying that the villages fell after the two ALP commanders joined the Taleban. Interestingly, Golbahari provided a different account to Markazipress about the two commanders then what he had told Pajhwok, saying that they were local residents and had been cooperating with the government but now went back home as it was the time of sowing (kesht o kar). 

At that time, Taleban spokesman Qari Yusuf Ahmadi sent a message to the media saying that their forces were advancing towards Suzma Qala’s district centre (media report here)

According to the Pajhwok report, Golbahari also said that the security forces were trying to recapture those areas and a task force was being prepared for this, but also highlighted that it would be difficult to retake those areas without air support. The two parts of Golbahari’s account (the ALP voluntarily leaving and the plan to recapture those areas), however, contradict each other. 

(5) Sar-e Pul’s Taleban shadow governor is Mawlawi Zarif, an Uzbek from Faryab province; his deputy is Abdul Qader Ulqani, an Uzbek from Sar-e Pul.

(6) Bias can also lead to violence, see this example (quoted from this AAN background):

In some cases, [such violence has] been the work of psychopaths, possibly with the connivance of other, more subtle, maniacs. In the 1950s, for example, a professional wrestler called Latif Gul went on a rampage of killings in Kabul. He was a Sunni, and he targeted Shi’as. In an atrocious serial-killer records worth of the annals of criminal history, he murdered at least 40 Hazaras, mainly labourers who had arrived in the city in search of a job. He was strengthened in his convictions by some mullahs to whom he confessed his crimes and who reassured him that he was performing a religious duty and indeed would be forgiven his sins.

(7) The following rendering by Antonio Giustozzi, in a 2016 phone interview for the “Country of Origin Information Report: Afghanistan,” compiled by a EU migration unit, the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) (p19), might refer to such cases but clearly overstates the situation when speaking of “[s]ome senior Hazara commanders” being “with the Taliban in Bamyan and Daikundi” and “a couple of Taliban shadow governors or provincial-level military leaders who are Hazara.” 

Not unexpectedly, the Taleban also claim a Hazara participation in their jihad, as quoted in this AAN report (p42):

Our Hazara brothers too, in accordance to their capacity, despite all local problems, participate in Jihad in the provinces of Bamyan and Herat and other areas. 


Balkhab Hazaras Hezb-e Wahdat Mawlawi Mehdi Muhammad Mohaqeq Sar-e Pul shadow district governor Taleban