By Tahlia Mullen & Tallan Donine
While the Taliban takeover threatens civilians across Afghanistan, the country’s women and girls and Hazara populations are at particular risk of mass atrocities. Even prior to the Taliban’s seizing control of the country, the Early Warning Project’s Statistical Risk Assessment ranked Afghanistan second in the world for the risk of a new onset of mass killing of civilians in 2020–21.
Taliban officials have publicly stated that their aim is to implement an inclusive “Islamic government” that respects the rights of civilians. Many observers are wary of that commitment due to the Taliban’s recent abuses and its past governing approaches, which followed an extreme interpretation of Sharia law. A return to strict adherence would likely curtail the civil liberties of Afghanistan’s people drastically.
The Taliban’s apparent lack of a united or manageable command structure, the presence of armed groups opposed to the Taliban, and the persistent threat of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) pose additional mass atrocity dangers to civilians across Afghanistan.
Mass Atrocity Risk Facing the Hazara
The Hazara are an ethnic and religious minority constituting an estimated 10 to 20 percent of Afghanistan’s population. They have long faced discrimination and persecution in Afghanistan. The Taliban, made up predominantly of Sunni Pashtun fighters, and other Sunni extremists, notably ISIS-K, view the Hazara as a sworn enemy primarily because of their Shi’a faith.
Even as the Hazara have continued to face attacks, the community has made political and economic advancements over the last 20 years. These advancements, such as in education and political representation, have signaled an alignment with protecting women’s rights and democratic ideals placing the group at heightened odds with the Taliban’s extremist ideology.
In the first six months of 2021, the UN documented 20 incidents targeting Shi’a/Hazara civilians, which killed 143 and injured more than 300. A few of the recent attacks reveal the brutal nature of this targeting. In May 2020, gunmen killed 24 people, including women and babies, at a maternity hospital within a predominantly Hazara community. One year later, bombings killed more than 80 primarily Hazara schoolgirls. In July, the Taliban massacred nine Hazara men.
With the Taliban now in power, the Hazara face an increased risk of crimes against humanity or even genocide.
“The whole Hazara community in Afghanistan, as well as in the diaspora, fear another genocide,” Homira Rezai, a Hazara human rights activist, told the BBC following the Taliban’s takeover.
While the Hazara may be the most vulnerable ethnic and religious community in Afghanistan today due to a history of persecution and recent escalations, other ethnic and religious minorities also face increased risk of mass atrocities.
Mass Atrocity Risk Facing Women
The Taliban has long worked to eliminate the rights of women in Afghan society. At the height of the Taliban’s power in the 1990s, amongst other restrictions, the women were required to wear burqas; severely restricted in their freedom of movement, association, and expression; barred from professional work; and refused education past age eight.
On August 24, a Taliban spokesman directed working women to stay home for their own protection, claiming the guidance would be “temporary.” Recent reports from several areas indicate the Taliban are once again requiring women to be accompanied by male escorts while in public. Restricting freedom of movement, while concerning on its own, can be used to prevent targeted communities from escaping violence.
Reports of Taliban-forced marriages have also surfaced. Forced marriage is a tool meant to control women, demoralize civilians, and root Taliban ideology into Afghan society. The tactic, amounting to sexual slavery, can be a crime against humanity under international law.
Women who are members of ethnic minority groups, have professional backgrounds, or are otherwise perceived as socially liberal, are at an even greater risk for Taliban targeting.
What to Watch
There is an urgent need to identify and locate vulnerable communities, notably minority faith leaders, ethnic or religious minority populations, and women occupying professional positions.
Because the Taliban is a decentralized network of groups, the international community should track whether the Taliban can control and manage all of its factions and the other extremist groups that operate under its umbrella. Smaller factions whose interests may not be served by the Taliban leadership may defect and wage violence at levels greater than those seen at present.
Another important dynamic to watch is the relationship between the Taliban and ISIS-K, the local affiliate of the extremist group that committed genocide in Iraq, in addition to other terror attacks. Despite both groups claiming to stand for a pure form of Islam, they compete fiercely for power and influence in Afghanistan. ISIS-K might calculate that carrying out dramatic attacks against religious minorities or Afghans associated with the West would demonstrate its ideological commitment, in contrast to Taliban leadership that is seeking international recognition. To date, no armed effort, either by the international coalition, the Afghan National Defense Forces, or the Taliban, has been able to defeat ISIS-K in Afghanistan.
To demonstrate its commitment to preventing mass atrocities, the United States and other governments should amplify its condemnation of Taliban and ISIS-K violence, call on all actors to respect and protect vulnerable groups in Afghanistan, and take steps to mitigate the risk of mass atrocities. This can include:
The United States, independently and alongside the UN Security Council (UNSC), should be prepared to levy additional targeted sanctions on persons and organizations committing atrocities, while addressing potential unintended humanitarian consequences.
Additionally, the United States, with international justice actors, should support documentation, evidence collection, and transitional justice mechanisms for victims of mass atrocity crimes by the Taliban, ISIS-K, and other actors inside the country.
The UNSC should also support an expanded and updated mandate for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan to enhance protection of civilians and human rights monitoring.
Protecting civilian infrastructure, ensuring access to humanitarian services, and supporting refugees should be shared priorities of the international community, among other critical efforts to protect at-risk civilians in Afghanistan.
Tahlia Mullen is a student at Dartmouth College and summer intern for the Early Warning Project. Tallan Donine is an Elbaz Fellow at the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide.