Swinging Pendulum of Destiny
One aspect of Afghanistan’s modern history has always been constant: regardless of the turn of events, the Hazaras could count on receiving the short end of the stick. This is well documented. Since 2001, however, overall conditions began to improve and the Hazaras managed to benefit from the democratic electoral process. Their ability for political organization as a voting bloc has far exceeded that of other groups, which particularly for the country’s Pashtuns has not been an overly exciting experience. In some instances, in Uruzgan and Ghazni, electoral results greatly favored Hazaras, who prefer not to sit out elections. The Afghan Government had to intervene and adjust the results to prevent interethnic problems.
The trend of gaining power through political process on the provincial and district level of governance will continue for Hazaras, despite their status as a minority group nationwide. By holding onto political power they are delineating their territory, which in multi-ethnic countries is paramount to survival. But what if the pendulum swings back and conditions worsen, the democratic electoral process is abolished, and the country’s ethnic groups have to pick up guns instead of voting cards?
Will the Hazaras, after experiencing political (and moral) empowerment sit out this conflict and expect others to sort their destiny? They will have to make a choice. What they may (have to) do has an unavoidable geographic aspect to it, because ethnic groups always fight for power by fighting for space.
A couple of popular spatial stereotypes hinder the Hazaras’ current position among Afghan groups. One is the perception that their ancestral lands are solely in the mountainous central part of Afghanistan. Another stereotype is that Bamyan Province is the core area of their homeland, while cities like Kabul and Ghazni the periphery.
Combined, the two stereotypes leave an impression that that the Hazaras have always preferred rural, remote mountainous areas over an urban environment. A widely used, although far from accurate, ethnic map of Afghanistan illustrates how the Hazaras are the only major ethnic groups without direct access to the country’s main highway, Highway One (the Ring Road).
[Note: For my comment on accuracy of ethnic population ratios, distribution, and the abovementioned map, please read my post “Fixing” Intel (Or Manipulation with Maps).]
Neither of the two stereotypes results from incidental impressions. Rather, they are products of a process that took place during the past 125 years through periods of ethnic cleansing, particularly devastating during the reign of Abdur Rahman Khan (1880-1901). He was called the “Iron Amir” for a reason.
No one deliberately settles on poor land when better land is available. Hazaras, like other Afghans, prefer good agricultural land over the boondocks, but were removed in order for Afghanistan’s rulers to settle an ethnic group deemed to be more suitable. The legacy of ethnic cleansing was particularly visible in the landscape and patterns of ethnic population distribution across several eastern provinces.
From Zabul through Ghazni, Maidan Wardak, all the way to Kabul, Hazara-Pashtun ethnic boundaries closely follow the patterns of land use. Irrigated land along river valleys is under Pashtun ownership. Once the elevation increases and valleys narrow, barren slopes replace pastures and Hazara villages appear. At a larger geographic scale one can also investigate this relationship by individual districts: from Maidan Wardak’s Jalrez and Daimirdad, southward into Ghazni Province’s Jagathu, Andar, Qarabagh, and all the way to Zabul’s Arghandab and Daichopan.
Post-2001 geo-demographic changes and migratory patterns have proven the stereotypes incorrect: Hazaras prefer urban areas and have since made Kabul City and Ghazni City their core ethnic areas, while Bamyan became peripheral. If the predominantly-Hazara neighborhoods in Kabul City—Police Districts 3, 6, and 13—were an administrative unit independent of Kabul, they would likely be Afghanistan’s second most populated city. In theory, it could be the Hazara’s capital. This role, however, is more suitable for Ghazni, which is now a de facto center city of their ethnic homeland. Unlike their spatial unit in Kabul, which is an ethnic island disconnected from the Hazaras’ rural west, Ghazni is not detached from Hazarajat. And it already sits on Highway One’s major crossroad connecting Kabul, Kandahar, and Gardez.
But Afghanistan’s center of gravity always was and will be Kabul. Tajiks have solidified their connection to Kabul via Shomali Plains and Parwan, while the Pashtuns have the same connection eastward. Should Hazaras attempt to do the same and consolidate their Kabul unit with Hazarajat, they need to consider a distance of roughly 35-miles between the southwestern outskirts of Kabul to the western parts of Jalrez district in Maidan Wardak (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Southwestern outskirts of Kabul City. View across Paghman District in a northwesterly direction. A hill slope to the right (east) has been transformed from a barren land to a residential neighborhood populated by Hazaras. Shaheed Mazari Road—not visible—passes through the valley along the houses in foreground and connects to the Highway One (which passes behind fortress-looking structures on the elevated area in the middle of image). (Photograph by the author.)
Half of the corridor’s length, which leads through one of the main “gates” of Kabul (Figure 3) along Highway One, is sparsely populated land and of minor importance (1). The second portion of the corridor begins in Maidan Shahr and follows the upper Kabul River valley to Jalrez. This is an agricultural area populated with Pashtuns (and some Tajiks) who likely are not willing to give it up.
Figure 3. View south from Paghman toward Maidan Wardak on a hazy day when brick factories worked overtime. The Highway One stretches diagonally from lower left to mid-right passing through a so-called gate of Kabul. (Photograph by the author.)
It does not mean, however, that in the grand scheme of things in case of widespread ethnic conflict, the other Pashtuns would put their efforts in defending this area knowing the extent of Hazaras’ geographic interest. If the Hazaras were to return the favor of land acquisition through ethnic cleansing, and to achieve a strategic goal of connecting their two major spatial units, this may be among their better options. What works in their favor as a result of Kabul’s urban expansion is the Pashtuns’ numerical decline—in terms of ratios—in the western parts of Kabul basin compared to Tajiks and Hazaras. Southwestern Paghman (Kabul’s) provincial district is Pashtuns’ only direct land connection to this part of the Kabul metropolitan area.
Even under non-violent circumstances, if the Hazaras were simply to buy all the land between their neighborhoods in Kabul and Maidan Shahr—the first half of above mentioned corridor—the Paghman’s Pashtuns would be cut off from their kin in Maidan Wardak, putting them in this part of Kabul in exactly the same situation the Hazaras are currently experiencing. Considering that Paghman is home to a powerful former warlord, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, now a respected politician and businessman, whose forces heavily shelled Hazara neighborhoods during the 1992-1996 Civil War, it may not be an intellectual stretch to think that the Hazaras remember why Paghman matters. The road connecting Hazara neighborhoods with Highway One in Paghman is named, rather interestingly, Saheed Mazari, a Hazara leader during that civil war.
The 35-mile distance in Hazara ethnic gap between Kabul City and western Jalrez has another important spatial dimension—it is the very route for future railroad and high voltage electricity transmission links. This further elevates the significance of the Maidan Shahr area and potential benefits from controlling this gate to Kabul. Hazaras and Pashtuns are aware of that [For more on this issue see my post Fight for Light in Kabul City and National Implications]. Hazaras already “control” some of the country’s main water resources by virtue of living along the headwaters of Helmand and other important rivers [For more on that aspect see my post Afghanistan’s Watersheds and Their Relevance to Instability in the North].
Time will tell how the events will unfold, but when Afghanistan again experiences the type of conflict as seen during the 1992-1996 Civil War, it will be practically impossible to sit out the fight and expect to remain unaffected. Hazaras are like the Poles, living in the land historically stuck in between major powers who are marching to conquer each other and making sure to do damage while passing through. In such circumstances decisions have to be made, but making the right choice is an incredibly challenging task. It revolves around geographically delineating what is (a) worth, (b) possible, and (c) realistic to fight for in terms of both the short and, more importantly, the long term future.
- For the relationship and analysis between ethnic population distribution and the gates of Kabul consult Chapter 5 in my book Photographic Memory of Kabul City: A Deployed Geographer’s Perspective.
Note: I did not include my own maps of ethnic population distribution in the areas discussed in this article. Parties interested in procurement of such products or consulting services for their own production can contact me directly.