Kabul is Afghanistan’s capital, a city of over five million people that has transformed completely since 2001. Kandahar was, and remains, a stronghold of the Taliban. The highway between Kabul and Kandahar, which passes through Wardak, Ghazni, and Zabul, is sometimes called the Highway of Death. One British journalist, writing in 2012, called it a “bomb-cratered, 300-mile long shooting gallery”. Most Afghans have no option but to travel along it. Tens of people are killed taking the highway each year.
In early 2015, survivors of the highway told journalist Samad Ali Nawazesh about the pattern of attack:“When we go off the Kabul-Kandahar highway towards Jaghoori we are accosted by many types of robbers and armed individuals. They search the passengers, rob and release some. Sometimes they behead passengers”.
Before that, in 2014, the Kabul-Behsud highway (that intersects the Kabul-Kandahar highway) had become famous as a “Death Road” where Afghanistan’s minority Hazara were specifically targeted for murder by the Taliban. The Hazara are a traditionally oppressed minority. In recent decades, they have begun a resurgence, attaining opportunities in education and employment that had traditionally been closed to them. The Taliban’s persecution of them has been partly sectarian (Hazara are Shia, while the Taliban are Sunni), partly traditional oppression (trying to keep the Hazara in their lower-status place through terror). Many factions in the civil wars Afghanistan has suffered since 1979 have targeted Hazara civilians with a particular ferocity.
So, when, a few months ago, a group of Hazara civilians – four men, two women, and a child – were abducted on the Kabul-Kandahar highway, held for a month, probably by ISIS-Afghanistan (a split from the Taliban), and then beheaded, the authors of the atrocity, as well as the country’s government, may have expected the same kind of terrorized response that they have grown accustomed to.
The response was not what they expected. The families of the victims refused to bury the bodies. They marched with the coffins in Kabul.
Writing in the Swedish Feministiskt Perspektiv, Dr. Farooq Sulehria, a journalist with extensive experience in Afghanistan, described the mass protest of November 11, in which Kabul “erupted” on a scale seen “for the first time in three decades”, with a “30,000-strong rally” that “stretched over 15 kilometres.” The protest was remarkable not solely for its size: “While Hazara dominate numerically, every ethnicity is visible in the rally… Women in their thousands, sometimes carrying coffins on their shoulders, are marching at the vanguard.” The protests, Sulehria writes, sidelined the traditional Hazara leadership. “Muhammad Mohaqiq, a warlord and second deputy to CEO, as well as Karim Khalili, former vice president, were not spotted at the rally.” The Afghan diaspora also mobilized, with rallies in many cities at Afghan embassies all over the world. Among the chants there was one notable for its simplicity:“death to the Islamic State”.
And even though since November there have been more abductions of Hazaras along the highways and more people found beheaded, there are signs that the protests may have shaken both perpetrators and the government. To date, no one has taken responsibility for the murders, even though everyone holds ISIS-Afghanistan responsible.
The scale of the protests took the Afghan authorities by surprise. The protests had several new features: solidarity across Afghanistan’s Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara groups; their grassroots nature, sidelining the traditional warlord-type authorities; and their militancy. After a long period of official silence, Afghanistan’s president promised to take action.
Afghanistan has many traditions. Yes, some of these are conservative and religious. But one that is rarely remembered is the tradition of nationalism that united the country’s ethnic groups in the struggle for sovereignty and development – there were many mass protests on that basis in the 1970s.
Another tradition that is rarely remembered is the tradition of women’s struggles. In the spring, I wrote about the massive outpouring of rage and protest after the murder of a woman named Farkhunda outside of a mosque in Kabul. That outpouring, which also surprised both the murderers and the authorities, forced the government to act to arrest and jail some of the perpetrators.
It is too early to know if the protests of 2015 are the beginning of something bigger in Afghanistan. But there is certainly potential. Maybe enough potential to scare those who are most comfortable terrorizing others. Large numbers of people that are militant, hard to scare, and hard to divide on sectarian lines are a formidable force, one Afghanistan may see more of in 2016.