On 14 January 2020, the Lahore Center for Peace Research (LCPR), a non-profit and non-partisan Pakistani think tank hosted representatives (members of parliament and leaders) of Afghanistan’s Hazara community in Islamabad, Pakistan.
Pakistani diplomats (former), bureaucrats, researchers, and journalists attended the event. The LCPR’s aim is to bridge the schisms and differences vis-à-vis peace found among Afghanistan’s multi-ethnic community.
Titled the “Lahore Process”, this was the first of a series of roundtables that the organization desires to host to reach the said aim. The Hazara delegation was primarily made up of the Hezbe Wahdat Islami Mardume Afghanistan (HWI-MA) – a major political party in Afghanistan and one of the foremost representatives of the Hazaras.
The Hazara delegation was headed by Muhammad Mohaqiq who is the founder and chairman of the HWI-MA and a respected politician himself (he was the Deputy Chief Executive of Afghanistan from 2014-2019). Pakistan was requested by the United States to help them with negotiating a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban – and therefore is one of the main parties involved.
This dialogue between LCPR and the Hazara representatives, however, was not on an official government level but merely the civil society trying to abet the process however they could. It is important to note this event took place before the freshly signed peace deal between the Taliban and the United States.
The Hazaras are one of four main ethnic groups in Afghanistan comprising of 4 million people, which makes them the third-largest ethnic group in the country. They are mainly located in the Hazarajat region in central Afghanistan while a sizeable minority of Hazaras is also present in Pakistan mainly in Balochistan province. They are mainly adherents of Shia Islam. As HWI-MA is one of the principal Hazara political parties in Afghanistan, the desires, optimisms, and misgivings of the Hazara delegation (especially Mr. Mohaqiq) are in accordance with Afghanistan’s Hazara community. In other words, this delegation was “the voice of the Hazaras”.
The Lahore Process
Comprised of two sessions, the “Lahore Process” began with giving the floor to the Hazara representatives to hear what they had to say about the current peace process. Mr. Mohaqiq, the chief guest, a revered personality especially among Hazaras, would start and dominate the proceedings. Mr. Mohaqiq was initially a member of the Hezbe Wahdat (HW). The HW, mainly consisting of Hazaras, fought against the Soviets (1979-1989) and later with the Taliban (1996-2001) under the aegis of the Northern Alliance. In the latter period, Mr. Mohaqiq became one of the military commanders of the Northern Alliance by leading the HW. After 2009, due to infighting and fragmenting, the Hezbe Wahdat broke into at least four competing organizations – one of which became the HWI-MA, founded and led by Mr. Mohaqiq.
With the hall in a hush, Mr. Mohaqiq began by articulating his thoughts. After graciously thanking Pakistan and LCPR for their endeavors towards peace, Mr. Mohaqiq stated that peace cannot be established mechanically.
The first step, he noted, was that all parties should be prepared for peace. Elaborating on this, he asserted that “Peace is only possible if the conflicting sides can accept each other in every way”.
He then stressed that Afghanistan, like Pakistan, is a land of many ethnicities, religions, and sects. Afghanistan has four major ethnicities (Pathans, Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks) and three main Islamic sects – Sunnis, Shias, and Ismailis. From this point of multi-ethnicity, he segued to what the two general approaches are to tackle diverse communities.
The first labeled as “Hard approach”, he explained, was when the diversity of cultures, ethnicities, religions, languages, etc. is not accepted but instead tried to be forcibly removed – he said this approach never works. This appeared to be a veiled criticism of the Afghan Taliban and their Islamic Emirate, which was inconsiderate of religious, cultural, and ideological idiosyncrasies in the past. The converse approach, however he said, was when one recognizes and respects the differences of the diverse communities and moves forward – this he designated the “Soft approach” which he favored.
He expanded this integral discussion point by then logically linking peace with the need for religious and ideological pluralism. All religions and sects must be recognized and not maligned: he said, “The only way forward is acceptance and tolerance”.
He believed that if the mindset remains unyielding, then Afghanistan would suffer for another 30 years. He then explicitly mentioned the Afghan Taliban by stating adamantly that their Islamic Emirate would be extremely problematic in a land of such diversity.
Discussing the first Islamic Emirate that lasted from 1996-2001, he said that it instigated many issues and bred violence. The Islamic Emirate established by the Afghan Taliban, at its peak, controlled 90% of the country. During this time, minorities like the Hazara suffered greatly and many Afghans, especially women, were divested of basic rights. The Battles of Mazar-i-Sharif (1997-98), a part of the Afghan civil war, witnessed intense fighting between the Hazaras (and other ethnicities) and the Taliban. The span of the fighting and its vicissitudes saw Taliban prisoners being massacred in May-July 1997 and then in August 1998 the Taliban taking control of the city and reportedly massacring civilians including Hazaras. This bad blood will be extremely difficult to mollify due to the antagonism crossing sectarian and ethnic lines. The Taliban are mainly Pashtuns and Sunnis, while Hazaras, a different ethnicity, are primarily Shias. Fighting between various ethnicities and sects, unfortunately, has been a perennial facet of Afghan history.
Mr. Mohaqiq continued that America’s invasion of Afghanistan to oust the Taliban further divided the country – some Afghanis consider the Americans occupiers while others consider them liberators. A comprehensive committee should be formed, Mr. Mohaqiq believed, in which the Taliban must realize and redress the issues of all Afghan communities. He ended by proclaiming that countries like Pakistan and America are leading this peace process and that hopefully, other countries will continually aid the process as well.
Other members of the delegation (mainly members of the Afghan parliament) also spoke. Their sentiments (especially to include all ethnicities in the peace process) mainly mirrored that of Mr. Mohaqiq but I shall briefly mention the other important statements.
One delegation member talked about peace being linked to justice and freedom while another said that it is not possible for two warring groups to abruptly find peace – it will take continuous effort and time. All delegation members explicitly or tacitly mentioned the sacrifices made by Afghans and how they have become inured due to the violence that has enveloped them since decades.
All of them also lauded Pakistan’s role not only in the current peace endeavor but also in their pivotal contribution to Afghanistan’s defeat of the Soviets. A couple of delegation members mentioned that a ceasefire on the Pakistan and Afghanistan border should be maintained and respected which would help both countries improve relations.
There was a solitary female in the delegation who stated how much women have endured especially under the Taliban regime. She stated that today, however, women have a voice now and thus can be found in all fields of society – from education to politics. There was even a former Taliban commander in the delegation (Mr. Gardezi). He stated that he wholeheartedly agreed with what Mr. Mohaqiq had said and that he hoped that the Taliban and the HWI-MA could work together in ushering a peaceful future in Afghanistan.
After this initial session, the second interactive session began which was to focus on comments and questions from the audience (diplomats, researchers, and journalists) followed by answers from the Hazara delegation.
A former Pakistani ambassador asked the first question: he asked what the biggest obstacle on the road to peace was, to which Mr. Mohaqiq replied that the biggest challenge was the mentality that one group can forcibly subdue the remainder of Afghans. He reiterated that the Islamic Emirate is not a solution. He said that they (HWI-MA) are trying to be accommodating with the Taliban. He continued that if the Taliban want an Islamic system like Turkey or Pakistan’s, the Hazaras would welcome it with open arms. Taking a jab at the present Afghan government, Mr. Mohaqiq cited that they (the government) might think it is the sole representative of the people, but this sentiment is mistaken and myopic.
A Pakistani journalist, Saleem Safi, asked several questions next. He asked that since Pakistan has been redundantly blamed for supporting the Afghan Taliban, could they (Pakistan) be impartial negotiators in the current negotiations with the Taliban. Mr. Mohaqiq retorted that Pakistan being a supporter of the Taliban appears to be only an allegation, but that Pakistan should continually try to distance and rid itself from such claims. He continued that he was extremely happy being in Pakistan and that the Hazara representatives will go back to their constituencies praising the Pakistanis for their genuine efforts towards Afghan peace.
The second question asked by Saleem Safi was more technical. He prefaced by saying that since neither the Taliban nor the Afghan government are representatives of the entirety of the Afghans (as mentioned by Mr. Mohaqiq), what mechanisms needed to be adopted in selecting legitimate representatives from the various communities (such as the Tajiks and Hazaras)? Mr. Mohaqiq replied that Afghan people know which political parties have a good or bad repute in the country. The civil society is also cognizant of this widespread knowledge, therefore fair representatives can be selected from the various Afghan communities if done honestly, he said. However, he asserted, that if Ashraf Ghani heads the task of making a list of representatives of the Afghan people, this would be completely unacceptable to the HWI-MA and the Taliban.
Another question was asked relating to who should author the negotiations. The questioner provided some context before the question. He said that if Pakistan leads the negotiations and holds them in the country, India would object and so would the Afghan government, and if India leads, Pakistan would object, and if America leads, the Taliban might interject and so on – so who should author the negotiations?
The answer to this from Mr. Mohaqiq was that the current negotiations are a multifaceted process and involve several countries. One negotiation event/conference cannot bring peace in Afghanistan, he asserted, so it should be a continuous process where one conference can be hosted in Pakistan, the next in Iran, then in Turkey and China and so on. Since there are many stakeholders in Afghan peace, there should be a joint effort to achieve the desired outcome, he believed. The Chairman of LCPR, Ambassador (former) Shamshad Ahmed also offered his insight to the same question, noting that the process is “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” and that the Afghans are the masters (authors) of their own destinies.
One of the last questions, asked by a senior research fellow, was regarding the Taliban. She asked Mr. Mohaqiq that since the Taliban has recently shown openness in a power-sharing formula in Afghanistan’s future setup and since he (Mr. Mohaqiq) interacted with them on several occasions particularly in Moscow, does this sentiment of the Taliban seem genuine (and have they actually changed). Mr. Mohaqiq replied that in Moscow he had a good discussion with the Taliban. He said that he observed a few things (some positive, some negative): for example that the Taliban, according to him, “still remain strictly ideological regarding many things” and that they were very rigid in their body language.
It positive was that they came to the negotiating table to discuss peace and that was a huge step forward. He continued then to mention one other negative point. He mentioned that since there are various religious sects in Afghanistan, the current system, realizing the sectarian diversity, “has placed personal laws for the sects”. He claimed that when he said religious pluralism like this should continue rather than a “one size fits all” approach, the Taliban appeared inflexible. He ended by mentioning again, however, that the pivotal facet is that they (Taliban) came to talk about peace and that with the passage of time they will become more flexible in their thinking and approach.
The Hazara leadership represents one of the four major ethnicities in Afghanistan. As Mr. Mohaqiq said earlier in the conference “We do not represent the whole of Afghanistan, but we represent an important part”. This sentiment probably resonates within every ethnicity in Afghanistan. All pieces (communities) together complete the Afghan puzzle. This makes the caveat of “inclusivity for all” raised by the Hazaras even more meaningful.
Although the Taliban and America have now signed a peace deal in Qatar, the Taliban must understand that they cannot impose their will on such a varied collection of Afghans – it did not work the first time and it will not if it recurs again. True peace is not American expulsion from the country, but instead when the Afghans can respect each other so that they can coexist.
This is obviously easier said than done and hence realistically true coexistence might be many years away. If the Taliban become a part of the future governance set up in the country, their “stick” (power) might be strong enough to protect and secure the country militarily, but they need to start introducing “carrots” for the multiethnic populous to ensure peace. The reality is that there is no future of Afghanistan without the Taliban – the other reality is that there is no future of Afghanistan without everyone else. Therefore, everything comes down to “acceptance and tolerance”.
After concluding his Masters and receiving the Top Graduate award, Sarmad continued his passion for writing and became a researcher for Lahore Centre for Peace Research. Sarmad has several publications in international journals and magazines in the fields of Terrorism/Counterterrorism and International Relations. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.