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Can a pipeline route kill Afghan Hazara pipe dreams?

Wakil Kohsar, AFP / An Afghan protester holds a kerosene lamp at a Kabul protest over the TUTAP electricity project on May 16, 2016.

Anger among Afghanistan’s minority Hazara group over the rerouting of a planned power transmission line is exposing old ethnic fault lines in a very modern way.


It was not the sort of showdown the august gathering at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a venerable London-based think tank, typically appreciates.

On Thursday, May 12, as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was addressing a gathering at the 185-year-old British institution, an audience member stood up and proceeded to heckle the Afghan leader.

“You’re a liar,” said the heckler, pointing at the Afghan president as the grey-suited gathering stiffened their upper lips and stared resolutely ahead. Afghan security quickly descended on the protester, who bore the distinctive Central Asian features of a Hazara -- a historically persecuted minority now flexing their democratic muscles -- and hustled him out of the room.

But minutes later, another young man in the audience started to heckle Ghani. As the Afghan guards descended on the second man and proceeded to punch him, British reserve gave way to dismay and a murmur of protest rumbled through the audience.

The rough and tumble of the Afghan street had entered the hallowed halls of a London institution.

Four days later, Hazara anger poured out on the streets of Kabul, as thousands of members of the mostly Shiite ethnic group marched through the Afghan capital, forcing security services to block key intersections with stacked shipping containers.

The reason for the street protests in Kabul and the heckling in London was the rerouting of a power transmission line linking Turkmenistan with the Afghan capital.

Called the TUTAP (after participating countries, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan) the multi-million dollar pipeline plan was originally routed through the Hazara-dominated central Afghan province of Bamiyan. But in 2013, the planned route was changed by the previous Afghan government to bypass Bamiyan due to financial and logistical reasons.

Afghanistan is desperately short of electricity, with less than 40 percent of the population connected to an aging national grid. Addressing the shortage is a complex issue with experts arguing the pros and cons of two alternate routes: one that would pass through Bamiyan or another that would cross the Hindu Kush mountains through the Salang pass.

But there’s more to the recent Hazara demonstrations than a squabble over pipeline routes. At the heart of the Bamiyan v. Salang track dispute lies a confluence of Hazara grievances rooted in centuries-old ethnic resentments that are surfacing via a very modern social mobilization process.

“There’s definitely a lot more going on,” said Melissa Kerr Chiovenda, an anthropologist and Hazara expert at the University of Connecticut. “Each time something like this happens, the Hazaras see it as another stone on their backs, they relate it back to a long history of oppression. Bamiyan is seen as the homeland, the seat of the Hazaras. Although the population of the province is relatively small, it’s a symbolic place. This unrest stems from a sense among the Hazaras that the state is not providing for them.”

A largely peaceful end – for now

Comprising around 15 percent of Afghanistan’s estimated 30 million-strong population, the predominantly Shiite Hazaras have been historically impoverished and often complain of discrimination.

Monday’s demonstration in Kabul passed largely peacefully with Ghani issuing a statement promising to ensure Bamiyan’s electricity supply.

Shortly after the presidential statement was released, senior Hazara leaders proved instrumental in diffusing a tense standoff, with former Afghan vice president Karim Khalili declaring the end of the protest and urging demonstrators to return home.

It hasn’t always ended so well. In November, Kabul saw one of Afghanistan’s biggest anti-government demonstrations when Hazaras protesting the abduction and killing of seven of their ethnic brethren -- including an infant girl -- by militants descended into violence.

Angry Hazaras, exasperated Pashtuns

This time, a potentially volatile situation may have been defused. But the underlying issues stoking Hazara rage and fears have not been addressed -- as yet.

Nearly two years after he was sworn into office, Ghani is facing potentially dangerous ethnic divides that critics say he seems incapable of addressing.

A recent spate of kidnappings and killings targeting Hazaras in southern provinces such as Zabul and Ghazni has raised fears that the community is particularly vulnerable to attacks by jihadist groups -- including Taliban breakaway factions and the Islamic State group -- who view Shiites as apostates.

On the other hand, there are signs of exasperation among other ethnic groups over the Hazara sense of grievance, or what Afghans call “oqda” -- a bitterness over past atrocities.

Since the fall of the Taliban, a reviled Hazara foe, the minority group has made historic socio-political gains by seizing on education to try to remake their lot as well as embracing the democratic process. Come election season and the Hazaras, as a cohesive vote bloc, are actively wooed by political candidates.

But some Afghans are growing impatient with a rising Hazara oqda even as the community has been trying to climb the socio-political scale. On Monday, as the TUTAP protesters streamed through Kabul’s streets, for instance, social media sites featured posts telling Hazaras to “go back to Iran”, a dig at the minority group’s Shiite faith.

“There’s definitely anger that the Hazaras are playing the ethnic card,” said Chiovenda. “There’s a feeling that they’re in government, they have salaries, now be quiet, everyone has problems. Like other marginalized groups such as the African-Americans in the US, with a history of slavery and repression, there is an exasperation, a sense of why can’t they just get over it, from majority groups. But on the other hand social scientists have shown deep-rooted historical social exclusion is not overcome overnight.”

Meanwhile, some analysts warn that other minority ethnic groups are finding common cause with the Hazaras, bound by their growing dissatisfaction with Ghani’s government.

According to Afghan political commentator Haroun Mir, what started as an isolated grievance from an ethnic minority has gained momentum and grown into an umbrella issue for many Ghani opponents.

"This is a mobilization and I know many Tajiks are supporting Hazaras, not because absolutely they want this thing [the pipeline] to go through Bamiyan, but because they hate this government and this is an opportunity for them to further weaken it," said Mir in an interview with the Associated Press.

Missing Karzai’s ‘Big Tent’

A former academic and World Bank official, Ghani is respected among Kabul’s NGO set, including Afghans, internationals and bi-nationals. During the 2014 presidential campaign, a number of Afghans seeking a meritocracy rallied behind the candidate who had spent more time abroad than in his native Afghanistan. Critics of former Afghan president Hamid Karzai had grown weary of his “Big Tent” way of doing business by appeasing and holding together a fractious coalition of powerbrokers.

But Ghani’s popularity is starting to fray. His outreach to neighbouring Pakistan -- a traditional Afghan foe and backer of the Pashtun-dominated Taliban -- has raised concerns among minority ethnic groups such as the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras.

Ghani is an Ahmadzai, one of the biggest Pashtun tribes in Afghanistan. Traditionally a large portion of the tribe was Kuchi, or nomadic, and were regarded as martial in nature. Animosity between the Hazaras and Kuchis over access to cattle grazing ground goes back centuries and can still descend into clashes during the spring season.

While a number of educated Hazaras supported Ghani ahead of the first round of the 2014 vote, they were uneasy about him playing up his identity between the first and second rounds in a bid to sweep the majority Pashtun vote.

For the Hazaras, any playing up of a Kuchi identity can raise hackles. But having used his identity on the campaign trail, Ghani quickly attempted to distance himself from tribal links once he got to power. Shortly after he was sworn into office, for instance, the new president formally removed his tribal name “Ahmadzai” from all official documents.

But there’s only so much in a name. The lack of substantive changes on the ground is not winning Ghani many Hazara friends these days.

The long moribund Taliban peace talks have gone nowhere, corruption is still endemic, the Taliban is waging a violent spring offensive while the country has not had a defense minister due to political wrangling, and frustrations are mounting.

“They really don’t like him [Ghani] at all, more so than Karzai,” said Chiovenda. “From what I understand, during the Karzai days, a lot of Hazaras didn’t like Karzai, but they would say things like, ‘he’s doing the best he can, as least Hazara areas are stable’. This is not the case with Ghani.”

But Afghanistan is not an easy country to administer. During his London address, Ghani tried to placate a heckler by noting, “See, even in the middle of a war, we are prepared to discuss and debate infrastructure issues.” Maybe this time Afghans simply need to give their president more time.

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