In Bamiyan, the Taliban Walk a Perilous Tightrope

How one Afghan province has forced the Islamists to choose between political expediency and ideological purity

In Bamiyan, the Taliban Walk a Perilous Tightrope
A Taliban militant in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province on Oct. 6, 2021 (Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images)

On a summer evening earlier this year, I sat talking with a Taliban commander in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan valley, a region that has become a crucible for the militant group’s claim to have moderated its ideology and style of governance. Bamiyan lies in the heart of the central Hazarajat region, considered home to the Hazara, an ethnic group of Turkic-Mongolic origin with a rich cultural history. After the collapse of President Ashraf Ghani’s government in 2021, Bamiyan fell under the rule of the reborn “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” as the Taliban refers to the country. The Taliban, most of whom are of Pashtun ethnicity, are now grappling with the monumental task of governing an ethnic group with whom they have deep cultural differences, as well as a history of violence and mistrust. How they handle this challenge may well decide the future of their regime in Afghanistan.

As we sat under the dying evening light, my conversation with the Taliban commander drifted toward the three subjects that have dominated Afghanistan for the last half century: politics, religion and guns. Cradling his Kalashnikov rifle as we spoke, he paused at one point to note the manufacturing date engraved between its trigger and stock. “It was made in 1976,” he said. “It is older than me, than you, and almost every one of us here.”

The commander was dressed in a shalwar kameez that had seen better days, the cotton thin and frayed to the brink of ruin. His turban was black, his eyes dark, his beard lengthy. Though he held the title of “mawlawi,” indicating that he was a religious scholar, his knowledge of Islam seemed rudimentary at best. He was polite and hospitable, as we Afghans usually are. Yet it quickly became clear that he was a village-level mullah who had learned his faith from men of similar schooling. In different circumstances, his ill-informed piety may have been a trivial detail. But the more time I spent with him, the more troubling it became. Under the Taliban, Afghanistan is being run by theocrats who have known little except war. For some, the years of bloodshed have motivated them to reconcile with their enemies and make compromises for the sake of peace. For others, painful memories of their sacrifices during the conflict now fuel a desire to turn their military victory into a full-blown cultural revolution.

The more the mawlawi spoke, the clearer it became which side of the divide he occupied. Once a mid-ranking commander in the Taliban’s southern heartlands, he was now an officer in the army of the Islamic Emirate, with responsibility for educating his fellow soldiers about the true nature of their religion. He believed this should have been a straightforward task, and was angry to discover it was not. The more we chatted, the more he revealed his frustration at encountering mundane difficulties he had never imagined during his combat days. In the war against the Americans, he had defined himself against a clear enemy: the U.S.-led coalition and the Afghan governments of President Hamid Karzai and his successor Ghani. He hailed from a Pashtun-majority area of Ghazni province and had long been surrounded by insurgents from backgrounds similar to his own.

Now, the mawlawi was stationed in a part of the country dominated by ethnic Hazaras, a minority community with different customs and traditions. Most Hazaras are Shiite, but even the Sunnis among them offend his notion of what it means to be a Muslim, and an Afghan. “Their women, families, and ways of dealing with each other are all opposite to our culture,” he told me as he sat on a Persian rug, probably left behind by NATO troops based in Bamiyan before him. “I’m not OK with them — their thinking has been totally destroyed by the Americans. The culture and freedom they practice is not ours, nor is it practiced in any other part of the country.”

Traditionally, the Taliban have drawn their ideological blueprint from an interpretation of Sunni Islam combining classical Hanafi jurisprudence (a school of Islamic law founded by a theologian in 8th-century Iraq named Abu Hanifa, whose family hailed from central Afghanistan) with a 19th-century Hanafi offshoot in the Indian subcontinent known as Deobandism. Their religious practice also incorporates local traditions, which allows them to take a somewhat more pragmatic approach to politics.

Yet the Taliban’s pragmatism also lies at the root of some of their most intractable problems. Away from major cities like Kabul and Kandahar, where restrictions on free speech and girls’ education have grabbed the attention of the international media, Taliban officials are trying to balance the demands of their most hardline supporters with the complicated reality of ruling over a pluralistic, multiethnic society. This tension is acute in Bamiyan, a province of sandstone cliffs and rolling hills, as well as the site in more recent times of failed uprisings and horrific massacres.

In 1888, the Emir Abdur Rahman Khan, who ruled Afghanistan from 1880 to 1901, ordered an operation to destroy a resistance movement led by the elders of Hazarajat, who had refused to pay taxes to the central government. While the Emir would later become known for uniting the country and winning over formerly hostile tribes, memories of the atrocities perpetrated against the people of Hazarajat during his rule remain an open wound in Afghan history. This would not be the last episode of violence in Bamiyan. In late 1978, the people of the region rose up again to fight the central government — not a traditional monarchy this time, but a terrifyingly modern communist regime.

A Hazara-led resistance movement called Shura-e-Itifaq-e-Islami emerged in Bamiyan to fight the Afghan communists and their Soviet allies. The movement was not the only one in the region and, despite helping defeat the communists, it soon fell victim to the militia infighting that devastated much of the country. Like Kabul, Bamiyan fell into a civil war that impacted even members of the same ethnicity. Peace came only in the early 1990s, when it was agreed to run Bamiyan province under a council composed of representatives of all local ethnic and political groups.

This history has left a complex legacy in Bamiyan, with which the Islamic Emirate must now grapple. For some Taliban stationed in the area, including the ill-educated mawlawi with the old Kalashnikov, ruling Afghanistan has already come to feel like a poisoned chalice, forcing them to make unwelcome compromises that run against their principles in the name of expediency. Serving alongside these ideologues, however, are more pragmatic-minded Taliban who regard their return to government as the perfect chance to show their fellow Afghans that they can rule in an inclusive and adaptable way. Understanding the forces driving these two contrasting viewpoints in Bamiyan provides a window into the momentous theological and political debates now taking place at all levels within the Taliban.

It was late summer when I visited Bamiyan. The route there took me through the neighboring province of Wardak, with its verdant landscapes of apple and pear trees. Despite the beauty, all around me were the scars of war; some physical, others psychological. Large sections of the road still lay in ruins from the Taliban’s roadside bombs that once targeted passing U.S. army convoys and terrified civilians. As I drove, I was reminded of a predatory Hazara militia that had also once patrolled the same route under the guise of providing security to travelers. Led by a former bus driver known as Alipur, or Commander Shamshir, the militia’s fighters routinely stopped and threatened Pashtuns like myself. In the waning months of the Ghani government, they had even shot down an Afghan army helicopter, killing everyone on board. Now, though, the road was safe. When I entered Bamiyan, I saw men, women and children all working peacefully in the surrounding fields. It was a scene at once simple and moving.

I met the mawlawi on my first night in Bamiyan and have protected his identity at his request. The political turmoil that defines modern Afghanistan began in the late 1960s and early 1970s, before even his Kalashnikov existed. In the decades since, the entire country, including Bamiyan, has been torn by contradictions of unity and division; beauty and ugliness; peace and war. These contradictions now also define the new Islamic Emirate.

The mawlawi had been issued his Kalashnikov when he deployed to Bamiyan. Though it was stained orange with rust, its age didn’t bother him. He kept it clean and knew it would work if he needed to fire a shot in anger. “Russian weapons are always good,” he told me. The Kalashnikov hung on the wall of the shipping container that served as his sleeping quarters for most of the night, watching over us as he unburdened himself of complaints. The mawlawi told me in frustration that Hazara soldiers in the army did not eat with their hands, as is customary in rural Afghanistan, but used cutlery — a habit he associated with Western decadence. He was similarly unhappy that local teenagers caught with photographs of girls on their smartphones were not punished for violating Islamic law. As far as the mawlawi was concerned, these transgressions reflected badly on the whole of Afghanistan, and the Taliban in particular.

His complaints were nothing compared to the hunger and unemployment afflicting millions of Afghans. Yet, to him, they were symptomatic of a wider social malaise growing within the country. His way of thinking comes from the particular theological worldview into which most Taliban members are indoctrinated. But it is also rooted in local politics. During the late 1990s, Bamiyan was an important staging post for resistance to the first Taliban government, led by an alliance of armed Shiite groups known as the Hizb-e Wahdat. This movement culminated in a violent struggle for control of the district of Yakawlang in the west of the province, which both sides regarded as a key strategic link to northern and central Afghanistan.

After briefly losing hold of the district in late 2000, the Taliban quickly fought back and regained control from the rival militias. They then decided to send a horrifying message to any who would dare oppose them again. In early 2001, the Taliban carried out a wave of reprisal killings in Yakawlang. According to Human Rights Watch, around 300 civilian adult males were arrested, scores of whom were then shot dead in public executions. The Taliban’s supreme leader at the time, Mullah Mohammad Omar, is said to have intervened to stop more revenge killings occurring. That did not mean, however, that he was willing to forgive or forget this rebellion against his rule.

In March 2001, the Taliban destroyed two sixth-century statues of Buddha carved into the sandstone cliffs that overlook Bamiyan’s provincial capital, claiming they were symbols of idolatry. Their demolition was the result of a direct order from Mullah Omar, and came despite pleas to save the statues from prominent international Islamic clerics, including Egypt’s grand mufti, Sheikh Nasr Farid Wasil. The head of UNESCO aptly described the demolition as a “crime against culture.” The destruction of the Buddhas would become symbolic of the Taliban’s crude indifference to global public opinion, as well as their contempt for the local heritage of Bamiyan.

Tensions from that era still linger two decades later, magnified by new political divisions that have arisen in the years since the 9/11 attacks and U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Bamiyan was one of the country’s safest provinces during the U.S.-led occupation, with a small contingent of troops from New Zealand stationed in the area. That safety was the product of a decision made by local leaders to side with NATO in its war against the Taliban, as happened in a number of other areas.

Today, many Taliban members resent the locals in Bamiyan for supporting these foreign forces, as well as for embracing more liberal social and political ways of life in the past two decades. For several years during the occupation, Bamiyan had Afghanistan’s only female governor, Habiba Sarabi, a medical doctor who served as minister of women’s affairs early in the Karzai administration. In 2020, Sarabi was one of four women in an Afghan delegation that took part in failed peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar. She now lives in exile, where she remains a staunch critic of the Islamic Emirate, including its failures to protect Hazaras, who have been victimized by terrorist attacks in other parts of the country by Afghanistan’s branch of the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS-K.

The reality in Bamiyan, however, is that even the most ideological Taliban members have kept their extremist instincts in check so far. The Taliban stationed in Bamiyan appear to demonstrate a sense of collective discipline and have largely respected an amnesty protecting their former opponents from persecution. While they are quick to express discriminatory views in private, for the time being, at least, they have not acted on these impulses by lashing out. This is due in part to the respect they hold for their current supreme leader — the amir al-mumineen, or “leader of the faithful,” Sheikh Hibatullah Akhundzada.

The relative security presently enjoyed by the Hazara in Bamiyan is not necessarily a reflection of ideological acceptance by the Taliban for their religious practices or way of life. Rather, it has a strategic logic. Since the U.S. withdrawal, the Taliban has been keen to prevent the region from turning into a hotbed of resistance, which could undermine its rule and enable groups like ISIS-K to stir up sectarian strife in the country, as in Iraq and Syria. Indeed, the Islamic State’s attempts to make inroads in post-NATO Afghanistan have included targeting Shiites in the country with a string of horrific bombings, while portraying the Taliban as protectors of the so-called “rafidah,” a pejorative term for Shiites.

Among the measures that had previously helped secure the area was the creation by the U.S. of a protective belt around Bamiyan, preventing outsiders — including Afghans like myself — from entering at will. This helped tighten security and minimize unrest in the area, but only inside Bamiyan’s capital. In the belt around the mountains, ragtag militias were in charge of different areas, causing conflicts between various tribal, sectarian and ethnic groups: between Hazara and nomadic Pashtus, Hazara and Sayeds or Sadaat, Hazara and Tajiks and between Hazara Sunnis and Shiites. When the Taliban took over, these militias were disbanded and the wider region came under the group’s tight control. The Taliban also set up tribal mediations to resolve disputes.

The Taliban have appointed officials capable of maintaining discipline among forces on the ground and preserving relations with the local community. For the group’s most ideological members, their leadership’s indulgent attitude toward the Hazara is a betrayal of their two-decades-long jihad to “liberate” Afghanistan and place it under Sharia rule. Yet, despite periodic grumbles of discontent, these cadres continue to obey orders.

Local Hazara have also eschewed violent resistance, opting instead for compromise with the Taliban in the hopes of maintaining peace in their small corner of this wounded country. One civil servant who worked for the U.S.-backed government in Bamiyan’s provincial capital when it fell to the Taliban in August 2021 told me the handover was peaceful, with local officials abandoning their posts by prior agreement before the insurgents arrived. A Hazara writer told me the only looting that took place that summer occurred before the Taliban took over. Against great odds, Bamiyan today is calm. Whether that calm will continue, however, remains to be seen.

One afternoon, near Shahr-e Gholghola, an archaeological site on the outskirts of Bamiyan’s capital, I spoke with Rashid, a Taliban fighter from Wardak in his 20s. The sky was cloudy and the temperature cool. For a brief moment, it felt as though we could have been two men happily passing time anywhere in the world. Tall and handsome, Rashid was the butt of constant jokes from his friends, who said he was always hiding from local girls who were flirting with him. He took the comments with awkward good grace. “I have promised my parents that I will only marry whoever they choose for me — I will keep my love for her,” he told me.

When our conversation turned to politics, however, Rashid’s mood darkened. Echoing the mawlawi with the old Kalashnikov, he said the Taliban were governing Bamiyan too moderately. “Why are we not allowed to practice our rules here like we do elsewhere?” he said. The people of Bamiyan had spent the U.S. occupation “deep in moral corruption … enjoying the money of America,” he complained. Now, they should be made to live according to the Taliban’s interpretation of Islamic law. “Girls walk freely with their boyfriends, wearing just hijabs, and take selfies in front of us. We can stop them, but we cannot question them. Why? I think the Taliban are dealing with people here differently than in other parts of Afghanistan, and that is not fair, that is not justice,” he said.

The views of men like Rashid help explain the recent decision by the Taliban’s leader, Sheikh Akhundzada, to reintroduce the so-called “hudud” corporal and capital punishments in Afghanistan. For zealous supporters of the Islamic Emirate, any compromise on such matters is tantamount to ideological betrayal. “The amir al-mumineen thinks that because this province is safe and there is no war or shooting everything is OK, but everything is not OK here. We have the same moral corruption as we did when the Americans were here,” Rashid told me. He and other Taliban members I spoke to believe Akhundzada would clamp down harder in Bamiyan if he knew the Taliban’s ideology was not being implemented correctly. Many want him to fire the governor, Mullah Abdullah Sarhadi, an elderly Taliban official once feared for his brutality. Yet dismissing Sarhadi would be unlikely to go down well with the majority Hazara population, who have welcomed — not without surprise — his relatively moderate style of governance.

Governor Sarhadi is a Pashtun from Zabul in southern Afghanistan. He did not respond to attempts by New Lines to contact him, leaving it to interviews with his supporters and opponents to provide details on his life. He was stationed in Bamiyan during the first Taliban government, when he served as head of a council of military commanders in the province. He played a lead role in the destruction of the Buddha statues in 2001 and spent several years detained at Guantanamo Bay following the U.S. invasion. Reappointed as governor of Bamiyan in November 2021, he now finds himself caught in a political bind that epitomizes the challenges facing the Taliban. To his critics within the group, he has become too soft and thus merits dismissal. Meanwhile, to his opponents outside the movement, he is an extremist who can never shake off his checkered past.

Somewhere between these polarized views are those of Bamiyan’s residents, who have grown tired of Afghanistan’s political games. Locals to whom I spoke, away from the presence of Taliban members, were broadly positive about the governor’s rule. One restaurant owner, Habibullah, told me life was much better than it had been under the first Taliban government in the late 1990s and early 2000s. There is no fighting now, he told me, and the Taliban’s interpretation of Islamic law is far more relaxed than in the past. “We want work, and we have a lot of it,” he said. “We want peace, and now we have that. We don’t want anything else.”

One way in which Governor Sarhadi has tried to win over Bamiyan’s population is by fostering relationships with local Taliban networks that have long existed in pockets of the province. The existence of these networks adds another layer of complexity to the local situation. Unlike in other parts of Afghanistan, in Bamiyan the Taliban is not a Pashtun-centric movement, nor even exclusively Sunni. A small but significant number of ethnic Hazaras from local Sunni and Shiite communities have been affiliated with the Taliban since the 1990s. In some cases, their allegiances are informal and owe much to pragmatism. In others, they are solidly ideological. Taliban members who have found themselves posted to Bamiyan from other parts of the country, like the mawlawi with the old Kalashnikov, appear unwilling, or unable, to accept this reality.

When Bamiyan fell to the Taliban last summer, most of the fighters who initially led the operation were from Sayghan, to the north of the provincial capital. The current district governor for Yakawlang, the site of the Taliban’s reprisal massacre in early 2001, is a local Hazara named Haji Hekmat Hussein. For years, during the insurgency against the U.S.-led occupation, Haji Hekmat led a double life. He ran as a failed candidate in parliamentary elections and sold rice as a businessman in Kabul, all while secretly working as an intelligence officer for the Taliban. When his cover was blown, he was arrested and jailed, before being freed as a result of the Doha Agreement of 2020 between Washington and the Taliban. There are many other men like him in Bamiyan, with similar stories.

Perhaps the best-known Hazara to be affiliated with the Taliban locally is Mohammed Akbari, a 77-year-old from Waras, in the south of the province. I have met Akbari on several occasions and always found him to be genial, eloquent company. In our most recent conversation at his office in Kabul, he recalled how he had aligned with the Taliban after being part of a delegation of Hazara and Shiite elders invited to meet Mullah Omar in Kandahar on Dec. 9, 1998. The latter was sitting on a plastic mat in the yard of a compound, wearing a green army jacket and a black turban. They greeted each other warmly, then the meeting began. “I stood and talked for 12 minutes about the role of the Hazara in the jihad against the Soviets. Then Mullah Omar talked for three minutes in Pashto and said, ‘The Taliban do not belong to one tribe but to all the tribes of Afghanistan,’” Akbari recalled. After meeting Omar, Akbari went to Kabul and met other senior Taliban officials, including Mullah Abdul Kabir, who was then deputy prime minster. Though he never formally joined the Taliban, after these meetings he agreed to work on behalf of the movement in Bamiyan during the late 1990s and early 2000s. For some Hazara, it was an unforgivable compromise with a group many considered an enemy. But Akbari saw himself as a mediator who could help keep the Taliban in check. When the massacre at Yakawlang occurred, he traveled there from Kabul to assess the situation and ended up helping to bury many of the dead. He recalled to me how their corpses had been frozen into twisted shapes by the bitterly cold winter temperatures.

After the U.S.-led invasion, Akbari went on to serve as a member of the Afghan parliament for 16 years. As the government of President Ghani was collapsing, he decided to stay in Kabul with his family, rather than flee like so many other politicians and officials. He has no regrets about his decision. “Even though the Taliban came to power through the gun, they are still nice and fair with Hazara,” he told me. “We also work hard to keep peace and stability.”

Akbari is not afraid to criticize aspects of the current Taliban government, but he is adamant that opposition to the Islamic Emirate should take the form of political dialogue, rather than armed resistance. There are no Hazara ministers in the government and only two Hazara deputy ministers — an ethnic bias that Akbari said he would like to see changed. He has also called for all Afghans to be granted the right to an education. While young women can attend the local university in Bamiyan, girls are banned from high school, as they are elsewhere in Afghanistan. It is a troubling situation that people like Akbari hope to resolve, while avoiding the violence that has so often been Afghanistan’s fate.

When it comes to the future of Bamiyan, only time will tell who will prevail between the moderates and ideologues inside the Taliban. With ISIS-K watching on from elsewhere in the country, the potential dangers for Afghanistan’s ethnic minorities are clear. If the ideologues in the Taliban are further alienated, their discontent may yet turn violent. But appeasing them could also lead to trouble, generating a reaction from an antagonized public. As with so many other issues in Afghanistan, there are no easy answers.

After returning to Kabul, I phoned a senior Taliban military commander based in Bamiyan to gain a final insight into the situation there. The commander used the honorific “Qazi,” meaning judge, but I have protected his full identity for his safety. He described Bamiyan’s conciliatory Taliban governor as “corrupt,” and accused him of releasing known criminals from prison without proper authority. He also complained that most of the Hazara now claiming to be members of the Taliban are political opportunists, who were against the movement in the past. Despite these grumbles, he praised the ex-parliamentarian Akbari for supporting peace in the province. Echoing the views of the other Taliban members I spoke with, Qazi told me there was too much social freedom in Bamiyan, with “moral corruption” rife. It had caused him to wonder whether the Islamic Emirate was living up to its name.

Before we hung up, the commander left me with a poignant prognosis that underscored what many Taliban members — in Bamiyan and beyond — feel is at stake in this ideological struggle. “If the situation continues like this,” he said, “it will destroy our mujahedeen [holy warriors].”

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