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Mawlawi Mehdi, the first Hazara governor of Taliban in Balkhab, Sar-e Pul

On 22 April, the Taleban posted a 25-minute video on their al-Emara website, introducing Mawlawi Mehdi Mujahed as their district governor for Balkhab in the northern-central province of Sar-e Pul.

What distinguished him from many other provincial or district level Taleban commanders and officials interviewed for the website over the years was his ethno-religious background: he is a Shia Hazara (and is introduced as such in the video), a rare occurrence in the ranks of the movement which is dominated by Hanafi Sunni Pashtuns and, at times, has displayed a violently anti-Hazara/anti-Shia stance.

The case of Mawlawi Mehdi, a Hazara joining the Taleban, is an exceptional case. It even seemed to be the first time a Hazara has accepted an official position within the Taleban administration, either before or after 2001. There have been earlier cases of temporary local Hazara-Taleban collaboration, however, before and after 2001. The fact that Mehdi only commands some 20 fighters, does not have a presence in his home district and was even forced to flee it – after losing the support from a major Hazara faction – does indicate that he cannot expect much local support. His military relevance is low.

Mehdi’s case, however, reflects how shifts in the often complicated local power balance can lead to actors switching sides in the armed conflict, including some unexpected directions. The Taleban have frequently proven that they are often successful in capitalising on local personal, tribal and factional conflicts.

The highest hurdle for the Taleban in recruiting Hazaras and other Afghan Shia is their past of anti-Hazara/anti-Shia atrocities and the frequent outburst of anti-Hazara/anti-Shia violence based on the prevalent biases among parts of the Sunni majority population. An official non-sectarian Taleban policy has not convinced Hazaras that the insurgents have changed their nature.

That the Taleban have appointed a Shia Hazara as a shadow district governor in Sar-e Pul province shows despite the lack of ethno-religious group representation in the insurgent movement, the Taleban attempt to present itself as nation-wide.

Mehdi, however, is not physically present in the district he has been appointed to, showing that his relevance on the ground is limited. Nevertheless, this case is relevant for looking at how successful Taleban attempts to bridge the Sunni-Shia gap are. 

Afghanistan Analysts Network