Women chat slogans during a protest against the killing of seven people from the Hazara community, in Kabul, Afghanistan, November 2015.
Omar Sobhani / Reuters

On November 11, tens of thousands of Afghan men and women filled the streets of Kabul to protest the killing of seven civilians in the southern province of Zabul. The photograph of a nine-year-old victim, a girl named Shukria, became a symbol of the kind of violence meted out by either Islamic State (ISIS) militants or the Taliban. Protesters quickly reproduced her image on banners and placards in demonstrations in other major towns. The Afghan diaspora mobilized as well, staging rallies in Australia, Germany, Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkey, the United States, and elsewhere.

The protests in Afghanistan—the largest popular demonstrations ever in the country—reflect a dramatic shift in Afghan politics. Inspired by many causes and ideologies, Afghans are mobilizing against their government on a scale that is unprecedented in the country’s history.

With the economy flagging and armed groups gaining power, public dissatisfaction with the Afghan government is on the rise, as the most recent Asia Society polling demonstrates. The currency is faltering, and unemployment is ravaging Afghan society. Meanwhile, 2015 is on pace to be the most lethal year on record for Afghan civilians since the collapse of the Taliban. Not surprisingly, a growing number of Afghans are voting with their feet: nearly 150,000 braved the dangerous trek to Europe this year.

Yet the greatest challenge facing Kabul and its international backers may be the Afghan public’s rediscovery of street politics. Recent protests build on a lengthy tradition of vocal dissent. In the late 1960s, Afghan students, intellectuals, workers, mullahs, and others began airing their grievances in public spaces in the capital. Linked to protest movements across the globe, activists championed causes that spanned the political spectrum from right to left. In 1970, for instance, young Afghans greeted U.S. Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew with a barrage of eggs and bricks and signs that read “Agnew go home” and “Stop killing Vietnamese.” Afghans never lost the habit, launching protests even under the Soviet occupation and whenever possible amid the chaos that followed in subsequent years.  

The protests in Afghanistan—the largest popular demonstrations ever in the country—reflect a dramatic shift in Afghan politics.

But today’s demonstrations are different. Activists have utilized social media to coordinate simultaneous rallies across the country and around the globe. Previous protests may have drawn a few hundred participants. The November 11 funeral march drew tens of thousands. Students, young artists, and intellectuals rallied for the cause, and representatives of other age cohorts and occupations also came out in force.

Women carry one of the coffins for the seven people who were killed by unknown militants during a protest procession in Kabul.
Women carry one of the coffins for the seven people who were killed by unknown militants during a protest procession in Kabul, Afghanistan, November 2015.
Ahmad Masood / Reuters

President Ashraf Ghani and his government confront a public whose expectations have been raised by more than a decade of official rhetoric touting security, freedom, rights, and the rule of law for all Afghans, even as Afghan political institutions have remained unresponsive. For several months now, Afghan citizens have been gathering in anti-government protests that cut across gender, ethnic, regional, sectarian, and generational lines. With the exception of the November 11 events, these gatherings have not yet attracted the kind of numbers that would challenge the government’s grip on public order. But they have shaken up the status quo.

Most important, the protests have dispelled the notion, shared by so many Afghan elites and foreign observers, that politics in the country amounts to little more than a game of patronage played out among a jumble of antagonistic tribal and ethnic groups that are happy to be treated as clients as long as the emperor is far away. These demonstrations have shown that Afghan men and women are modern political actors in search of modern avenues for political participation, and who feel empowered to hold their state accountable.

This wave of protests is all the more striking because it has swept up such a diverse collection of social actors and perspectives. The Zabul 7 demonstrations were launched by Hazara activists who accused the government of neglecting security of the Hazara community, which is largely Shia and has been the object of state persecution under previous regimes, especially the Taliban.

However, there was a key difference between this and other protests of the past decade: Established Hazara political figures, mostly former mujahidin commanders who rose to prominence in the 1990s, were largely absent. In fact, when Muhammad Mohaqeq, who, as deputy to Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, is the highest-ranking Hazara politician, dismissed the demonstrations as opportunism on the part of his failed rivals, Afghans took to social media in droves to condemn him. Later demonstrations featured Hazaras raising placards that mocked and taunted him. At least one of them howled, “Mohaqeq, you are no longer our leader!

Hazara women, on the other hand, played a remarkably prominent role in the demonstrations. They carried the coffins of the female victims and led the crowd in chants calling for the resignation of Abdullah, Ghani, and Mohaqeq. Many shouted “Death to Daesh,” referring to ISIS, and “Death to the Taliban.” Some chanted “Death to Ghani” and members of his government.

Globally oriented Hazara activists, and youth in particular, have been emboldened by their gains in education and employment since 2001. Their cosmopolitan outlook was on display in English-language banners condemning violence against Hazaras as genocide and in their appropriation of the American revolutionary “Don’t Tread on Me” flag. Yet it is highly significant that representatives of other communities also joined the Zabul 7 protests throughout the country. Indeed, many of these gatherings were strongly nationalist and supra-ethnic, with a number of participants invoking “humanity” as the focus of their cause.  

Women carry one of the coffins for the seven people who were killed by unknown militants during a protest procession in Kabul.
Women carry one of the coffins for the seven people who were killed by unknown militants during a protest procession in Kabul, Afghanistan, November 2015.
Ahmad Masood / Reuters

In making claims on behalf of all Afghans, these protesters were not alone. In October, a group of young leftists calling itself “The Movement against Unemployment” marched in Kabul under the slogan, “Neither Pashtun, Hazara, Tajik, nor Uzbek . . . we are all unemployed.” Similarly, protestors in Herat assembled at a United Nations office to criticize the expulsion of Afghan refugees from Germany as discrimination and as a violation of the human rights of their “compatriots.” In faulting European policies, though, they did not spare the Afghan government, blaming Afghan officials for failing to provide the security and economic development that would keep Afghans from having to flee their homes.

The demonstrations have shown that Afghan men and women are modern political actors in search of modern avenues for political participation, and who feel empowered to hold their state accountable.

Reflecting fiercely nationalist sentiments, protestors have called for unity against actors whom they identify as Afghanistan’s enemies. At the Zabul 7 march, one of the organizers made an impassioned speech in which he cast the killings as an Iranian–Pakistani conspiracy. Along with the Afghan government, the United States has also become a target of criticism. Over the past decade or more, Afghan protestors have on several occasions decried American killings of Afghan civilians. In 2005 and again in 2012, there was nationwide rioting against the desecration of the Koran by Americans. More recently, some Afghan demonstrators have insisted that a U.S. alliance with the Taliban is to blame for recent acts of violence against women. In Kabul, at a rally condemning the stoning of a young woman in Ghor province, young women held up a cartoon image portraying the deceased Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, with a turban made of an American flag and an emblem of the Pakistani flag on his face.

The government’s response to these protests—dismissive condemnation and vague pledges to protect Afghan civilians—has only hardened the opposition. On November 11, when demonstrators arrived at Ghani’s palace, they lingered there until well after midnight, even though the Afghan police had fired on those who had tried to scale the walls of the compound. Earlier in the day, the Afghan police had shut down journalists’ attempts to cover the events on live television. Much like Mohaqeq, Ghani was somewhat disdainful, chiding the protestors for slogans that called for his death and claiming that their actions aided Afghanistan’s “enemies.” Civil society activists have pledged to resume protests if the Ghani government, the United Nations, and the United States do not heed their calls for justice and security, particularly in areas in which Hazaras have been targeted.

The Ghani government now faces intense scrutiny from a critical public. More Hazaras have been kidnapped in recent days. Meanwhile, the struggle with the armed opposition has also grown more complicated. There are at least two major Taliban factions, one loyal to Mullah Akhtar Mansour and a new splinter group that emerged earlier this month under Mullah Muhammad Rasoul. And there is an unknown number of militants fighting under the banner of ISIS. In November, a public student rally in Nangarhar province in which speakers called for the introduction of a “caliphate” and raised the flags of ISIS, the Taliban, and the militant group Hizb-i Islami shocked Kabul authorities (who have since arrested dozens of suspected participants).

Facing economic collapse, violence from state-backed militias as well as varied insurgent groups, and a world hostile to refugees, Afghan men and women of diverse backgrounds are likely to continue to turn to the streets to voice their frustrations. Their actions may not threaten the survival of the Ghani government in the short term. But their protests have rattled a usually indifferent elite, forcing Afghan leaders to take the views of a highly politicized and nationalist Afghan public into account. For the architects of post-2001 Afghan politics who mistakenly imagined a docile and inward-looking population managed by traditionalist leaders, such popular agitation is hardly what they had in mind. But crowds can be difficult to predict—and even more challenging to control.

  • ROBERT D. CREWS is Director of the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies at Stanford University and the author of Afghan Modern: The History of a Global Nation.
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