KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Tens of thousands of Afghanistan's ethnic Hazaras marched on Monday through downtown Kabul, demanding the government reroute a planned power line through their poverty-stricken province so they can get more access to electricity. The massive protest reflected widespread dismay with the administration of President Ashraf Ghani.
Concerns that the protest could turn violent prompted the police to block off roads leading into the city's central commercial district. Stacked shipping containers prevented the marchers from reaching the presidential palace. A November rally by Hazaras protesting the beheadings of members of their minority by militants had turned violent.
Most of Kabul's shops were shuttered as armed police fanned out and authorities restricted the protest organizers to a specific route that would bypass the palace.
The rally passed without major incidents but the protest underscored the political crisis facing Afghanistan as Ghani becomes increasingly isolated amid a stalled economy, rising unemployment, and an escalating Taliban insurgency, now in its 15th year.
Since taking office in 2014, Ghani has made little progress in keeping promises to bring peace and prosperity to the country. Instead, his administration seems to lurch from one crisis to another.
Though the power issue is specific to Hazaras, Ghani has also been criticized for not getting Afghanistan's ethnic, sectarian, and geographically diverse groups on the same page — even as he casts himself as a leader of a "national unity government."
Daud Naji, a protest leader, said the Hazaras were demanding access to a planned multimillion-dollar regional electricity line.
The so-called TUTAP line is backed by the Asian Development Bank with the involvement of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The original plan routed the line through Bamiyan province, in the central highlands, where most of the country's Hazaras live. But that route was changed in 2013 by the previous Afghan government.
Leaders of Monday's rally say the rerouting is evidence of bias against the Hazara minority, which accounts for up to 15 percent of Afghanistan's estimated 30 million-strong population. They are considered the poorest of the country's ethnic groups, and often complain of discrimination.
Bamiyan is poverty stricken, though it is largely peaceful and has potential as a tourist destination. Hazaras, most of whom are Shiite Muslims, were especially persecuted during the extremist Sunni Taliban 1996-2001 regime.
Afghanistan is desperately short of power, with less than 40 percent of the population connected to the national grid, according to the World Bank. Almost 75 percent of electricity is imported.
Ghani was heckled on the issue of the TUTAP power line during a speech at a think tank in London last week. His Cabinet members have largely failed to address the issue publicly, allowing it to fester and forcing Ghani to deal with a full-blown crisis when he returned on Saturday.
As some of Afghanistan's other ethnic groups — including Tajiks — seem to be backing the Hazara demands, political commentator Haroun Mir said that what started as an isolated grievance from one minority is gaining momentum as an umbrella issue for the many opponents of Ghani's unpopular government.
"This is a mobilization and I know many Tajiks are supporting Hazaras, not because absolutely they want this thing to go through Bamiyan but because they hate this government and this is an opportunity for them to further weaken it," he said.
Abdul Malik, a 53-year-old ethnic Pashtun from southern Kandahar province, said he joined Monday's protest "to show unity."
"In the past 15 years very little has been done for Hazaras, and people need electricity in their homes," he said.
Karim Khalili, a Hazara leader and a former Afghan vice president, spoke to the protesters from the back of a truck, saying the "people will never keep quiet when facing injustice."
He called on Ghani and chief executive Abdullah Abdullah to change the decision on the power line.
In a live television address late afternoon, as protesters disbursed and the shipping containers were being removed, Ghani said he wanted to ensure development benefited everyone in the country equally.
In an effort to assure Hazaras they were not being discriminated against in plans for infrastructure development, he said: "This is a year of active development and I will work to ensure that all citizens benefit from balanced development."
Officials of the defense and interior ministries said the road blocks had been necessary following threats of possible attacks.
The U.S. Embassy closed its consular section and warned Americans to limit their movement within Kabul, cautioning in an emergency message that "even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and escalate into violence." Other embassies, the U.N. compounds and non-government organizations were also locked down.