Leave, convert or perish: The fate of Afghanistan's minorities

10 July 2021

10:11 AM

10 July 2021

10:11 AM

President Biden’s decision to ‘end the war in Afghanistan’ means the complete withdrawal of 3,500 US troops by the 20th anniversary of 9/11. However, what may be domestically popular — particularly among Trump voters — will soon have consequences for the Afghans left unguarded by foreign troops. The Taleban and other jihadist militias are already making significant territorial gains while nuclear Pakistan will be strengthened by the vacuum left by the US military. But it is Afghanistan’s non-Muslims who will really suffer.

Extinction is a word normally associated with dinosaurs — but it’s no exaggeration to say some minority religions (including my own) will now face that fate at the hands of Isis, Al-Qaeda, and a resurgent Taleban. The receding hum of American helicopters will signal the unleashing of an intifada against the infidel.

In 2018, a delegation of at least 19 Hindus and Sikhs were killed by a suicide bomber in Jalalabad on their way to meet the Afghan president. Last year Isis murdered 25 innocent Sikh worshippers (including a child) in a Kabul gurdwara. Barbarians show no mercy, and so bombs were naturally planted at the funerals of those killed. The message to those daring to stay in their indigenous lands is clear: leave, convert or perish.

Sikhs in Jalalabad were targeted again only last month — thankfully only two were injured in the bomb blast — but mayhem in the name of Allah is unrelenting. The result has been nothing short of ethnic cleansing. In 1992, when the then-government collapsed, there were 220,000 Sikhs and Hindus across the country. Under Taleban rule, Hindus and Sikhs were compelled to identify themselves by wearing yellow armbands, a terrifying echo of the Nazi ghettos.

Today there are fewer than 300 Sikhs and Hindus left. Nadine Maenza, chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recently told a discussion:

Security conditions have failed to improve in Afghanistan, particularly for the Sikh, Hindu and Hazara Shia religious minorities… An increase in attacks by extremist groups, most notably Isis-K [Islamic State in Khorasan Province] and the Taleban not only threaten Afghanistan’s overall security, but have also decimated religious minorities, particularly the Sikh community which faces near extinction.

USCIRF, an independent, bipartisan US federal government commission, has made some commendable recommendations to Congress. These include allocation of funding for the protection of freedom of religious belief in Afghanistan, and that the US government incorporates religious freedom into peace negotiations between a resurgent Taleban and the Afghan government. Whether the US will be able to negotiate such a principle from its position of weakness — let alone enforce it after September’s full withdrawal — seems doubtful at best.

Biden says the US will continue to provide ‘over the horizon’ support to the Afghan administration. But many doubt his vague promises of continual support. After all, how can you effectively fight an enemy without boots, or intelligence, on the ground? In any case, there may not be a US-aligned Afghan administration for much longer. There is now the ugly spectre of a Taleban resurgence, with some predicting that the AK47 toting theocrats will regain control of the capital of Kabul in just a few short months. There is at least some hope for Afghan translators who supported US forces — Biden has committed to getting them and their families out. But what about religious minorities? We know what happens to those who do not conform to the Taleban’s twisted notions of piety. Dr Jagbir Jhutti-Johal, from the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham, tells me:

By leaving in such a way, the US is failing to ensure the safety of religious minorities, especially Sikhs and Hindus, who are even more vulnerable to attack from Isis-K and the Taleban — as demonstrated by the attack on 29 June in Jalalabad. With Afghan troops retreating and the Taleban making gains, it is clear that the indigenous Sikh and Hindu communities will become extinct from Afghanistan’s landscape and history, either via forced migration or death.

The families of fallen western soldiers often ask what their sons and daughters died for. Persecuted Afghans may soon be asking the same question. <//>

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