AMMAN, Jordan — The 20-year American military presence in Afghanistan had hoped to bring stability and an end to its use as a terrorist sanctuary, but the tumultuous exit has laid open fears for the future, particularly for religious minorities and women, at the hands of the Taliban and other religious extremists.
“The situation in Afghanistan is terrible for the minorities, because the Taliban want to impose a fusion of their local Pashtun traditions with their fundamentalist vision of Islamic Shariah law, not just on the country’s diverse ethnic groups, like Hazari Shiites, but also on women and children across the entire country,” Francesco Zannini, professor emeritus at Rome’s Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies, told Catholic News Service.
“These minorities are already discriminated against from the beginning. The Taliban want them to come under their religious interpretation,” said the Italian expert on Islam in Asia.
“But some of the groups can defend themselves due to the mountains which separate them, creating a sort of barrier. They have their own traditions, which don’t cope with those of the Taliban,” Zannini said. “The Taliban will always be in conflict with the minorities. There will be a continuous war between the Taliban Pashtun state and the other minority groups, which will continue to defend themselves.”
Besides, “there are Afghans who have developed a kind of Western understanding of democracy, found mainly in Kabul and some towns,” Zannini said of those, especially women, who have pursued educational and career opportunities available in the past 20 years, which had been forbidden during the Taliban’s austere Sunni Muslim rule, imposed on the population from 1996 to 2001.
“There will be a long period of instability,” Zannini predicted. “The maximum they can achieve will be a confederation of various ethnic groups and tribes. But this is not what the Taliban want.”
Recently, a Taliban spokesman vowed to respect people’s rights and allow women to work within the framework of Islamic law, but what that means in practice is still not clear. Meanwhile, there have been reports of men and boys killed in villages and girls as young as 12 taken as so-called “brides,” whom the Taliban consider spoils of war.
The Taliban adhere to Deobandi Islam, which is traced back to 19th-century colonial India under the two radical Muslim clerics, Maulana Muhammad Qasim Nanautawi and Maulana Rashid Muhammad Gangohi. They sought to indoctrinate Muslim youth with an austere and rigid form of Islam that evolved into militancy against non-Muslims as well as fighting secularism and colonialism.
Deobandi Islam upholds the Hanafi school of Sunni Muslim Shariah and works for the establishment of the Islamic caliphate as the way to salvation. Islamic practices dating back to the seventh century under the Prophet Muhammad are enshrined. It also believes that a global holy war is the duty to protect Muslims worldwide.
During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, funding to Deobandi religious schools or madrassas came from Saudi Arabia and the United States.
The Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan, known as Islamic State Khorasan, is an avowed enemy of the Taliban, whose members they consider as “too liberal,” “apostates” who abandoned holy war for a peace settlement with the U.S.
Islamic State Khorasan, which claimed responsibility for the deadly attacks Aug. 26 at the Kabul airport, sprang up in the eastern Afghan province of Khorasan after the so-called Islamic State militants invaded Iraq and Syria in 2014-15. They later began attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan. But the extremists have also targeted Afghan authorities, the Taliban, religious minorities, including Shiite Muslims and Sikhs, and aid organizations. The United Nations estimates there are 1,500-2,200 such fighters, with cells in Kabul.
Islamic State Khorasan wants to establish an Islamic caliphate in Central and South Asia. It has murdered pregnant Afghan women about to give birth in a maternity ward and attacked a Kabul girls’ school in spring, killing at least 68 people.
Observers say the Taliban will need Western aid and finance, inducing its political brass to present a less extreme image to the world, but concerns remain over actions taken by its military leaders or untrained Taliban youth toward religious minorities, women, and girls. A new humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is also brewing, with up to half a million expected to flee by the year’s end, the U.N. warns.
“Vulnerable groups include not just women and girls, but men of all ages. There will be a portrayal to the West of sort of a ‘benign’ Taliban as a government in Afghanistan,” said Merwyn De Mello, who worked in peace building and humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan for three years.
“The Taliban’s not homogenous. Some even brought their girls to underground schools in Afghanistan,” he said.
But he said the Hazara Shiite community was particularly susceptible to attacks in Kabul and even in the central highlands.
“That minority is definitely always going to be oppressed. They will be impacted depending on how the international community engages with the Taliban,” the Catholic aid worker said.
“The more the adversarial relationship with the West, the more the targeting of the Hazara community — they will be the example. However, key will be local relations with the Taliban,” he added.
Meanwhile, the Washington, D.C.-based Religious Freedom Institute said in a recent commentary that “widespread Christian persecution in Afghanistan under the Taliban of the 1990s never stopped.” And Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, told Blaze TV, “I’m not exaggerating by saying that the Taliban are killing Christians.”
The International Religious Freedom Roundtable, also in Washington, urged the Biden administration and world leaders “to act immediately to protect the lives of the most vulnerable — religious minorities who are despised by the Taliban because of their beliefs,” pointing to the “threat of systematic arrests, torture, enslavement, and public executions” by the Taliban of “Hazara Shiites, Sikhs and Hindus, along with thousands of Christian converts (particularly despised as infidels).”
“Many are displaced, cowering in fear, or seeking ways to escape. Official ‘threat letters’ have been sent by the Taliban to religious minorities warning of harsh actions to come,” said Lauren Homer, an international lawyer on religious freedom issues who chairs the roundtable’s Middle East Working Group.
Catholics call to welcome refugees from Afghanistan
By Rhina Guidos
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON — As Aug. 30 ended in the U.S. and a new day began in a different time zone in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 31, the U.S. Central Command released a green-tinted photo of a soldier about to get on a cargo plane, a photographic coda to seal the historic moment that put an end to nearly two decades of U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.
Though many were quick to call it “the end” of the United States’ longest war, it’s too early to tell what, if any, involvement may continue in the now Taliban-controlled nation since some U.S. citizens remain there.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said “under 200 and likely closer to 100” U.S. citizens are still in Afghanistan.
“We did not get everyone out that we wanted,” said Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command announcing the withdrawal on Aug. 30 in the U.S., reminding reporters listening that it was Aug. 31 in Afghanistan, fulfilling the date the U.S. had set for the withdrawal.
But there are some U.S. citizens in the country, he said, who because of family or other ties, did not want to leave Afghanistan. Others were not able to make it to the airport in time for the last U.S. plane out.
Gen. McKenzie said U.S. military had evacuated 79,000, including 6,000 U.S. citizens from the Kabul airport since Aug. 14, after the Afghan military collapsed following the imminent withdrawal of U.S. troops and contractors.
“The evacuation from Kabul is coming to an end. A larger crisis is just beginning,” warned the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi on Aug. 30.
“The evacuation effort has undoubtedly saved tens of thousands of lives, and these efforts are praiseworthy. But when the airlift and the media frenzy are over, the overwhelming majority of Afghans, some 39 million, will remain inside Afghanistan. They need us — governments, humanitarians, ordinary citizens — to stay with them and stay the course,” Grandi said in a statement.
Catholics in the U.S. joined faith leaders from the Interfaith Immigration Coalition, who, in an Aug. 30 letter, urged Biden to “take full responsibility for protecting the lives of thousands of Afghan allies that worked alongside U.S. forces, as well as provide robust protections for vulnerable populations in Afghanistan…”
As the Biden administration pivoted its future in Afghanistan from a military operation to a diplomatic one, the interfaith coalition urged the U.S. government to help.
“If ‘human rights must be at the center of our foreign policy, not the periphery,’ as you stated in (your) address to the American people and to the world, the United States must stand behind its promises…,” the interfaith coalition said in its statement.
“We are called by our sacred texts to love our neighbor, accompany the vulnerable, and welcome the sojourner… Our places of worship and faith communities stand ready to welcome all Afghans in need of refuge,” the group added.
Others, such as the Catholic organization Pax Christi USA, criticized the Biden administration for a drone strike Aug. 29 against suspected suicide bombers, which resulted in explosions that led to the death of 10 civilians, including children.
“Pax Christi USA calls on the Biden administration to cease the use of lethal drones,” the organization’s executive director, Johnny Zokovitch, said in an Aug. 30 statement.
“Such indiscriminate killing just furthers the cycle of violence, undermines real human security and traumatizes survivors. What we are seeing now after 20 years of military occupation in Afghanistan should, at the very least, cause our leaders to pause and question to what end more arms, more bombs, and more death will lead.”
The administration ordered the strike after blasts near the Kabul airport, carried by suicide bombers, killed 13 U.S. service members on Aug. 26.
Archbishop Broglio prays for dialogue, respect for human life after bombing
WASHINGTON — Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services, called for prayers and respect for human life following the bombing outside of an airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, that claimed the lives of 170 Afghan citizens and 13 U.S. service members. Marine Lance Corporal Jared Schmitz, a St. Charles County resident and parishioner of Immaculate Conception Parish in Dardenne Prairie, was one of the U.S. troops kiled.
The archbishop, who was in San Diego Aug. 27 to attend a diocesan convocation, said in a statement that he joined the assembled priests “to pray for the repose of the souls” of the lost U.S. soldiers “and the consolation of their families.”
“Together we beg the Prince of Peace for a time of dialogue and a profound respect for the priceless value of human life,” the statement said.
The terrorist attack outside of the airport Aug. 26 occurred as hundreds of people gathered in hope of being evacuated on one of dozens of flights arranged in the days following the rapid advance of the Taliban as it regained control of the Afghan government. U.S. forces were deployed to facilitate evacuations and to keep order among the throngs of people.
The U.S. military has carried out two attacks on members of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, known as Islamic State Khorasan, which has claimed responsibility for the airport bombing.
President Joe Biden, first lady Jill Biden and several U.S. officials paid respect to the U.S. troops killed in the bombing as their bodies were returned home in a ceremony at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware Aug. 29.
Also in response to the attack, Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore said he was heartbroken by “the senseless loss of precious life.”
“Acts of terror are an attack against all of us and have no place in a civilized or just society,” he said in a statement released by the archdiocese Aug. 26. “Please, I urge the members of our Archdiocese of Baltimore to join our Holy Father, Pope Francis and our global community to pray for peace and an open dialogue that creates a path to solutions and not to more death and suffering.”
He also urged the faithful to “remember all of the victims, their families and loved ones.”