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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

Throw a Lifeline to the Afghans Left Behind

This week’s U.N. General Assembly provides an opportunity to assist the minorities, activists, women, and girls still in Afghanistan.

The day after the Taliban’s blitzkrieg reached Kabul, a terrified member of an Afghan religious minority texted me from just outside the airport gate. I’ll call her Fatima. She is Hazara, a long-victimized community due to its distinct ethnicity and differing version of Islam—Shiism—from the Sunni Taliban and Islamic State.

With the Taliban’s return, she was running for her life and pleading for help, hoping to reach the relative safety of the airport and escape with her husband and little sister. “Everyone is in trouble,” she wrote. “No one knows what to do and where to go. Myself and my family are in a very serious situation! We are shocked!”

I met Fatima—who did not want her real name used since she still has family in Afghanistan—in 2019 while serving in the U.S. State Department as a diplomatic envoy focused on religious minorities. Fatima had already lost loved ones to terrorist bombings targeting her community. I was impressed by her courage and fortitude, and we stayed in touch over the past two years.

Thankfully, Fatima’s story ended well: She and her family boarded a flight out. She left her homeland and parents behind in exchange for an unknown destination in the West, albeit free of Taliban persecution.

Hers was a story repeated among other minorities as the exodus ensued. The Afghan Sikh and Hindu communities, each numbering only a few hundred, tried to flee. The last Jew in the country escaped. Afghanistan has greater religious and ethnic diversity than generally understood, and many members of other minorities tried unsuccessfully to get through Taliban-controlled border checkpoints or past the Kabul airport gates. After the last plane left and the borders closed, they all went underground, fearing for their lives.

The Taliban declared a ban on traditional folk music, and to prove their seriousness, they killed a folk singer.

The Taliban’s return to power is a cataclysmic event for minorities and a human tragedy for all Afghans. The United States and the international community failed to create a stable Afghan government and durable military to defend it but did succeed in fostering a new Afghan civil society. Independent media, human rights groups, women’s education, and diversity of belief all flowered during the past 20 years. Under the international security umbrella, intrepid and innovative Afghans took advantage of this opportunity to chart a new course.

Yet even at its best, it was never easy. The U.S.-backed Afghan Constitution fell short, lacking protections for freedom of religion—let alone the right not to believe. Government policies enforced narrow versions of sharia, or Islamic law, against women and minorities. Mobs would lynch their victims over mere allegations of blasphemy, as what happened to Farkhunda Malikzada in 2015.

During my trips over the years, I would meet with civil society groups, hear about their concerns, and try to leverage U.S. influence to open more space, provide protection, or find new funding. By 2018, it was clear U.S. stewardship was faring poorly. For instance, instead of taking the short drive from the Kabul airport to the U.S. Embassy, we would don body armor and fly in Chinooks. Meeting people outside the embassy fortress was rare. Dinners in downtown Kabul were a thing of the past.

Fatima and her friends acutely felt the shrinking civic space. They were all too aware of Taliban sentiments toward people like them. Back in June, Fatima and I exchanged emails as the government looked increasingly shaky. Fatima wrote that the Taliban “believe that Shia Muslims have no rights in an Islamic government.” She worried about the Taliban’s declarations as they were closing in on Kabul that they would severely punish all those who worked with international organizations.

Fatima represented Afghanistan’s best and brightest—college-educated, working for the international community. The future she hoped for came crashing down with the Taliban’s return. She and her family had to run or hide.

Since retaking Kabul, the Taliban have tried to project an image of being a responsible power. Although they are savvier with public relations and social media this time around, their ideology remains the same. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs is gone, but the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (aka the religious police) is back. The Taliban declared a ban on traditional folk music. To prove their seriousness, they killed the Afghan folk singer Fawad Andarabi. Other attacks, including against former government personnel, have occurred.

This week’s United Nations General Assembly provides an opportunity for the international community to assist the religious and ethnic minorities, activists, women, and girls who remain behind in Afghanistan.

Priorities should include establishing a humanitarian air link to Kabul and other cities to get food in and the vulnerable out, as well as refugee resettlement. NGOs report that 65,000 Afghans have been approved for U.S. resettlement. Another 1.1 million are eligible for resettlement globally. The United States, its allies, and Muslim-majority countries should share the refugee burden.

The United States, Britain, and France should convene the U.N. Security Council specifically about the responsibility to protect religious minorities.

Unfortunately, some U.N. members will shield the Taliban. China and Pakistan are rushing to provide assistance with no strings attached. Pakistan’s nefarious relationship with its northwestern neighbor demands ongoing scrutiny. Islamabad watered down the U.N. Human Rights Council resolution on the Taliban takeover, and its spymaster recently visited Kabul. And knowing of Chinese ambitions to mine Afghanistan’s rare metals, the international community should establish a blood diamond-type prohibition that limits imports of lithium, gold, uranium, and other metals sourced from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

Lastly, any talk of formally recognizing the Taliban is imprudent and ill-advised. Despite their foreign minister promising to prevent terrorists from attacking other countries, several Taliban leaders are designated terrorists themselves. In addition, the U.S. State Department named the Taliban as an “entity of particular concern” for severe religious freedom violations.

Instead of recognition, the United States, Britain, and France should convene the U.N. Security Council specifically about the responsibility to protect religious minorities, such as the Hazara, who face likely atrocities. To make up for the Human Rights Council’s failure, they should use the General Assembly to create a special rapporteur on Afghan human rights.

With the Taliban once again in power, all minority groups fear losing hard-won gains. If anything, they expect it. Before leaving her homeland, one of Fatima’s last messages said, “Fear the dark days in Afghanistan!” Certainly, dark days are ahead. In response, the international community must rise to this moment—and assist all who need rescue.

Knox Thames is a former special advisor on religious minorities at the U.S. State Department during the Obama and Trump administrations. Twitter: @KnoxThames

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