President Trump announced his new plan for Afghanistan last night, in his first televised speech since February. Vowing to address policies focused more heavily on addressing the terrorist threat than “nation-building,” Trump’s plan includes an influx of more troops, not less.
“I share the American people’s frustration,” Trump said. “I also share their frustration over a foreign policy that has spent too much time, energy, money—and, most importantly, lives—trying to rebuild countries in our own image instead of pursuing our security interests above all other considerations.”
With a score of 89 points, Afghanistan ranks 3 on the World Watch List (WWL) 2017. In WWL 2016, Afghanistan ranked 4 with a score of 88 points. The pressure on Christians is at an extreme level across all spheres of life. Violence still scores very highly and is at a level comparable to the WWL 2016 reporting period.
How will Trump’s plan impact Christians in Afghanistan? It’s an important question, but one that’s complex and needs proper context.
Converts from a Muslim background (MBBs) are the only World Watch List category of Christians that exist in Afghanistan. Expatriate Christians are not included in the report as they are so few, so protected and so isolated that they are hardly impacted by the country’s situation. Muslim Background Believers try their utmost not to be discovered by family, friends, neighbors or the wider community. Depending on the family, they may even have to fear for their lives. For them, living openly as a Christian is simply not possible and according to reports even shops or other businesses have been destroyed just on the mere suspicion that someone might be a convert.
How Did Christians Get There?
Early history: Christianity may have reached Afghanistan by the 2nd century AD. According to traditions passed on by Eusebius of Caesarea (260-339 AD), the apostles Thomas and Bartholomew brought the gospel to Parthia and Bactria, which includes today’s north-western Afghanistan. The congregations which grew up developed into the Nestorian Church and Afghan cities like Herat, Kandahar and Balkh became bishopric seats. In the 13th century, a Christian ruler converted to Islam and became Sultan, which led to a decline of Christianity and was nearly completely extinguished by the reign of Timur in 1405.
Later history leading up to the present: In the 17th century, Armenian merchants came to Kabul and in time a small Christian community developed, but this Armenian community was forced to leave the country by 1871. Attempts at building a Protestant church in Kabul came to an end in 1973. Today, Christianity has been pushed underground completely. It is claimed that in the basement of the Italian embassy, there is still a legally recognized church, the only in the country. But it is not publically accessible and therefore only serves expat Christians.
History of Violence
Afghanistan has been a volatile region for centuries. It was ruled by Persians and gained independence as a state in 1709. The north-western part of the country is also known as “Khorasan,” a term which gained prominence in January 2015 when militants pledged allegiance to the “Islamic State” (IS), announcing the introduction of a “An Islamic State led by a caliph, a political and religious leader seen as a successor to the Islamic prophet Muhammad. His power and authority are absolute. More of Khorasan.” Those militants are fighting Afghan government troops in the north-eastern part of the country and continue attacking Muslim minorities like the Shia Hazara. In a wave of attacks in July, August and October 2016, both the Taliban and the ISIS made displays of their power.
Persecution of Christians
The persecution pattern for Afghanistan shows:
- The average pressure on Christians is at an extreme level, increasing slightly from a score of 15.478 (WWL 2016) to 15.742. The country continues to fall apart, Islamic extremist groups compete for power and the National Unity Government remains fragmented. Local power brokers are often much more important than the rulers in Kabul.
- Pressure is at an extreme level in all spheres of life, with the maximum possible score in the private sphere and next strongest in the family, national and community spheres. While the pressure in the family, private and community spheres is typical for strictly Islamic countries, the pressure in the national sphere points to a government relying on strictly interpreted Islamic rules, notwithstanding all promises to live up to human rights standards.
- Pressure from Islamic oppression is present in all spheres, and is exerted mostly by families, friends and community, but also by local religious leaders. The state authorities are weak, and Islam is a welcome unifying factor, especially as society agrees that conversion away from Islam cannot be tolerated.
- The violence score remained very high in this reporting period, decreasing only a fraction from 10,741 (WWL 2016) to 10,556.
Life for most Afghans is a constant balancing act with little hope for improvement. More than 50% of the population is younger than 20 years old and the high population growth only exacerbates the problems. Unemployment, poverty and inflation rates remain very high. Due to the lack of perspectives, many young people get involved in drug-trafficking or join militant groups. Foreign aid will not sustain improvement as long as the problem of rampant corruption is not solved. The strong push by neighboring Pakistan to send back very large numbers of Afghan refugees, adds additional strain on social, health and economic structures.
The biggest challenges for Afghanistan
- The dire security situation
- The huge influx of refugees sent back by Pakistan and Iran
- The increase in opium production which is known to fund armed militant groups and foster corruption, thus fuelling the persecution engines Islamic oppression and Organized crime and corruption, which in turn affects the small and deeply hidden Christian communities
The war in Afghanistan is our longest-running war in U.S. history, and the end isn’t in sight. Will Trump’s new plan help or hurt secret believers in the region? It depends on many complex factors, but if the war in Iraq and Syria is any indicator, the rise in power of terrorist networks is one of the most dangerous ingredients to Christian persecution in the region.
And, as Trump points out, “A hasty withdrawal will create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and al-Qaeda, would instantly fill.” And, it’s quite possible he could be right.
However, what’s desperately needed for Christians in Afghanistan is stability within the country. Will more troops bring this? It’s unlikely, but they could stave off the rapid growth of terror networks and keep things at a stand still for the short-term.