Anticipating a rough horizon
U.S. troops are leaving Afghanistan, but the war on the Afghan people, and threats to the country’s underground Christians, are staying—and growing
Under a dull, Sunday morning sky, American troops lowered the flag at Camp Antonik. For a storied moment marking one of the final steps toward the end of the longest war in American history, the May 2 handover was unremarkable and small. A contingent of American soldiers lowered the Stars and Stripes, photographers snapped a few photos, then Afghan soldiers raised their flag in its place.
The camp, adjoining the larger complex once known to American and British soldiers as Camps Bastion and Leatherneck, is the last in the area to change hands. The total withdrawal that President Joe Biden ordered in April already is well underway. U.S. and NATO commanders say it may be completed by July 4, well ahead of Biden’s Sept. 11 deadline.
The complex was the wartime logistics hub for NATO forces in Afghanistan in restive Helmand province and held at its peak 28,000 military personnel and contractors. Years ago Afghan forces took over the sprawling bases, with most materiel, along with the KFC and Burger King outlets, shipped home.
Camp Antonik was the last to undergo a handoff, continuing as a strategic operating base for U.S. and Afghan commandos in the heart of a Taliban insurgency. Nearly half of the 2,300 Americans killed in two decades of war in Afghanistan died in Helmand province.
But closure would be short-lived: The day after the turnover, Taliban fighters launched a large-scale attack in Lashkargar, the capital of Helmand. They set improvised explosive devices, attacked checkpoints, and confronted Afghan units.
Afghan forces said they killed hundreds of Taliban fighters, including key commanders and dozens of al-Qaeda militants from Pakistan. Doctors Without Borders reported civilian casualties, as thousands of Helmand residents fled in trucks and tractors piled high with rugs and furnishings.
As Afghan National Army casualties mounted, the United States found itself engaging in battle once again, joining the Afghan Air Force to launch airstrikes on Taliban strongholds across southern Helmand—a fury of bombardments local officials said they had not seen in years.
A peace process with the Taliban that the Obama administration began and that the Trump administration completed in February 2020 could unravel in only weeks. The Sunni jihadist movement that once governed Afghanistan and sheltered al-Qaeda leading up to the 9/11 attacks on the United States is once again fighting for territory across 21 of the country’s 34 provinces. Residents fear the militants may return to power with the kind of terror regime the Taliban imposed in the 1990s.
That jeopardizes the two-decade effort by the United States and its allies to ward off a civil war and ensure economic and civil rights progress. It also threatens Muslims and non-Muslims who don’t conform to the Taliban’s draconian Islamic strictures.
“AMONG AFGHANISTAN’S non-Muslims are Christians who have seen a revival of faith and rapid growth since the U.S.-led liberation from the Taliban in 2001. There are basically three types of believers,” said a foreign worker in Afghanistan whom WORLD is not naming due to threats—“those who have been forced to leave the country, those who survive by exercising their faith underground, and those who are dead.”
The shrouded group of believers—who meet in homes and small, trusted fellowship circles—exists entirely underground. There are no local recognized churches. One international church serves expat believers in Kabul, military bases include chapels, and one legal church building, a Catholic church, exists on the grounds of the Italian Embassy.
Yet Muslims have continued to come to faith across the country: Internet access coming even to remote parts of the country has brought online evangelism and private discipleship. Some Afghan church leaders became Christians while living as refugees abroad, and they teach online or have returned to disciple others.
When the Taliban took over Kabul in 1996, supreme leader Mullah Omar ordered churches razed and Christians lynched, including foreign Christians. The Taliban jailed and tortured some into exposing others.
Their plight eased with liberation in 2001, and a 2004 constitution guarantees freedom of religion. But it also declares Afghanistan an Islamic state, and Islamic clergy exert power over the judicial branch and public officials with little regard for the constitution.
The church enjoyed steady growth until 2010. Operation World—the global index on Christian populations—ranked it as the second-fastest-growing Christian population in the world (behind Iran). After a local television station broadcast a video clip showing a public baptism, the Afghan government cracked down, arresting 25 Afghan Christians in one day. Hundreds of Christians fled Kabul, and many left the country.
It took U.S. and European diplomatic efforts to win the release of jailed Christians, and many were exiled (see “Fugitives,” Aug. 13, 2010). One Afghan church leader who lives outside the country told me the government has not actively jailed or tortured Christians since then.
Church growth rebounded, but conversion from Islam continues to carry a high cost in the Afghan honor-and-shame culture. It often means loss of family, inheritance, and a job. Conversion is seen as bringing shame on an entire family and destroying its social standing. The stigma plays to militant groups like the Taliban.
Threats to Afghan Christians may come from militant groups, government officials, or family members. Those I have interviewed over the years often must hide their faith from even spouses and parents. A doctor, once labeled an “infidel” for his conversion, lost all his patients. An Afghan worker for an international aid group, once his conversion became public, had to quit or the group risked losing its permit to operate.
For these reasons fellowship among believers can be rare, often taking place in online chat rooms accessed through VPNs, a secure connection to the internet that makes the user hard to trace. When believers do gather, they do so in small groups over lunch at an office or behind curtains in a safe house in an otherwise nondescript neighborhood of dusty streets. Bibles are usually contraband, so Scripture is shared using the internet or with cell phone SIM cards.
For all the risks, bold church leaders evangelize Muslims and baptize new believers. As one said to me, “Only God keeps us safe.”
“Where young and vulnerable movements to Christ exist in countries with occupying Western military forces, dynamics are always complex, delicate, and awkward,” said Jason Mandryk, the editor of Operation World. The U.S. and NATO withdrawal will almost certainly mean gains for the Taliban, he said, “and gains for the Taliban almost certainly mean great difficulty and suffering for followers of Jesus there.” Yet, “history is filled with God working in ways that astonish us.”
Many things in Afghanistan have changed since the Taliban governed, said the Afghan church leader, but the Taliban ideology is the same. “Their policy is the total revealing of the local church, and the killing of believers.”
The persistence of the Taliban, said the foreign worker in Afghanistan, has sparked interest in conversion: “The Taliban has been the driving force to move people out of Islam because Afghans see extremism in the name of Islam. You could say the Taliban actually has spurred the growth of the church.”
WITH THE U.S. DEPARTURE, international nongovernmental organizations that have been the backbone of development work also face new realities.
Global Leadership International (GLI), a U.S.-based group that provided curriculum and training in Kabul and other cities, has trained 2,000 Afghan students over the years, including 30 who became Fulbright scholars. “That’s a significant base of future leaders, and they are throughout the country and in a range of professions now,” said GLI director Jeff Woods, who lived in Afghanistan for 13 years.
“My friends in America don’t believe such things are happening in Afghanistan. And in Afghanistan our friends can’t believe the United States is leaving. I do not have any Afghan friends who think it is time for the United States to go.”
GLI and other U.S.-based groups I surveyed say they do not have plans to depart Afghanistan with U.S. forces—but they are making contingency plans. Security meetings for these groups include planning for alternate scenarios in weeks ahead: an outright Taliban takeover, a rapid descent into civil war similar to Syria, a gradual erosion of freedom and gains, or a peace deal that would call for a transition government to include the Taliban and the current government led by President Ashraf Ghani.
“We have our bags packed but we are planning to stay,” said Lars Peterson, president of Morning Star Development, a Colorado-based nonprofit that’s worked in Afghanistan since 1997. Troop pullouts have been on the table for years, he said, “so this is not our first rodeo.”
Twenty years ago, Morning Star focused its work in remote rural areas, opening community centers to drive development and care for war victims. In 2012 the Taliban kidnapped a Morning Star doctor, Dilip Joseph, and held him until a Navy SEAL team rescued him. In 2019 an Afghan doctor who served as the group’s assistant country director was assassinated as he left a remote community center.
Morning Star transferred the centers to local communities and today focuses on work in key urban areas, providing leadership training, addiction recovery services, and medical care, including infant and maternal health. Morning Star has contingency plans in place to move personnel to a third country to work with Afghan refugees, if necessary, “but we don’t plan to head out the door at the first trouble,” Peterson said.
FOR MANY, TROUBLE has already arrived. An April 30 car bombing in Logar province killed 30 people and also targeted students. A triple bombing on May 8 at a school in Kabul killed at least 85 people and wounded more than 150, most of them schoolgirls. The attack bore the marks of a Taliban attack (though the Taliban denied responsibility).
The swift unraveling prompted European allies to push the Biden administration for a delay in its withdrawal, according to The Wall Street Journal. It’s also highlighting the flaws in the Trump-era agreement the Biden administration has embraced.
The 2020 deal covered only conditions for a U.S. withdrawal. It did not condition withdrawal on Taliban negotiations with the Afghan government or lay a road map toward a peaceful transition to a government including the Taliban within the current parliamentary system.
Talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government opened last September only to stall on basic premises. Yet President Ghani has said he would end his term of office early “if it meant peace” and would welcome the Taliban back to governance via a loya jirga, the traditional grand meeting of community leaders.
Facing a May deadline inherited from his predecessor, Biden in April announced plans to withdraw the estimated 3,500 U.S. military personnel. But the president has faced decided criticism for it.
Besides NATO objections, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin argued against an unconditional withdrawal. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told CNN she feared “huge consequences,” namely a resumption of terrorism and an outflowing of refugees from Afghanistan.
Others, such as Institute for Policy Studies analyst John Feffer, may not oppose withdrawal, but contend Biden’s political calculation on Afghanistan had “very little to say about Afghanistan itself,” about the Afghan economy, Afghan society, or the Afghan people.
The country in many ways was a pre-literate society when the United States ousted the Taliban government in 2001. UN statistics showed 22 percent of boys and 8 percent of girls in school in 2001, and the overall literacy rate was about 20 percent. Today 40 percent of girls and women are educated, and the literacy rate is at 43 percent.
Infrastructure and major roads were nonexistent in many parts of the country. Now highways connect even the most remote mountainous provinces with cities. Democracy, though still faulty and corrupt, has brought civil organizations and economic improvement. Direct deposits and international banking—still impossible in many parts of Central Asia and the Middle East—are routine.
“Twenty years ago you had warlords running things, and now you have a government,” said Morning Star’s Peterson, who pointed out half of Afghanistan’s population was born after 9/11. “They all have Facebook, and they know what life is like outside their borders. They don’t want to go back. Modernity has changed the mindset of most Afghans.”
Should the Taliban pursue its old ways, many Afghans appear newly resolved to confront them, but the question is whether they will have the resources to prevail. Said President Ghani, “As we prepare for peace talks with the Taliban, we are also prepared to face them on the battlefield.”
—with reporting by Onize Ohikere
Experts from opposite ends of the political spectrum oppose President Joe Biden’s unconditional withdrawal from Afghanistan, and loudly so.
Bruce Hoffman is one of the country’s leading experts with roots in traditionally liberal institutions, a Georgetown University professor who served as the CIA’s scholar-in-residence for counterterrorism, and was appointed by Congress to the FBI 9/11 Review Commission. In an article titled, “Leaving Afghanistan Will Make America Less Safe,” Hoffman said the United States is both “understating and underestimating the threat posed by the Taliban.” Failing to retain “a couple of thousand elite special operations, intelligence, and support personnel in Afghanistan,” he wrote, “encourages terrorists by showing the weakness of U.S. resolve.”
At the same time, Frederick Kagan, director of the Critical Threats Project at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute (AEI), called Biden’s withdrawal decision “one of the most unjustifiable, foolish, and irresponsible decisions I can remember, and that’s saying a lot.”
At its high point in 2011, 98,000 U.S. troops were serving in Afghanistan, according to the Department of Defense. At the start of this year’s drawdown, about 2,500 U.S. troops (and an estimated 700-1,000 additional U.S. Special Forces and intelligence officers) were there with about 7,000 military personnel from NATO-allied countries.
Hoffman, Kagan, and other experts—along with current Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and former Pentagon heads—argued that the remaining contingent is a small investment, allowing the United States to keep Taliban, al-Qaeda, and now ISIS militants at bay while maintaining an important base for intelligence gathering.
Biden in his April 14 speech announcing the withdrawal also pledged to “reorganize” counterterrorism assets “from over the horizon,” not from Afghan soil—but these critics say that will prove impractical and less effective.
Like Presidents Trump and Obama before him, Biden cast the war in Afghanistan as the “forever war.” Yet the United States has not had a combat casualty in the past 15 months, reflecting the changed role of U.S. forces to advisory, tactical, and training missions. (It had four combat deaths in 2020, and 20 in 2019, three of them classified as “friendly fire” incidents.)
“The mindset is that the United States is fighting and dying in Afghanistan, as opposed to providing help and support to an ally that is bearing enormous costs,” said Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy at AEI. “The casualty figures for Afghan National Security Forces are eye-poppingly high, and yet Afghans continue to volunteer because they want the kind of Afghanistan that we are helping them build.” —M.B.
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