fbpx

What Is Next for Afghanistan’s Sikhs and Hindus?

Before it earned its moniker as the ‘Graveyard of Empires’, the Durrani Empire of Afghanistan ceded a significant amount of its territory to the neighboring Sikh Empire throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries, an event remembered today for being the last successful foreign invasion of Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the gains made by the Sikh Empire would prove short-lived, following their defeat at the hands of the British East India Company, which would go on to consolidate similar empires scattered across the Indian subcontinent.

Beyond its relevance to Afghan history, the legacy of the Afghan-Sikh Wars, and the colonial period that followed, helps explain the presence of both Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan today. The country’s strategic location as a trading hub, its independence from colonial powers, and its secularist orientation, encouraged hundreds of thousands of Sikhs and Hindus to emigrate from British India to bustling commercial hubs like Kabul, Jalalabad, Ghazni, and Kandahar. Though most Sikh and Hindu arrivals worked as merchants, these families would go on to lay multi-generational roots, taking citizenship and serving in the civil service, the armed forces, and even in political positions as advisors to the Afghan monarchy.

Yet, like most Afghans, the prospects for Sikhs and Hindus swiftly changed amid the deposition of King Zahir Shah in 1973, and the Communist-led Saur Revolution against Mohammed Daoud Khan in 1979. The insecurity that ensued would have a remarkable and disproportionate impact on Afghanistan’s religious minorities, with informal censuses suggesting the Sikh and Hindu population went from over 700,000 in the 1970s to just 15,000 in the first years of Mujahideen rule in the early 1990s. Since then, decades of instability and religious persecution have exacerbated the exodus of Afghan Hindus and Sikhs, leaving their combined population with under 1,500 members today.

The setbacks incurred by the Afghan Sikh and Hindu communities has encouraged them to cluster geographically, lobby collectively, and even share places of worship. For those that remain, the present obstacles to integration have seldom been greater than under the incumbent Afghan republic. During the brief rule of the Taliban, Sikhs and Hindus were considered a tolerated minority, albeit with the expectation of paying the jizya tax for non-Muslims. But the American invasion and the subsequent installation of the Afghan republic saw a sizable spike in the reported grievances of Hindus and Sikhs. These grievances include targeted attacks, asset seizures, and systemic discrimination by the Afghan state and society.

From the security side, the proliferation of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has successfully recruited fighters from hardline elements of the Taliban, has targeted Sikhs and Hindus on multiple occasions over the past 3 years. These incidents include a 2018 suicide bombing that targeted a Sikh and Hindu neighborhood in Jalalabad, and last year’s deadly massacre of Sikh worshipers at a gurdwara (Sikh temple) in Kabul, both attacks were claimed by ISIL.

In addition to the incessant security threat posed by non-state armed groups, the woes of the Afghan Sikh and Hindu communities are acutely felt in day-to-day life. Reports of seized assets, including businesses and property, have largely gone unanswered despite persistent calls for an inquiry into the matter. Sikhs and Hindus have also reported discrimination in obtaining and using government services, including in judicial recourse, and even in sending their children to government-run schools, where they face chronic taunting and bullying. Finally, endemic religious persecution has nott abated much since the fall of the Taliban, with the major sticking point revolving around cremation practices, which are considered standard in the Sikh and Hindu faiths, but heretical to Islamic beliefs.

Such conditions have forced Hindus and Sikhs to insulate themselves, by establishing their own schools, and using temples to house those who have been forces to forfeit their property. The Afghan government’s efforts to redress these grievances has done little to dissuade the community from leaving. A presidential decree reserving one seat in the Wolesi Jirga to represent the Sikh/Hindu community was finally passed by President Ashraf Ghani, after similar measures floundered under his predecessor Hamid Karzai.

But with its members still fleeing in droves, parliamentary representation is unlikely to alleviate the impediments to religious freedom and protection of property. One longstanding demand from Afghan Sikh and Hindu refugees in India has focused on their path to citizenship. Known as the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the legislation crafts a fast-track route for minority religious groups who emigrated from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh before 2015. Though controversial for leaving out Muslims from its criteria, the CAA was well-received by Afghan Sikhs and Hindus and even supplemented with additional Indian initiatives to extend visas to those still residing in Afghanistan. A similar resolution was floated in the United States House of Representatives last year, and aimed to resettle some Afghan Sikhs and Hindus in the US, describing the groups as ‘endangered minorities.’

In the absence of formidable protections of minority religious groups from the current or a future Afghan government, the barriers faced by Afghan Sikhs and Hindus are likely to endure and encourage more to permanently leave, despite familial ties and the strength of their Afghan-influenced culture and identity. Like the Buddhists, Zoroastrians, and Jains that preceded them, the rich history of Sikh and Hindu contributions to Afghan society is all but certain to only be visible in books and museums within the next decade.

What Does Future Trade Look Like in Light of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement?

Following several months of talks between trade representative from Pakistan and Afghanistan, the two countries appear poised to finalize a preferential trade agreement (PTA) by the end of January, just one month before the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA) is set to expire. Previous discussions have struggled to resolve numerous trade-related concerns raised by both sides, leading to a sharp decline in bilateral trade between the two countries last year.

Trade remains one of the more complex aspects of the relationship between Islamabad and Kabul. Complaints of extortion by government officials, customs obstacles, and insecurity has culminated in frequent border closures, compelling both sides to seek costlier alternative transit routes and ink multilateral trade deals that exclude one another.

For Pakistan, the opportunity to cultivate strong trade linkages with Afghanistan has little to do with access to the Afghan market. Instead, Pakistan views Afghanistan as a gateway to the more lucrative markets found in China and Central Asia. Having borrowed billions to improve its own transport infrastructure, Pakistan’s economic success is contingent on directing the flow of goods to its maritime ports, particularly the port of Gwadar. As the flagship project of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the port of Gwadar is particularly useful to landlocked Central Asian states like Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, each of whom have seen their South Asian trade aspirations hindered by over 40 years of instability in Afghanistan, which remains the critical bottleneck in linking South and Central Asian supply chains.

Though it has spearheaded a near 26-year old attempt to circumvent Afghanistan via the Quadrilateral Traffic in Transit Agreement (QTTA), Pakistan still remains Afghanistan’s primary trading partner, accounting for over 40% of all Afghan exports. Furthermore, Pakistan’s motives in maintaining a stable relationship with the Afghan government stems from its stake in the outcome of ongoing intra-Afghan dialogue. Given the strong possibility of the Taliban converting into a recognized political party in a potential peace deal, Pakistan’s post-conflict relationship with Afghanistan will depend on its ability to operate within the Afghan state, giving it an opportunity to supplement its support base from the Taliban by appealing to a wider coalition of parties and officials.

In spite of their differences, both sides continue to affirm the need and desire to strengthen bilateral trade ties, particularly as it relates to formalizing border markets across the porous and insecure Durand Line. Border skirmishes remain a critical point of contention, as seen with instances like the July 2020 clash that resulted in the deaths of 15 Afghan civilians as well as Pakistan’s unilateral decision to build a 2,600-kilometer border fence that is scheduled to be completed in less than two months. For decades, trade talks have zeroed in on border issues, including the desire to formalize the booming black markets that have proven profitable for traders and militants that traverse the Durand Line to traffic stolen goods, arms, drugs, and humans.

To Pakistan’s chagrin, the Afghan government has been unwavering in its demand to incorporate the trade of Indian goods in the terms of its deal with Pakistan. Lobbying pressure from Afghanistan’s private sector and industry groups have demanded that their government work out an arrangement that would allow Afghan traders to use overland routes through Pakistan to access India via Wagah border, which splits the Indian and Pakistani halves of Punjab province.

Among the main gripes cited by the Afghan business community include inadequate market access and expensive transit costs in its trade with India, which is Afghanistan’s second largest trading partner. The existing trade routes available to Afghanistan and India include an expensive air corridor and the circuitous use of Iran’s Chabahar Port. Barring an abnormal modification in its foreign policy, Pakistan is unlikely to grant accession to such a provision, making it likely that the status quo will persist unless Afghanistan can make several favorable concessions to Pakistan.

The nature of the Pak-Afghan trade relationship underscores the formidable obstacles to both intra-regional trade within South Asia and extra-regional linkages between Southern and Central Asian supply chains. In spite of its natural geographic advantages and the potential for mutually beneficial trading arrangements, the essential prerequisite lies with the trajectory of intra-Afghan talks, where Pakistan remains the most important foreign stakeholder. In the absence of a political compromise, the litany of trade woes afflicting both sides are unlikely to fade, exacerbating infrastructure gaps and the ability to attract and sustain investment to the region, putting it at a further disadvantage to other emerging markets.

The Kafala Controversy: Migrant Labor Reform in the Gulf

Among the seismic economic changes to emerge in the twentieth century, few were as drastic and consequential as the growth enjoyed by the member-states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Prior to the discovery of its expansive oil wealth between the 1930s-1950s, the GCC states (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates) largely depended on subsistence agriculture, reflecting the nomadic lifestyle that defined the region’s economic and social fabric.

The subsequent increase in foreign investment and the accrual of resource wealth in the decades to follow bolstered much of the bloc’s economic activity, paving the way for other non-oil sectors, like construction and services, to flourish. However, given the constraints from the local labor force and the workforce demands of such sectors, the GCC states were ultimately compelled to import their manpower, relying instead on exported labor from the stagnant economies of South and Southeast Asia.

Such conditions explain the origins of the widespread, yet controversial kafala labor system that continues to power most of the GCC economies. Under this system, ambitious workers ranging from the Indian subcontinent to the Philippines, are brought to the GCC states by private sponsors to fulfill labor demands for areas like domestic help and construction activity, incorporating everything from infrastructure projects and housing, to glitzy skyscrapers and sporting stadiums, including facilities that will be used in the 2022 FIFA World Cup, hosted by Qatar.

Though the practice of importing labor surpluses from other countries is commonplace, the tenets of the kafala system underscore grave concerns for the well-being of GCC migrant workers. Much of these concerns stem from the substantial level of privatization involved in the kafala system, shifting the onus for accountability of migrants and their living/working conditions on the private entities. Though the exact level of privatization varies between the GCC states, the common method cedes considerable control over migrant workers by their respective sponsors, which can include businesses and/or private citizens. In the absence of vigilant state-led monitoring and regulatory efforts, sponsors maintain an unhealthy amount of leverage over their workers, creating opportunities for exploitation with little to no legal recourse for migrants.

Allegations of abuse run the gamut, from seized passports and exit restrictions, to squalid accommodations and dangerous working conditions. While such experiences are well-documented and have been reported upon extensively by countless NGOs and media outlets, the allure of high-wage employment continues to attract a substantial number of migrants to the Gulf region, many of whom send remittances that benefit the economy of their respective home country.

The concerns raised by international labor and human rights organizations, coupled with diplomatic pressure, has led to modest improvements in the last decade, with some GCC states contemplating and implementing more significant reforms this year. Yet, the impetus behind these reforms is not limited to the desire to avoid scrutiny. Rather, the planned reforms coincide with a cascading set of circumstances that’ll challenge the Gulf’s economic model in the years to come.

Amid low oil prices, widening fiscal deficits, and staggering youth unemployment figures, the GCC member-states face crucial questions about their development trajectories. Though oil remains integral to the world economy, demands from policymakers and investors alike has increased the call for cleaner forms of energy, with options like solar and wind experiencing a surge in capital flows as the cost of generating from renewable sources decreases. The stark reality of oil dependence can be found in the government budgets of the GCC member-states, each of whom plan and fulfill their public expenditures on the basis of assumed oil and gas prices. Given the whims of such benchmarks in recent years, several GCC member-states have been forced to choose between politically sensitive budget revisions or increases to mounting fiscal deficits.

One critical component of these deficits includes the tendency of GCC states to rely on the public sector to create jobs for their citizens, leading to chronic overstaffing. In Saudi Arabia for example, public sector pay counterintuitively dwarfs the compensation levels offered by the private sector, with the difference in pay reaching as high as 59%.

Thus far, efforts to shift job creation to the private sector have had mixed results, with employers citing payroll expenses and skill deficits as major barriers to employing citizens in private sector positions. Though the current overlap between the work performed by migrants and citizens remains relatively small, the future economic strategies of most GCC countries remains contingent on non-oil diversification, with areas like tourism, media, financial services, and trade-related infrastructure featuring prominently in most GCC “visions” and developmental plans.

Realizing such visions will require a herculean effort to diversify away from sectors that heavily rely on cheap migrant labor for profitability. Attracting non-oil foreign direct investment (FDI), remedying training and skills gaps, and even attitudinal shifts toward certain types of work, like retail, will be required to maximize opportunities available for citizens.

The pressing need to reform the kafala system is not a purely economic decision. Decades of reliance on foreign labor has resulted in demographic concerns as well, with non-nationals outnumbering the domestic populace in every GCC state, with the exception of Oman and Saudi Arabia. These figures range from the low-end of 38% in Saudi Arabia to 88% in Qatar, elevating fears of political disruptions, a threat that the GCC states originally faced in the early days of the kafala system, where migrants were first brought in from neighboring countries that experienced political upheavals and instability in the age of Pan-Arabism.

At present, gradual reforms to the current kafala system have either been announced or implemented recently in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Oman. Though some GCC states, like Bahrain, claim to have abolished the sponsorship practice, reality suggests more is needed for adequate protections. Establishing a minimum wage, enforcing contracts with fair provisions for laborers, and allowing migrants to change employers or leave the country without present bureaucratic obstacles have all been floated as potential solutions. By slow-walking its reforms, the GCC states risk perpetuating the status-quo, a scenario that not only hurts migrants, but poses long-term ramifications for the region’s post-oil future.

Gender Analysis and Representation of Women as a Counterterrorism Approach

At a time where women can be victims, violent actors, and agents of positive change, the consideration of gender analysis in peace building is increasingly important. A gender analysis involves the representation of women in the security sector. It also means acknowledging the different experiences of men and women in extremism, as a direct result of the gender stereotypes exploited by violent extremists.

Women are vulnerable to becoming victims of terror from both inside the organisation and outside the extremist group. Foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) recruited for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are constituted of a significant number of women. Violent extremist organisation groups manipulate gender stereotypes for their recruitment purposes, highlighted in a report published by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in 2019.

A defining feature of the group Boko Haram is the group’s kidnapping of women, seeking women as wives for extremists within the group, and using them as suicide bombers. In an attack in the northeastern Borno state of Nigeria, 10 women were among those missing in the massacre.

Gender roles established and adhered to at ground level, perpetuate gender-based violence and oppression, meaning that women’s rights are abused by extremist ideologies. Traditional familial structures incorporating gender roles have a myriad of influences on extremism. Evidence surrounding the roles which women are ascribed in the familial structure suggests women have influence, only through the role ascribed to them as ‘teacher’, within their families to dissuade their family members from violent extremism, through dialogue and education.

To counter these means of violent extremism, there must be gender analysis and representation of women at the policy level, in order to debunk these stereotypes. It is important this happens at ground level, within communities and law enforcement, as well as in police and law-making, to strengthen tolerance and prevent violent extremism.

Gender stereotypes which lead to the polarisation of gender in the household, further perpetuates violence and oppression in the culture of the state. There is therefore greater chance of gender-based violence being experienced by women and girls in the national violence and militarisation of that state. Masculinity, rooted in patriarchy, situates itself well in extremism. Violent extremists are labelled as heroes, presented as the honorary thing to do for men. These roots start from the ground up, in what has been called ‘pathological narcissism’, linked by psychologists to violent extremism and terrorism.

In order to combat terrorism, policy and lawmakers in the security sector, and education and community at ground level, must take into consideration a gender analysis. This may be unsupported at present, but the importance of the role of women is becoming increasingly supported. Therefore approaches to countering violent extremism must be gender sensitive. Approaches must prioritise the underlying causes of violence which lead to women becoming victims of extremism.

It has been found that women are in a position to recognise signs of extremism and violence, due to the roles ascribed to them in the home, due to their gender. Women are also more inclined to recognise violent extremism, as they are often direct victims of those ideologies themselves. The restriction of women’s rights has a direct correlation to the rise of extremist groups, leading the United Nations to recommend increased women’s participation in policies and measures in countering violent extremism. Including women in peace negotiations addresses the root of the violence. Violence in homes and negative attitudes towards women, is the precursor for social violence and tolerance of gender-based violence.

Extremism is not a natural ideology. It is bred from hatred, intolerance, and bias at ground level. It comes from a culture of internalised and accepted gender norms, in which women are given an oppressed familial role. In turn, society is divided, which becomes a means of production for the patriarchy, which then leads to one part of society being oppressed by another. The social subordination of women by men is perpetuated from the ground up, from the family home, to the community, to the militarisation of the state. It then feeds into the legal arena in the form of violent extremism.

But women are not simply a consequence of gender norms, to be subsequently used to the state’s benefit in countering terror through recognising violent tendencies or to dissuade their family members from extremism. Gender Perspective Training in the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF), supported by the European Union, focuses on legal empowerment and women’s rights and gender equality. TAF also incorporate a Gender Advisor, who addresses a gender analysis in peacekeeping missions. These policies surmount to achieving the TAF’s goals of having female personnel in all task fields, as well as in senior positions.

Women are underrepresented in the security sector at the highest level. Women need to be elevated to roles in policy making and in the legal sector. There needs to be further data research and collection about women in extremism, carried out by women, to further understand their roles and to create policies to build peace, incorporating women in the process. Women, as those directly affected, need to be involved in the gender in extremism discourse. Addressing cultural bias from the ground up, leading to a change in policy through gender analysis, is imperative to countering terrorism and achieving peace in the global arena.

–Caitlin Hopwood

Afghanistan: Peace Talks and an Increase in Violence

Since peace talks in Doha commenced in September, violence has escalated in Afghanistan, however, recent developments could present a way to turn this around. It is appropriate to examine what has changed and how it could have positive effects.

Breakthrough

Shortly after the intra-Afghan talks commenced, they were stalled due to both technical and fundamental differences. Afghan representatives and the Taliban could not agree on how they should be referred in the agreement (as they do not recognize each other) and they did not hold similar views on the political future for Afghanistan.

Since then, the parties have now agreed on how to conduct the talks and the negotiators are now likely able to move forward on issues such as a political roadmap and a ceasefire. The three page agreement is an important step, and will be a stepping stone, for the future discussion of peace in Afghanistan and was immediately welcomed by the United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Escalating Violence

As noted, violence escalated in Afghanistan once the talks got underway in Qatar. According to a report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), there has been an increase of violence since the peace deal between the Taliban and the U.S. was signed. The attacks have increased by more than 50% compared to the quarter before the talks began.

During this quarter, the report stated there have been 2,561 civilian casualties, including 876 deaths. This is an increase of 43% compared with April to June. On November 2, an attack on Kabul University killed at least 22 people of which many were students.

The violence is affecting the talks in Doha, as mentioned in the SIGAR report: “NATO Resolute Support (RS) and USFOR-A commander, General Austin Scott Miller said the high level of Taliban violence around the country ‘is not consistent with the U.S.-Taliban agreement and undermines the ongoing Afghan peace talks’”.

Comments

Violence negatively affects the legitimacy of the current peace process both from the perspective of the negotiating parties and the civilians. Trust between the relevant parties and civilians is an important factor for the peace talks to continue. Without trust, further delays may be expected. Consequently, in combination with an U.S withdrawal and more violence, the result may be an even more violent Afghanistan.

Another factor that can affect violence in the country is the withdrawal of American troops. If most of the American troops leave Afghanistan this might create a power vacuum which in turn can be used by violent groups to harm civilians and the peace process. As stated, the violence undermines the ongoing peace talks and raises the lack of trust within the country.

For the peace talks to move forward it is necessary that violence deceases. When one of the actors at the negotiating table keeps on fighting, it creates a more difficult situation for the negotiators.  Therefore, recent progress can hopefully bring more substantive issues to the table, such as a ceasefire, which can rapidly decrease the violence in the country.

Rise to Peace