Afghanistan, one of the world’s most troubled countries, is home to a diminishing population of Sikhs and Hindus, who trace their roots in the country as far back as the 16th century. At that time, Sikhism’s founder, Guru Nanak, journeyed through Afghanistan to share his teachings. By the 1970s, the Afghan Sikh and Hindu population is believed to have swelled to nearly 700,000.
Today, only an estimated 700 Sikhs and Hindus remain in the country. Many have been killed and more have fled following decades of discrimination and targeted violence. While the Afghan government and the Taliban engage in a shaky, protracted peace process, the fate of Afghan Sikhs and Hindus hangs in the balance as much as Afghanistan’s future itself.
The physical danger to these religious minorities is palpable. Year after year, suicide bombings have targeted Afghan Sikhs, who are distinguished by their turbans, and have decimated Afghanistan’s few remaining Sikh temples. In March 2020, the Islamic State killed 25 Afghan Sikhs during a prayer service at a Sikh gurdwara in Kabul. In 2018, the Islamic State killed 17 Afghan Sikhs and Hindus who were en route to a discussion with President Ashraf Ghani. According to U.S. intelligence, the Islamic State is still positioned for terrorist attacks within Afghanistan.
There is little hope that the Afghan-Taliban peace talks will yield a good outcome for the few Sikhs and Hindus left in the country. At best, a power-sharing agreement patched together by the Afghan government and the Taliban could bring about a reduction in overall violence. Nevertheless, Afghan Sikhs have reason to worry. In the ′90s, during the period when the Taliban regime controlled the country, they were ordered to brand themselves with physical identification. As the Taliban representatives at the current peace talks drag their feet on upholding women’s rights in a power-sharing arrangement, the rights of Afghanistan’s religious minorities seem all but in limbo.
The United States has failed to usher in lasting peace after two decades of boots on the ground and more than $2 trillion spent, but it has an opportunity now to secure a major win for human rights. Afghan Sikhs and Hindus, caught in the crossfire of the U.S. on-the-ground involvement and vulnerable to further threats upon its looming departure, deserve a chance at safety. Biden can prevent an imminent genocide by keeping his campaign promise of refugee protection.
The Biden administration has vacillated on the annual number of refugees that will be permitted entry into the United States. After proposals to lift the refugee cap this year from 15,000 to 62,500, the Biden administration backtracked and announced a plan to keep this fiscal year’s cap at 15,000. This number matches the record-low ceiling set under the Trump administration’s refugee policy that Biden sharply criticized for “slamm[ing] the door on thousands of individuals suffering persecution, many of whom face threats of violence or even death in their home countries.”
Swift and significant pressure compelled the Biden administration to reverse course and announce that they will set a final, increased refugee cap by May 15. As the administration reviews what is possible, they should consider prioritizing people who are most vulnerable right now — and Afghan Sikhs and Hindus should be near the top of that list.
The persecution faced by these religious minorities is well-documented and ongoing. While some Afghan Sikhs and Hindus have already fled to India via India’s 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act, many report continued harassment, exploitation and relegation to poverty on Indian soil. In the context of this year’s historic U.S. troop withdrawal, which will bear enormous geopolitical consequences for the region, it only makes sense for the United States to extend a lifeline now.
The numbers of Afghan Sikhs and Hindus remain small enough for this refugee resettlement process to be smooth and practical. Not to mention, the United States has the infrastructure in place to absorb these folks in the dignified manner they deserve. It’s urgent that the Biden administration find the political courage to do so.