Welcome to Gandhara's weekly newsletter. This briefing brings you the best of our reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
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Skeptics pore over new U.S. peace plan
A new U.S. push to resuscitate the fledgling Afghan peace process was met with skepticism this week. The Afghan government rejected the Biden administration’s proposal for winning regional support for a cease-fire arrangement and an interim government with the Taliban.
“What this approach offers in hope, it lacks in practicality,” Marvin Weinbaum, a veteran State Department analyst for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told me while questioning the logic of attempting to replicate 2001’s Bonn process, when anti-Taliban factions united in a transitional government under the auspices of the United Nations. Today, this would create the sticky situation of having to replace an elected constitutional government, he noted.
In an alarming assessment, a U.S. government watchdog has warned the withdrawal of an estimated 18,000 defense contractors -- including 6,000 American and 7,000 third-party nationals -- will be even “more devastating” for Afghan forces than the departure of the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops.
U.S. diplomacy has kicked into high gear. After last week’s trip to Kabul, peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad visited Islamabad, seeking to win the support of Pakistan’s powerful military leaders for Washington’s new plans.
Other countries are scrambling to play a role in an elusive solution. Moscow, which has voiced its support for including the Taliban in an interim government, is hosting a high-profile event next week for U.S. officials as well as those from China, Pakistan, Iran, Qatar, the Afghan government, and the insurgents. Turkey announced it will welcome Taliban and Afghan delegates for talks next month.
Women’s Day in Pakistan
To mark International Women’s Day, women rallied across Pakistan to demand equal rights and social justice through colorful protests. But the day’s events also highlighted the threats facing the country’s burgeoning women’s rights movement.
A video began circulating of their March 8 protest in Karachi that contained distorted subtitles portraying their slogans as “blasphemous” and raised the specter of mob violence.
The fraud was exposed, and some journalists who had amplified the video’s spread on social media retracted their posts.
Women’s Day in Afghanistan
For Afghan women, the past year has been a reckoning for the hopes instilled by the initial U.S.-Taliban deal. Many believed their country was on the road to peace, but they now worry Afghanistan is reverting to the well-worn path of curbed freedoms.
"If a [new] government is formed hastily and does not take into account half of Afghanistan’s population, it is likely that our achievements will be reversed,” Maria Bashir, a lawyer and rights activist in Herat, told Radio Free Afghanistan.
In a sign of further restrictions against girls and women, Afghanistan’s Education Ministry banned schoolgirls 12 and older from singing at public events. The move spurred outrage and condemnation from activists and the country’s Independent Human Rights Commission.
Journalists leave Afghanistan
Hundreds of Afghan journalists have fled their country or abandoned their profession amid a wave of threats and targeted killings.
This week, my colleague Frud Bezhan talked to some of them about their motives. “I have no doubt I would be dead if I didn’t leave,” Parwin, a TV correspondent, told him from an undisclosed location in exile. “The attackers knew everything about me -- what I looked like and where I lived.”
A slow rollout for Pakistan’s COVID vaccines
In the second phase of its sluggish vaccination campaign that began this week, Pakistan is prioritizing people over 60 for its bid to inoculate a sizeable part of its estimated 220 million population.
So far relying solely on vaccine donations from China and the United Nations, Islamabad has only deployed China’s Sinopharm vaccine to some 250,000 healthcare workers.
Blind Afghan policeman teaches others how to defuse mines
My colleague Ron Synovitz wrote this moving profile of Naqibullah, an Afghan policeman who continues to share his expertise with the Afghan forces after a bomb he was trying to defuse blinded him eight years ago.
“I have defused hundreds of them. Fourteen of them exploded while I was defusing them,” he says. “I was not injured by those. But I was injured by the 15th blast.”
Escorted by his eldest son, 10-year-old Qasim, Naqibullah sometimes begs on the streets of Kabul to provide for his wife and their five children as he dreams of government support for treatment in India to partially restore his vision.
Turkmen minority decries child kidnapping
The kidnappers have shared videos of the boy chained and abused and are demanding $2.2. million for his release. Both the government and the Taliban have sought to help the family find the child.