Welcome to Gandhara's weekly newsletter. This briefing brings you the best of our reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
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A dark month
For many Afghans, their lives have been turned upside down as their country’s economy continues in free fall and many freedoms have been curtailed. Many have fled, while those who stay back face an uncertain future in a country undergoing tremendous change under a new regime.
The Taliban’s early struggle with political, economic, and social crises points to its difficulties in transforming into a responsible government from a shadowy insurgency.
The hard-line Islamists were put to an early test as they scrambled to address growing speculation that Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Baradar had been injured or shot dead in a dispute among top leaders. It took them days to formulate a response in a video quashing rumors of Baradar’s death. Word has it that Taliban leaders are split into a pragmatic core and a more radical faction from the Haqqani family, who are longtime allies of Pakistan.
Afghans still hold out hope that the Taliban will learn from past experience by opting for an inclusive political system to gain domestic legitimacy and international recognition. “It is crucial for our country that our contact with the world is based on internal legitimacy and our representative government can be a mirror of Afghanistan -- this will be beneficial," former Afghan President Hamid Karzai told us in an interview.
The discontent on the streets of Afghanistan, however, is mounting. In a video report, we take you to Kandahar, where hundreds of widows and wives of fallen Afghan soldiers marched against evictions by the Taliban. “During evening prayers, they announced that if we do not leave [our homes] and take away the furniture, they will blow up our houses,” one protester told us.
Aid and crisis under the Taliban
The international community pledged more than $1.2 billion in response to a UN appeal for $600 million in emergency humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. But delivering aid to needy Afghans remains an uphill task for many organizations as they scramble to work under the Taliban.
“It looks like the priority for the Taliban is their own coherence, and they are not so bothered yet about what is happening economically, financially, from a humanitarian point of view,” Anders Fange, a veteran aid worker and board member of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, told me about the obstacles aid agencies face as they try to continue helping vulnerable Afghans despite the Taliban’s interference.
Time is not on the Taliban’s side. Afghanistan is already suffering from an economic collapse and an unfolding humanitarian crisis in which even the most basic services are being interrupted.
“These days I’m forced to help women deliver their babies by the flashlight on our smart phones because our hospital ran out of money to buy fuel for the generator,” a doctor told me regarding the early impact of diminishing aid on her hospital in the rural province of Maidan Wardak. “Carrying out a C-section by flashlight is a nightmare we now have to face regularly.”
In a video report, we visit a Kabul market where the unemployed are selling off their belongings just to buy food.
“Those who don’t have any money [to leave the country] stay in Kabul and are forced to sell their possessions to feed their families,” said Ramin Ahmad, a former government worker who now buys and sells secondhand goods.
Afghanistan’s rural regions are suffering equally. In another video, we travel to Farah, where displaced civilians lost their homes and livelihoods to fighting between the government forces and the Taliban and have yet to receive help.
“We are having a very hard time with our children and the rest of our family,” said a woman named Nazin, who has lost her husband, son, and son-in-law in the fighting, adding that she washes people’s clothes in an attempt to provide for her family of 10.
(Watch our video from Ghor Province, where farmers have lost 70 percent of their harvest to persistent drought.)
Intimidation, harassment, threats both veiled and brazen: this is the new reality for many in Afghanistan, including women, musicians, and athletes in the capital and elsewhere in the country as the Taliban imposes its draconian restrictions on culture and diversity.
One Afghan woman who teaches English in Kabul found Taliban fighters barring her entry to work one day, calling her an infidel, and shouting, “What the hell are you doing walking alone outside your home?”
“Taliban statements about letting women work are just a fake show for the international community to get aid. Once the Taliban gets what it wants from the outside world, it will end everything,” she said, adding that three other women she knew had faced similar abuse and ended up quitting their jobs. (Read about how Afghan women are fighting back on social media against Taliban restrictions.)
A female athlete, who also spoke with us on the condition of anonymity because of security fears, has given up her running career, saying she has “buried” her dreams and has no hope of being allowed to return to sports ever again.
“What I see ahead is darkness,” she said. “I’m scared for my safety and the safety of my family. I don’t want to put them in danger by trying to continue my career.”
Habibullah Shabab is a popular singer in Helmand. But he’s stopped performing and now works as a shopkeeper. The Taliban hasn’t yet imposed a ban on music as it did in the 1990s, but Shabab and others fear such a policy is imminent, stripping musicians of their livelihoods.
TV and radio stations have taken music off the air that could be deemed “un-Islamic.” Shabab hopes he’ll be allowed at least to sing religious songs. “I ask the Islamic Emirate [Taliban leaders] to accommodate us, so that we can sing Islamic songs without [instrumental] accompaniment, just as the Republic of Afghanistan allowed artists to sing [together with instruments].”
Tajikistan’s staunch opposition
Bruce Pannier delves deep into Tajikistan’s public opposition to the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan. Strongman President Emomali Rahmon is the only regional leader who witnessed the Taliban’s first stint in power between 1996 and 2001 and earned domestic applause for questioning the Taliban’s treatment of ethnic Tajiks.
“Now that the United States has left the region, Russia does not want to give full control of Afghanistan to Pakistan,” Tajik political expert Khairullo Mirsaidov told us of Dushanbe’s major motives. “It also gives momentum for Rahmon to take an opportunity for internal use of the topic, bringing him closer to his own people.”
Dushanbe also hosted leadership summits of the Chinese- and Russian-led Eurasian security blocs -- the Security Cooperation Organization and Collective Security Treaty Organization, respectively -- this week. Rahman used these forums to further his bid for support against what he says are “challenges and threats” emanating from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
Two days of reckoning
United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken faced a tough congressional hearing in Washington concerning the American withdrawal and evacuation, drawing questions from both sides of the aisle. Idaho Republican James Risch called the withdrawal a “dismal failure,” while top Democrat Bob Menendez said the process was “clearly and fatally flawed.”
But Blinken insisted that America did the best it could under such difficult circumstances and shifted blame to the Trump administration, which had brokered the deal with the Taliban in the first place.
“Even the most pessimistic assessments did not predict that government forces in Kabul would collapse while U.S. forces remained," Blinken maintained.
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