Welcome to Gandhara's weekly newsletter. This briefing brings you the best of our reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
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Untangling the Taliban’s ties to Al-Qaeda
Frud Bezhan takes a deep dive into the murky bond between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda that has shaped Afghan history for decades and weighs heavily on the peace process, which hinges on their uncoupling.
Al-Qaeda members continue to help the Taliban as military advisers, explosives experts, and instructors on their extremist interpretation of Islam.
“It will be extremely difficult to untangle these two groups,” Weeda Mehran, an Afghanistan expert at Britain’s University of Exeter, told us. “Their ties have been cemented through factors such as shared history, close collaboration, and shared patrons that, at the very least, will take time and effort to be severed.”
The Afghan peace process took a further hit this week when the Taliban bluntly rejected a proposal by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. His suggestion that a presidential election be held in six months – which would test the Taliban’s popularity or lack thereof – clearly hit a sour note for the militants.
The uncertainty on the ground in Afghanistan is reflected in President Biden’s thinking about the country. He reiterated it will be “hard” to meet the U.S. troop withdrawal deadline of May 1. Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Brussels to shore up support from transatlantic allies while Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made an unannounced dash to Kabul to gauge the prospects for withdrawal.
To complicate matters further, however, the Taliban is now threatening to resume attacks against foreign troops if they fail to leave in five weeks’ time.
A reckoning for Pakistani politics
The fall of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) offers a cautionary tale for anyone thinking to start a new political party in Pakistan anytime soon. I discuss how the country's political parties risk becoming irrelevant now that the main opposition alliance has crumbled and public faith in politics as usual reaches an all-time low.
Scandals, dynastic leadership, and having to survive in the shadow of the powerful military all hinder parties getting any real work done and compromise Pakistan’s fragile democracy.
“With time, people sensed the major parties within the PDM did not trust each other as they tried to cut separate deals with the establishment,” Afrasiab Khattak, a former lawmaker and public intellectual, told me. “The generals are unlikely to cede power without popular resistance.”
Pakistan’s dowries burden the poor
Daud Khattak and Frud Bezhan report on the “terrible tradition” of extortionate dowries, which unfairly burden impoverished families in Pakistan, where laws banning the centuries-old custom are rarely enforced.
Whereas previously dowries often comprised clothes or kitchenware, nowadays grooms present extensive lists that can include everything from jewelry and appliances to a brand-new car.
For poor families, it’s a crippling expense that harms marriage prospects. For some brides who cannot meet their in-laws’ expectations, it can lead to humiliation, physical abuse, and even death.
Dowries are “an outdated and unnecessary ritual that has become a competition between families," says Mohammad Ali, head of Khpal Kor (Own House), an NGO in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Pakistani outrage over private vaccine imports
The Pakistani government faces a backlash after it announced that private imports of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine would cost $55 per person – a prohibitive amount for many. Radio Mashaal reports on how the move has triggered concerns that opening the market could cause inequality and invite corruption.
"What’s going on? Sputnik will cost $10 in India and $50-$100 in Pakistan," journalist Najam Sethi asked of the price discrepancy. Islamabad has immunized many of its half a million health workers with the Sinopharm vaccine donated by China. Rising case numbers forced the authorities to extend school closures in Islamabad and other regions reeling from a third wave of COVID infections.
Afghan radio gives women a voice
In a video report, we bring you the inspirational story of 10 female Afghan journalists who have launched Radio Women’s Tune in Farah Province. Its programs aim to defend women’s rights, promote the peace process, and help and inform listeners on topics such as parenting.
“The security situation is bad but that can’t be a reason for the young [generation] of Afghanistan to back down,” radio presenter Nilofar Ahmadi told us as she alluded to an ongoing wave of violence against journalists. “We are happy to work and grow stronger until our enemies are defeated.”
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