Welcome to Gandhara's weekly newsletter. This briefing brings you the best of our reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
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The Doha agreement hangs in the balance
Washington made it clear this week that the fate of its peace agreement with the Taliban is up in the air. The Biden administration is preparing to review whether the hard-line group has kept up its side of the bargain.
“It will be a real challenge for this new administration to pressurize the Taliban toward a compliance with what the U.S. saw as the spirit of the deal while not precipitating a complete breakdown,” Michael Semple, a former UN diplomat in Afghanistan, told me. The Pentagon and the U.S. Treasury Department have already rebuked the Taliban for not following through on its promise to reduce violence and renounce ties with Al-Qaeda.
In an attempt to circumvent the mounting pressure, Taliban leaders visited Tehran and Moscow this week. It was a clear signal to Washington that the Taliban has other options if the Doha agreement falls apart.
Civilians are paying the price for the peace process’s uncertainty. A new report by Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission noted that nearly 3,000 civilians were killed in hostilities last year. One of them was the well-known TV journalist Malala Maiwand. “Officials expressed grief in the first few days and then they forgot about us,” her father told my colleagues.
Taliban drones wreak havoc along Afghan frontlines
The Taliban is changing its tactics on the battlefield, this time by taking to the skies. My colleague Frud Bezhan reports that by weaponizing over-the-counter drones, the Taliban has attacked Afghan forces in six of the country’s 34 provinces since October. Experts warn this could lead to deadlier attacks on checkpoints and urban centers.
“If you're being attacked by a very small drone 1,000 feet up in the air, then it's actually quite difficult to work out where to point your weapon,” said Nick Waters, an analyst with Bellingcat and former British Army officer, of the difficulty in fending off such an attack. The tactics are said to have been adopted from IS militants in Iraq and Syria.
Amid new security, Gwadar residents are being fenced out
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has seen investors pour billions of dollars into Gwadar, but locals say they’re being pushed out. Kiyya Baloch, a freelance journalist from Balochistan, spoke to residents who say they resent the increased security measures that restrict daily life to protect Chinese and private investments from attacks.
“The decision to fence an entire city is certainly part of a dubious plan,” said Aziz Baloch, a local politician. “This is the beginning of sweeping demographic changes.” Gwadar has been a bone of contention between Islamabad and Baluch ethno-nationalists for decades. This week, officials attempted to curtail the funeral of a prominent Baluch activist. Karima Baloch, 37, died in mysterious circumstances in Toronto last month.
Afghanistan’s most isolated community
The Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan’s northeast may be so remote that it was never reached by violence in the civil war, but the pandemic did. My colleague Nimatullah Ahmadi traveled to the isolated mountain area and found many of the estimated 15,000 residents struggling for survival.
“My three grandchildren are sick with chest infections right now, but we don’t have medicines or a hospital here,” one grandmother said, adding that she’s already lost two of her five grandchildren.
The aftershocks of Pakistan’s war on terrorism
Radio Mashaal reported on a new protest by thousands of Mehsuds. The Pashtun tribespeople are demanding compensation for what they lost when they fled South Waziristan for years after large-scale fighting broke out between security forces and the Taliban in 2009.
Separately, Afghan and Pakistani security sources told my colleagues that Manal Bagh, the leader of the militant group Lashkar-e Islam in the area surrounding the Khyber Pass, has been killed in a mine blast in Afghanistan. He had been reported killed several times before.
Will Danial Pearl’s murderers walk free?
The Supreme Court's acquittal of the man convicted of killing Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl could become a litmus test for Pakistan’s judiciary. An appeal filed by the Sindh provincial chief prosecutor is unlikely to succeed.
The acquittal complicates Islamabad’s efforts to build a better relationship with the new U.S. administration, which called on Islamabad to review legal options including letting the United States prosecute those acquitted.
Pakistan’s snowboarding craze
In some joyful news this week, Radio Mashaal reported on Pakistan's first-ever international snowboarding championship. The three-day event featured competitors from France, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and Afghanistan at Pakistan’s only ski resort of Malam Jabba.
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