Welcome to Gandhara's weekly newsletter. This briefing brings you the best of our reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan. (This week, we refreshed its appearance; I hope you enjoy the streamlined design.)
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For Biden, no good options in Afghanistan
Washington’s policy pundits agree that President Joe Biden’s options in Afghanistan are fraught with risks as he reviews his country’s deal with the Taliban. He must choose between a likely collapse of the Afghan government in case of a precipitous U.S. withdrawal or an open-ended commitment to the Afghan war.
My colleague Frud Bezhan takes a hard look at the pros and cons of the U.S. withdrawing its troops by deadline, seeking to extend the deadline, or scrapping the terms completely.
If the latter, “The violence, already sickeningly high, would intensify even more because the war against U.S. forces would be back on,” says the Wilson Center’s Michael Kugelman.
The Taliban, for its part, wants to hold America to the deal. In a bid to skirt criticism over its continued ties to Al-Qaeda, the group told its cadres to stop recruiting foreign jihadists.
A video of children crying over their wounded mother after a Kabul bomb attack struck a deep chord for many Afghans, sparking a debate over graphic imagery and prompting an outpouring of sympathy on Twitter in Dari, Pashto, and English.
Some said the images were too horrible to share online, while others maintained that the world should know what terrorism really looks like. “The worst and most horrific pictures that show the harsh reality of the land must be shared,” Farkhunda Zahara Naderi shared on Twitter.
Russia takes the Taliban’s side
This week, I took a look at the motives behind Moscow’s sympathies with the Taliban after Zamir Kabulov, Russia's envoy for Afghanistan, earlier this month accused Washington of reneging on its deal with the Taliban while praising the Islamist group for “almost flawlessly” keeping its side of the bargain.
Hameed Hakimi from Chatham House told me that he did not expect the Kremlin to replace Tehran or Islamabad in terms of influence over Afghan politics. “Moscow will find it incredibly difficult to arm the Taliban because it will have broader consequences for the Taliban with their other significant backers and will also impact [the] Taliban’s narrative of jihad on the ground.”
Pakistan’s Pashtun movement goes political
We were among the first to report this week on the emergence of a new secular party from within the folds of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), a civil rights movement whose noisy campaign has rattled the military establishment.
The emergence of the new party might ultimately weaken the PTM by dividing its leaders despite initial calls for unity. Local elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa later this year will test its strength.
The brutal murder of four women aid workers in North Waziristan, a PTM stronghold, this week was a reminder of what gave rise to the movement three years ago.
Afghanistan’s Covid vaccine rollout begins
India has donated 500,000 doses of AstraZeneca's vaccine to Afghanistan, which began its inoculation campaign against COVID-19 this week. First in line are healthcare workers, soldiers, and journalists.
But vaccinating all of the country’s 35 million people is likely to be an uphill struggle. Opposition from hard-line clerics and limited access to Taliban-controlled areas have held up previous inoculation campaigns, such as the ongoing efforts against polio in the country.
A little off the top – and off the bill
Asadullah keeps his Kabul barber shop stocked with 300 books in the hopes that customers will fall in love with reading while they’re waiting for a haircut. As an added incentive, they get a 30 percent discount.
“The culture of reading is an excellent thing that unfortunately, hasn’t yet become institutionalized in this country,” one customer noted. Watch our moving video report on his literary efforts.
Pakistan’s transgender church
In other uplifting news this week, my colleagues at Radio Mashaal visited the first church for Pakistan’s marginalized transgender community.
“They say that church elders have stopped them from entering for being unclean,” says Pastor Ghazala Shafique, who established the First Church For Eunuchs in Karachi. “This was tormenting me.”
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