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Gandhara Briefing: Food For Work, Water Diplomacy, Secret TTP Talks


The Kamal Khan Dam in southwestern Afghanistan.

Welcome to Gandhara's weekly newsletter. This briefing brings you the best of our reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

If you’re new to the newsletter or haven’t subscribed yet, you can do so here.

Taliban accused of misappropriating foreign aid

Ron Synovitz writes about how the cash-strapped Taliban-led government is using international humanitarian aid intended for starving Afghans to pay government workers.

The move is part of the Taliban’s “food for work” program, under which Afghans must do manual labor on public-works projects to receive foreign food aid. The militant group is now expanding the program by using donated wheat to pay the salaries of public sector workers.

But many Afghans have complained that only those with connections to the Taliban have received work under that program.

“I’ve gone 20 times to them to try to get food for work, but all I do is leave my identification number behind,” said Omaruddin, a day laborer in Kabul. “It’s only the ones who have connections that get hired under this program.”

A devastating economic crisis has pushed millions of Afghans to the brink of famine since the Taliban takeover. Taliban representatives held talks with Western diplomats in Norway this week over ways to address Afghanistan's humanitarian crisis.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres this week told the Security Council that Afghanistan is "hanging by a thread" and urged the body to "suspend the rules and operations" that are preventing the international community from providing urgent assistance.

Taliban uses Afghan water to appease Iran

I write about the deepening cooperation between Afghanistan’s Sunni Taliban rulers and Iran's Shi'ite clerical regime.

In a sign of growing ties, the Taliban recently released water from the Kamal Khan Dam in southwestern Afghanistan into Hamun Lake in southeastern Iran, a poor and arid region.

The move is seen as part of the Taliban’s attempt to curry favor with Iran. Disputes over the distribution of cross-border water supplies have long plagued relations between the two neighbors.

"Overall, Iran needs a stable, if also dependent, Afghanistan and the Taliban a non-threatening, economically cooperative neighbor," Marvin Weinbaum, the Afghanistan and Pakistan studies director at the Middle East Institute in Washington, told me.

Fazal Hadi Wazeen, an Afghan political analyst, said the Taliban is using water as a diplomatic tool. "They are using the water from the Kamal Khan Dam to improve relations with an important neighbor," he told Radio Azadi.

Journalists and activists in peril

Radio Azadi reports on the spate of mysterious attacks on Afghan journalists and activists in recent weeks. The incidents, blamed on the Taliban, are seen as part of the militant group’s attempts to crush dissent.

"They were pulling the gate like scissors on both sides of my neck," said Zaki Qais, a former television journalist who was attacked by unidentified men at his home in Kabul. "Someone grabbed me by the back of my hair and another person in front of me pulled the gate toward me."

Afghans and international rights groups have condemned the Taliban’s reported arrests of two female activists, Tamana Zaryabi Paryani and Parwana Ibrahimkhel. Their whereabouts are still unknown.

Even as the Taliban denied arresting the women, a spokesman for the group said that “insulting the religious and national values of the Afghan people is not tolerated anymore.”

Pakistan continues to court the TTP

Daud Khattak reports on a new effort by the Pakistani government to revive peace talks with the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) after negotiations broke down in December.

Islamabad recently sent a secret delegation to Afghanistan, where most of the TTP leadership resides. The delegation was made up of influential Pashtun tribal elders from Pakistan.

“The elders stayed there for two nights and held three or four rounds of discussions,” a source close to the delegation told Radio Mashaal. “The TTP leadership welcomed the delegation with traditional Pashtun hospitality and slaughtered two sheep.”

Pakistan’s attempts to revive peace talks comes as the TTP intensifies its attacks in northwestern Pakistan, its former stronghold.

I hope you found this week’s newsletter useful, and I encourage you to forward it to your colleagues.

If you haven’t subscribed yet, you can do so here. I encourage you to visit our website and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Yours,
Abubakar Siddique
Twitter: @sid_abu

P.S.: You can always reach us at gandhara@rferl.org.

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