Welcome to Gandhara's weekly newsletter. This briefing brings you the best of our reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
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Pakistan’s spiraling economy
This week, I dig deep into Pakistan’s economic woes. Low growth, high inflation, and widespread unemployment plague 220 million citizens currently bracing for rising taxes and utility costs.
The government has excitedly claimed an upturn, but economists say it’s short-lived. “There is no sustainable mechanism to beef up the agricultural sector,” Ali Malik, a financial adviser in the eastern city of Lahore, told me of the country’s economic backbone.
Politics continues to get in the way of any true reform. “So long as the political game of thrones continues, governments will find it difficult” to make any real change, says Uzair Younas, an analyst at the United States Institute of Peace.
“This is not going to be an easy ship to turn,” says Ali Nadir, an investment specialist.
The saving grace of regional trade
Pakistan and Uzbekistan are taking baby steps toward regional economic integration by transporting goods via Afghanistan nearly two decades after similar initiatives transformed Europe and South Asia. Frud Bezhan takes a look at what this landmark first can mean for the region.
Afghan leaders have long said their country’s potential as a regional roundabout would be an antidote to war and violence. “If this gets taken forward by expanding to other Central Asian countries and is scaled up over time in terms of the volume of transit trade, there will be important benefits for both Pakistan and Central Asia,” William Byrd, a development economist in Washington, told us. “If this transit trade develops on a larger scale, it will also increase the economic stakes of neighboring countries in Afghanistan’s peace and stability.”
In a sign that the shadows of another proxy way loom large over Afghanistan, the Taliban warned its country’s neighbors against granting military bases to the United States after media reports speculated Islamabad might give Washington basing rights in its territory.
Hindus, Sikhs return from exile
After fleeing threats and violence in Afghanistan, Afghan Hindu and Sikhs are now returning from India, where the pandemic and the struggles of integration have made starting a new life difficult. Some 200 Hindu and Sikh families left for India last year after a terrorist attack killed 25 people at a Kabul Sikh temple.
The Afghan government has made assurances that the community will be protected. I’ve highlighted Radio Free Afghanistan’s reporting about the families who have made the choice to come back.
“I can speak some Hindi but have problems with the accent, so it is difficult to communicate,” one Afghan Sikh man told us while requesting anonymity over fears of reprisal. “It is very difficult to invest [in India] or set up a business while we are expected to pay for our children in private schools because we are not allowed into state schools. In Afghanistan, I had my own business.”
Beating back dissent
Pakistan’s powerful military has made it abundantly clear it has no stomach for critics and has increasingly lashed out at those who dare to question its heavy-handed tactics and political string-pulling.
In the latest apparent attempt to silence dissent, Asad Ali Toor -- a Pakistani journalist known for his vocal criticism of the military and the spy services -- was beaten by unknown attackers who broke into his apartment this week.
"They ran away when I started screaming," said Toor, who works for a popular show at the television broadcaster Aaj and runs his own YouTube channel.
Journalists from across the country protested the assault, which rights groups were quick to condemn as “yet another attack on freedom of expression and a free press."
Turbulent times ahead
While 80 percent of all air missions in support of Afghan ground forces are conducted by the Afghan Air Force, most aircraft maintenance is done by international contractors. And U.S. forces and those contractors leaving the country means the air force will be flying solo.
The Taliban has been ramping up attacks as the United States draws down, which means even more pressure on Afghan forces. In this video report, we talk to those on the ground who know how tough it will be in the air.
“If the [Afghan] Air Force had received enough support, especially when it comes to the technical side, then I’m sure they could have performed their duties better and ensured that the forces could operate on their own,” says Atiqullah Amarkhel, a former Afghan Air Force commander.
Fighting for education
In another video this week, we meet Afghan mixed martial arts champ Hussain Bakhsh Safari, who plans to auction some of his medals to raise money for the families of students killed in recent attacks in Kabul and Logar Province.
Safari announced the auction after visiting with survivors at a Kabul hospital.
“In the deadly attacks…all of the victims were those who strove for education and they lost their lives while seeking knowledge,” he told us. “I want to sell these [medals] and help my brothers, sisters, and their school.”
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