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Gandhara Briefing: The Taliban Consolidates Power


Taliban fighters atop vehicles with Taliban flags parade along a road in Kandahar on September 1 to celebrate after the United States completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Dear Reader,

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 tightens grip on power

The Taliban is firming its grip on power as the United States and its allies ended their two-decade long war in Afghanistan by evacuating all remaining Western forces this week.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a Taliban co-founder, is being tipped to head a new Taliban administration likely to be made up of senior figures within the hard-line movement. The Taliban is poised to form a Sunni version of Iran’s Shi’ite theocracy by appointing its leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, as supreme leader.

On the streets of Kabul, the Taliban is crafting new ways of controlling Afghans around them. Our photo gallery depicts surreal scenes of life in the capital this week. (Watch this video to see Radio Azadi editor Mustafa Siddiqi describe life under the Taliban).

But ruling Afghanistan won’t be smooth sailing. The militants face stiff resistance in one province, and the world is waiting to see what the Taliban does next after making pledges of inclusivity and rights that ring hollow for many.

Veteran Swedish aid worker Anders Fange argues in an op-ed that the focus must remain on averting a humanitarian disaster in Asia’s poorest country, saying Western governments should “stay calm and wait several weeks until it is clear what Taliban rule really looks like.”

Women brace for a new reality

No one is more acutely aware of what Taliban rule can mean than Afghan women. Despite the group’s vague pledges to honor women in society, its hallmark extreme interpretation of Islamic Shari’a law is unlikely to have changed. Across the country, women and girls are already being warned to cover up, keep quiet, and stay home, either directly by the militants or by family members concerned for their safety.

According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), hundreds of women journalists have been forced to leave their jobs, leaving fewer than 100 still formally working at privately owned radio and TV stations in Kabul, compared to 700 last year.

Farangis Najibullah spoke to one of the few journalists in Kabul who continues to work. Rahila Elena, going by a pseudonym for her safety, says her dreams have been shattered as she faces this new reality without the freedom of speech she previously enjoyed.

“I don't know what the future holds for me. The Taliban government will be the one making plans for me, instead of me. It pains me,” she said. “For now the Taliban says women will return to work, media outlets can function. I don't know if they will keep their promises and I'll be able to continue my job or whether I will be killed or arrested.”

Former Afghan legislator Shukria Barakzai tells us her harrowing experience of escaping from Kabul after it fell to the Taliban. Wearing three veils, she disguised herself to slip past the Taliban militants who were hunting for her. After several days in hiding, she was evacuated to Britain, from where she’s now trying to help other female politicians and activists find a way out of Afghanistan.

“I have never had to flee my country, to become a refugee. I feel great pain,” she said.

For students, there is uncertainty about whether women and girls will be allowed back into classrooms, even if they adhere to a strict dress code. Barna Kargar, an Afghan woman who recently graduated from university in Kazakhstan, is fearful she’ll be deported back to Afghanistan.

“If they [the Taliban] find out that we, as girls, have been studying abroad, they could shoot or beat us,” she told us in a video report.

Back in Afghanistan, some women have defied the urgings of family to stay home and have vocally protested against the Taliban in Herat and other cities. Dozens of women marched to the Herat governor’s office on September 1 chanting, “Education, security, and work is our fundamental right,” according to videos posted online.

“Don’t be afraid; we are all together,” they added.

Afghan economy in free fall

As the Taliban basks in the spotlight, Afghanistan faces an economic crisis made worse by a looming humanitarian disaster, asset freezes, aid suspensions, and uncertainty.

Frud Bezhan reports on how this is making life difficult for ordinary Afghans. "I'm trying to sell whatever I can so I can feed my family," says Haji Aziz, an unemployed cook selling off his kitchen utensils. "There are no jobs, and we don't have any money." Rising inflation, cash shortages, and natural disasters are pushing a majority of Afghanistan’s 38 million people toward hunger and extreme poverty.

The crisis deepens with each passing day. “The central bank and the Finance Ministry have been sapped of technical expertise,” says Atta Nasib, a former head of the Investment Facilitation Unit in the Afghan government. “With donors boycotting the Taliban takeover, these financial institutions will not self-sustain,” he warned.

Many banks in turn have closed their doors, shut down cash machines, and put a cap on how much cash customers can withdraw. (Watch a video of Afghans protesting bank closures in Kabul.)

The Taliban’s solution is the promise of Chinese investments in mineral extraction. But Beijing and the militants have yet to work out the details of actual projects and how Afghan copper and other minerals would compete on the international commodities market.

Afghan refugees not welcome

Countries are reluctant to accept Afghans refugees after a chaotic Western evacuation that saw more than 120,000 vulnerable Afghans being flown to safety ended this week.

Tajikistan’s Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda announced that his country lacks the infrastructure to host refugees. Iran and Pakistan, both of whom have hosted millions of Afghans since the early 1980s, don’t want to accept more. In a photo gallery, we witness the chaos and desperation at the Chaman and Dowqarun border crossings with Pakistan and Iran.

“We don’t have the refugee card, so we are not being allowed to get into Pakistan,” one Afghan women told us in Chaman. “We do not have any money to go back.” Radio Mashaal gives us video footage of those Afghans stranded after Pakistan temporarily closed the border crossing with Afghanistan.

In Europe, a likely final destination of many fleeing Afghans, refugees are not welcome. "Based on lessons learned, the EU [is] determined to act jointly to prevent the recurrence of uncontrolled, large-scale illegal migration movements," EU interior ministers said in a joint statement. In this photo gallery, we look at how Afghan evacuees are being housed in shelters across Europe. (Watch our video of Afghan evacuees arriving in Kosovo.)

Afghan music falls quiet

Haroon Bacha and I report on how a Taliban government will likely ban music in a move that would deprive thousands of musicians of their livelihood and stifle an ancient musical tradition.

“We really don’t know what our fate will be,” said one “rubab” player who has been in hiding since the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul. “We request that the Taliban tell us what we can and can’t do so that we can get on with our lives.”

I hope you enjoyed this week’s newsletter, and I encourage you to forward it to colleagues who might find it useful.

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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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, the editor of RFE/RL's Gandhara website, is a journalist specializing in coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. 

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