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Gandhara Briefing: U.S. Withdrawal, Taliban 2.0., Anti-French Protests


U.S. President Joe Biden announced an unconditional withdrawal from Afghanistan on April 14.

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.

Afghanistan poised at a precipice

The announcement of the United States’ unconditional withdrawal from Afghanistan by September 11 has reverberated across the globe this week, but the aftershocks have only just begun in the country most affected.

With a peace process stalled before it could even take off, Afghanistan faces snowballing challenges that raise the specter of another civil war like that in the 1990s which followed the Red Army’s departure in 1989.

“The Afghan people, government, and security forces can be expected to strive for a better outcome this time,” Michael Semple, a former EU and UN diplomat in Afghanistan, told me. “No one really knows how well they will rise to this challenge or, indeed, how well the international community will support.”

To calm Afghan nerves, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken hightailed it to Kabul, where he declared that "even the Taliban, as we hear it, has said it has no interest” in rekindling a civil war. The Taliban, however, still hasn’t budged on its resistance to the cease-fire that any peace progress hinges upon.

How different is Taliban 2.0?

Frud Bezhan delved into the reality of the Taliban’s claims that it has turned over a new leaf since its days as a ragtag fundamentalist militia a quarter-century ago. We talked with people trapped in insurgent-controlled regions across Afghanistan about how the Taliban applies the same draconian approach that made its regime an international pariah in the mid-1990s.

Residents describe a sharp curtailing of women’s freedom, with many not allowed to even leave the house unaccompanied by a male relative. There are bans on mobiles and social media, and the general thuggery that is a trademark of the hard-line group.

“We have seen people publicly flogged and beaten,” says Afzal, a resident of Kajaki, a district largely controlled by the Taliban in the southern province of Helmand.

Fear and blasphemy in Pakistan

Abdul Hai Kakar reported on the environment of fear that lingers four years after a mob of students and officials lynched Pakistani journalism student Mashal Khan on false blasphemy charges as a government investigation absolved him of such allegations.

Students report how Abdul Wali Khan University, the site of the 2017 attack, has cracked down on any mention of sensitive subjects or deviation from the status quo, even enlisting other students to report on their peers.

“Any kind of criticism, particularly questions about what happened to Mashal Khan, are off-limits,” said Nirma Khan, a student. “The families of many of my female friends refused to let them return to the campus after the killing.”

The weaponization of the country’s blasphemy laws affected millions across the country this week as supporters of Tehrik-e Labaik Pakistan (TLP) blocked major cities and highways. Saad Rizvi, the leader of the radical Islamist party, was arrested this week to "maintain law and order." For months, the TLP has been pushing for the French ambassador to be expelled after France defended the right to publish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

Pakistani authorities banned the TLP after police officers were killed in clashes with protesters while others were taken hostage by rioters. Alarmed by the rising chaos, France ordered its citizens and companies to get out of Pakistan.

Islamabad has a long way to go in grappling with the consequences of aiding and abetting homegrown Islamist extremist groups. In an attempt to prevent the TLP from organizing more protests after Friday Prayer, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority blocked access to social media and messaging apps across to country.

Pakistan’s cave dwellers

Nearly half-a-million members of the Mehsud tribe in Pakistan endured years of displacement thanks to military operations against Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan, which also targeted the community. Many of them have now returned home, with few housing options other than the caves their ancestors inhabited generations ago. Watch our video here.

“The times when it was peaceful are not coming back,” Javedullah, whose family lives in one of the caves in South Waziristan, told us. “[Displaced] people whose houses were intact after they returned went back to their houses but were forced to take shelter here because our houses were destroyed.”

New school teaches hope in Pakistan

In a video story, we take you to meet Mohammad Khan, a good Samaritan who started a school for the children of an impoverished community in Dera Ismail Khan.

“I went through the same experience when we were displaced [by a military operation in Waziristan],” Mohammad Khan said of his desire to educate the children of Khana Badosh, a downtrodden caste whose members mostly beg for survival. “I thought that I should help bring change into their 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. Until next week, 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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