Welcome to Gandhara's weekly newsletter. This briefing brings you the best of our reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
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Two decades of hope and loss
Radio Azadi reports on how Afghans look back on the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the U.S. war on terror. The success of the American-led military campaign and unprecedented international commitment to rebuilding raised Afghan hopes in 2001, but those were dashed when the Taliban returned to power in August even before the final U.S. withdrawal was complete.
"I was able to get a proper education. Our financial means improved," Alireza, a resident of Bamiyan, told us as he counted how democracy had contributed to the well-being of Afghans and brought them new freedoms and prosperity. "We knew the Americans would leave one day," he added. "But we didn’t think they would leave so chaotically and suddenly."
The main U.S. objective for attacking Afghanistan -- the destruction of Al-Qaeda -- remains only half fulfilled as the global terror network is poised to return to Afghanistan now that its Taliban allies are back in power.
"Al-Qaeda's literature shows that it had planned the 9/11 attacks to drag the U.S. into a long war with the jihadists in Afghanistan so that it can be defeated there," Abdul Sayed, a researcher following jihadist groups, told me, adding that militants affiliated with Al-Qaeda already enjoy safe havens there.
(For a visual journey through the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, check out our timeline.)
Minorities under attack
I write about the plight of Afghanistan’s Hazaras, a historically persecuted Shi’ite minority that is bracing for more oppression after the Sunni Taliban evicted hundreds of Hazaras from their land. The move raised fears about the predominantly Pashtun group targeting Hazaras -- a hallmark of the militants’ first stint in power during the 1990s.
"One day they came in six [Ford] Ranger trucks and ordered us out of our homes,” Jamilah, a widow forced off her farm in Daikundi, told us. “Now, we are forced to sleep in the open. We are hungry and thirsty. What will we do when it’s winter?"
Already on the verge of extinction, Afghanistan’s tiny Hindu and Sikh minority faces new pressures as armed men stormed and briefly occupied a Sikh temple in Kabul this week.
“Security officials did not tell us if they were thieves or the Taliban," Gurnam, the keeper of the temple, told us. He described how more than a dozen armed men broke security cameras, tied up guards, and occupied the temple for half an hour.
The deteriorating situation prompted the UN Human Rights Council this week to appoint a special rapporteur on Afghanistan to monitor and probe rights abuses by the Taliban and other parties involved in the Afghan conflict. Pakistan, China, and Russia, notably, voted against the appointment.
Dealing with the Islamists
Weeks into the Taliban’s new regime, relations with Afghanistan’s weary neighbors are already being defined by the group’s support or opposition to militant groups these countries see as top national security threats.
In an apparent effort to assuage Beijing’s concerns, the Taliban removed Uyghur militants from Badakhshan, which connects Afghanistan to Xinjiang through the Wakhan Corridor.
“The Taliban have sought to avoid embarrassment with China as a result of any Uyghur militant activities, but it would be a very different matter if they actually handed them over,” Andrew Small, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin, told us, adding that the move replicates Taliban efforts to address Beijing’s concerns in the 1990s.
Along its border with Tajikistan, on the contrary, the Taliban is being accused of equipping Jamaat Ansarullah. Dushanbe banned the group a decade ago for its avowed goal to overthrow the secular regime of President Emomali Rahmon. The controversy is pulling the two neighbors further apart as Dushanbe solidifies its status as the Taliban’s No. 1 opponent.
The bombing in Kunduz underscored that some Islamist militants are prepared to go to any length to further destabilize Afghanistan. The country's neighbors are debating how best to address the threats they now see emanating from the country. Russia will be hosting the Taliban for several high-profile meetings this month in an apparent effort to address the humanitarian and political crises in Afghanistan.
No clean shave in Taliban country
The Taliban has revived its hard-line regime with remarkable speed, most visibly in its efforts to control people’s lives by curtailing personal freedoms. The militants have a strong preference, to say the least, that men should grow out their facial hair.
"We cannot shorten our beards or trim our hair," Hekmatullah, a resident of Uruzgan, told us. "If we cut our beards the Taliban catch us and say: 'You’re a member of the former government,' and they beat us."
Momin, a barber in Uruzgan’s capital, Tarin Kowt, said he’s lost 90 percent of his business since the Taliban takeover in August. "Our jobs are vanishing, our economy is weak, and we have no flour at home," he said.
(Read our deep dive into how the Taliban’s interpretation and implementation of Islamic law is different from other Muslim countries.)
Afghan pilots hiding in Tajikistan
In an exclusive, we visit a state-owned sanatorium in Tajikistan that is secretly hosting dozens of U.S.-trained Afghan pilots after they flew their aircraft there in the wake of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in mid-August.
“The place we are living is not suitable for us,” one of the pilots, who are not buying the Taliban’s offers of amnesty, told us. “The food is bad. Nobody eats it. We make our own salads instead.” Another complained about their lodging. “The rooms are cold,” he said, adding that many of them did not have warm clothes as they fled abruptly with only the clothes on their backs.
For the Afghans reeling under the Taliban rule, there is still joy to be found in one’s passions, the birth of a child, or the determination to rebuild shattered lives.
Artist Omar Khamosh escaped from Taliban militants who threatened him over his paintings and killed his father. He fled to Vahdat, Tajikistan, where he has opened an art studio for young students. There’s little money in it, but the classes bring together a small community of Afghans for whom art provides a respite from the uncertainties of life in a new country and the trauma they left behind.
A young couple also fled to neighboring Tajikistan to have their baby. Tahmina Talash and her husband, Tamim, feared for their lives in Afghanistan as they had both received death threats over their work for civil society organizations. The future remains uncertain for the new parents, but Tahmina maintains they wouldn’t have been able to afford to leave if they’d waited till after baby Mohanna’s birth.
“We had a lot of trouble getting here,” she told us. “It was the end of the ninth month. I didn’t want to leave. But for the sake of the future, we took our situation into account.”
For others, rebuilding a life has meant sifting through the rubble and starting again. Seventy-year-old Khan Agha and his family fled their home in Maidan Wardak Province four years ago. Now that the Taliban’s in power, he felt it was safe to return to his homeland -- only to find his house and orchards destroyed by the conflict.
“Everything is in ruins,” he says, adding that he plans to rebuild his house so that his family can also return. Other returning residents are holding out tentative hope that schools and businesses can reopen, and a semblance of life can return to the bullet-pocked town.
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