Welcome to Gandhara’s weekly newsletter aimed at bringing you our exclusive reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Every Friday, you get the week’s best dispatches from our extensive network of journalists and all the context you need to make sense of the political and cultural trends in the two countries. If you’re new to the newsletter or haven’t subscribed yet, you can do so here.
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A Hasty U.S. Withdrawal
The announcement of a reduction in U.S. troops to their lowest levels in Afghanistan garnered mixed responses internationally, with the overwhelming sense being that it will hinder, not help, talks to end four decades of war in Afghanistan.
In an analytical piece, my colleague Frud Behzan looks at how this weakens the Afghan government in its peace talks with the Taliban, which will show little interest in reconciling with Kabul and instead might ramp up its violent campaign.
“Until the U.S. does something to convince the Taliban they have to stop, they won't stop,” Jonathan Schroden, a Washington-based security expert, told him.
The troop reduction will also complicate Afghanistan policy for the incoming Biden administration, which is expected to mostly follow the course set by Trump.
“It’s largely the pacing of the withdrawal that Biden takes issue with,” noted Michael Kugelman, a South Asia specialist at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
Bezhan also looked into how the new wave of targeted killings that took the life of our colleague Mohammad Ilyas Dayee last week has reverberated in Afghan society. The government blamed the Taliban, which has denied responsibility.
Most of the targeted killings have gone unclaimed. The Taliban has denied involvement in many cases. But Afghan officials and observers have blamed the militants.
Another Rigged Election in Pakistan
This week, I reported on the fallout of another disputed local election in Pakistan’s remote Gilgit-Baltistan region, which is considered part of the disputed Kashmir region.
The dispute adds momentum to a gain in the following of some opposition parties. Veteran observers I spoke to in Islamabad say that this is proving unnerving to the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan.
This week, Khan cited rising coronavirus cases as a reason to restrict rallies and protests in the capital.
A Father-Daughter Reunion
A scoop in Pakistan: My colleague Bashir Ahmad Gwakh reported that the daughter of Idris Khattak, a human rights campaigner charged with spying under a colonial-era law, was able to briefly see him.
Khattak’s disappearance last year provoked protests and widespread campaigning highlighting the issue of forced disappearances in Pakistan. Only last month did the government’s lawyers admit that he was held in the custody of Military Intelligence.
We met Abdul Rauf Amini, a revered Afghan expert horseman and breeder, to discuss the state of Afghanistan’s national sport, buzkashi. As a chapandaz, a horseman, he keeps its ancient traditions alive.
Buzkashi is played in many Central Asian nations and is part of the nomadic heritage of many nations in the region. Kabul has taken some steps toward promoting buzkashi. In March, the country’s first buzkashi league attracted thousands of spectators in Kabul.
“You have to look after them around the clock,” Abdul Rauf Amini said of his horses, which can cost more than $100,000 apiece.
'Without Dance, I Suffocate'
In Pakistan, we met Khanzada Asfandyar Khattak, a dance teacher and performer, who is challenging a taboo in conservative Pashtun culture that frowns upon men dancing.
“People say that I shouldn’t do this kind of [dance] performances,” he said of public rebukes for following his passion because he comes from a prominent family among Khattaks, a large Pashtun tribe. I encourage you to watch our video of his performances.
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