Welcome to Gandhara's weekly newsletter. This briefing brings you the best of our reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
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An elusive unity for Afghan peace
With only six weeks to go till the May 1 deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops, there’s an increasing urgency in the United States’ efforts to restart the peace process and forge unity among disparate Afghan factions. At this week’s Moscow conference Russia, China, and Pakistan backed the new U.S. push for a swift settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
Any progress is significant between these two sides, and Kabul and the Taliban at least agreed on the need to accelerate talks. For Afghans, though, it’s meaningless unless this ends the violence that claims dozens of lives each day.
While Afghan delegates sat in a Moscow hotel making speeches, four people were killed in a bomb attack in Kabul and nine Afghan soldiers and crew were killed when a helicopter was shot down.
"We must see the result of this meeting here," Halima Popalzai, a resident of Kabul, told us. "We want the killings to end.”
The continuous violence overshadows any talk of peace. Wrangling through a deal made by his predecessor, Biden said it will be “tough” to meet the May 1 deadline. Not withdrawing troops as promised, however, threatens to unravel the already fraying terms of the accord.
For Kabul, the withdrawal is a double punch as aid cuts will doubtlessly follow. A U.S government watchdog warned that slashed funding could prove fatal for the Afghan government, which relies heavily on international aid.
New questions about Pakistani journalist’s death
In an investigative piece, my colleagues Ron Synovitz and Daud Khattak probe the possible connection between the 2007 disappearance of schoolteacher Muhammad Salam and journalist Hayatullah Khan, who was killed in 2006 after he reported on alleged U.S. drone strikes against Al-Qaeda in North Waziristan.
Sources told Gandhara they think the schoolteacher was abducted and killed because he knew too much about Khan’s death, which he potentially witnessed. Salam’s bones were found this month in a shallow grave, alongside his ID card, watch, and other personal items.
Human rights activists say the cases of both the slain journalist and schoolteacher fit a pattern seen in thousands of “enforced disappearances” since late 2001 allegedly carried out by Pakistan’s powerful military and intelligence services in the tribal regions near the Afghan border and in the restive province of Balochistan.
Afghan farmers brace for drought
For rural farmers in Afghanistan, survival depends on seasonal crops. If one fails, it immediately imperils their livelihoods. My colleague Mustafa Sarwar talked to local farmers who are worried that the impact of this drought could be as bad as 2018’s.
In Parwan Province, farmers rely on the Panjshir River for their irrigation water, but there’s been little snowfall or rain this year.
Abdul Shakur, a farmer in Parwan, told us, "I am very worried. I have no business other than farming. We only hope in God. If the water comes, there will be crops. If it does not, there will be nothing.”
Pakistan’s opposition in disarray
The bright star of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) is fading, and the opposition alliance fell apart this week when the Pakistan Peoples Party refused to resign from parliament to force Imran Khan into a new election.
The breakdown follows the PDM’s failure to win the election for Senate chairman last week. At least for now, Khan can stop worrying about his administration, which hinges on a thin minority in the National Assembly.
Lockdown fatigue in Pakistan
My colleagues Daud Khattak and Ahmad Ullah reported about a rapidly multiplying third wave of COVID infections in Pakistan, where vaccination rollout is slow and many people flout government restrictions. The government announced business and school closures just weeks after relaxing previous measures. It is also closing parts of major cities as part of “smart-micro” lockdowns.
“We will close the shutters but continue to run business from behind closed doors,” Naseer Mir, head of the All Pakistan Traders Association, told us. “If the police raid our businesses (for violating the ban), we will offer bribes and shift the burden to consumers.”
Restoring the Bamiyan Buddhas
In a video feature, my colleagues Omid Marzban and Margot Buff take a look at the efforts to restore and preserve Afghanistan’s greatest cultural treasure: two giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan that the Taliban blew into pieces two decades ago.
“The main niche and the remains of the Buddha statues have been reinforced,” said Abdul Ahad Abbasi, a cultural heritage official. As Afghans talk peace to end over four decades of conflict, many hope that Salsal and Shamama -- as the two statues carved into a stone cliff were known -- can come to life once more.
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