Welcome to Gandhara's weekly newsletter. This briefing brings you the best of our reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
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Suicide bombers still central to Taliban strategy
I write about suicide bombers remaining a key part of the Taliban’s political and military strategy even as it seeks to transform from an insurgency into a government.
The Taliban has publicly paraded its arsenal of explosive-laden suicide vests and has created an elite military unit from its contingents of trained bombers.
“The current Taliban leadership seeks to retroactively take ownership of suicide bombing in all its forms and to give it a new meaning that will help it transform a decentralized insurgency into a unified government,” said David Edwards, a professor of anthropology at Williams College.
But veteran Afghan journalist Sami Yousafzai says not all Taliban leaders agree on the strategy. “Glorifying suicide bombings is something even sane voices within the Taliban were keen to avoid because it is preventing them from gaining support at home and legitimacy abroad,” he said.
Pakistan again appeases Islamist extremists
Radio Mashaal broke the story this week of Pakistan’s secret talks with the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) extremist group over a cease-fire. The negotiations are being mediated by the Afghan Taliban, which has links with both Islamabad and the TTP.
“They have been engaged in talks for two weeks,” a source said of the “hectic” negotiations mediated by the Taliban’s interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, a U.S.-designated global terrorist who is believed to have ties to Pakistan’s powerful military.
Islamabad’s talks with the TTP came as it reached a controversial agreement with Tehrik-e Labaik Pakistan (TLP), a far-right Islamist organization that is banned in Pakistan. The details of the deal were not immediately clear.
The TLP had staged 10 days of violent protests in major cities, demanding the release of its jailed leader and the expulsion of the French ambassador over the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in France.
Critics have called the government’s agreement with the TLP another example of Islamabad caving to the demands of Islamic hard-liners in the country.
Mental toll on Afghan women
Since the Taliban takeover in August, many Afghan girls have been banned from going to school and most women have been ordered not to return to work.
Psychiatrists in Afghanistan say the Taliban’s repressive policies have fueled a noticeable rise in cases of extreme depression and suicidal thoughts among women.
“It makes me lose my temper. I feel like an empty shell of a human being. I am in captivity and I am just waiting for my death," said Maryam Rezaei, a 22-year-old university student in Herat, who has seen her freedom, security, and rights vanish.
Even before the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan was the only country in the world where the suicide rate was higher for women than for men.
While the Taliban is attempting to turn back the clock on girls' education, the group has failed to study up on modern technology, writes Michael Scollon.
Hundreds of school-age Afghan girls are circumventing the Taliban's ban on them attending school by going online, learning everything from computer programming to sculpting. RFE/RL's Radio Azadi speaks with students and the founder of the recently launched Herat Online School.
Economic collapse, health care in free fall
For nearly 20 years, Afghanistan’s health-care system was heavily dependent on international funding. Since the Taliban seized power, foreign donors have halted funds, leaving the health-care system on the brink of total collapse.
More than 2,300 clinics and hospitals are already shuttered. Thousands of health workers have not been paid for months. Meanwhile, there is an acute shortage of medicines.
"To ensure delivery of essential medical aid, we urgently need the health system operational, health workers paid, and facilities open and well stocked," said Sam Mort, chief of communications for UNICEF Afghanistan.
The health-care crisis comes amid an economic and humanitarian emergency.
In a video report, we take you to Farah Province, where the impact of Afghanistan’s economic collapse is visible with disappearing employment and businesses closing up shop.
“We have nothing for winter. We are relying on God,” said Abdur Rahman, who fled to Farah from neighboring Helmand six months ago. He is now struggling to feed his family of seven. “We don’t have proper shoes or [clothes] to wear. We don’t have enough food.”
In another video, displaced Afghans who live in a public park in Kabul express their fears as a punishing winter approaches.
“We don’t have money to pay for transportation [to go home],” said Baz Mohammad, a representative for displaced people from Kunduz. “Winter is almost here. We don’t even have blankets.”
Turkmenistan’s pipe dream
Bruce Pannier writes about how the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline remains a pipe dream for Ashgabat, which has long sought to connect its vast natural gas resources to markets in South Asia.
“TAPI seems no closer to being realized than it was 25 years ago," Pannier writes, even as Turkmen officials appeared to rejoice after the Taliban offered its backing to the 1,800-kilometer-long pipeline this week.
Observers say the Taliban’s lack of international recognition is a major hurdle toward securing funds for the multibillion-dollar project.
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