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 on the brink
I write about why some Afghans are accusing the Taliban of misappropriating the limited foreign aid to which the hard-line government has access. With winter fast approaching, Afghanistan is inundated with warnings of a pending humanitarian catastrophe and economic collapse.
"The Taliban are distributing aid to those who contributed to their war effort, are part of their organization, or who now support their government," a Kabul resident who distributes aid to his fellow Afghans told me. He and other aid workers face growing restrictions by the Taliban authorities, who insist on prior approval of all disbursement lists.
(Listen to snippets from Radio Azadi's call-in show, in which several Afghans counter a Taliban spokesman's claims that aid is being distributed fairly.)
While the Taliban prevents many from accessing humanitarian aid, it is forcing impoverished Afghan farmers to pay a tenth of their harvest as an Islamic charity tax. Many of the country’s struggling farmers were already living below the poverty line.
With reports surfacing of children dying from hunger, two UN agencies -- the World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization -- warned this week that the combined effects of drought, the coronavirus pandemic, and conflict will force some 23 million people among Afghanistan's estimated population of 38 million to suffer "acute food insecurity."
The Taliban's restrictions and its status as an international pariah make large-scale aid distribution tricky even as pledges aimed at addressing the humanitarian crisis pour in.
"It is completely impossible for United Nations agencies and NGOs to fill the vacuum of a collapsing state infrastructure," Anders Fange, a veteran Swedish aid worker, told me in discussing why helping Afghans amid a worsening crisis is proving so complicated.
In a sign that some Western nations are ready to consider limited engagement with the Taliban to better deliver aid, the European Union is set to reopen its diplomatic mission to Afghanistan.
"This is not a sign of recognition," said Nabila Massrali, a spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell. "We want to be able to better assist the Afghan people who need our help by being close."
Turmoil in Pakistan
Pakistanis are reeling from skyrocketing inflation and growing instability stemming from infighting among their country's elite and crippling protests by a far-right Islamist party that wants Islamabad to sever ties with the West.
"The prices of some goods have doubled over the past six months to one year," said Saeed Khan, a teacher who supplements his income by driving a rickshaw in Mohmand. "But my salary as a teacher has remained the same. I simply couldn't support my family with only one job."
Inflation caused by a sharp economic downturn is only one of Pakistan's problems. While a disagreement between the country's anemic civilian administration and powerful military over the appointment of the country's spy chief appears to have been resolved, the country is in the midst of violent protests by the Tehrik-e Labaik Pakistan party.
After failed parlays with the government, the banned Islamist group is now marching on Islamabad with the goal of forcing the expulsion of the French ambassador over alleged blasphemy. Elsewhere, the dreaded Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan continues its attacks.
In a blow to Prime Minister Imran Khan, whose administration hangs on to power by a wafer-thing majority, Balochistan chief minister and ally Jamal Kamal Khan was replaced this week after a split within the ruling Balochistan Awami Party forced him to resign.
Taliban leaders still in hiding
Michael Scollon delves into why the Taliban is intent on hiding the face of acting Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani even as he purportedly addresses gatherings and conducts government business in Kabul.
The United States has designated Haqqani -- who leads the Haqqani network, the Taliban's deadly military wing -- a global terrorist and announced a $10 million reward for information leading to his arrest.
"Some of them do not want to be targeted, given the increased threats by Islamic State affiliates in Afghanistan at the moment," said Torek Farhadi, a former Afghan government consultant, while listing the reasons behind the attempts to conceal Haqqani's face. Several people in Kabul told me that Haqqani frequently changes residences and masks his movements to avoid being targeted by U.S. drones the Taliban claims to have seen flying over Afghanistan.
China builds on cautious Afghan approach
Beijing is doubling down on its cautious approach toward Afghanistan, which centers on continued engagement with the Taliban while fortifying itself against potential threats from the country without committing significant economic or security assistance to the war-torn nation.
As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi courted Talban diplomats in Qatar this week, Tajikistan approved the construction of a new Chinese-funded base near its southern border with Afghanistan while offering full control of a preexisting military base purportedly operated by the Chinese to Beijing.
"The fact that we keep seeing this activity in Tajikistan shows the level of Chinese concern toward Afghanistan and the region," Raffaello Pantucci, a China watcher at London's Royal United Services Institute think tank, told us.
Beijing has so far pledged less than $40 million in aid to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. There are no apparent prospects of it investing in mineral extraction on the ground while it holds off on formally recognizing the Taliban as Afghanistan's legitimate rulers. During a foreign ministers' meeting organized by Iran this week, Wang Yi reiterated multilateral cooperation with the Taliban to rein in any terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan.
(Listen to our Twitter space about China's Central Asia strategy since the Taliban takeover.)
I hope you found this week’s newsletter useful, and I encourage you to forward it to your colleagues.
P.S.: You can always reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.