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Gandhara Briefing: Taliban Gains, Afghan Borders, Biden Speech


An Afghan Army soldier keeps watch at Bagram Airfield on July 2 after it was vacated by U.S. and NATO troops.

Dear reader,

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 in turmoil

If this week’s events in Afghanistan are anything to go by, things do not bode well for the war-torn country. Now that nearly all Western forces have departed, the Taliban appears ascendant diplomatically and militarily while Afghan civilians continue to pay a steep price. The Afghan government, meanwhile, is still struggling to find its feet amid the rapid loss of international military support.

The Taliban continues its advance. The militants’ offensive in the northeastern provinces of Takhar and Badakhshan forced Kabul to deploy reinforcements including special forces and militiamen to defend the cities.

“We promise to fight until the last drops of blood in our bodies,” Attiqullah Haidari, Badakhshan’s deputy police chief, told us in the besieged provincial capital, Faizabad, where residents say their lives are being stifled by the fighting. (Watch our video from Badakhshan here.)

In Qala-e Naw, capital of Badghis Province, the Taliban engaged in intense fighting with Afghan forces after seizing government buildings in a large-scale offensive, which the government claims to have pushed back after inflicting heavy casualties on the Taliban.

In this photo gallery, we take a close-up look at the fierce battles taking place across Afghanistan in which government forces and private militias fight to stave off the militants.

Once again, Afghan civilians are suffering the worst of the conflict. In a video report, we also visit Kunduz, where thousands were displaced by recent fighting. “They forced us out of our homes at night,” Zianuddin, an elderly man, told us. “They told us that if we didn’t leave, they would cut us into pieces.”

Taliban gaining legitimacy

As the Taliban controls more territory along Afghanistan’s borders with Pakistan, China, Central Asia, and Iran, those in the region are scrambling to protect themselves from the fallout of the Taliban’s gains.

In a coordinated statement, Taliban representatives and Russian officials insisted that the fundamentalist militia’s growing control -- including along Afghanistan’s northern border with Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- won’t threaten international order.

But Tajikistan has already appealed to the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russian-led military alliance, to help strengthen its border with Afghanistan. The country has repatriated hundreds of Afghan soldiers who fled across the border and is dealing with the Taliban takeover of a strategic river port.

For secular Central Asian autocracies, the Taliban’s return to power would pose a major security threat because of the long history of the region’s militant Islamists forging alliances and finding sanctuary with the Taliban.

The Taliban also overran Islam Qala, the major border crossing with Iran, on June 8, when officials in Tehran joined Taliban representatives in asserting that “war is not the solution to Afghanistan's problems, and that all efforts must be directed towards a political and peaceful solution.”

While Iran’s Shi’ite clerical regime has embraced the hard-line Sunni Taliban for its fight against the United States and ultraradical Islamic State militants, their alliance will be tested over how the Taliban treats residents of the regions they control. The two already reached the brink of war in the late 1990s.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s powerful army has warned lawmakers that any crackdown on the Afghan Taliban sheltering in the country could provoke a blowback as Pakistan struggles to emerge from its own domestic war on terrorism, which has killed tens of thousands of civilians and displaced millions.

A definitive end to America’s war

In a major speech on Afghanistan, U.S. President Joe Biden reiterated his resolve to end his country’s longest war on August 31 amid the rapidly deteriorating situation on the ground.

Washington is unlikely to recognize a Taliban capture of power by force, and Biden made a point to rule out the inevitability of a Taliban takeover. "I do not trust the Taliban," he said, "but I trust the capacity of the Afghan military." The United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan is already 90 percent complete after its troops departed from the Bagram Airfield last week.

Turkey welcomes Afghan refugees

As insecurity mounts in their homeland, Afghans are fleeing the country in what is being described as a new mass exodus. Nilly Kohzad reports on how Afghan refugees are turning to Turkey as a stopover on their journey farther West -- and how some are deciding to build a life there.

According to official estimates, 200,000 Afghan refugees live in Turkey, and that number is expected to rise in the coming months.

“Afghan refugees have mostly no other place to go,” said Ali Hekmat, co-founder of the Afghan Refugee Solidarity Association, a nonprofit that helps Afghan refugees settle in Turkey. “[They] just want a safe life, away from insecurity, poverty, and unemployment. Now that the Taliban has strengthened, we are preparing for a new wave of refugees to arrive in Turkey.”

The specter of a theocratic democracy

In a thought-provoking op-ed for Gandhara, Kabul-based academic Obaidullah Baheer argues that a U.S. peace proposal that envisions the establishment of a powerful council for religious jurisprudence is likely to leave his country with a theocratic democracy like that in Iran.

“Any settlement that would hand over control of the state to the Taliban in the form of a religious council would betray everything that Afghanistan has achieved in the past 20 years,” he writes. “We would be compromising on democracy, education, and women’s rights in a democratic theocracy run by the Taliban.”

I hope you enjoyed this week’s newsletter, and I encourage you to forward it to colleagues who might find it useful.

If you haven’t subscribed yet, you can do so here. I encourage you to visit our website and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Yours,
Abubakar Siddique
Twitter: @sid_abu

P.S.: You can always reach us at gandhara@rferl.org.

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, the editor of RFE/RL's Gandhara website, is a journalist specializing in coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. 

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