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Azadi Briefing

The Taliban has banned women from taking entrance exams for private universities in Afghanistan. (file photo)

Welcome back to The Azadi Briefing, a new RFE/RL newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan. To subscribe, click here.

I'm Mustafa Sarwar, a senior news editor at RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. Here's what I've been tracking and what I'm keeping an eye on in the days ahead.

The Key Issue

The Taliban warned private universities in Afghanistan on January 28 that female students were banned from taking university entrance exams scheduled for later this month. In a letter, the Taliban said any university that disobeyed the order would face “legal action.” Around 140 private universities operate in Afghanistan. Of the 200,000 students enrolled in them, up to 70,000 are women.

The Taliban’s letter came after it barred women from attending private and public universities in December, in a move that triggered widespread condemnation. Days later, the militants also banned Afghan women from working for local and foreign NGOs. The United Nations and representatives from Western nations have held talks with Taliban officials to convince them to reverse their mounting restrictions on women.

Why It's Important: It appears those diplomatic efforts have failed, with the Taliban doubling down on its ban. In the wake of the Taliban’s refusal to budge from its repressive policies, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said Washington will “impose additional visa restrictions” on Taliban officials who are “responsible for, or complicit in, repressing women and girls in Afghanistan.”

Scores of Afghan female students and women's rights advocates have expressed dismay at the Taliban reinforcing its university ban. "This conveys destructive messages to society and the women and girls who were denied the right to education and work,” Sonika, a women's rights activist in Kabul, told Radio Azadi. “A dark future awaits the women of Afghanistan."

What's Next: It appears unlikely that the Taliban will overturn its recent restrictions on women’s rights, despite a local and international outcry. The militants are more likely to continue enforcing more repressive measures against women. The Taliban’s war on women’s rights is likely to further isolate its government, which remains unrecognized by any country in the world.

The Week's Best Stories

Hundreds of Afghan military officers were sent to India for military training in 2021. But after the Taliban toppled the Western-backed Afghan government, many have remained stranded in India, where they are on temporary visas and ineligible to work or receive government help. Officers who spoke to Radio Azadi said they fear returning to their homeland even as they live in dire conditions in India.

A group of young Afghan women have arrived in Central Asia to study at local universities on European Union-funded scholarships. It is part of a project launched in 2019 to bring hundreds of Afghan women to study abroad and return to their home country as skilled specialists. But with the hard-line Taliban in power, the project and the students' futures are unclear.

What To Keep An Eye On

Iran has announced that it will build a trade center in Afghanistan as it looks to expand trade and business ties with the Taliban. Iran’s Deputy Minister for Industry, Mining, and Trade Seyyed Mohammad Musavi was quoted on January 31 by the Mehr news agency as saying that Tehran intends to invest in Afghanistan and assist its neighbor in the fields of technology and construction.

Why It's Important: Iran’s Shi’a clerical regime and Afghanistan’s Sunni Taliban rulers were once sworn enemies but have become allies. Differences remain between the sides. Tehran has yet to recognize the Taliban regime and deadly clashes have erupted between Taliban fighters and Iranian security forces along the countries' 900-kilometer border. But there has also been growing economic and political cooperation between the sides, which have both been hit by U.S. sanctions.

The announcement of an Iranian trade center in Afghanistan is the latest sign of deepening ties. Iran is one of the few countries that has maintained its embassy in Kabul. Tehran is also wary of the presence of Islamic State-Khorasan militants in Afghanistan, who have targeted the Taliban and the country’s Shi’a minority.

That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you have.

Until next time,

Mustafa Sarwar

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here. It will be sent to your inbox every Friday.

Gulnaz (left) tries to keep her 18-month-old son warm as they wait for alms next to the Kabul-Pul-e Alam highway in eastern Afghanistan.

Welcome to The Azadi Briefing, a new RFE/RL newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan. To subscribe, click here.

I'm Abubakar Siddique, a senior correspondent at RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. Here's what I've been tracking and what I'm keeping an eye on in the days ahead.

The Key Issue

Large parts of Afghanistan have been plunged into darkness in recent weeks after neighboring Uzbekistan halted electricity exports to the country. The power cuts have hit industries hard and delivered another blow to the country's free-falling economy.

In the capital, Kabul, residents said they receive only one hour of electricity every two days. "Even one hour of electricity helped warm our home," Karima Rahimyar, a teacher in Kabul, told Radio Azadi. She said most Afghans do not have the money to buy coal or wood for heating.

The crippling power outages have coincided with a severe cold snap that has led to the deaths of at least 160 people and the hospitalization of hundreds of others, including children.

Why It's Important: The power cuts have exposed the Taliban-led government's mismanagement of the vital energy sector and highlighted Afghanistan's chronic dependence on electricity imports.

Landlocked Afghanistan imports more than 70 percent of the electricity it needs from Uzbekistan and neighboring Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Iran. But the supply of surplus hydroelectric power from these countries is unreliable. Rising domestic demand and falling production force them to cut the electricity supply to Afghanistan during winters.

The power cuts across Afghanistan began on January 16, when Tashkent halted supplies to Kabul. It went ahead with this despite the Taliban's claims it had reached a new electricity-supply deal with Uzbekistan. Tashkent’s decision to cut exports came amid soaring domestic electricity demand amid a cold snap in Central Asia earlier this month.

One expert tracking the issue said that even with financial penalties for noncompliance, Afghanistan's electricity suppliers would likely "not choose to cut off its own citizens" from power in order to meet its commitments to Kabul.

The Taliban appears to be paying for its past crimes. The militant group attacked vital infrastructure during its nearly 20-year insurgency and prevented the completion of ambitious power generation projects.

What's Next: In a positive sign, Uzbekistan resumed electricity exports to Afghanistan on January 25. This week, Turkmenistan also renewed an annual electricity supply agreement with the Taliban.

But the Taliban's unrecognized and internationally isolated government is unlikely to remedy Afghanistan's chronic energy crisis. It is doubtful the Taliban can attract donor funding and the technical support needed to complete existing hydroelectric projects or build new ones that could substantially boost domestic electricity production.

The Week's Best Stories

  • Dozens of ethnic Kyrgyz families have sold their homes and livestock in Afghanistan's remote Wakhan Corridor and are seeking help from Kyrgyzstan to repatriate them to their ancestral homeland. The Kyrgyz government has said it is committed to repatriating the ethnic Kyrgyz, but there are many hurdles to facilitate their return. In video statements sent to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, ethnic Kyrgyz families said they are staying in rented homes near the Tajik border as they wait for Bishkek to help them relocate to Kyrgyzstan.
  • For years the Taliban promised a more moderate and inclusive government once foreign forces left Afghanistan. But the rule of the hard-line Islamist group's supreme leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, has been defined by extremist policies that have alienated Afghans and isolated the Taliban's unrecognized government internationally. Michael Semple, a former EU and UN adviser to Afghanistan, told RFE/RL that resistance to Akhundzada's uncompromising approach could unleash another destructive civil war or even spill over Afghanistan's borders.

What To Keep An Eye On

In recent weeks, several international NGOs have resumed some of their lifesaving aid operations in Afghanistan. The move came after the Taliban allowed women working for local and foreign NGOs to restart work, although only in the health-care sector.

These aid agencies returned as senior United Nations officials continued to lobby the Taliban to rescind its ban on Afghan women working for NGOs.

UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed said she pushed "pretty hard" on women's issues during a visit last week to Afghanistan and sometimes "the reaction wasn't pleasant." UN officials hope more humanitarian sectors, including emergency food distribution and education, will be reopened for female workers.

Why It's Important: As Afghanistan grapples with one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, the resumption of some humanitarian aid operations is a positive sign.

But the Taliban's reluctance to allow many female Afghan aid workers to resume work severely impedes the humanitarian aid community's ability to provide lifesaving support to Afghans.

The UN estimates that nearly two-thirds, or 28 million Afghans, out of an estimated population of 40 million need humanitarian aid. Among them, more than 6 million are on the brink of starvation.

That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you have.

Until next time,

Abubakar Siddique

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here. It will be sent to your inbox every Friday.

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Radio Azadi is RFE/RL's Dari and Pashto-language public service news outlet for Afghanistan. Every Friday, in our newsletter, Azadi Briefing, one of our journalists will share their analysis of the week’s most important issues and explain why they matter.

To subscribe, click here.