- By Nikola Krastev
CIS: Freedom House Sees Further Democracy Decline
Moscow demonstrators in June 2006 protest the government's "information blockade" (ITAR-TASS) NEW YORK, January 17, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Systematic efforts to control media in countries of the former Soviet Union have intensified in 2006 indicating further erosion of civil liberties. That's the conclusion of the new "Freedom In The World" report by Freedom House, a U.S.-based organization that promotes democracy.
The survey shows that the percentage of countries regarded as "free" has failed to increase for almost a decade, leading to a trend the authors label "freedom stagnation." The report notes the entrenchment of authoritarian rule in the majority of countries of the former Soviet Union, and gives moderately positive marks only to Georgia and Ukraine.
One of the troubling developments in 2006, the report says, is a "growing pushback against organizations, movements, and media that monitor human rights or advocate for the expansion of democratic freedom."
A systematic effort to weaken or eliminate pro-democracy forces, the report says, is most prevalent among authoritarian regimes in the former Soviet Union.
'Cleaning the Media Slate'
Russia is a stark example. Christopher Walker, one of the report's authors, says Russian authorities are showing creativity in their approach to stifle whatever is left of independent media.
Walker says in 2006 the Kremlin turned its attention to the print media, an area that in previous years it didn't bother to deal with, deeming it not really significant for public opinion.
"Over the course of 2006, there was significant attention to the print media which in large measure had been the last remaining media, albeit the weakest, to have an opportunity to talk about issues in the alternative from the Kremlin's position," Walker said. "This was one of the features of the media landscape in Russia in 2006 where papers such as "Novaya gazeta", "Nezavisimaya gazeta," and "Kommersant" all came up against, in one fashion or another, either management or ownership takeovers with Kremlin-friendly entities."
With parliamentary elections coming late in 2007 and a presidential election in early 2008, the Russian government, Walker says, is "cleaning the media slate" and has made in the past year a number of preemptive strikes to limit the freedom of expression.
"One of the worrying developments in one of the areas that had at least until recently been left unmolested, is in the cyber sphere," he says. "We saw in late 2006 a Kremlin-friendly company take over the Russian-language portion of 'Live Journal,' which was the most heavily used blogging platform in Russia. [This] has only had a negative impact on blogging activity in the country, which is very serious and very negative development."
According to some reports blogging -- particularly blogging related to political issues -- has significantly decreased in Russia over the course of 2006 because bloggers are concerned that their activities may have been secretly monitored by authorities.
As the most formidable player from the former Soviet Union, Russia sets the tone for many of the CIS countries some of which are closely following in Moscow's footsteps to quash dissent, Walker says.
"The focus on the media sector in most of the former Soviet Union has been very systematic and very intense over the last cycle," Walker says. "They've really been fine-tuning the control using legal, economic, and political means to control the media. And this is one of the features of the current wave of control and denial of freedom in the region."
The survey ranks countries according to how free they are in terms of political rights and civil liberties, giving them a score of one -- the best -- to seven, the worst.
Central Asian Police States
At the bottom of the list, as in the last few years, are Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which along with North Korea, Cuba, and Libya get the lowest possible marks for political rights and civil liberties.
The situation in Uzbekistan, Walker says, did not change significantly from 2005.
"Uzbekistan's trajectory over the last several years has eroded in large measure because the regime there has become much more repressive," he explains. "This is emblematic or at least symbolized by the 2005 events in Andijon. Uzbekistan is a highly repressive police state whose control has only increased and more negatively affected an already extremely difficult environment."
Flushed with oil money Kazakhstan fares relatively better than its more repressive neighbors in Central Asia, Walker says, but the country is clearly "not free" and has a long way to go.
"Kazakhstan certainly has the advantage of enormous energy wealth," Walker says. "Despite that energy wealth the country still is extremely restrictive in terms of political rights it affords its citizens, certainly in terms of the basic quality of the elections it holds and the opportunity for alternative political forces or voices to participate in a meaningful way, in terms of its control of the news media which is significant and also renders the news-media in the country to be not free."
The only country in Central Asia which holds the rank of "partly free" is Kyrgyzstan, but the country is going now through tumultuous political changes and the final outcome remain uncertain, Walker says.
"As a general matter what we've seen in Kyrgyzstan over the course of the last year has been a real wrestling to advance reforms," Walker says. "And on the heels of the events of spring 2005 [change of government] there's been a very unsteady effort to try to advance reform in the country. So, in a basic way the powers that have asserted themselves there have been looking to advance a host of reforms. They've met these challenges with very limited success."
Belarus is the lowest-rated country in Europe with a distinctively repressive regime, Walker says, that denies any political rights to its citizens.
"In Belarus, likewise, you have extremely difficult conditions for the citizens of the country, chiefly because they're denied any meaningful political participation," Walker says. "We've seen in response to the pushback from democratic reformers in that country, even more focused repression from the regime there, which in some ways signals their own sense of insecurity."
Afghanistan is unchanged in the listing compared to 2006, barely making the cut for a "partly free" country in the 2007 survey.
Both Iraq and Iran are considered "not free." But Iraq has fallen one step lower in 2007 -- from 5 to 6 -- in the ranking for civil liberties.
Georgia, unchanged from 2006, is ranked as "partly free," while Ukraine, also unchanged, is considered "free."
On a global scale, the report says, the state of freedom in 2006 changed little from 2005. The number of countries judged "free" in 2006 stood at 90 and represented 46 percent of the world's population.
There were 58 qualifying as "partly free" with 17 percent of the world's population. The number of countries considered "not free" stood at 45 with 37 percent of the world's population.
Media In Central Asia
Ukrainian journalists trying to cover Kazakhstan's presidential election being expelled from the country in December 2005
MUZZLED MEDIA: Below is a brief overview of key media issues in each of the five Central Asian countries. (prepared by Daniel Kimmage)
Although Kazakhstan has seen the harassment of journalists and media outlets that fall afoul of the state, the larger problem is one of access -- both to sensitive information and to the larger public.
Asked whether freedom of the press exists in Kazakhstan, Darigha Nazarbaeva -- the daughter of President Nursultan Nazarbaev and a media magnate in her own right -- said recently that one need walk only five minutes in Almaty to find a publication that elaborates "what a bad president we have and how I've monopolized the entire press." And she's right -- an opposition press exists.
But national television, with its enormous potential to shape popular opinion, remains either state-controlled or subordinate to allied interests -- as witnessed by a strict taboo on investigations of alleged corruption in the Nazarbaev family.
Nowhere in Central Asia has the fate of the media reflected political upheaval as strikingly as in Kyrgyzstan of late. The true fall of President Askar Akaev in March 2005 took place not when he fled the seat of government before an advancing crowd, but when opposition leaders later made an impromptu appearance on state television. A heady period ensued, with revelations of Akaev-era skullduggery suddenly front and center in national media. But the honeymoon proved short-lived.
A post-Akaev political morass deepened through 2005 and early 2006 amid high-profile contract killings and frustrated expectations of political and economic reform. And the media environment followed suit, with initial gains eroded by renewed state interference in television, salaried partisanship in the print media, and the rising influence of organized-crime groups.
Tajikistan's media environment has seen no such political upheavals. President Imomali Rakhmonov could rule through 2020, as long as he continues to secure reelection. He has consolidated his power in recent years -- seemingly with that aim in mind.
The media have also felt the consequences. As the country nears the end of its first decade since the 1992-97 civil war, the state maintains a firm grip national television and politically relevant print outlets. Meanwhile, a handful of tiny independent newspapers fight an increasingly uphill battle for access to printing facilities and readers.
The case of Turkmenistan speaks eloquently of a total stifling of media under blanket state control. News outlets trumpet the cult of President Saparmurat Niyzov and tout the purported glories of Turkmenistan's golden age under his rule. This reduces them to little more than a peephole on an otherwise sealed regime.
The media unfailingly broadcast Niyazov's pronouncements and feast on the latest official to fall from grace. On April 24, for example, former Prosecutor-General Gurbanbibi Atajanov, who recently stepped down after a decade of dispatching onetime colleagues to unenviable fates, begged for mercy on the evening news as the president vilified her for corruption. Those same media outlets ignore whatever fails to fit the script of the decreed golden age.
President Islam Karimov insists that Uzbekistan's media are at war. What foreign media reported as evidence of a massacre in Andijon in May 2005, the president and officials have described as an "information attack" intended to undermine Uzbekistan's stability and sovereignty. Print and broadcast outlets, controlled either directly or indirectly by the state, are required to fight off this alleged assault by detailing extremist threats and foreign plots. They are also tasked with explaining the country's shift of geopolitical allegiance to Russia and China.
What space remains goes to a sanitized portrayal of Uzbek reality, with some warts left in -- local corruption and economic difficulties -- to lend credence to the grand official narrative espoused by slogans such as "Uzbekistan, a country with a great future."
Of Related Interest:
Turkmenistan: RFE/RL Journalists Given 15-Day Sentence
Uzbekistan: New Media Resolution Tightens The Screws
Central Asia: Internet Fills Void Left By Media On Religious Freedom Issues
Central Asia: RFE/RL Speaks With Media Monitor About Press Freedom
THE COMPLETE STORY: To view an archive of RFE/RL's coverage of media-related stories, click here.
For regular news and analysis on media issues throughout RFE/RL's broadcast area by e-mail, subscribe to "RFE/RL Media Matters."
- By Reuters
Budget For Afghanistan Aid Plan Revised Down To $3.2 Billion
The United Nations and humanitarian agencies have revised the budget for Afghanistan's aid plan for 2023 to $3.2 billion, down from $4.6 billion earlier in the year, the UN humanitarian office said on June 5.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a statement that a "changing operating context" in the wake of Taliban administration restrictions on female aid workers had contributed to the revised plan.
Taliban authorities have issued several orders barring many Afghan female NGO and United Nations employees from work, which aid agencies have warned would severely hamper delivery in the religiously conservative nation.
To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Official: Almost 80 Schoolgirls Poisoned, Hospitalized In Northern Afghanistan
Nearly 80 girls were poisoned and hospitalized in two separate attacks at their primary schools in Sar-e Pul Province in northern Afghanistan, a local education official said on June 4. It is thought to be the first time this kind of assault has happened since the Taliban swept to power in August 2021 and began their crackdown on the rights and freedoms of Afghan women and girls. Girls are banned from education beyond sixth grade. The education official said the person who orchestrated the poisoning had a personal grudge but did not elaborate. To read the original story by AP, click here.
The Limits Of China's Budding Relationship With Afghanistan's Taliban
China has played a visible role in Afghanistan since the Taliban seized power in 2021.
Beijing is among only a handful of countries to maintain a diplomatic presence in Kabul, where the Chinese ambassador regularly meets with Taliban officials.
There has also been a surge in Chinese traders visiting Afghanistan to explore business opportunities and ink deals.
The Taliban, meanwhile, has boasted of Beijing's interest in expanding trade and investing billions of dollars in Afghanistan's mining sector.
Last month, the hard-line Islamist group also announced the resumption of direct flights between Afghanistan and China after a three-year gap, saying it would help strengthen bilateral relations.
Despite the appearance that China and the Taliban are becoming allies, experts say the relationship is limited and largely transactional.
Experts say Beijing's primary concern in Afghanistan is the threat posed by members of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) -- an Uyghur extremist group that Beijing blames for unrest in its western province of Xinjiang and refers to by its former name, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).
The Taliban has been accused of sheltering Uyghur militants and done little to alleviate China's security concerns.
Policymakers in Beijing also continue to worry about instability spreading from Afghanistan into South and Central Asia, where China has significant economic and political interests.
Meanwhile, Beijing has provided only limited development assistance to Afghanistan and large mining projects backed by Chinese companies have failed to get off the ground.
"China is not a 'friend' of the Taliban and can be relied on only to pursue its national interest," said Barnett Rubin, an academic and former adviser to the U.S. State Department on Afghanistan. "China's economic engagement with Afghanistan is as much if not more about national defense than profit-seeking."
During its rule in the 1990s, the Taliban allowed Uyghur groups to operate in Afghanistan and is believed to still have links with them.
Since the Taliban regained power, the Taliban has relocated Uyghur fighters from the northeastern province of Badakhshan, which is located along Afghanistan's 76-kilometer border with China, in a bid to allay Beijing's fears.
But China has demanded that the Taliban cut any ties with the militants and hand them over to Beijing. The exact number of Uyghur fighters based in Afghanistan is unknown, although experts believe they number in the hundreds.
"China's top priority in Afghanistan by far is to persuade the Taliban to turn these militants over to China," Rubin said.
If the Taliban refuses, then Beijing expects the group to keep the activities of the Uyghur militants "under strict surveillance and control," Rubin added.
In April, China's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Beijing "hopes that Afghanistan will fulfill its commitment in earnest and take more effective measures to crack down on all terrorist forces."
Rubin says Beijing's fears that Uyghur militants have been integrated into the Taliban's "military and terrorist structures" explain why China is eager to increase its diplomatic and economic engagement with the Taliban.
"Chinese interests in the Afghan economy are likely about trying to incentivize the Taliban to cooperate on counterterrorism," he said.
For the cash-strapped Taliban government, which remains internationally unrecognized, securing investment and economic assistance is seen as a top priority as it seeks domestic and international legitimacy.
The Taliban takeover triggered an economic collapse and aggravated a major humanitarian crisis, with international donors cutting crucial financial assistance to Afghanistan.
"Afghanistan's economic catastrophe overshadows all other problems in the country," said Hameed Hakimi, an Afghanistan expert at the Washington-based Atlantic Council think tank. "If the Taliban can demonstrate that they can deliver on the economy, their popularity and support will expand considerably."
Beijing has faced criticism for its infrastructure projects in developing countries around the world, which Western officials have described as exploitative. But that has not put off the Taliban, which has actively sought Chinese investment in Afghanistan's vast untapped mineral resources.
In April, the Taliban claimed that a Chinese firm was interested in investing $10 billion in lithium extraction, a project that it said would employ more than 120,000 Afghans.
"Afghans are looking forward to exploiting their lithium and other mining deposits for their benefit," Shahabuddin Delawar, the Taliban's minister for mining, said that month.
In January, the Taliban signed an oil-extraction contract with a Chinese firm. Under the deal, China's Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas Co is expected to invest up to $150 million during the first year. After three years, the amount is expected to increase to $540 million. The Taliban claims the project will provide around 3,000 local jobs.
But experts do not expect Beijing to invest heavily in Afghanistan, which lacks infrastructure and roads. Despite a dramatic increase in violence, the country is also still the scene of sporadic attacks by the Islamic State-Khorasan extremist group.
"The Taliban benefit from maintaining a relationship with the Chinese government and would also like to use it both as an insurance and leverage against Western nations," Hakimi said.
The Azadi Briefing: Taliban Attempts To Ease Its International Isolation
Welcome back to The Azadi Briefing, an 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's reclusive leader held a secret meeting with the Qatari prime minister in Afghanistan last month, according to media reports.
It was believed to be the first meeting between Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada and a foreign leader since the Taliban seized power in 2021.
Taliban and Qatari officials have not commented on the reported meeting, which is believed to have taken place in the southern city of Kandahar, the de facto capital under the militant group’s rule.
Why It's Important: It is unclear what Akhundzada and Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani discussed.
But the talks were seen as part of renewed efforts by the Taliban to ease its international isolation. The Taliban-led government remains unrecognized and has been hit by international sanctions.
The hard-line Islamist group’s restrictions on female education and employment as well as its human rights abuses have made it an international pariah.
Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch, however, said the Taliban’s reported willingness to engage with the international community is not new.
"I don't think it's a new willingness -- just new to see Akhundzada. The Taliban have always been keen, since [August 2021], to press their demands -- for engagement, aid, recognition, congratulations. Parallel to these talks, their crackdown on women/girls has steadily continued & deepened," Barr said on Twitter.
What's Next: It is unclear what effect the meeting will have. Akhundzada has so far been unwilling to reverse Taliban policies that have provoked widespread outrage inside and outside Afghanistan.
It appears unlikely that the international community will recognize the Taliban and resume crucial development assistance to Afghanistan until the group creates a broad-based government and ends its repression of women and girls.
The Week's Best Stories
Tensions remain high following the deadly clashes between Iranian and Taliban border troops over cross-border water supplies. But while both Tehran and the Taliban are doubling down on their water rights, they are leaving the door open for a diplomatic resolution.
The Taliban-led government in Afghanistan has ordered all taxi drivers in the capital, Kabul, to change the color of their vehicles to turquoise, infuriating many cabbies. Officials say the new color code will reduce kidnappings and other crimes.
What To Keep An Eye On
Taliban fighters and Iranian border guards exchanged heavy gunfire on May 27, leading to casualties on both sides.
The clashes occurred across the shared border between southeastern Iran and southwestern Afghanistan, with each side accusing the other of firing first.
Taliban officials said one Afghan border guard was killed, and several people were wounded. Iranian media said that up to three Iranian border guards were killed.
Since then, the sides have exchanged threats and reportedly sent reinforcements along the shared 900-kilometer border.
Why It's Important: The deadly clashes come amid a growing dispute over cross-border water resources.
Iran has accused the Taliban of violating a water treaty signed between Kabul and Tehran in 1973, a claim that the militant group rejects.
Disputes over water resources are likely to increase as both countries grapple with severe drought.
In the 1990s, during the Taliban’s first stint in power, the group was on the brink of war with Iran. But observers say the dispute over water resources is unlikely to lead to a conflict, with both sides calling for dialogue to help resolve their differences.
That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you have.
Until next time,
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.
Taliban Turquoise Taxi Rule Has Kabul Cabbies Seeing Red
The Taliban government in Afghanistan has ordered all taxi drivers in the capital, Kabul, to change the color of their vehicles to turquoise, infuriating many cabbies. Officials say the new color code will reduce kidnappings and other crimes.
Iran And Afghanistan's Taliban Clash As Water Dispute Boils Over
Water has exposed cracks in the Taliban's fragile relationship with Tehran, with both sides exchanging pointed barbs over scarce supplies before coming to deadly blows along the Afghan-Iranian border.
Tensions remain high following the deaths of troops from both sides on May 27, with Taliban and Iranian officials digging in on their positions with increased military activity and fresh warnings.
But while disputes over water security are expected to intensify between the two drought-stricken countries, both sides appear to be keeping the door open for dialogue on the issue while boosting cooperation in other areas of mutual concern.
The deadly firefight took place across the shared border between southeastern Iran and southwestern Afghanistan, with each side accusing the other of firing first. Social media footage showed Taliban heavy weaponry streaming to the border in the Kang district of Nimroz Province, where officials said one Taliban border guard was killed and several people were wounded after an exchange of heavy gunfire.
Iranian media, meanwhile, said up to three Iranian border guards were killed and several people wounded in its southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan Province, where Iran has worked to fortify its border as tensions over water supplies rose over the past two weeks.
Following the incident, the Taliban has continued to push back on Iran's claim that it is not honoring a water treaty ironed out by the two sides in 1973.
"The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan considers dialogue to be a reasonable way for any problem," Taliban Defense Ministry spokesman Enayatullah Khawarazmi said in a statement on May 28, referring to the official name of the Taliban's unrecognized government. "Making excuses for war and negative actions is not in the interest of any of the parties."
Iran has continued its harder line, with national police commander Brigadier-General Ahmadreza Radan saying the same day that "the border forces of the Islamic republic of Iran will decisively respond to any border trespassing and aggression, and the current authorities of Afghanistan must be held accountable for their unmeasured and contrary actions to international principles."
But Iranian officials, too, have expressed the need for a diplomatic solution, with high-ranking security official Mohammad Ismail Kothari describing the dispute as "fighting between children of the same house" while rejecting that Tehran would resort to the "military option."
Big Dam Issues
Water is a precious commodity in both southwestern Afghanistan, one of the country's most productive agricultural areas, and in southeastern Iran, one of several arid areas of the country where water scarcity has fueled public protests.
But with Afghanistan in control of upriver water sources that feed low-lying wetlands and lakes in Iran's southeast, the Taliban finds itself with a rare tool for leverage in its relationship with Tehran.
The problem -- or the solution, depending on which side you consider -- stems from the construction of major dam projects in Afghanistan that in combination with increased drought and other factors have restricted the flow of water to the Sistan Basin.
The border-straddling basin depends on perennial flooding to fill what used to be a vast wildlife oasis and was home to the massive Hamun Lake, which now consists of three smaller seasonal lakes -- Hamun-e Helmand in Iran and Hamun-e Sabari and Hamun-e Puzak in both Afghanistan and Iran.
The longstanding issue of replenishing the basin with water came to the forefront earlier this month following comments by Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and President Ebrahim Raisi.
Amir-Abdollahian, in a call with his Taliban counterpart, Amir Khan Muttaqi, demanded the Afghan authorities open the gates of the inland Kajaki Dam that pools water from the Helmand River "so both the people of Afghanistan and Iran can be hydrated."
Shortly afterward, Raisi upped the ante during a visit to Sistan-Baluchistan on May 18 by warning the "rulers of Afghanistan to immediately give the people of Sistan-Baluchistan their water rights." He added that the Taliban should take his words "seriously" and not say "they were not told."
The Taliban has consistently denied the accusation that it was not complying with the 1973 treaty and said that even if the Kajaki Dam were opened there would not be enough water to reach Iran.
But just two days after Raisi's threats, the Taliban appeared to twist the knife by inaugurating a new irrigation project that involved completing the construction of the Bakhshabad Dam on the Farah River, which feeds the Sistan Basin from the north.
Contentious Water Treaty
According to the 1973 treaty, Afghanistan is committed to sharing water from the Helmand River with Iran at the rate of 26 cubic meters of water per second, or 850 million cubic meters per year.
But the accord also allows for less water to be delivered in cases of low water levels, which have been affected by persistent drought and the construction of new dams in Afghanistan, including the Kamal Khan Dam on the Helmand River that was completed in 2021 shortly before the Taliban seized power in Kabul.
The Taliban's deputy prime minister for economic affairs, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, said on May 22 that Kabul was "committed to the water treaty of 1973 but the drought that exists in Afghanistan and region should not be ignored."
"The pain of the people of Sistan-Baluchistan is our pain," he added. "Our hearts melt for them as much as they melt for the people of Afghanistan, but we also suffer from a shortage of water."
Cooperation on the water issue was previously seen as a sign of deepening ties between Afghanistan's Sunni Taliban rulers and Shi'a-majority Iran. In January 2022, the Taliban released water from the Kamal Khan Dam on the Helmand River in Nimroz Province into the Hamun Lake.
While their sectarian differences once made them enemies, their common interests in opposing Afghanistan's Western-backed government and U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan over the past two decades brought them closer.
Since the Taliban returned to power, the militant group has sought to build economic and security ties with Tehran. While Iran has not recognized the Taliban-led government, it has sought to work with the group on the issues of Afghan refugees in Iran and cross-border drug trafficking. In February, Iran formally handed over the Afghan Embassy in Tehran to the Taliban.
Afghanistan's and Iran's water crises require both countries to show a strong hand on the issue of water supplies, both for domestic consumption and to protect their national interests. But experts suggest the benefits of cooperation outweigh an escalation of the conflict.
"Neither country at this point in time needs a really hostile border," Marvin Weinbaum, director of Afghanistan and Pakistan studies at the Middle East Institute think tank in Washington, told RFE/RL.
"Economically it is an issue for both countries -- there would be no agricultural potential in Helmand Province without the water furnished by the dam. And very little of it gets into Iran. And southeast Iran is as dry as any place on the planet."
Weinbaum said neither the Taliban nor Tehran is going to exhibit weakness on the issue of short-term water shortages. "As the climate heats up, this is only going to grow more acute," he said.
But for both countries, Weinbaum said, "economic ties are really what matters the most," along with cooperating on other issues of mutual concern such as preventing the Islamic State extremist group from expanding its foothold in the region.
Ironically, just days after Raisi's threats and the inauguration of a new dam project in Afghanistan, the Taliban's Defense Ministry announced it had reached a new agreement on cooperating with Iran on defense and border issues. And on the day of the firefight that left border guards dead on both sides, officials had met earlier to discuss the water dispute.
After the deadly incident, Iranian and Taliban officials held another meeting to investigate the cause of the "tensions."
Path To Resolution
The construction of dams -- which both Iran and Afghanistan engage heavily in -- and their downstream impact stand out among the causes to discuss.
"What really triggers these disputes?" asked Weinbaum. "The intensification of them is obviously building dams, which represent simply a lower flow than they've been accustomed to and are not happy with."
Other observers suggest the decades-old water-sharing agreement that Iran and the Taliban accuse each other of failing to adhere to holds the answer to resolving the dispute.
The 1973 treaty does allow for the delivery of water from the Afghan side to be lower than the agreed-upon levels under certain circumstances, which would appear to include the drought and climate change that the Taliban has said have limited water supplies.
It also commits the two countries to follow a set course "in the event that a difference should develop in the interpretation" of the provisions set out in the treaty: diplomatic negotiations, turning to the "good offices" of a third party to help mediate a solution, and in the event neither step works, arbitration.
With additional reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Farda and Radio Azadi
Afghan Singer Arrested For Putting Taliban Verses To Music
An Afghan singer who was well-known for supporting the Taliban has fallen foul of the militants. Khosh Naseeb was arrested after putting Taliban verses to music.
Iranian Official Says Conflict With Afghanistan Detrimental To Both Sides
An Iranian Foreign Ministry official has said following the outbreak of border clashes between Iranian border guards and Taliban fighters that any conflict between the two countries is detrimental to both of them.
The May 28 comments on Twitter by Seyyed Rasool Musavi, director of the Iranian Foreign Ministry's South Asia Department, came a day after deadly gunfire was exchanged along the countries' mutual border.
Abdul Nafee Takour, spokesman for the Taliban-led government's Interior Ministry, told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi that one Taliban fighter and one Iranian border guard were killed in the incident.
Iran's official IRNA news agency has said two border guards were killed and two civilians injured.
Each side has accused the other of shooting first.
Tensions over water rights have risen between Iran and Afghanistan in recent weeks. Drought-stricken southeastern Iran is heavily dependent on upriver water flows from Afghanistan, leading to calls for Afghanistan to release more water and accusations that Kabul is not honoring a bilateral water treaty signed in 1973.
The Taliban has denied it is in violation of the agreement, and said low water levels on the Helmand River -- which feeds lakes and wetlands in Iran's southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan Province -- preclude releasing more water.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian earlier this month demanded in a call with his Taliban counterpart, Amir Khan Muttaqi, that Afghan authorities open the gates of the inland Kajaki Dam on the Helmand River "so both the people of Afghanistan and Iran can be hydrated."
During a visit to Sistan-Baluchistan on May 18, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi warned "the rulers of Afghanistan to immediately give the people of Sistan-Baluchistan their water rights," adding that the Taliban should take his words "seriously."
The region is one of the most arid areas of Iran, which has seen multiple public protests over water scarcity in recent years.
Shortly after Raisi's comment, Taliban officials announced the construction of a new dam on the Farah River, which feeds agricultural land in southwestern Afghanistan and also drains into southeastern Iran.
In 2021, prior to the Taliban's seizure of power, Afghanistan completed work on the Kamal Khan Dam, which also sits on the Helmand River.
The Azadi Briefing: Deadly Floods Hit Afghanistan
Welcome back to The Azadi Briefing, an 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
At least 13 people have been killed and dozens injured in torrential rains and flash floods that struck a dozen provinces in Afghanistan.
The worst-affected areas were in the central province of Ghor, a remote and impoverished region where at least six people died.
Three women and a child from a single family perished in a village outside the provincial capital, Firoz Koh.
"The flood came suddenly around noon," Agha Jan, a neighbor of the victims, told Radio Azadi on May 24. "They could not get out of their home. Four people were killed, and one person is still missing."
Why It's Important: Hundreds of Afghans are killed every year in torrential rains, landslides, and floods, particularly in rural areas where poorly built homes are often at risk of collapse.
The United Nations has said that decades of war, environmental degradation, and climate change have made a growing number of Afghans vulnerable to natural disasters.
The latest floods are likely to exacerbate the devastating economic and humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, where millions are on the verge of starvation.
What's Next: It is unclear if the flood victims in Ghor will receive much-needed assistance.
Matthew Miller, the spokesman for the U.S. State Department, recently said that aid programs in Ghor and two other provinces had been discontinued by Washington and its partners due to "Taliban interference with humanitarian activities."
Nizamuddin, a resident of Ghor, pleaded for help. "The local government should address the problems of the people. Our houses were destroyed and people have been killed."
The Week's Best Stories
Afghanistan's extraordinarily high maternal mortality comes with the territory in a country marked by political upheaval, economic woes, and cultural restrictions, all of which have limited women's access to adequate health care. But while the Taliban government says the numbers of women dying during childbirth are holding steady, the conditions are ripe for disaster.
The Taliban is trying to revive the Afghan Air Force by using and repairing aircraft inherited from the former Afghan government. But the scarcity of trained pilots, a spate of deadly accidents, and international isolation are hampering the effort.
What To Keep An Eye On
Jan Egeland, the secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said the Taliban had agreed to negotiate exemptions that would allow female Afghan aid workers to resume work in the southern province of Kandahar.
In December, the Taliban banned Afghan women from working for local and foreign NGOs, in a move that led international organization to cut or end their operations in Afghanistan.
Egeland, who met with Taliban leaders this week, said he hoped that any exemption in Kandahar would be extended across the country.
"We cannot and will not work with male [staff] only," Egeland told Radio Azadi on May 25. "We would not be able to reach women in need with male [staff] only. So, I'm hopeful that we will get these exemptions and then that will be a breakthrough."
Why It's Important: The Taliban's ban on Afghan women working for NGOs has affected the delivery of humanitarian aid, including food assistance, to millions of people.
The hundreds of Afghan women employed by foreign NGOs are critical in delivering life-saving aid in Afghanistan, where the UN said nearly three-quarters of the population of 40 million needs assistance.
That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you have.
Until next time,
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.
Rights Groups Slam Taliban Restrictions On Afghan Women As 'Crime Against Humanity'
Two top rights groups on May 26 slammed the severe restrictions imposed on women and girls by the Taliban in Afghanistan as gender-based persecution, which is a crime against humanity. In a new report, Amnesty International and the International Commission for Jurists underscored how the Taliban crackdown on Afghan women's rights, coupled with "imprisonment, enforced disappearance, torture and other ill-treatment," could constitute gender persecution under the International Criminal Court. Despite initial promises of a more moderate rule, the Taliban started to enforce restrictions on women and girls soon after their takeover in August 2021. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Taliban Effort To Resurrect Afghan Air Force Runs Into Turbulence
Afghanistan's hard-line Islamist Taliban rulers are keen on showcasing their government's military prowess by frequently displaying repaired helicopters and planes from the country's inventory of aging aircraft.
But the once ragtag militant group that relied on small arms, rocket launchers, roadside bombs, and suicide bombers to wage war for a quarter century is struggling to get its dreams of building a modern air force off the ground.
On May 21, two pilots were killed after their U.S.-made helicopter crashed in the northern province of Samangan. The MD-530 multi-mission military aircraft was on patrol when it plunged to the ground after hitting an electricity pylon, according to the Taliban.
It was the latest of at least five verified military aviation accidents recorded since the Taliban seized power in August 2021. All involved helicopters from the previous government's patchwork fleet of mostly U.S.- and Russian-built aircraft, with pilot error considered the likely causes.
While the Taliban has shown it can make use of helicopters and some leftover planes in response to humanitarian disasters or for show, it is seen as being far from re-creating a functional air force capable of securing the skies in the event of foreign incursions or domestic insurgencies.
"I don't see the Taliban air force as something to worry about," said Amin Tarzi, director of Middle East Studies at the U.S. Marine Corps University. "If anything, it can become more symbolic."
Tarzi, an Afghanistan expert, says that the Taliban would need to conduct a significant amount of training for pilots and develop strategies for communication and coordination with ground forces, to build a viable air force.
"Despite the Taliban propaganda, this air force won't become a major threat to anyone in the region," he said. "For whatever reason, they think the air force makes you a more formidable or formal force."
In November, Taliban military officials claimed to have repaired some 70 helicopters and military planes. Taliban officials said their amnesty scheme for former Afghan military pilots and ground crews attracted more than 40 pilots and technicians to return and work for the Taliban's Defense Ministry.
The Taliban inherited more than 100 aircraft, most of which were inoperable, when it returned to power.
The Western-backed Afghan republic had 162 aircraft. Of these, 131 were airworthy just before the government's collapse in August 2021, according to the U.S. Special Inspector-General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
Some 25 percent of the aircraft were flown to neighboring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan as Taliban fighters advanced on Kabul. Dozens more were rendered inoperable as Western forces headed for a final exit. Fearing Taliban reprisals, hundreds of former pilots and ground crew fled Afghanistan.
Tarzi says that even before the United States indicated it wanted to withdraw from Afghanistan by signing a peace agreement with the Taliban in February 2020, the Afghan Air Force was an anemic institution. He pointed out as critical deficiencies its overreliance on Western support, a lack of discipline, and an incapability to operate independently.
"The idea that the Afghan Air Force was intact and operational was erroneous," he said.
Afghanistan's first modern air force emerged under King Zahir Shah in the 1960s with Soviet aircraft. During the Soviet occupation, the pro-Moscow socialist government established a formidable air force with hundreds of Soviet jets, cargo planes, and helicopters.
But the air force split into several rival aviation units controlled by warring warlords. During the Taliban’s first stint in power in the 1990s, its air force possessed some jets and helicopters operated by Afghan pilots and technicians who had defected to the group.
Author Lukas Muller's book, Wings Over The Hindu Kush, documents the history of the Afghan air force between 1989 and 2001. He says that currently only a small number of Taliban fighters serve in the air force, which is mainly manned by pilots and technicians trained by the United States and its allies. Some were even trained during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The Taliban is attempting to train new pilots but has not released figures showing the number of pilots and technicians it has, suggesting a shortage of qualified personnel.
Muller says that, based on photos and videos, the Taliban now has approximately 50 operational planes and helicopters.
"They consider their air force a crucial part of their military strength and openly boast about their accomplishments in repairing additional aircraft," he said.
The Russian-made Mi-17 transport helicopter, in several subtypes, is the most widely used Taliban helicopter. The group also has a small fleet of airworthy U.S.-made Black Hawk multi-mission helicopters, as well as U.S.-made MD-530s. Some A-29 attack fighters, a turboprop plane provided by the United States to the former Afghan government for air support and training, are believed to be serviceable. And the Taliban also possesses Russian Antonov transport planes and U.S. C-208 and AC-208 cargo aircraft.
Muller said that while the Taliban has utilized its planes and helicopters for transporting troops, military and humanitarian cargo, and regime officials, the actual deployment of combat aircraft remains unverified.
He says that the Taliban has not deployed its combat helicopters, such as the MD-530s or Russian-made Mi-35s, to actively engage opposition forces in the northern province of Panjshir, which has been a hotbed of anti-Taliban armed resistance.
"In essence, the Taliban's air force has yet to prove itself in combat," he said.
Bodies Of Migrants Who Died In Bulgaria Returned To Afghanistan, Taliban Says
Afghanistan's Taliban-controlled Foreign Ministry says the bodies of 18 Afghan migrants who died of suffocation while attempting to cross into Bulgaria have been transferred to Kabul. The bodies were returned on the morning of May 24, Hafiz Zia Ahmad Takal, deputy spokesman for the ministry, said on Twitter. The 18 Afghans were discovered lifeless on February 17 in an abandoned truck close to the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. Seven suspected smugglers were arrested by Bulgarian authorities. Takal said the Taliban has paid for the repatriation. The bodies have been returned to their families, Takal said. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, click here.
- By AFP
Six Killed, 100 Homes Destroyed In Afghan Flooding
Six people have been killed and dozens of homes washed away in flooding in central Afghanistan, local authorities said on May 24. Abdul Wahid Hamas, a spokesman for the Taliban governor in central Ghor Province, said three women and a child were killed when their house in the town of Firozkoh was washed away on May 23. In Pasaband district, in the same province, a man and a woman were also swept away and later found dead, while another person remains missing, Hamas said. More than 100 houses and about 200 hectares of agricultural land were destroyed, with canals used to irrigate the fields damaged, he said. "We don't have more details of the financial losses for now," Hamas told AFP.
Taliban Mulls Guidelines For Letting Female NGO Staff Resume Work
Jan Egeland, the secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said on May 23 that key Taliban officials told him in meetings that they are close to finalizing guidelines that will allow Afghan women to resume working for nongovernmental organizations. But they were unable to give a timeline or details when pressed. The Taliban last December barred Afghan women from working at NGOs, allegedly because they were not wearing the hijab -- the Islamic headscarf -- correctly and were not observing gender segregation rules. In April, the militants said this ban extended to UN offices and agencies in Afghanistan. To read the original story by AP, click here.
'Every Midwife Is Afraid': Worrying Signs Over Maternal Deaths In Afghanistan
Giving birth is a life or death struggle for women in Afghanistan, where roughly one mother is believed to die every two hours from preventable pregnancy and childbirth complications.
Even mothers who survive face the stark reality that their newborns may not, with the Taliban's Health Ministry estimating 22 children die for every 1,000 live births.
"Why would a woman need to go to the hospital?" 31-year-old Zia Gul, a resident of the northern Parwan Province, recalled her husband saying during her difficult pregnancies. "There are only men at the hospital; there are no female doctors."
Gul told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi that her husband's refusal to let her see a doctor contributed to the loss of two of her newborn children.
Gul's experience is in line with those of many Afghan women, particularly in conservative rural areas, who are bound by the Islamic custom of mahram. The practice prohibits women from leaving their home without a male relative, bars them from being treated by male doctors, and gives them little say in their own health decisions.
But the traditional customs enforced by Gul's in-laws, who allowed no discussion on the matter, are just one of the many factors that contribute to high maternal mortality in Afghanistan's deeply patriarchal society.
Years of political upheaval, economic woes, the exodus of medical professionals, low literacy and public awareness on health issues, poor infrastructure, and the lack of access to medical care in remote areas all add up to astonishingly high maternal mortality rates.
Among The World's Worst
According to statistics compiled by the World Bank, the United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA), and other UN agencies, 1,450 mothers were dying for every 100,000 live births by 2000, shortly before the Taliban was ousted from power.
Over the course of the next 20 years, due to increased funding and attention paid to maternal health care and awareness by the UNPFA, international aid agencies such as Doctors Without Borders (MSF), and the Afghan government, that number was cut by more than half to 620 deaths by 2020.
The Taliban's seizure of power in August 2021 raised fears that the extremist group would reimpose the draconian policies of its first stint in power from 1996-2001, including the banning of female education and employment as it enforced mahram.
Many of those fears have been realized. Girls above the sixth grade have been barred from attending school, women are banned from pursuing university education, and women are no longer allowed to work for international aid agencies. Marham is also more prevalent, with women officially required to wear the all-encompassing burqa and remain at home unless accompanied by a male relative.
Once again, according to Aleksandar Sasha Bodiroza, the UNFPA's representative in Afghanistan, women's ability to freely access health facilities to seek maternal and newborn care has been restricted.
No outside nationwide statistics have been made available since 2020, but the Afghan Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, citing recent figures from the Taliban-led government's Health Ministry, told Radio Azadi that the maternal mortality ratio has risen only slightly under Taliban rule.
While the figure, 638 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, is the same number recorded by the international community in 2017, it is still high enough to rank Afghanistan among the world's 10 worst in terms of maternal mortality.
That the situation has remained relatively stable is also difficult to fathom, considering the vast numbers of doctors who fled the country as the Taliban regained power, the country's dire economic situation and multiple humanitarian crises, and the increased pressures on aid workers and on Afghan women.
The state health-care system, propped up by foreign aid for two decades, has also suffered from a dramatic drop in international funding since the Taliban takeover.
Health workers and outside agencies say the damage done to the health sector is undeniable.
"The system has changed in our country. Naturally, it had an impact on the country's economy and the services that the government provides to the people," Hamid Jabari, an Afghan physician who was expelled from the country by the Taliban, told Radio Azadi. "The negative effects are being felt, including the lack of professionals in government, especially the health sector."
Some of the losses are offset by the continued involvement of outside organizations, including private hospitals, the UNFPA, and MSF, which have been able to continue to employ women despite the Taliban's ban on women aid workers due to an exemption for health workers.
But tremendous obstacles remain. Bodiroza said in written comments that "despite the exemption of the health sector from the ban on female humanitarian workers, the sector is also suffering from the ban as there are NGOs that indirectly support efficient delivery of health services -- not as frontline health workers but as back office staff, for example."
Afghan women health-care workers, in turn, told Radio Azadi they are being prevented from carrying out their work or expanding their expertise, even as the contributing factors to maternal mortality become more severe. The result is that newborns or pregnant women are now at greater risk of preventable deaths during pregnancy, childbirth, and in the first few weeks after childbirth.
"Many pregnant women can't access antenatal or postnatal care, and the health system struggles to treat women who experience complications in pregnancy," Tomas Bendl, field communications manager for MSF in Afghanistan, told RFE/RL in written comments. "A shortage of qualified female health-care staff also affects access to health care, as maternity and sometimes pediatric wards are women-only spaces."
Dangers At Home
Hussain Sayer, a doctor from Parwan Province, told Radio Azadi that childbirth should ideally take place at a maternity hospital under the care of an obstetrician.
He said it was a "bad custom" for women to be denied access to health facilities during their pregnancies and warned that the only available option for many women -- home birth -- carries great risk.
In the event of births taking place at home, he said, they should be supervised by a trained midwife.
But while great emphasis was made over the past two decades to increase the number of professional midwives in Afghanistan capable of providing medical assistance during pregnancies, deliveries, and postnatal care, many Afghan women who entered the profession say they are unable to help.
Nadia, a midwife who spoke to Radio Azadi on condition that only her first name be used, said many of her colleagues who specialized in gynecology and obstetrics are "unemployed and stay at home" since the Taliban takeover.
Another midwife, who declined to give her name due to security concerns, said fear prevents many of her colleagues from working.
"Midwives don't go from place to place to assist with births -- that's why the problems have increased," she told Radio Azadi. "Every midwife is afraid for her life."
Restrictions on women's mobility have had a harmful effect on efforts to educate communities on women's health in remote areas of the country, according to the UNFPA's Bodiroza.
Even when male family members do allow women to visit health-care facilities, the difficulties in reaching them in rural areas limits the number of visits and can mean help is often administered too late.
"I took my wife to the clinic by motorcycle," Abdul Samad, a resident of the southeastern Ghazni Province told Radio Azadi, explaining he lived far from the nearest village with maternity facilities.
While Samad managed to get his wife to a doctor, shortly after he left to retrieve her mother, he received bad news. "Half an hour later, I received a call saying my wife was in agony," he said. "When I returned, I saw they were right" -- both his wife and their newborn child had died.
It is difficult to assess where Afghanistan truly stands in terms of maternal mortality, but the benefits of continued outreach efforts and on-the-ground medical aid are obvious.
Bendl said MSF operates two projects in Afghanistan that focus on maternal health care, among other things, and employ more than 1,700 medical professionals in Afghanistan, of whom more than half are women.
Last year, MSF assisted in more than 42,700 deliveries, more than 8,000 of which were marked by obstetric complications. In Lashkar Gah, capital of the southern Helmand Province, MSF's support for a hospital resulted in an average maternal mortality rate of 0.1 percent. In the southeastern Khost Province, where MSF operates a maternity hospital, the mortality rate was 0.02 percent.
Bodiroza of the UNFPA said the agency continues "to deliver a full range of maternal health services in Afghanistan" and supports facilities and delivers essential reproductive health supplies in 32 out of the country's 34 provinces.
Despite the positives, those involved in providing health services in Afghanistan say much more needs to be done.
Bodiroza said the UNFPA estimates that without immediate and sustained support for reproductive health services, the situation could lead to an additional 51,000 maternal deaths by 2025.
Adding that "reproductive health services are therefore more critical than ever," Bodiroza said the UN agency is aiming to reach 10.6 million people -- including 6.8 million women and girls -- in remote areas with reproductive health support.
Bendl said that "there is no doubt that a dysfunctional health system, widespread poverty, and increased restrictions placed on women are at the heart of the current humanitarian crisis."
"If we want the situation to improve," he said, "policymakers, donors, and local authorities must urgently focus on strengthening primary medical care." And women, he said, "must be allowed to pursue further education and employment opportunities, to raise income for their families and to ensure there are sufficient female health workers in the country to meet the needs."
Written and reported by Michael Scollon, with additional reporting by Radio Azadi correspondents Ahmad Hanayish and Sahar Lewal
Afghan-American Journalist Freed After Detention In Kabul
Afghan-American journalist Ali Latifi said on May 19 that he has been released from detention one day after being held in Kabul, calling it a “misunderstanding.” The freelance journalist said he was “treated fine.” A Taliban spokesman a day earlier had said Latifi was detained by Afghan police over allegations of "suspicious behavior." The Afghanistan Journalists Center welcomed Latifi’s release and urged the freeing of other journalists held by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The Azadi Briefing: Who Is The Taliban's New Prime Minister?
Welcome to The Azadi Briefing, an 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
The Taliban appointed a new prime minister on May 17, saying the incumbent, Hassan Akhund, was suffering from ill health.
The militant group said Abdul Kabir, one of Akhund's three deputies, would take over on a temporary basis. But it is unclear whether Akhund, a 78-year-old cleric, will return to his post.
The 60-year-old Kabir was a military commander and shadow governor during the Taliban's 19-year insurgency against the Western-backed Afghan government. He served as an official during the Taliban's first stint in power from 1996 to 2001.
Like many Taliban officials, Kabir is on the United Nations' terrorism blacklist.
Why It's Important: Under the Taliban's clerical system, the prime minister carries out the day-to-day administration of the government. But Taliban Supreme Leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada has the ultimate say on all important matters of the state.
Sami Yousafzai, a veteran Afghan journalist and commentator who tracks the Taliban, said Kabir's appointment is unlikely to "mark a major policy shift."
But Yousafzai said Kabir and Akhund are "very different in how they operate and conduct themselves."
Unlike Akhund, Kabir has played a much more visible role. He was involved in negotiating the U.S.-Taliban deal in 2020 that paved the way for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan.
Since the Taliban seized power, Kabir has been pictured regularly meeting representatives of foreign governments and organizations visiting Afghanistan. Akhund, experts said, shunned public engagement.
Many Taliban leaders are Pashtuns from the southern province of Kandahar, the group's power base. But Kabir is a Pashtun from the northern province of Baghlan who hails from the Zadran tribe. Kabir's promotion is likely an attempt to placate those Taliban members who have accused leaders in Kandahar of monopolizing power.
What's Next: Kabir is known for his diplomatic skills. That could help the unrecognized and isolated Taliban-led government improve its ties with the outside world, including neighboring Pakistan.
Kabir is also known for his close links with Islamabad, the Taliban's longtime ally. But tensions have increased between the sides over the Taliban's alleged sheltering of the Pakistani Taliban, which has waged a yearslong insurgency against Islamabad.
The Taliban is unlikely to rescind its repressive policies, including its restrictions on women. But Kabir's appointment could mean the Taliban-led government has an interlocutor who is likely to be more open to discussing thorny issues with Afghans and representatives of foreign governments and organizations.
The Week's Best Stories
A growing number of Afghan families have been forced to send their children to work amid a devastating economic and humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, where incomes have plummeted, and millions are on the brink of starvation. There are at least 1 million child laborers in Afghanistan, with many polishing boots, washing cars, begging in the streets, or working in mines.
The parents and family of a 21-year-old Afghan migrant struck by a train in Serbia had to rely on public generosity to get his body home for a proper farewell. His death is a tragic facet of a decade-long battle between asylum seekers and populist, anti-immigrant governments in stepping-stone states like Serbia, on the border of the more affluent European Union.
What To Keep An Eye On
The UN Office on the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has said that climate change is reducing people's access to water across Afghanistan.
The agency said the proportion of Afghan household lacking access to water is rising rapidly.
"Households experiencing water shortages rose from 48% in 2021 to 60% in 2022," the OCHA tweeted on May 18.
The UN warned on May 17 that it was quite certain that 2023-2027 will be the warmest five-year period ever recorded.
Afghanistan is already one of the world's most vulnerable countries to climate change. Changing weather patterns have resulted in frequent flash floods and persistent droughts in the country.
Why It's Important: Afghanistan is already grappling with the world's biggest humanitarian crisis, which worsened when the Taliban seized power.
Receding access to water will further wreak havoc on the livelihoods of millions of Afghans who depend on subsistence farming and animal husbandry. Together, these sectors make up a large part of the Afghan economy.
Declining international humanitarian aid, in part due to the Taliban's restrictions on the work of foreign NGOs, is likely to worsen the blow for many Afghans.
That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you have.
Until next time,
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.
Iranian President Warns Afghanistan To Abide By Treaty On Water Flows
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has warned the de facto Taliban regime in Afghanistan that its noncompliance with joint agreements on water rights in regions along their shared border is escalating tensions between Tehran and Kabul.
Raisi warned during a visit to the southeastern Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan on May 18 that the "rulers of Afghanistan" should "take the issue of...Iran's water rights seriously."
The warning follows a phone conversation between Amir Khan Muttaqi, the acting foreign minister of the Taliban administration, and Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian over several issues, including the transfer of water from the Helmand River.
Amir-Abdollahian requested the Taliban open the gates of the Kajaki Dam "so both the people of Afghanistan and Iran can be hydrated."
Taliban officials recently claimed that due to low water levels, even if they opened the dam, nothing would reach Iran. But Amir-Abdollahian said that can only be determined by a joint technical team, as per a 1973 treaty over water rights. Iran has proposed such a team inspect the Kajaki Dam to assess the situation, the minister said.
Raisi said that if the experts confirm the water shortage, Iran would drop its concerns, though he added that Iran would not allow the rights of its people to be "compromised."
According to the 1973 agreement, Afghanistan is obligated to provide Iran with 850 million cubic meters of water annually from the Helmand River. Iran has accused Afghanistan of not complying with the accord, an allegation that Kabul rejects. Disputes over the distribution of cross-border water supplies have plagued relations between the two neighbors for decades.
Water from the 1,150-kilometer (690-mile) Helmand River, Afghanistan’s longest, feeds the Hamun Lake in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province. The region relies heavily on the lake, and officials say it has suffered major issues because of a persistent lack of water.
Hassan Kazemi Qomi, Iran’s special representative to Afghanistan, stated that despite the Taliban-led government's repeated commitment to the Helmand water treaty, Iran has only received about 4 percent of the water to which it has a right.
The situation in Iran is becoming acute, with many cities facing water shortages. In turn, protests over the issue are becoming more commonplace.
Afghans widely celebrated the completion of the Kamal Khan Dam last March. Former President Ashraf Ghani said Afghanistan would no longer "give away free water" and suggested Iran should provide oil to Kabul in exchange for water.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
'Life Of Toil': Growing Number Of Starving Afghan Families Send Children To Work
Ghulam Ali earns up to $2 per day selling vegetables from a wooden cart he hauls around the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Ali is only 14 years old, but he is the sole breadwinner for his family. With his father unable to work due to ill health, Ali was forced to drop out of school last year and earn a living.
"A year ago, I studied and worked sometimes," Ali, who was in the eighth grade, told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. "But this year, I need to work regularly."
Ali is among at least 1 million children working in Afghanistan, where incomes have plummeted and millions are on the brink of starvation. Many child laborers polish boots, wash cars, beg in the streets, or work in mines.
The number of child laborers has spiked since the Taliban seized power in 2021, which aggravated an already major humanitarian crisis and triggered an economic collapse that led to soaring inflation and mass unemployment.
The United Nations estimates 6 million Afghans are on the brink of starvation and an additional 28 million people need urgent humanitarian assistance.
The Taliban's severe restrictions on female employment, including a ban on women working for local and foreign NGOs, have also contributed to the rise in child labor.
Female-led households have relied on cash and food assistance from aid agencies to survive. But many have been forced to fend for themselves after foreign NGOs cut their operations after a ban by the Taliban came into effect in December.
Sami, whose father died several years ago, picks through garbage dumps in the western city of Farah looking for recyclable plastic and metal he can sell. On a good day, he earns 50 cents per day.
With his family largely closed off from humanitarian aid, Sami has been forced to work on the streets.
"I'm only 13, and there are six of us at home," he told Radio Azadi. "I cannot meet the expenses of the house. We need help."
Up to one-fifth of families in Afghanistan have been forced to send their children to work, according to a 2022 survey by Save The Children.
"If just one child in each of these families is being sent to work, then more than one million children in the country are engaged in child labor," the London-based organization said.
Another survey found that 29 percent of female-led households in 2022 had at least one child engaged in child labor, up from 19 percent in 2021. In male-led households, the figures jumped from 13 to 21 percent.
Nisar Ahmad Kohin, an Afghan child rights expert, told Radio Azadi that "neglecting the future of our children will only destroy the future of our country."
Activists have called on the Taliban to curb child labor. But the militant group has not outlined any plans to address the issue.
The number of child laborers is only likely to grow as the dire economic and humanitarian crises worsen in Afghanistan.
Last month, the UN said around 85 percent of Afghans were living below the poverty line. The figure represents a huge increase of 15 million since 2020, when the Western-backed Afghan government was still in power.
Habibullah owns a car repair shop in the central province of Bamiyan. He said parents desperate to feed their families are increasingly sending their children to work.
"Every day, parents come and ask me to take on their children as apprentices," Habibullah told Radio Azadi. "The economic conditions are forcing people to sacrifice their children's education [and send them to work]."
Mira Jan Rasikh, a social worker in Bamiyan, said the Taliban should take responsibility. "The government is obliged to protect children from a life of toil," he told Radio Azadi.
Written by Abubakar Siddique based on reporting by Mansoor Khosrow and other Radio Azadi correspondents in the region whose names are being withheld for security reasons
- By Iva Gajic
'He Deserved A Chance': Young Afghan's Mystery Death Underscores The Cruel Reality On Europe's Borders
BELGRADE -- In mid-April, along the so-called Balkan route favored by hundreds of thousands of desperate migrants with dreams of Europe, authorities collected the mangled body of a young man along train tracks near Serbia's border with Croatia.
Activists there say such victims frequently go unidentified beyond their "physical appearance and skin color" that leads authorities to conclude they are refugees. Despite prescribed procedures, they say, in those instances there is no autopsy and no DNA sampling to help establish their identities.
However, this victim's name was known.
He was Shoib Tasal, a 21-year-old who fled war-torn Afghanistan to Turkey more than a year ago, after finishing 12th grade, before traveling to Serbia in the months before his death.
Since Tasal was struck by a train in northwestern Serbia, there have been more questions than answers about his death. But unlike those of thousands of fellow migrants who've perished in abandoned trailers, choppy seas, or fast-moving river currents, Tasal's body has been returned to his parents for burial in his homeland, thanks to alerts by activists and a crowdfunding campaign organized by a family member in the Netherlands.
"Shoib was a young boy with hopes and dreams, just like any of us," the relative, Faridullah Khorshid, said in his GoFundMe appeal. "He deserved a chance at a better life, and his parents deserve the chance to say goodbye properly."
This is the cruel reality of life on the move and of life at the European borders, where people are violently and illegally push backed.No Name Kitchen
Weeks later, after $5,000 was raised to transport the body to Afghanistan with any remaining money to be sent to Tasal's parents, Khorshid thanked the 100-plus contributors.
His death -- and the deaths of so many others like him -- is a tragic facet of a decade-long battle between asylum seekers and refugees like Tasal and populist, anti-immigrant governments in stepping-stone states like Serbia, on the border of the more affluent European Union.
"This is the cruel reality of life on the move and of life at the European borders, where people are violently and illegally push backed," said No Name Kitchen, an NGO that promotes humanitarian aid and political action along the Balkan and Mediterranean migrant routes to Europe.
Since its peak in 2015, the continent's migration crisis has pitched and lurched but stubbornly persisted, upending or, in thousands of cases, tragically ending lives.
The latest official figures, from October 2021, suggested nearly 70 refugees and migrants had died in Serbia since the wave of undocumented immigration to Europe began amid war and humanitarian crises in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and North Africa.
Serbia's Commissariat for Refugees and Migration declined to respond to a query by RFE/RL's Balkan Service seeking a precise and more current figure.
WATCH: Hungary is increasing the height of its border fence and Serbian police are ramping up operations while a Serbian far-right group patrols the border for illegal migrants.
The most common causes of confirmed deaths have been traffic or railway accidents or drownings in any of the three fast-flowing rivers along the Serbian border.
Asylum lawyer and activist Rados Djurovic, executive director of the Asylum Protection Center in Serbia, says the number of dead is likely higher because some bodies are never found.
"We think a certain number of people who have died are not even known about," Djurovic told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "They are reported as missing, or friends and relatives from [their] country of origin, or from some European countries where they went, ask about them, [although] it's never established what happened [to them]."
Most of those who have died in Serbia have been buried in local cemeteries near the country's half-dozen or so refugee centers.
Irina Fehr, a volunteer for No Name Kitchen, told RFE/RL that her group heard news of Tasal's death through others in the migrant-welfare movement and that they were later contacted by Tasal's parents.
In a thread on Twitter, they shared news of the tragedy and encouraged the public to donate to Khorshid's GoFundMe.
"There are different stories about what events led to his death, and we don't know what actually happened," Fehr said. Neither the Interior Ministry nor the Commissariat for Refugees and Migration responded to RFE/RL's request for more information about Tasal's death.
Fehr said her group was not in direct contact with the police but that police must have been informed of the case.
Djurovic agreed, adding that police would have to conduct an investigation into a death involving someone being hit by a train.
Milica Svabic from the Klikaktiv Center for the Development of Social Policies, an NGO, says there are official steps assigned that are often skipped in the cases of migrant deaths.
"The official procedure says that when the body is found, it should be transferred to the morgue of the nearest hospital, where an autopsy will be performed and, if the person does not have identification documents with them, DNA material will be taken for possible later analysis and comparison."
The body is assigned an identification number before burial.
"But in the summer of 2020 we received unofficial information by phone that very often when they see that it's a migrant, that is, a refugee -- and they determine this only on the basis of physical appearance and skin color -- that they don't send the body for an autopsy at all, they don't take DNA material, and the body is sent directly to the cemetery for burial," Svabic said.
WATCH: Serbian police have been rounding up people traveling toward the European Union and taking them to government-run camps around the country.
The International Organization for Migration (IMO) estimates that more than 55,000 migrants have died en route to international destinations around the world since 2014, nearly half of them in the Mediterranean region.
In the absence of official data, activists have created what they call a "4D database" of migrant deaths in the region that lists grim fates such as drownings, car crashes, train strikes, and sometimes gun or other violence.
It lists at least 80 deaths in Serbia prior to January 2022, the latest update available.
Asylum activist Djurovic argues that officials' "frequent pushbacks and violence" to try to turn away unregistered migrants and asylum seekers just encourages people to "take more and more risks in the hope that they'll succeed at some point in crossing the border of Serbia and continuing on their way to the European Union."
That, he says, prompts even greater risk-taking through more dangerous ways to cross the border -- and more tragedies like that of Tasal.
In an update to the GoFundMe effort for Tasal's repatriation, the family member in the Netherlands announced that "Unfortunately, we…have some regrettable news to share. The family had to borrow funds to cover the transportation costs because GoFundMe has not yet released money from the crowdfunding campaign."
He added: "We understand that this has added to the family's stress, and we are working hard to ensure that the funds are released as soon as possible."
Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by RFE/RL Balkan Service correspondent Iva Gajic
Executions In Iran Drive Global Death-Penalty Spike
Recorded executions in 2022 reached the highest figure in five years, according to Amnesty International's annual global review of the death penalty. It says 883 people were executed across 20 countries in 2022, marking a rise of 53 percent on 2021. Executions in Iran alone rose to 576 in 2022 from 314 in 2021.
Amnesty Says Executions, Led By Iran, Skyrocketed Last Year
Executions around the world rose to their highest number in five years in 2022, with Iran driving the spike, offsetting hopes raised by the abolition of capital punishment in six countries, among them Kazakhstan, according to Amnesty International.
In its annual report on the death penalty released on May 16, the rights group said that "disturbingly," 90 percent of the world's 883 confirmed executions outside China were carried out by just three of the 20 countries known to have carried out capital punishment last year.
All three were in the Middle East, led by Iran, which saw executions soar to 576 in 2022 -- a year marked by massive nationwide protests in the country over deteriorating living conditions and the government's suppression of basic human rights -- from 314 the previous year.
Iran was followed by Saudi Arabia, where executions tripled from 65 in 2021 to 196 in 2022 -- the highest recorded for that country by Amnesty in 30 years -- while Egypt executed 24 individuals.
Amnesty said that given the opaque data from several countries that have the death penalty, figures on the use of capital punishment are minimum figures and "the true overall numbers are likely to be higher."
As in previous years, Amnesty did not include executions in China in its figures, even though Beijing implements capital punishment more than any other country. It says that the true extent of the usage of the death penalty there is unclear because the data is considered a state secret. Nonetheless, the report said executions were believed to be in the thousands.
"Countries in the Middle East and North Africa region violated international law as they ramped up executions in 2022, revealing a callous disregard for human life," said Agnes Callamard, Amnesty International's secretary-general.
"The number of individuals deprived of their lives rose dramatically across the region; Saudi Arabia executed a staggering 81 people in a single day. Most recently, in a desperate attempt to end the popular uprising, Iran executed people simply for exercising their right to protest," she added.
Iran has been wracked by unrest that have posed the greatest threat to the Islamic republic's cleric leadership since the revolution that brought it to power in 1979.
Rights groups have accused Tehran of using executions to "instill fear" among the public to help quell protests that gained momentum following the September 16 death of Mahsa Amini, who was in police custody for an alleged hijab violation when she died.
The Amnesty report noted that executions resumed in five countries last year, including Afghanistan, while the recorded number of people executed for drug-related offenses more than doubled in 2022 compared to 2021.
Drug-related executions are in violation of international human rights law, which states that executions should only be carried out for the "most serious crimes" -- crimes that involve intentional killing.
"In a cruel twist, close to 40 percent of all known executions were for drug-related offenses. Importantly, it's often those from disadvantaged backgrounds that are disproportionately affected by this callous punishment," Callamard said.
"It's time for governments and the UN to up the pressure on those responsible for these blatant human rights violations and ensure international safeguards are put in place," she added.
Despite the jump in executions, Amnesty said it saw "a glimmer of hope" as six countries abolished the death penalty either fully or partially.
Kazakhstan, Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone, and the Central African Republic abolished the death penalty for all crimes last year, while Equatorial Guinea and Zambia abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes only.
As of December 2022, 112 countries had abolished the death penalty for all crimes and nine countries had abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes only, Amnesty said.
Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Belarus, China, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Kuwait, Myanmar, North Korea, State of Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, the United States, Vietnam, and Yemen all carried out executions in 2022, Amnesty said in the report.
Lost In Transactions: Afghans Living In Iran Left Stranded By Lack Of Access To Bank Cards
Iran is implementing modern new payment systems to make it easier for its citizens to use public transportation and get their subsidized daily bread. But Afghans living in the country say they are being left behind due to immigration policies that restrict their access to bank cards.
Afghan migrants are complaining that not being able to have bank cards makes it difficult to use city subways, access mobile phone services, and even to get their daily bread.
Mirwais, who has lived in the southwestern city of Shiraz for over 20 years, says the limitations add to the "pressure" he and other Afghans face every day in Iran.
"All the migrants face this," said Mirwais, who gave only his first name in a telephone interview with RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. "Whether in Shiraz, Tehran, or Isfahan, migrants suffer and are under pressure all over Iran."
The lack of access to basic services can be traced to requirements imposed years ago that effectively prevent many members of Iran's large Afghan community from obtaining bank cards. While Iran has made the leap to Internet banking, online purchases, and digital card readers, migrants must still go in person to a bank to make withdrawals or send wire payments.
Some Afghans living in Iran say they cannot open a bank account at all, while others complain that they face limits on the amount they can withdraw. Getting mobile phone service has also been made difficult due to Iran's crackdown on unregistered SIM cards.
The problem has been compounded by the need for bank cards to purchase transportation tickets or to apply for new smart cards introduced for purchasing subsidized goods from bakeries, meaning Afghans have to rely on workarounds just to put food on the table or travel around.
Mohammad Amiri, 26, has lived in Tehran with his wife and child for more than two years, but still faces difficulties carrying out everyday tasks.
"In the [Tehran] subway, you need to pay with a bank card. They don't accept cash," he told Radio Azadi. "Some [Iranians] buy tickets for us [in exchange for cash], but others don't."
"Unfortunately, as Afghan migrants, we don't have the right to have a bank card or even a SIM card. This is a real problem for us," he said.
Mirwais expressed the same frustration, saying that if fellow passengers are not willing to purchase electronic passes for them, he and other Afghans must take taxis at much greater expense.
He said the same goes for bakeries, which recently introduced a new "smartization" system that uses special cards that allow customers to automatically deduct their purchases from a state-subsidized account.
The initiative has been touted by officials as a way of more effectively distributing subsidies, easing skyrocketing prices for flour and bread, and eliminating graft.
'They Make It Hard'
Officials have denied they are excluding anyone and have pledged to fix any difficulties stemming from the new systems, saying that there are alternatives to using bank cards and that the Tehran subway allows Afghan nationals experiencing payment issues to ride for free.
But Afghans who spoke to Radio Azadi said the reality is much different.
"My wife offered the baker money six times, but the baker would not accept it, saying she must bring a bank card," Mirwais said this week. "There are some [Iranians] who offer their cards, one in 1,000. They give their cards and take cash to resolve the problem."
"We go to the bank, they don't accept our passports; we go to buy a SIM card, they don't accept our passports," Mirwais said. "It should be easy to use the subway, but the government makes it hard for migrants."
Millions Of Migrants
An estimated 3 million Afghans, many of them undocumented refugees and migrants, live in Iran. Many have complained of widespread discrimination and abuse.
More than 1 million Afghans crossed into Iran in 2021, often en route to third countries, as the Taliban advanced and eventually seized power in Afghanistan that year. Iranian authorities have reportedly deported more than half of recent arrivals.
Many Afghan migrants in Iran moved to the Islamic republic decades ago amid political upheaval and war. Iran has also long been a destination country for Afghan migrant workers seeking seasonal jobs.
Migrants are officially divided into two categories in Iran: those who are documented and have passports, residency, or immigration cards, and the undocumented. The latter group includes Afghans who never held passports in their home country.
Iran provides one-year residency permits for more recent arrivals, and has said that full access to banking and social services, including health insurance, are available to all migrants who officially register their names and information with the Interior Ministry. More than 2 million foreign nationals have complied and are on the books, according to the ministry.
But mired in its own economic crisis amid skyrocketing inflation and rising food prices, Iran has often expressed alarm at the number of undocumented Afghans on its soil.
Undocumented Afghans like Amiri have little hope of gaining access to basic services, and even those who have residency permits can only hold bank accounts for the one-year period of their stay.
"We can't open a bank account because we don't have any [identity] documents with us," Amiri said.
"We applied at several banks, but they've told us that we must wait. So, we're just waiting to see what will happen. Having a bank card is essential for us, for our daily lives."
Written by Michael Scollon based on reporting by Freshta Negah of RFE/RL's Radio Azadi
Satellite Imagery Captures New Defensive Fortifications In Belarus Near Ukrainian Border2
Kyiv Using 'Ukrainian Storks' For Reconnaissance Over Bakhmut3
Zelenskiy Says Ukraine Ready To Launch Its Long-Awaited Counteroffensive4
Moscow Does Not Believe In Drones: Why Are Military-Grade Drones Flying Over The City And Who's Behind It?5
Live Briefing: Russia Invades Ukraine6
Bulgarian Highway Project Could Be A Road To Environmental Disaster7
Then And Now: The Rebirth Of Bucha8
Pashinian Says Armenia Is Not Russia's Ally In Moscow's War With Ukraine9
Scholz Defends Ukraine Aid When Protesters Disrupt His Speech At Party Gathering10
Wagner Group Posts Video Of Russian Officer In Sign Of Rising Tensions With Army