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Taliban Threatens To Kill More South Korean Hostages

August 10, 2007 -- A Taliban spokesman today is rejecting reports that the militant Islamist movement will wait for direct negotiations with South Korean diplomats before deciding the fate of 21 Korean hostages.

Purported Taliban spokesman Qari Yusof Ahmadi says deadlines issued by the Taliban have expired and that there is a danger that "something might happen to them at any moment."

The Taliban kidnapped 23 South Koreans on July 19, and have since killed two of them.

(AP, dpa)

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Taliban's Boycott Of Key UN Meeting A Blow To Hopes Of Increased Engagement

The foreign minister of Afghanistan's Taliban-led government, Amir Khan Muttaqi. The Taliban’s refusal to attend a UN conference is a blow to the hopes of the international community to improve dialogue with the extremist group. (file photo)
The foreign minister of Afghanistan's Taliban-led government, Amir Khan Muttaqi. The Taliban’s refusal to attend a UN conference is a blow to the hopes of the international community to improve dialogue with the extremist group. (file photo)

The Taliban boycotted a United Nations-sponsored conference on Afghanistan, the first time the extremist group was invited to participate in a major international event since it seized power in 2021.

The group's refusal to attend the February 18-19 conference in Qatar is seen as a blow to the hopes of the international community to improve dialogue with the Taliban government, which remains unrecognized and is under sanctions.

The two-day event brought together representatives of member states, special envoys to Afghanistan, and Afghan civil society members, including women.

The conference came amid a standoff between the Taliban and the international community. Since regaining power, the hard-line Islamists have monopolized power, committed gross human rights abuses, and severely curtailed the freedoms of Afghan women.

The international community has called on the Taliban to reverse its repressive policies and create an inclusive government, which the extremist group has refused.

"One of our main objectives is to overcome this deadlock," UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on February 19, adding that "the concerns of the international community” and “the concerns of the de facto authorities of Afghanistan” both need to be taken into account.

While the world body has left the door open for the Taliban to participate in future UN-sponsored meetings, observers said it is unclear if the Taliban and the international community can increase engagement and bridge their differences.

'Unacceptable'

The Taliban set conditions for its participation in the Doha conference, including that it be the sole representative of Afghanistan at the meeting. The UN chief said the group’s demands were “unacceptable” and amounted to recognizing the Taliban as the country’s legitimate government.

The Taliban has also opposed the appointment of a UN special envoy to Afghanistan, one of the key issues discussed at the Doha meeting. One of the envoy’s main tasks would be to promote intra-Afghan dialogue.

The Taliban’s Foreign Ministry, in a statement issued ahead of the meeting, accused the international community of "unilateral impositions, accusations, and pressurization."

"One of our main objectives is to overcome this deadlock," UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on February 19, adding that "the concerns of the international community” and “the concerns of the de facto authorities of Afghanistan” both need to be taken into account.
"One of our main objectives is to overcome this deadlock," UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on February 19, adding that "the concerns of the international community” and “the concerns of the de facto authorities of Afghanistan” both need to be taken into account.

Javid Ahmad, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, said the group wants to engage with the international community on “Taliban-owned terms without having to entertain negotiations that could challenge their grip on power.”

Ahmad said the Taliban was keen to avoid being “pigeonholed by the engagement community into unwanted conference outcomes without prior discussions, which would undermine their authority as rulers.”

That, experts said, would explain the Taliban’s opposition to the appointment of a UN special envoy for Afghanistan, an international interlocutor who would be tasked with promoting dialogue between the extremist group and exiled opposition political figures.

Since seizing power, the Taliban has sidelined many ethnic and political groups as well as women. The Taliban's theocratic government appears to have little support among Afghans.

“Problems will persist as long as these issues are not addressed,” Ali Ahmed Jalali, a distinguished professor at the National Defense University in Washington, told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi. “The appointment of the UN special envoy will mean that the Taliban government is downgraded from a government to a group.”

'Categorical Answer'

Most of the international community’s dialogue with the Taliban has been through its ministers in Kabul and its diplomats in Qatar, where the group maintains a political office.

But experts said the Taliban’s spiritual leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, and his key confidants, all of whom are senior clerics, have the real decision-making authority in the group.

The Taliban sees itself as only answerable to Allah and not the people of Afghanistan and even less to the international community."
-- Anders Fange, Swedish aid worker

The reclusive Akhundzada, a hard-line cleric who rarely leaves the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, has the ultimate say on all important matters under the Taliban’s clerical system.

“The Taliban diplomats will keep the door open,” said Anders Fange, a Swedish aid worker who worked for the UN in Afghanistan. “But the people down in Kandahar will give you a more categorical answer.”

Fange said international pressure on the Taliban is unlikely to work given the fundamentalist views of its leadership.

“The Taliban sees itself as only answerable to Allah and not the people of Afghanistan and even less to the international community,” he added.

International Divisions

One of the key aims of the Doha conference was to reach a consensus among member states on how to deal with the Taliban. But that has been complicated by Afghanistan’s neighbors, as well as Russia and China, who have forged ties with the Taliban.

At the Taliban's request, the Russian delegation that participated in the Doha meeting refused to meet the Afghan civil society representatives.

China’s special envoy to Afghanistan, who was in Doha, meanwhile called on Washington to unfreeze some $7 billion in Afghan central bank reserves held in the United States, a move that Beijing has said will allow the Taliban to address the devastating humanitarian and economic crises in Afghanistan.

If the West does not engage with the Taliban, it risks “being entirely without influence" in Afghanistan, said Fange.

Landslide In Afghanistan Kills At Least 5, Leaves 22 Trapped, Missing

An avalanche has killed at least five people and left 22 more trapped or missing amid heavy rainfall in a mountainous region of an eastern Afghan province, locals and a Taliban official said on February 19. The landslide in the Nurgram district of Nuristan Province destroyed as many as six homes, according to Gohar Rahman, a deputy district governor for Afghanistan's Taliban-led government. Afghanistan has been hit by heavy rainfall following an extended drought that worsened the humanitarian crisis in a country already hard-hit by decades of war. To read the original story by Radio Azadi, click here.

Updated

At Afghanistan Meeting, UN's Guterres Pledges Work To Appoint Envoy

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres held closed-door sessions with the representatives of several nations and organizations on the first day in Doha. (file photo)
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres held closed-door sessions with the representatives of several nations and organizations on the first day in Doha. (file photo)

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on February 19 told a press conference at a two-day UN-sponsored meeting of more than two dozen nations but not including Taliban representatives in the Qatari capital to discuss the "evolving situation" in Afghanistan that he is starting consultations toward appointing a UN envoy to coordinate engagement between Kabul and the international community.

The Doha gathering is also aimed at discussing possible international engagement since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in mid-2021.

Guterres held closed-door sessions with the representatives of several nations and organizations on the meeting's first day.

Mahbouba Seraj, a civil-society and women's rights representative who is in Doha along with a number of other Afghan participants not affiliated with the Taliban-led government, told Radio Azadi that priority topics on day two would include the plight of women and girls under the Taliban.

She expressed hope that hers and other women's voices will "finally be heard, that this issue will be followed up on, and indeed someone" will take up the cause of Afghan women, who are routinely discriminated against and isolated under the hard-line fundamentalist Taliban.

Girls above the sixth grade have been barred from attending school, universities are closed to women, and work in the nongovernmental sector and among most government bodies has been banned for women, in addition to other restrictions.

The Taliban leadership declined the invitation from the UN Department of Political Affairs and Peacebuilding (DPPA) to attend the gathering.

Guterres said the Taliban set unacceptable conditions for attending the meeting, including the barring of Afghan civil society members and de facto recognition of the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate rulers.

“I received a letter with a set of conditions to be present in this meeting that were not acceptable,” Guterres told a news conference. “These conditions denied us the right to talk to other representatives of Afghan society and demanded a treatment that, to a large extent, would be similar to recognition.”

Russia also said via its embassy in Afghanistan that it wouldn't send a delegation to the Qatari meeting.

Moscow said it was acting "at the request of the Afghan authorities" and would not join "so-called Afghan civil activists, whose selection, by the way, was conducted nontransparently behind Kabul's back."

Organizers said participants from 25 nations and groups would include those from "Afghanistan, the wider region, and beyond.”

“Other regional organizations working actively on Afghanistan such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the European Union, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization” were also expected to be there.

The Taliban-led government remains overwhelmingly unrecognized internationally since taking over following the withdrawal in mid-2021 of the U.S.-led international coalition that spent two decades in Afghanistan after the events of 9/11.

The Taliban’s Foreign Ministry on February 17 said that due to the nonacceptance of its demands, it did not consider participation in the Doha meeting to be fruitful, expressing anger over the planned appearance of non-Taliban Afghan representatives at the sessions. The Taliban has long had a representative office in Qatar.

The DPPA said the current session would “take place in the context of Security Council resolution 2721 (2023), which encourages member states to consider increasing international engagement in the country, with the objective of a ‘clear end state of an Afghanistan at peace with itself and its neighbors, fully reintegrated into the international community, and meeting international obligations.’”

The gathering is the second such meeting organized by the UN in the past year following a session in May 2023.

With reporting by AP

Afghan Province Orders Officials Not To Photograph Living Things

Afghan nomads carry firewood on donkeys in Kandahar Province.
Afghan nomads carry firewood on donkeys in Kandahar Province.

Authorities in the Afghan province of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, ordered officials on February 18 not to take pictures or videos of "living things." In a letter addressed to civilian and military officials, the provincial department of the interior directed them "to refrain from taking pictures of living things in your formal and informal gatherings, because it causes more harm than good." It said text or audio content on officials' activities was allowed. Images of humans and animals are generally avoided in Islamic art, extending for some Muslims to an aversion to any images of living things.

Former Envoy Gives Pessimistic Assessment Of Taliban As Crucial UN Meeting Opens

"A lot will depend on whether the Taliban attend the meeting in Doha," Nicholas Kay said. (file photo)
"A lot will depend on whether the Taliban attend the meeting in Doha," Nicholas Kay said. (file photo)

A former British diplomat and NATO representative in Afghanistan says he is not optimistic about the situation in the war-torn country as its Taliban leaders continue to restrict rights and freedoms, especially for women.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, Nicholas Kay, NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan between 2018 and 2020, said he saw little potential for change in Afghanistan in the near future with the Taliban holding a tight grip on society.

"I think it's tough days ahead for Afghans, unfortunately," he said ahead of a major UN meeting on Afghanistan that began in Doha on February 18. "I wish I could be more optimistic."

Since the Taliban's return to power in August 2021, the extremist Islamist group has banned education and work for women in most sectors. Afghans have lost most fundamental rights and many face Taliban retribution and oppression.

The country's aid-dependent economy has shrunk dramatically as natural disasters, climate change, and forced returns of Afghan refugees from neighboring countries have worsened the world's largest humanitarian crisis.

Kay says that reforming or diluting the Taliban's hard-line policies will be "a long, hard process," because the group is committed to its ideology and way of governing.

"I don't see any immediate openings in terms of granting more human rights, civil and political rights to Afghans," he said.

Kay, however, said he didn't expect the international community to abandon the country, with continued aid likely to flow to alleviate the suffering of Afghans.

"It is nobody's interest to see the Afghan state collapse and its institutions collapse," he said. "So, a degree of cooperation and support will continue."

International diplomacy concerning Afghanistan is intensifying.

The United Nations has invited the Taliban to the two-day international conference on Afghanistan that began in the Qatari capital on February 18.

Hosted by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, special envoys of member states and regional organizations will discuss international engagement with the Taliban and the potential appointment of a UN special envoy tasked with promoting reconciliation among Afghans.

Kay said that if the meeting achieves consensus over appointing a UN special envoy, it will be "good progress."

However, the Taliban government is staunchly opposed to the appointment of a high-profile UN envoy.

It argues that the UN presence under Roza Otunbaeva, the UN secretary-general's special representative for Afghanistan, who heads the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), is enough.

"A lot will depend on whether the Taliban attend the meeting in Doha," Kay said.

The Taliban claims that its internationally unrecognized government has restored peace by establishing a central authority, and thus there's no need for an inclusive government.

Meanwhile, Kay said he saw the Taliban as being "an awful long way" from accepting that its government is not inclusive and that its treatment of girls and women "is a crime against humanity" and "a form of gender apartheid."

"As long as that persists, then I fail to see that there will be a normalization of relations between the international community and the Taliban."

Written by Abubakar Siddique based on reporting by Mustafa Sarwar

5.0-Magnitude Earthquake Jolts Northern Afghanistan

A family picture can be seen on a wall of a damaged house after an earthquake in Afghanistan's Herat Province in October 2023.
A family picture can be seen on a wall of a damaged house after an earthquake in Afghanistan's Herat Province in October 2023.

A relatively strong earthquake hit Afghanistan's northern province of Balkh on February 18. The 5.0-magnitude quake occurred at a depth of 10 kilometers, according to the United States Geological Survey. Haji Zaid, the Balkh governor's spokesman, said on social media that there were no immediate reports of damage or casualties. In October, a series of quakes with magnitudes of up to 6.3 rocked Afghanistan's western province of Herat. According to the United Nations, the quakes killed around 1,500 people and injured nearly 2,000.

International Envoys Discuss Afghan Engagement In Doha; Taliban Rejects Invite

Since the Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan in August 2021, the international community has wrestled with its approach to the country's new rulers. (file photo)
Since the Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan in August 2021, the international community has wrestled with its approach to the country's new rulers. (file photo)

Special envoys from more than two dozen countries gathered in the Qatari capital to discuss the "evolving situation" in Afghanistan and possible international engagement since the Taliban's takeover of the country in mid-2021, organizers of the UN-led event said on February 18.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres held closed-door sessions with the representatives of several nations and organizations on the first day of the two-day meetings in Doha sponsored by the UN's Department of Political Affairs and Peacebuilding (DPPA). No details of the meetings were immediately released.

Organizers said participants from 25 countries and groups would include those from "Afghanistan, the wider region, and beyond.”

“Other regional organizations working actively on Afghanistan such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the European Union, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization” would be there, a statement said.

The DPPA said the “de facto authorities” from Afghanistan had been invited, but the Taliban’s Foreign Ministry on February 17 said that due to the nonacceptance of its demands, it did not consider participation in the Doha meeting to be fruitful, expressing anger over the planned appearance of non-Taliban Afghan representatives at the sessions.

The Taliban has long had a representative office in Qatar.

Reports in the Afghan media said Lotfollah Najafizadeh on behalf of civil activists and Mahbubeh Siraj, Mitra Mehran, and Shah Gul Rezaee representing Afghan women's rights groups were participating.

The DPPA said the current session would “take place in the context of Security Council resolution 2721 (2023), which encourages member states to consider increasing international engagement in the country, with the objective of a ‘clear end state of an Afghanistan at peace with itself and its neighbors, fully reintegrated into the international community, and meeting international obligations.’”

In an interview with RFE/RL, Nicholas Kay, a former British diplomat and NATO representative in Afghanistan, said he is not optimistic about the situation in the war-torn country as its Taliban leaders continue to restrict rights and freedoms, especially for females.

Kay, NATO’s senior civilian representative in Afghanistan in 2018-20, said he sees little potential for change in Afghanistan in the near future with the Taliban holding a tight grip on society.

“I think it's tough days ahead for Afghans, unfortunately,” he told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi ahead the Doha sessions.

“I wish I could be more optimistic,” he said.

The gathering is the second such meeting organized by the UN in the past year following a session in May 2023.

Afghan Women Fear Going Out Alone Due To Taliban Decrees On Clothing, Male Guardians, UN Says

A Taliban fighter stands guard as women wait to receive food rations distributed by a humanitarian aid group in Kabul.
A Taliban fighter stands guard as women wait to receive food rations distributed by a humanitarian aid group in Kabul.

Afghan women feel scared or unsafe leaving their home alone because of Taliban decrees and enforcement campaigns on clothing and male guardians, according to a report from the UN Mission in Afghanistan. The report was issued days before a UN-convened meeting in the Qatari capital Doha, where member states and special envoys to Afghanistan are expected to discuss engagement with the Taliban. The Taliban have barred women from most areas of public life and stopped girls from going to school beyond the sixth grade as part of harsh measures they imposed after taking power in 2021.

The Azadi Briefing: Why Does The Taliban Oppose Appointment Of A UN Special Envoy To Afghanistan?

Members of a Taliban delegation arrive for a meeting with foreign diplomats in Qatar's capital Doha, in October 2021.
Members of a Taliban delegation arrive for a meeting with foreign diplomats in Qatar's capital Doha, in October 2021.

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

I'm Abubakar Siddique, 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 United Nations is convening a major international meeting on Afghanistan in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar on February 18-19.

The possible appointment of a special UN envoy to Afghanistan will be one of the key issues discussed at the meeting, which will bring together the special representatives for Afghanistan from various countries.

But the Taliban has opposed the appointment of an envoy, an international interlocutor who would be tasked with promoting dialogue between the extremist group and exiled opposition political figures.

After seizing power in 2021, the Taliban has monopolized power and sidelined many ethnic and political groups as well as women. The Taliban's theocratic government remains unrecognized internationally and appears to have little support among Afghans.

Why It's Important: An intra-Afghan process that would lead to a power-sharing agreement among rival Afghan groups is seen as the best way to reach a lasting peace in the war-torn country.

The Taliban's failure to agree to the appointment of a UN special envoy could undermine reconciliation efforts.

"The Taliban thinks that it is not necessary to have a political dialogue with people who have left the country," Tariq Farhadi, an Afghan political analyst based in Europe, told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi.

Many of the leaders of the former internationally recognized Afghan government went into exile after the Taliban takeover.

The Taliban has said the appointment of a UN envoy is unnecessary because the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), which primarily coordinates humanitarian and development efforts, is already present in the country.

"I don't think that's correct," former British diplomat Sir Nicholas Kay told Radio Azadi, adding that the task of a special envoy will be to promote dialogue among Afghans and "dedicate themselves to that diplomatic international task."

What's Next: Given the Taliban's opposition to a political dialogue and its insistence on imposing its harsh rule through brute force, most of the international community is likely to support the appointment of a special envoy.

But such a move could prompt the Taliban to stop engaging with the United Nations and the international community, which would likely entrench Afghanistan's international pariah status under Taliban rule.

What To Keep An Eye On

Iran has said it is building a 74-kilometer-long "physical barrier" along its long border with Afghanistan.

Kiumars Heydari, head of Iran's regular army ground forces, said on February 10 that the aim was to "block a strip of the border with Afghanistan with physical barriers to limit traffic" on the porous frontier.

He said the project was "one of the most important" undertaken by the Iranian government and will be carried out in four phases.

The launch of the project comes after explosions claimed by the Islamic State (IS) extremist group killed more than 90 people in the southern city of Kerman on January 3, the deadliest attack in Iran in decades.

Tehran has not recognized the Taliban government. But it enjoys relatively good relations with the group, despite clashes over issues like cross-border water resources.

Senior Iranian officials have expressed concerns over security threats emanating from Afghanistan, where IS militants are active. The Taliban claims that the extremist group does not exist in Afghanistan.

Why It's Important: Iran is the second country -- after Pakistan -- that is attempting to build a barrier on the border with Afghanistan.

Iran's project is likely aimed at curbing the thousands of illegal Afghan migrants who cross into the Islamic republic every week. Many are fleeing their homeland to escape Taliban repression and the humanitarian and economic crises in Afghanistan.

On February 14, Taliban officials said that more than 25,000 Afghans had been forcefully expelled from Iran this month.

Tehran has vowed to expel the estimated 5 million Afghans it says are living "illegally" in Iran.

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. You can always reach us at azadi.english@rferl.org.

Azerbaijani Envoy Hands Letter To Taliban On Opening Embassy In Kabul

(illustrative photo)
(illustrative photo)

Afghanistan's Taliban-led government says Azerbaijan has officially reopened its embassy in Kabul, following through on a pledge made last year.

A spokesman for the Taliban-led government's Foreign Ministry, Abdul Qahar Balkhi, wrote on X, formerly Twitter, on February 15 that Azerbaijani Ambassador to Afghanistan Ilham Mammadov arrived in the Afghan capital and handed an official letter on opening the oil-rich South Caucasus state's embassy in Kabul to Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi.

"This meeting discussed the beginning of diplomatic relations between Afghanistan and Azerbaijan, economic cooperation and many other issues," Balkhi wrote, adding that Muttaqi called the opening of the embassy and the sending of ambassador-level diplomats "an important development in bilateral relations."

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev signed a law on opening an embassy in Kabul in January 2021. In July the same year, Mammadov was appointed the ambassador to Kabul.

In December, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Ceyhun Bayramov said Azerbaijan would open its embassy in Kabul in 2024.

Azerbaijani armed forces took part in the international anti-terrorist operation in Afghanistan. They left the country along with the U.S.-led international forces in August 2021, after which the Taliban, which is internationally recognized as a terrorist organization, returned to power.

Mammadov's trip to Kabul comes three days before UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is expected to host an international meeting in Doha, Qatar, to discuss joint efforts to assist the people of Afghanistan.

The Taliban confirmed earlier this month that it had received an invitation to the meeting and was considering "meaningful participation" in it.

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan drove millions into poverty and hunger after foreign aid stopped almost overnight.

Sanctions against the Taliban rulers, a halt on bank transfers, and frozen billions in Afghanistan's currency reserves have cut off access to global institutions and the outside money that supported the aid-dependent economy before the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces.

UN, EU Diplomats Discuss Afghanistan With Central Asian Officials Ahead Of International Conference

UN Special Representative for Afghanistan Roza Otunbaeva (fourth from left) held talks in Bishkek on February 14 with two EU officials as well as officials from the five Central Asian states.
UN Special Representative for Afghanistan Roza Otunbaeva (fourth from left) held talks in Bishkek on February 14 with two EU officials as well as officials from the five Central Asian states.

BISHKEK -- The UN secretary-general’s envoy for Afghanistan met on February 14 in Bishkek with EU and Central Asian officials to discuss joint efforts to assist people in Taliban-led Afghanistan ahead of a more formal international meeting scheduled to take place on February 18-19 in Doha, Qatar.

UN Special Representative for Afghanistan Roza Otunbaeva held talks with two European Union officials -- Special Representative for Central Asia Teri Hakala and Special Representative for Afghanistan Thomas Niklasson -- as well as officials from the five Central Asian states.

It was their fifth meeting to discuss relief efforts for Afghanistan, which has experienced a sharp drop in foreign aid since the Taliban regained power in 2021.

The Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry said in a statement that participants discussed current developments in the South Asian country and the UN-led process ahead of the Doha meeting that Taliban representatives have been invited to attend.

“An online exchange of views also took place with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the diplomatic missions of Central Asian countries based in Kabul,” the ministry’s statement said.

Niklasson told RFE/RL that the meeting was "rather informal," mostly to exchange opinions and analyses on the situation in Afghanistan to check "how we see development, challenges, and opportunities" there.

"This meeting came just a few days ahead of a meeting [on Afghanistan] in Doha [Qatar.] The purpose of this meeting was to compare notes and see that we have a lot in common," Niklasson said.

"We see a need to continue to engage Afghanistan, we see a need to continue to support the people of Afghanistan. At the same time, we see a number of challenges that makes it difficult to move beyond where we currently are," Niklasson added, citing security concerns, economic problems, and a poor human rights situation in Afghanistan under what he called "de facto" leadership.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will host the meeting in Doha, which is starting on February 18. Earlier this month, the Taliban confirmed that it had received an invitation to the meeting and was considering “meaningful participation” in it.

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021 drove millions into poverty and hunger after foreign aid stopped almost overnight. Sanctions against the Taliban rulers, a halt on bank transfers, and frozen billions in Afghanistan’s currency reserves have cut off access to global institutions and the outside money that supported the aid-dependent economy before the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces.

Human Rights Watch said in a report published on February 12 that the drop in foreign aid has heavily impacted that country's public health-care system, exacerbating "malnutrition and illnesses resulting from inadequate medical care."

EU Special Representatives Arrive In Bishkek To Participate In Afghanistan Talks

The two EU representatives will also meet with representatives of Kyrgyzstan's government agencies and civil society. (file photo)
The two EU representatives will also meet with representatives of Kyrgyzstan's government agencies and civil society. (file photo)

Two European Union officials -- Special Representative for Central Asia Teri Hakala and Special Representative for Afghanistan Thomas Niklasson -- arrived on February 13 in Bishkek, where they will participate in special talks with Central Asian officials on joint efforts to assist people in Afghanistan. The two EU representatives will also meet with representatives of Kyrgyzstan's government agencies and civil society. The visit takes place amid criticism by Western nations and rights groups of Kyrgyz authorities over an ongoing crackdown on independent media and democratic institutions. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, click here.

Afghan Health Care Hit By Drop In Foreign Aid, Taliban Rule, Says Rights Watchdog

A woman gives milk to her 2-year-old son as he undergoes treatment in the malnutrition ward of a hospital in Kabul.
A woman gives milk to her 2-year-old son as he undergoes treatment in the malnutrition ward of a hospital in Kabul.

A sharp drop in foreign aid to Afghanistan has heavily impacted that country's public health-care system, exacerbating "malnutrition and illnesses resulting from inadequate medical care," Human Rights Watch said in a new report published on February 12. HRW also said Taliban restrictions on women and girls have impeded access to health care, jeopardizing the right of millions of Afghans to medical services. The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021 drove millions into poverty and hunger after foreign aid stopped almost overnight. Sanctions against the Taliban rulers, a halt on bank transfers, and frozen billions in Afghanistan’s currency reserves have cut off access to global institutions and the outside money that supported the aid-dependent economy before the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces.

Two Afghans Detained At Guantanamo Bay For 14 Years Released By Oman, Taliban Says

Two Afghan prisoners who were held in U.S. custody for at least 14 years at the Guantanamo Bay detention center after 2002 were released from house arrest in Oman, a Taliban spokesman said on February 11. Abdul Zahir Saber and Abdul Karim were released as a result of the efforts made by Afghanistan, a Taliban Interior Ministry spokesman said. An official welcome ceremony is being organized in the capital, Kabul, for their return on February 12, the Taliban said. The two were held in Guantanamo until 2017, when they were transferred to Oman, where they spent the next seven years under house arrest, forbidden to travel.

Iranian Envoy To Kabul Sees Afghanistan As Part Of Tehran's 'Axis Of Resistance'

A file photo of Iran's special envoy to Afghanistan Hassan Kazemi Qomi
A file photo of Iran's special envoy to Afghanistan Hassan Kazemi Qomi

Iran's special envoy to Afghanistan and the head of its embassy in Kabul says Tehran includes the war-torn country as part of is "axis of resistance" -- a loose-knit network of Iranian-backed proxies and militant groups that aid it in opposing the West, Arab foes, and primarily Israel.

Active in the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, the network allows Iran to create chaos in enemy territory while maintaining a position of plausible deniability that it is directly involved.

Speaking on Tehran's Ofogh television network on February 6, Hassan Kazemi Qomi said that under the right conditions, more than one brigade of "martyrdom-seeking" forces could go to Gaza from Afghanistan to support Hamas, another member of the axis which has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and European Union.

Amid intense fighting between Hamas and Israel, Iran has been increasingly vocal about the prospect of additional firepower entering the fray to score a victory for the so-called "axis of resistance" against Israel.

"In what we see in Afghanistan today, it is apparent that Afghanistan is part of the 'axis of resistance.' If there is a situation and a necessity, more than one brigade of 'martyrdom-seeking' forces can go to Gaza in support of Gaza," Qomi said during the interview.

RFE/RL sought comments from officials of the Taliban-led government, but spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid did not respond to the inquiries.

"Martyrdom-seeking" forces often refer to those who carry out suicide attacks in Afghanistan and other countries. The Taliban, which used such forces in its nearly two-decade-long war against NATO-led forces and the security forces of the former republic, is known for this tactic.

Mujahid told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi in January 2021 that a "martyrdom-seeking" battalion would be incorporated into the special forces of the Defense Ministry run by the Taliban.

Aziz Maarij, a former Afghan diplomat in Iran, said Qomi's statement may be an attempt by Iran to drag Afghanistan into its sphere by involving it in the Gaza conflict.

"The innocent Muslims being killed by Israeli oppression in Gaza is a tragedy, but this war is political, competitive, and proxy, in which Iran is involved. It seeks revenge against America and to challenge its rivals by dragging Afghanistan into these issues," Maarij told Radio Azadi.

While Qomi did not specify who or which group could send a "martyrdom-seeking" brigade to Gaza, Iran has been previously accused of sending Afghans to fight in its proxy wars.

Recently, some Iranian media reported the death of Seyed Hamzah Alavi, born in Afghanistan's Parwan Province and a veteran fighter of the Fatemiyoun Division in Syria.

The Fatemiyoun Division is considered a branch of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' Quds Force, which has recruited thousands of Afghan citizens to fight in Syria.

Iran and Israel have been engaged in a yearslong shadow war. Tensions have been exacerbated by the ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Hamas.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Dari by RFE/RL's Radio Azadi.

Amnesty International Demands Release Of Afghan Educational Activists Held By Taliban

Amnesty International called on Afghanistan’s de facto Taliban rulers to free two activists working for the Fekre Behtar educational organization, who the rights group said were “arbitrarily arrested” in October 2023 in Kabul. Amnesty said that “Ahmad Fahim Azimi and Seddiqullah Afghan’s arrest and arbitrary detention are against international human rights law. They must be immediately and unconditionally released.” Amnesty said the men were falsely accused of assisting girls from the national robotic team to leave the country, inciting women protesters, and organizing protests. They have denied the allegations. After taking power in August 2021, the Taliban severely restricted the rights of women and girls, especially in educational matters.


The Azadi Briefing: China Upgrades Diplomatic Ties With The Taliban

China’s president on January 30 became the first head of state to formally accept the credentials of a Taliban-appointed ambassador.
China’s president on January 30 became the first head of state to formally accept the credentials of a Taliban-appointed ambassador.

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

I'm Abubakar Siddique, 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

Chinese President Xi Jinping on January 30 formally accepted the credentials of the Taliban-appointed ambassador, becoming the first head of state to do so.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin clarified that the move did not mean Beijing officially recognized the Taliban government.

“Diplomatic recognition of the Afghan government will come naturally as the concerns of various parties are effectively addressed,” he said.

The Taliban, however, celebrated the move as a major diplomatic victory.

"China understands what the rest of the world needs to understand," chief Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said, urging other countries to expand bilateral relations with his government.

Why It's Important: China’s move is a boost to the Taliban-led government, which has not been recognized by any country since the extremist group seized power in 2021.

Beijing’s expanding diplomatic ties with the Taliban government could prompt other countries in the region, including Iran and Russia, to follow suit.

Ibraheem Bahiss, an Afghanistan expert at the International Crisis Group, said Beijing’s decision suggested that the Taliban was making headway in its strategy to gain official recognition from regional countries.

Countries in the region are growing “more and more skeptical about the Western consensus that the Taliban should stay confined to pariah status on the world stage,” he wrote.

Najib Azad, an exiled former Afghan government official, said that without full diplomatic recognition from all five permanent United Nations Security Council members, Beijing’s move was meaningless.

“Until that time, it is only a PR opportunity for the Taliban to claim success,” he told Radio Azadi.

What's Next: A planned UN conference on Afghanistan later this month is expected to debate the question of Taliban recognition and engagement with the group.

The hard-line Islamist group faces major hurdles in gaining international recognition and legitimacy.

Many nations have tied recognition to the Taliban establishing an inclusive government, ensuring women’s rights, and breaking ties with extremist groups.

But the Taliban has refused to share power, severely eroded women's freedoms, and maintained links with extremist groups, according to experts.

What To Keep An Eye On

Afghanistan dropped 12 places in Transparency International’s global corruption rankings.

Afghanistan was ranked 162nd out of 180 countries in the 2023 Corruption Perception Index. Last year, the same index ranked it 150th. In 2021, under the Western-backed Afghan government, the country ranked 176th.

Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, attempted to downplay Afghanistan’s significant drop in the rankings.

“The drop in ranking doesn’t mean that corruption has increased in Afghanistan,” he said. “But it is possible that other countries have become more transparent.”

Why It's Important: The ranking is a blow for the Taliban government, which has touted its fight against corruption as one of its major achievements.

But Afghanistan’s declining score suggests that corruption, which was endemic under the previous government, remains pervasive.

That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you have. You can always reach us at azadi.english@rferl.org.

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. You can always reach us at azadi.english@rferl.org.

Wet Winter Weather Brings New Miseries To Vulnerable Afghans

Many Afghans are struggling to keep warm this winter.
Many Afghans are struggling to keep warm this winter.

Ongoing snowfall and rain that ended a long dry spell in Afghanistan are now bringing new problems to impoverished Afghans across the country as heating needs jump while humanitarian aid deliveries are impeded.

Since January 28, most of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces have experienced snowfall or rain.

While the precipitation has been widely welcomed because it will help avoid a much-feared drought, some of the most vulnerable Afghans are struggling in its aftermath.

Many citizens don't have the means to buy gas, coal, wood, or fuel to cook and heat their households. Those who live in remote regions also face humanitarian aid delays as the heavy snow makes roads impassable.

“People face serious problems after all the rain and snow,” Ali, a resident of the northern Balkh Province, told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi.

“We don’t have any money and remain hungry," he added.

Khatira, a resident of the capital, Kabul, says her family is miserable because of a lack of heating in the cold winter.

"We cannot keep our children warm by giving them proper clothes or food this winter," she told Radio Azadi.

Some Afghans are unable to do their jobs because of the weather conditions, curtailing their already meager income.

"We don't even have a little food to survive because there is no work, and we are losing hope," Noor Agha, another Kabul resident, said.

Meanwhile, the UN World Food Program says the weather has cut 10 million people off from food aid in Afghanistan.

“Most of whom have to choose between feeding their children or keeping them warm,” the organization said on X, formerly called Twitter.

According to the UN, Afghanistan is expecting a further deterioration in food security by March. Some 15.8 million Afghans, or 36 percent of the total population of over 40 million, will require food aid by the spring.

According to the UN Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), some 29.2 million Afghans out of a population of more than 40 million need humanitarian assistance.

The UN plans to reach 22.3 million of them with more than $3.2 billion in humanitarian funding.

'All Doors Are Closed' For Single And Unaccompanied Afghan Women Under The Taliban

Afghan women sell secondhand clothes in the Jada-e Maiwand area in Kabul on January 17.
Afghan women sell secondhand clothes in the Jada-e Maiwand area in Kabul on January 17.

Women have borne the brunt of the Taliban's repressive laws in Afghanistan, where the extremist group has imposed constraints on their appearances, freedom of movement, and right to work and study.

But women who are unmarried or do not have a "mahram," or male guardian, face even tougher restrictions and have been cut off from access to health care, banned from traveling long distances, and pressured to quit their jobs.

The Taliban's mahram rules prohibit women from leaving their home without a male chaperone, often a husband or a close relative such as a father, brother, or uncle.

Single and unaccompanied women, including an estimated 2 million widows, say they are essentially prisoners in their homes and unable to carry out the even the most basic of tasks.

Among them is Nadia, a divorced woman from the northern province of Kunduz. The mother of four has no surviving male relatives.

"These restrictions are stifling for women who now cannot do the simple things independently," Nadia told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi.

The 35-year-old said women also need to have a male escort to visit a doctor, go to government offices, or even rent a house.

She said she had to pay a man to be her chaperone in order to meet a realtor and sign a rental agreement.

An Afghan girl stands among widows clad in burqas.
An Afghan girl stands among widows clad in burqas.

Nadia also paid a man in her neighborhood around 1,000 afghanis, or $15, to accompany her to the local passport office. But the Taliban refused her passport application and ordered her to return with her father, who died years ago.

"Even visiting the doctor is becoming impossible," she said. "We can only plead [with the Taliban] or pray. All doors are closed to us."

Mahram Crackdown

Women who violate the Taliban's mahram requirements have been detained or arrested and are often released only after signing a pledge that they will not break the rules again in the future.

In its latest report, the UN mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said the Taliban's notorious religious police was enforcing the rules by carrying out inspections in public spaces, offices, and education facilities as well as setting up checkpoints in cities.

Released on January 22, the report said three female health-care workers were detained in October because they were traveling to work without a mahram.

'My Dreams Turned To Dust': Voices Of Afghan Women Banned From Studying By The Taliban
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In December, women without male chaperones were stopped from accessing health-care facilities in the southeastern province of Paktia, the report said.

And in the southern province of Kandahar, the Taliban visited a bus terminal and checked if women were traveling with a male relative, the report said.

In late 2021, the Taliban said women seeking to travel more than 72 kilometers should not be offered transport unless they were accompanied by a close male relative.

In another incident, the Taliban advised a woman to get married if she wanted to keep her job at a health-care facility, saying it was inappropriate for a single woman to work, the report said.

In a report issued on January 18, the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP) said the Taliban's restrictions on single and unaccompanied women has ensured that female-led households receive less income and food.

"Their share of employment has nearly halved, decreasing from 11 percent in 2022 to 6 percent" in 2023, the report said.

The report noted that female-headed households typically care for more children and get paid less for their work and consume lower quantities of food.

"Female-headed households have greater needs for humanitarian assistance and yet report more restrictions to accessing such assistance," the report said.

"Unaccompanied access by women to public places such as health facilities, water points, and markets has declined in the past two years," the report added.

'Deeply Insulting'

Parisa, an unmarried woman, takes care of her elderly parents in the northeastern province of Takhar.

With her father bedridden and her two brothers working in neighboring Iran, she has been forced to take care of the family's needs.

But she said she has been repeatedly harassed by the Taliban while trying to buy groceries in the local market, located some 10 kilometers away from her house.

Afghan women wait to receive aid packages that include food, clothes, and sanitary materials, distributed by a local charity foundation in Herat, on January 15.
Afghan women wait to receive aid packages that include food, clothes, and sanitary materials, distributed by a local charity foundation in Herat, on January 15.

"What can women do when men in their families are forced to leave the country for work?" she told Radio Azadi, giving only her first name for security reasons.

"I have no choice but to look after my family's basic needs. The Taliban's attitude is deeply insulting and extremely aggressive."

Parisa said she has pleaded with local Taliban leaders to relax the mahram requirements. But she said her efforts have been in vain.

"They start abusing and threatening us whenever we try to tell them that we have to leave our houses to meet our basic needs," she said.

Parasto, a resident of Kabul, said the Taliban's restrictions are preventing single women from seeking the limited health care that is available.

"The doctors in the hospitals and clinics are reluctant to see unaccompanied women," she told Radio Azadi.

Parasto said the Taliban's mounting restrictions on women, especially those who are unmarried or do not have a male guardian, have made life unbearable.

"Single women are trying to survive without rights and opportunities," she said.

Written by Abubakar Siddique in Prague based on reporting by Naqiba Barakzai, Abida Spozhmai, and Khujasta Kabiri of RFE/RL's Radio Azadi

China In Eurasia Briefing: The Red Sea Crisis And China's New Game In The Middle East

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet in Beijing in February 2023. How much sway does China actually have over Iran and the Huthis? And would it even want to use it?
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet in Beijing in February 2023. How much sway does China actually have over Iran and the Huthis? And would it even want to use it?

Listen to the Talking China In Eurasia podcast

Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google | YouTube

Welcome back to the China In Eurasia Briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China's resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.

I'm RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here's what I'm following right now.

As Huthi rebels continue their assault on commercial shipping in the Red Sea, the deepening crisis is posing a fresh test for China’s ambitions of becoming a power broker in the Middle East – and raising questions about whether Beijing can help bring the group to bay.

Finding Perspective: U.S. officials have been asking China to urge Tehran to rein in Iran-backed Huthis, but according to the Financial Times, American officials say that they have seen no signs of help.

Still, Washington keeps raising the issue. In weekend meetings with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Bangkok, U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan again asked Beijing to use its “substantial leverage with Iran” to play a “constructive role” in stopping the attacks.

Reuters, citing Iranian officials, reported on January 26 that Beijing urged Tehran at recent meetings to pressure the Huthis or risk jeopardizing business cooperation with China in the future.

There are plenty of reasons to believe that China would want to bring the attacks to an end. The Huthis have disrupted global shipping, stoking fears of global inflation and even more instability in the Middle East.

This also hurts China’s bottom line. The attacks are raising transport costs and jeopardizing the tens of billions of dollars that China has invested in nearby Egyptian ports.

Why It Matters: The current crisis raises some complex questions for China’s ambitions in the Middle East.

If China decides to pressure Iran, it’s unknown how much influence Tehran actually has over Yemen’s Huthis. Iran backs the group and supplies them with weapons, but it’s unclear if they can actually control and rein them in, as U.S. officials are calling for.

But the bigger question might be whether this calculation looks the same from Beijing.

China might be reluctant to get too involved and squander its political capital with Iran on trying to get the Huthis to stop their attacks, especially after the group has announced that it won’t attack Chinese ships transiting the Red Sea.

Beijing is also unlikely to want to bring an end to something that’s hurting America’s interests arguably more than its own at the moment.

U.S. officials say they’ll continue to talk with China about helping restore trade in the Red Sea, but Beijing might decide that it has more to gain by simply stepping back.

Three More Stories From Eurasia

1. ‘New Historical Heights’ For China And Uzbekistan

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev made a landmark three-day visit to Beijing, where he met with Xi, engaged with Chinese business leaders, and left with an officially upgraded relationship as the Central Asian leader increasingly looks to China for his economic future.

The Details: As I reported here, Mirziyoev left Uzbekistan looking to usher in a new era and returned with upgraded diplomatic ties as an “all-weather” partner with China.

The move to elevate to an “all-weather comprehensive strategic partnership” from a “comprehensive strategic partnership” doesn’t come with any formal benefits, but it’s a clear sign from Mirziyoev and Xi on where they want to take the relationship between their two countries.

Before going to China for the January 23-25 trip, Mirziyoev signed a letter praising China’s progress in fighting poverty and saying he wanted to develop a “new long-term agenda” with Beijing that will last for “decades.”

Beyond the diplomatic upgrade, China said it was ready to expand cooperation with Uzbekistan across the new energy vehicle industry chain, as well as in major projects such as photovoltaics, wind power, and hydropower.

Xi and Mirzoyoev also spoke about the long-discussed China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, with the Chinese leader saying that work should begin as soon as possible, athough no specifics were offered and there are reportedly still key disputes over how the megaproject will be financed.

2. The Taliban’s New Man In Beijing

In a move that could lay the groundwork for more diplomatic engagement with China, Xi received diplomatic credentials from the Taliban’s new ambassador in Beijing on January 25.

What You Need To Know: Mawlawi Asadullah Bilal Karimi was accepted as part of a ceremony that also received the credential letters of 42 new envoys. Karimi was named as the new ambassador to Beijing on November 24 but has now formally been received by Xi, which is another installment in the slow boil toward recognition that’s under way.

No country formally recognizes the Taliban administration in Afghanistan, but China – along with other countries such as Pakistan, Russia, and Turkmenistan – have appointed their own envoys to Kabul and have maintained steady diplomatic engagement with the group since it returned to power in August 2021.

Formal diplomatic recognition for the Taliban still looks to be far off, but this move highlights China’s strategy of de-facto recognition that could see other countries following its lead, paving the way for formal ties down the line.

3. China’s Tightrope With Iran and Pakistan

Air strikes and diplomatic sparring between Iran and Pakistan raised difficult questions for China and its influence in the region, as I reported here.

Both Islamabad and Tehran have since moved to mend fences, with their foreign ministers holding talks on January 29. But the incident put the spotlight on what China would do if two of its closest partners entered into conflict against one another.

What It Means: The tit-for-tat strikes hit militant groups operating in each other’s territory. After a tough exchange, both countries quickly cooled their rhetoric – culminating in the recent talks held in Islamabad.

And while Beijing has lots to lose in the event of a wider conflict between two of its allies, it appeared to remain quiet, with only a formal offer to mediate if needed.

Abdul Basit, an associate research fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told me this approach reflects how China “shies away from situations like this,” in part to protect its reputation in case it intervenes and then fails.

Michael Kugelman, the director of the Wilson Center's South Asia Institute, added that, despite Beijing’s cautious approach, China has shown a willingness to mediate when opportunity strikes, pointing to the deal it helped broker between Iran and Saudi Arabia in March.

“It looks like the Pakistanis and the Iranians had enough in their relationship to ease tensions themselves,” he told me. “So [Beijing] might be relieved now, but that doesn't mean they won't step up if needed.”

Across The Supercontinent

China’s Odd Moment: What do the fall of the Soviet Union and China's slowing economy have in common? The answer is more than you might think.

Listen to the latest episode of the Talking China In Eurasia podcast, where we explore how China's complicated relationship with the Soviet Union is shaping the country today.

Invite Sent. Now What? Ukraine has invited Xi to participate in a planned “peace summit” of world leaders in Switzerland, Reuters reported, in a gathering tied to the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion.

Blocked, But Why? China has suspended issuing visas to Lithuanian citizens. Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis confirmed the news and told Lithuanian journalists that “we have been informed about this. No further information has been provided.”

More Hydro Plans: Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Energy and the China National Electric Engineering Company signed a memorandum of cooperation on January 24 to build a cascade of power plants and a new thermal power plant.

One Thing To Watch

There’s no official word, but it’s looking like veteran diplomat Liu Jianchao is the leading contender to become China’s next foreign minister.

Wang Yi was reassigned to his old post after Qin Gang was abruptly removed as foreign minister last summer, and Wang is currently holding roles as both foreign minister and the more senior position of director of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee Foreign Affairs Commission Office.

Liu has limited experience engaging with the West but served stints at the Communist Party’s anti-corruption watchdog and currently heads a party agency traditionally tasked with building ties with other communist states.

It also looks like he’s being groomed for the role. He recently completed a U.S. tour, where he met with top officials and business leaders, and has also made visits to the Middle East.

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

Until next time,

Reid Standish

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

Corruption Watchdog Warns Of 'Troubling Picture' In Central Asia

The report shows Kyrgyzstan's score going down by five points since 2020. President Sadyr Japarov’s "repressive and authoritarian governing style defies legal procedures and constitutional norms, erodes civil liberties, and captures democratic institutions," it said.
The report shows Kyrgyzstan's score going down by five points since 2020. President Sadyr Japarov’s "repressive and authoritarian governing style defies legal procedures and constitutional norms, erodes civil liberties, and captures democratic institutions," it said.

Transparency International says its 2023 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) paints a "troubling picture" of Central Asia as the region struggles with "dysfunctional rule of law, rising authoritarianism, and systemic corruption."

The corruption watchdog released its annual survey on January 30, noting that the average score of 35 out of 100 makes it the second lowest-scoring region in the world, after the Middle East and North Africa region, with a score of 34.

"Widespread democratic backsliding and weakening justice systems are undermining control of corruption, as institutions like the police, prosecutors, and the courts are often unable to investigate and punish those who abuse their power," a report on the index said.

"Leaders urgently need to strengthen the rule of law, rights, and democracy, but many are systematically attacking them," it added.

Ranking at the bottom in the region, Azerbaijan (23), Tajikistan (20), and Turkmenistan (18) continue to struggle with "severe" corruption issues, Transparency International said. The three countries, along with Afghanistan (20), were in the bottom 36 of the 180 countries surveyed.

The report highlighted the deteriorating situation in Kyrgyzstan (26), which it says has turned from "a bastion of democracy with a vibrant civil society to a consolidated authoritarian regime that uses its justice system to target critics."

The report shows Kyrgyzstan's score going down by five points since 2020.

President Sadyr Japarov’s "repressive and authoritarian governing style defies legal procedures and constitutional norms [and] erodes civil liberties," it said.

"Undue influence on justice – coupled with the ineffective implementation of anti-corruption legislation – is undermining the rule of law and hindering the effective handling of corruption cases. This fosters a culture of impunity for abusers of power throughout the public sector," it added, noting a decline in government transparency and the prevention of journalists and the public from exposing wrongdoing are increasing corruption risks..

Transparency International pointed to Uzbekistan as a bright spot in the region, with the country's score having risen by 15 points over the past decade to 33, with the government being credited for taking key steps include the creation of an anti-corruption agency, strengthening legislation, and liberalizing the economy.

The CPI ranks 180 countries and territories around the globe by their perceived levels of public sector corruption, scoring on a scale of 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean).

Kim Jong Un's 'Infidel' Hairstyle A Fashion Sin Under New Taliban Rules

Afghan men have limited options when visiting the barbershop if they do not want to be accused of walking away looking like a trendy Westerner or a North Korean dictator.

No haircuts that make them look like an "infidel." No trimmed eyebrows. And no shaved faces or beards shorter than the optimal length.

Any of those styles are considered a fashion sin, according to a new six-point list of rules for barbers issued by the Taliban's Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

The issuance of the directives, initially denied by the ministry, were confirmed by a regional ministry official in the western province of Herat this week.

The latest rules say that beards should be no shorter than "one strand" and that men's eyebrows should not be trimmed.
The latest rules say that beards should be no shorter than "one strand" and that men's eyebrows should not be trimmed.

Azizul Rahman Mohajer said on January 23 that certain haircuts were too similar to what the "infidels in the West or North Korea" have.

Some among the younger generation in Afghanistan try to follow these styles, Mohajer said, prompting the delivery of the new rules for barbers to follow.

"If the style is according to our principles there is no problem," he said, stressing that if customers ask for trendy hairstyles or to have their beards cut, barbers should refuse them.

The directives appeared to single out hairstyles that might resemble that of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un -- whose head is shaved on the sides and back, and topped with longer hair in a nod to the cut donned by his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, the founder of communist North Korea.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (left to right), Taliban official Azizul Rahman Mohajer, and American actor Leonardo DiCaprio -- Afghan men need to know which one they should style themselves after.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (left to right), Taliban official Azizul Rahman Mohajer, and American actor Leonardo DiCaprio -- Afghan men need to know which one they should style themselves after.

They were also reminiscent of orders issued under the previous Taliban government in power from 1996 to 2001, including "foreign haircuts" styled after the side-shaved, long-on-top hairdo popularized by American actor Leonardo DiCaprio in the film Titanic. Anything resembling the "Beatles cut," the iconic mop top worn by John, Paul, George, and Ringo during the British band's 1960s Beatlemania era, was also banned.

The latest rules say that beards should be no shorter than "one strand" and that men's eyebrows should not be trimmed. Barbers were also told not to have music playing in their shops, or to have any images that might advertise undesirable styles on display.

It was not clear if the new rules applied only in Herat or across the country.

Since seizing power in 2021, the Taliban has outlawed music and made clear that it considers the shaving or cutting of beards to be a violation of its strict interpretation of Islamic law and values.

Afghan barbers who spoke to RFE/RL's Radio Azadi expressed incredulity at the latest rules, with some questioning how the styles coming under scrutiny could be in violation of Islamic law and saying the order would harm their business.

"If you trim your beard...or wear Western-style clothes, how does that make you a nonbeliever?" asked one barber who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution. "It doesn't make any difference."

"The Koran says that cleanliness is part of the faith, but that is not the case here," a youth from Herat Province who also spoke on condition of anonymity told Radio Azadi. "We understand that wearing a [long] beard is preferred, but it is not a sin [not to have one]."

Policing Appearances

The new rules for barbers are the latest attempt by the Taliban to police the appearances of Afghan men and women.

Since regaining power, the Taliban has ordered male government employees to grow beards and wear traditional attire or risk being fired. In some areas, men have been forced to attend prayers.

In some parts of Afghanistan, the Taliban has banned Western-style clothing, including jeans and suits.

The extremist group has also ordered male teachers and high-school students in some provinces to grow a beard, wear a turban or Islamic cap, and don the "pirhan tumban," the traditional baggy shirt and pants that is common in rural Afghanistan.

The militants have also imposed strict gender segregation in schools, universities, hospitals, government offices, and public transport.

Women have borne the brunt of the Taliban's attempts to police Afghans' appearances. The hard-line Islamist group has enforced strict dress and behavioral codes that require women to cover from head to toe and severely restricts their rights to move freely, work, or receive an education.

The Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice has frequently issued orders it has said are intended to help Afghans stay in compliance with what the Taliban considers Islamic law.

Written by Michael Scollon based on reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Azadi

The Azadi Briefing: Afghanistan's Warm Winter Triggers Warning Of Severe Drought

An Afghan tea vendor looks for customers along the shrunken Qargha Reservoir on the outskirts of Kabul on January 18.
An Afghan tea vendor looks for customers along the shrunken Qargha Reservoir on the outskirts of Kabul on January 18.

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

I'm Abubakar Siddique, 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 UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has warned that an unseasonably dry and warm winter could have devastating consequences for Afghanistan.

“Without substantial snowfall soon, the country could experience a severe drought,” the agency said on January 23, adding that a lack of water could wreak havoc on rain-dependent crops and prevent pastures from recovering, prompting the rural population to move in search of water.

Afghan farmers said they are already feeling the devastating impact of drought.

“People are facing hunger and poverty. There is no work, and most have not cultivated their lands,” Farhad Gul, a farmer in the central province of Ghazni, told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi. “Our cattle are hungry because there is no grass.”

During the past two decades, droughts have sporadically hit the mountainous country, where most of its population of 40 million needs humanitarian aid to survive, according to the UN.

Why It's Important: Drought is a major threat to the livelihoods of rural Afghans, many of whom depend on subsistence agriculture and raising livestock.

Parts of Afghanistan were already reeling from persistent drought before the winter. Decades of war, environmental degradation, and climate change have made the country increasingly vulnerable to drought, according to experts.

Severe droughts could exacerbate the devastating economic and humanitarian crises in Afghanistan, where millions are on the verge of starvation.

The lack of winter rain and snowfall could cause a food shortage, with Afghan farmers unable to cultivate spring crops. Their livestock, too, could be threatened by the lack of water.

This, in turn, could threaten the Afghan economy, which is “stabilizing at a very low level of activity” after shrinking 27 percent since 2020, according to the UN.

“For two successive years, 4 out of 5 households were impacted by drought and/or economic shocks,” the UN report said, adding that “69 percent of Afghans are subsistence insecure -- meaning they do not have adequate resources for basic subsistence living.”

What's Next: Amid the gloomy predictions, the United States Agency for International Development’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network has predicted rain and snowfall across the country in February.

While the rainfall is likely to be lower than during typical winters, it could provide relief to some of the most vulnerable Afghans.

What To Keep An Eye On

The Taliban has continued to wage a violent crackdown on independent media, forcing a growing number of journalists to abandon their professions.

"Before I was released, my family was forced to guarantee that I would no longer work with the international media,” an unnamed journalist recently released from Taliban detention told Radio Azadi.

"They slapped me, threatened me, and tied me up,” said another journalist who was also recently detained by the Taliban. "They told me: 'Don't dig around for the truth. Just take care of your family.'"

Both reporters talked on condition of anonymity due to fears of retribution.

Why It's Important: Since seizing power, the Taliban has imposed severe restrictions on the media and access to information, and increased detentions of reporters, activists, and other critics as part of its brutal crackdown on dissent.

That has forced hundreds of reporters and media workers to flee their homeland or abandon their professions.

That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you have. You can always reach us at azadi.english@rferl.org.

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. You can always reach us at azadi.english@rferl.org.

Madrasahs Go Mainstream: Taliban To Grant University Degrees To Religious Students In New Blow To Secular Education 

Taliban members participate in an exam in the southern province of Uruzgan. (file photo) 
Taliban members participate in an exam in the southern province of Uruzgan. (file photo) 

Since seizing power, the Taliban has appointed its foot soldiers, commanders, and leaders as ministers and the heads of state-run institutions in Afghanistan, including universities and hospitals.

The decision has triggered widespread criticism among Afghans, who have accused the Taliban of hiring unqualified and uneducated fighters and clerics to key positions in its government.

In a move that is seen as a response to that criticism, the extremist group announced on January 20 that it would be granting graduates of madrasahs, or Islamic seminaries, the equivalent of high school diplomas and university degrees.

Afghan academics and educators say the Taliban is trying to pave the way for its members and loyalists to dominate government ministries and institutions.

Since the Taliban regained power in 2021, thousands of civil servants who worked for the Western-backed Afghan government have remained on the payroll of the Taliban government. But many have been forced to sign pledges that they will adhere to Islamic Shari’a law or were subjected to a test that gauged their knowledge of Islam.

“The Taliban loyalists are being gifted bachelor’s and master’s degrees,” Jehandad Jehani, a former economics professor at Khost University in southeastern Afghanistan, told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi.

"This step will deny jobs to [non-Talibs] in the government and public sector," Jehani said. "People pursued formal studies for decades to help equip themselves for specific roles."

The Taliban’s government is dominated by clerics and lacks management experience and expert knowledge, which analysts say has exacerbated the already dire humanitarian and economic crises in the country.

Overhauling The System

Under the previous Afghan government, madrasahs were often informal and offered religious instruction to children in mainly poor communities.

But since the Taliban takeover, the militants have overhauled the education system in Afghanistan. They have converted scores of secular schools, public universities, and vocational training centers into Islamic seminaries, leading to a surge in the number of madrasahs in the country.

A gender-segregated classroom at a university in the southern city of Kandahar. (file photo)
A gender-segregated classroom at a university in the southern city of Kandahar. (file photo)

The Islamist group has also vowed to change the national curriculum and build a vast network of madrasahs across the country’s 34 provinces.

Hundreds of university professors and schoolteachers have been fired from their positions or fled the country, while teenage girls and women have been banned from receiving an education.

Afghan educators say the Taliban is bent on rooting out all forms of the modern secular education that thrived in Afghanistan after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 toppled the group’s first regime.

In its latest attempt to undermine secular education, the Taliban’s Ministry of Higher Education said on January 20 that it will grant the equivalent of high school diplomas as well as bachelor’s and master’s degrees to graduates of Taliban-run madrasahs.

The ministry said madrasah students who complete six years of education will get the equivalent of high school diplomas. Students who complete eight years of education will be granted a bachelor’s degree, while those with 11 years of religious education will be given a master’s degree after passing a test.

The move is likely to see tens of thousands of madrasah graduates receive formal qualifications, which are limited to Islamic subjects, including jurisprudence and Shari’a law.

Nida Mohammad Nadim, the Taliban’s higher education minister, gives a diploma to a newly graduated Kabul medical university student in November.
Nida Mohammad Nadim, the Taliban’s higher education minister, gives a diploma to a newly graduated Kabul medical university student in November.

The Taliban said it is currently administering exams across Afghanistan that will see some 50,000 madrasah students graduate with new diplomas and degrees.

“Now that they are equating the academic credentials of the madrasahs with those of the universities, it will render the latter irrelevant,” Noorullah Shad, a former university professor in Khost, told Radio Azadi.

“One can graduate from a madrasah in eight years, but it takes 16 years to finish [secular] school and get a bachelor’s degree from the university,” he added.

Asif Nang, a former Afghan education minister, said secular Afghan universities offered degrees in Islamic studies even before the Taliban takeover. But he said religious instruction has now overshadowed secular education.

He said the Taliban’s new decision is likely to pave the way for even more of its members to secure jobs in the government and state-run institutions.

Nang said the move is part of a broader effort by the Taliban to transform from a guerrilla insurgency into a functional government.

“The Taliban wants to transform its fighters from nonstate actors into state actors,” he said.

Written by Abubakar Siddique based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi.

Pakistan Reopens Key Border Crossing With Afghanistan

The Torkham closure on January 12 caused huge commercial losses to both countries.
The Torkham closure on January 12 caused huge commercial losses to both countries.

Pakistan on January 23 reopened the Torkham border crossing with Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, a critical access route for trade and transportation between the two countries, after a 10-day closure prompted by Islamabad's imposing of a requirement for passports and visas for Afghan drivers.

A Pakistani customs official in Torkham told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal on condition of anonymity that the border was reopened at 10 a.m. local time, allowing the flow of trucks and people once again.

The move came after a meeting between Pakistani and Taliban officials on January 22 in Torkham during which the two sides agreed to reopen the crossing, the official said.

The Torkham border crossing links Pakistan's western Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province to Nangarhar, an eastern Afghan province, through the historic Khyber Pass.

The Torkham closure on January 12 caused huge commercial losses to both countries, blocking the entry of hundreds of trucks carrying tens of tons of oranges and tangerines, according to Afghan trade officials.

lslamabad's move to impose tighter controls requiring drivers from both sides to have visas and passports -- documents many Afghans do not have -- came amid a deterioration of relations between the two neighbors, with Pakistan accusing the Taliban of allowing militants to stage attacks across the border from Afghan territory.

Since October, Pakistan has expelled more than a half-million undocumented Afghans over the Taliban's failure to rein in the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban.

Islamabad blames the group for escalating attacks on security forces and accuses the Taliban government of sheltering TTP militants.

Officials say TTP attacks have killed more than 2,000 Pakistanis since the Taliban's return to power in August 2021.

Pakistan says that more than 1.7 million undocumented Afghans reside on its territory.

With reporting by AFP

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