Afghan Diary, Part Two: The Challenge Of The 'Pashtun Belt'
A local malik, or village administrator, shows where he wants a bridge to be built (RFE/RL) RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent, Ahto Lobjakas, spent a week with NATO-led troops in Afghanistan this month. The trip was organized by NATO for European journalists to show them the reality on the ground for troops in the International Security Assistance Force. In his five-part Afghan diary, Lobjakas takes us from Kabul to Kandahar and two other southern provinces, where the Taliban insurgency is strongest and opium-poppy cultivation hardest to eradicate.
NATO, or ISAF (I will use the two terms interchangeably), have kindly seen fit to treat me to three days of visiting Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in three different southern provinces -- Kandahar, Zabul, and Uruzgan.
PRTs form the nexus of the conundrum facing ISAF in Afghanistan. "There can be no security without reconstruction, and no reconstruction without security" has become something of a mantra for NATO's secretary-general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.
There are 25 PRTs in Afghanistan (one per province, with nine provinces yet to acquire one), and the three listed above are arguably among the most crucial, given that NATO's toughest challenge lies in the southern Afghan part of the wider "Pashtun belt." That challenge combines the double menace of the Taliban insurgency and poppy cultivation. That the recent resurgence of the Taliban in the south of the country closely shadows increases in poppy cultivation is commonly noted by ISAF officials. That the Taliban is a 99-percent Pashtun phenomenon is a somewhat more reluctantly acknowledged, but nonetheless equally incontrovertible, truth.
As my small party was about to embark on its tour, we were told in passing that we would on each leg be joined by a couple of our Afghan colleagues. None ever materialized, however, and after the initial excitement subsided I later asked an ISAF media officer what had happened. I was told that on the first day, one local journalist had turned up at the gates of the wrong compound, where the guards had not been briefed. Two others had arrived at the right ISAF camp, one carrying an expired Afghan press ID and the other an inexpertly forged ISAF pass. Both were detained, questioned for hours, and eventually released. Why the two had taken such liberties was never clearly explained, nor possibly understood, by ISAF personnel.
On another day, a local colleague was apparently on the cusp of accompanying us to Zabul, but then backed out, reportedly for fear of missing the beginning of Ramadan that same night.
Ramadan, as a phenomenon, does not impinge on ISAF's military routine much. ISAF officials and troops are, however, keen to show respect for local traditions in their contacts with Afghans. So in Uruzgan, the Dutch troops at the Chora outpost, living cheek by jowl with an Afghan National Army (ANA) detachment, decided to forego lunch in a one-off gesture on the first day of the fasting month. Which meant the same for our visiting party of journalists. (On a culinary note, as we spent most of our time on base, nearly all of our meals consisted of military fare -- plentiful and wholesome, but prone to repetition and routine. None of it is local, and the amounts wasted look biblical.)
Seat Of Pashtun Power
Kandahar, our first destination, took us to the historical seat of Pashtun political ambition. Modern Afghan kings hail from the region, as does the Taliban, as does President Hamid Karzai.
The Kandahar PRT, located on the outskirts of the city, has Canada as its lead nation. Its corridors currently ring with pronounced French accents, as the country is for the time being represented in Afghanistan by the 22 Regiment, which hails from Quebec.
The PRT is involved in projects -- whose numbers vastly exceed expectations -- intended to improve local welfare, such as funding schools, hospitals, bridges, and wells. I am taken to see a cutting-edge ISAF project -- a shura, or council, turned into a District Development Assembly, which convenes local tribal elders on a regular basis for discussions of what amount to regional development plans. The hope is the local elders will prepare themselves for the challenges of institutionalized self-government, learning on the job. Dand district, whose shura I visit, is a reputed Taliban stronghold. Neither I -- nor ostensibly anyone at ISAF -- knows whether any of the men we meet are Taliban sympathizers.
I then go to see a canal built with ISAF funds, but the crafty "malik" -- a local village administrator -- redirects my group to where he wants ISAF to build a new bridge. Three schools of thought are in evidence as to why a bridge is required. The malik says it would give the 366-hearth village direct access to their grape fields. Some of our Canadian escorts appear to believe the fields are, in fact, a cannabis plantation. Higher-ranked ISAF functionaries say they believe the villagers grow pomegranates.
More than 50 PRT projects are currently in progress in the neighboring Panjwayi and Zhari districts. Both districts, southwest of Kandahar city, are currently a key battleground in ISAF's fight against the Taliban. ISAF forces routed a large Taliban force there in late 2006 and declared a conventional victory. However, as the Canadians pulled back, their casualty-stricken forces, the ANA, and the Afghan National Police (ANP) proved incapable of holding on to the gains and the Taliban started reinfiltrating.
This is exactly the kind of circumstance on which turns the shorter- and medium-term success of ISAF in the south of Afghanistan. A senior ISAF official told me in Kabul that domestic stability is only sustainably achieved by nonmilitary means. ISAF would therefore like to see the ANP become funded as generously as the ANA. Things are moving in the right direction, but the challenges are formidable -- particularly corruption, widely believed to be rife at all political levels. A senior official with ISAF tells me privately the going rate for police chiefdoms in poppy-growing regions is rumored to be $400,000.
Meanwhile, it is not all clear sailing for the chief of ANA's southern 205th Corps in Kandahar, Brigadier General Gul Aqa. He first says the ANA has the Taliban on the run, but then admits the ANA cannot stand without ISAF backing. He assures me no poppies are being grown anywhere near where the ANA's 205th Corps has planted its eagles.
Which means the ANA is steering clear of Afghanistan's worst problem. This brings us back to the ANP. The third showpiece project I'm shown is a police substation in northwestern Kandahar. The police in Afghanistan have such a bad rap that the local authorities have banned officers from giving interviews. This is an interdiction Canadian ISAF troops enforce with bizarre zeal. They say they do not want to complicate relations with the governor, a key pillar of support. The little we manage to extract from the police chief suggests he has not had any contact with the Taliban, nor does he wish to have any.
Thus, the circle closes. ISAF says it is in Afghanistan at the invitation of the Afghan government and only does what the government asks. Its officials admit poppy cultivation and the insurgency are inextricably linked. Yet ISAF won't touch the opium trade, partly because it fears fatalities, and partly because the government hasn't asked it to. Which leaves the government to its own devices. It appears to be expected to "uncorrupt" itself and lift itself out of the morass it finds itself in.
Afghanistan's Opium Problem
OPIUM FARMING ON THE RISE Despite a nationwide program by the Afghan government to eradicate opium-poppy fields and offer farmers alternative crops, international experts say that the 2006 opium crop was as much as 50 percent larger than the previous year's record crop. Afghanistan also accounted for practically all of the world's illegal opium production.(more)
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'Arrested And Beaten': Afghan Professor's Protest Against Taliban's Education Ban On Women Lands Him In Prison
Afghan professor Ismail Mashal went viral on social media late last year after he ripped up his academic degrees live on TV to protest the Taliban's ban on women attending university.
More recently, the 37-year-old professor handed out hundreds of free books to girls and women across the capital, Kabul.
But on February 2, Mashal’s defiance of the Taliban’s restrictions on female education finally caught up with him. The professor was beaten and arrested by Taliban fighters.
Mashal is the latest victim of the Taliban’s crackdown on dissent. Since seizing power in 2021, the hard-line Islamists have violently dispersed peaceful protesters and detained and beaten journalists and activists.
Mashal is among the scores of Afghan university professors and teachers who resigned after the Taliban banned university education for women on December 20, in a move that triggered a local and international outcry. Mashal also closed the private Mashal University, which had some 400 students, that he had founded.
During the past 16 months, the Taliban has imposed dozens of restrictions on women’s appearances, freedom of movement, and their right to work and receive an education.
Only girls below the sixth grade are allowed to attend school. High schools for girls have been closed, despite repeated promises to reopen them.
"As the schools and universities are closed, I want these books to be distributed to impoverished Afghans," Mashal told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi on February 2, just hours before his arrest.
Recently, Mashal stacked dozens of books on a cart every day and distributed them for free to residents in Kabul. They were part of his personal collection of around 21,000 books.
Mashal named the cart "iqra," which means “read” in Arabic. It is also the name of a chapter in the Koran, Islam’s holy book, which instructs Muslim to read.
"We now have to provide our people with books and pens in their homes," he told Radio Azadi.
Mashal’s latest form of protest was the last straw for the Taliban. Mashal was arrested as he was distributing books in Kabul’s Dehbori Park.
“He was arrested and beaten,” Ustad Farid, a friend, told Radio Azadi. “They beat him because he distributed books to the people. They took him to an unknown location.”
Abdul Haq Hammad, a Taliban official from the Information and Culture Ministry, accused Mashal of “provoking people against the [current political] system.”
In a tweet, Hammad claimed that Mashaal was not mistreated and allowed to contact his family.
Mashal is not the first Afghan university professor to be arrested by the Taliban.
Kabul University professor Faizullah Jalal was detained for several days in November 2021 after criticizing the Taliban on TV.
The law and political science professor had openly engaged in a heated live debate with Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem on the private Tolo News channel. During the back and forth, Jalal accused the Taliban of stifling free speech and called Naeem a “calf,” an insult in Afghanistan that means stupid. That came after Naeem questioned Jalal’s sanity and alleged he was a communist.
Following Jalal's detention, which was condemned by Amnesty International and other rights watchdogs, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted that he had been detained for inciting violence against the Taliban through social media.
Written by Abubakar Siddique based on reporting by Fereshta Mursal.
The Azadi Briefing: Taliban Doubles Down On University Ban On Afghan Women
Welcome back to The Azadi Briefing, a new RFE/RL newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan. To subscribe, click here.
I'm Mustafa Sarwar, a senior news editor at RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. Here's what I've been tracking and what I'm keeping an eye on in the days ahead.
The Key Issue
The Taliban warned private universities in Afghanistan on January 28 that female students were banned from taking university entrance exams scheduled for later this month. In a letter, the Taliban said any university that disobeyed the order would face “legal action.” Around 140 private universities operate in Afghanistan. Of the 200,000 students enrolled in them, up to 70,000 are women.
The Taliban’s letter came after it barred women from attending private and public universities in December, in a move that triggered widespread condemnation. Days later, the militants also banned Afghan women from working for local and foreign NGOs. The United Nations and representatives from Western nations have held talks with Taliban officials to convince them to reverse their mounting restrictions on women.
Why It's Important: It appears those diplomatic efforts have failed, with the Taliban doubling down on its ban. In the wake of the Taliban’s refusal to budge from its repressive policies, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said Washington will “impose additional visa restrictions” on Taliban officials who are “responsible for, or complicit in, repressing women and girls in Afghanistan.”
Scores of Afghan female students and women's rights advocates have expressed dismay at the Taliban reinforcing its university ban. "This conveys destructive messages to society and the women and girls who were denied the right to education and work,” Sonika, a women's rights activist in Kabul, told Radio Azadi. “A dark future awaits the women of Afghanistan."
What's Next: It appears unlikely that the Taliban will overturn its recent restrictions on women’s rights, despite a local and international outcry. The militants are more likely to continue enforcing more repressive measures against women. The Taliban’s war on women’s rights is likely to further isolate its government, which remains unrecognized by any country in the world.
The Week's Best Stories
Hundreds of Afghan military officers were sent to India for military training in 2021. But after the Taliban toppled the Western-backed Afghan government, many have remained stranded in India, where they are on temporary visas and ineligible to work or receive government help. Officers who spoke to Radio Azadi said they fear returning to their homeland even as they live in dire conditions in India.
A group of young Afghan women have arrived in Central Asia to study at local universities on European Union-funded scholarships. It is part of a project launched in 2019 to bring hundreds of Afghan women to study abroad and return to their home country as skilled specialists. But with the hard-line Taliban in power, the project and the students' futures are unclear.
What To Keep An Eye On
Iran has announced that it will build a trade center in Afghanistan as it looks to expand trade and business ties with the Taliban. Iran’s Deputy Minister for Industry, Mining, and Trade Seyyed Mohammad Musavi was quoted on January 31 by the Mehr news agency as saying that Tehran intends to invest in Afghanistan and assist its neighbor in the fields of technology and construction.
Why It's Important: Iran’s Shi’a clerical regime and Afghanistan’s Sunni Taliban rulers were once sworn enemies but have become allies. Differences remain between the sides. Tehran has yet to recognize the Taliban regime and deadly clashes have erupted between Taliban fighters and Iranian security forces along the countries' 900-kilometer border. But there has also been growing economic and political cooperation between the sides, which have both been hit by U.S. sanctions.
The announcement of an Iranian trade center in Afghanistan is the latest sign of deepening ties. Iran is one of the few countries that has maintained its embassy in Kabul. Tehran is also wary of the presence of Islamic State-Khorasan militants in Afghanistan, who have targeted the Taliban and the country’s Shi’a minority.
That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you have.
Until next time,
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.
'Our Situation Is Terrible': Ex-Afghan Military Officers Stuck In Limbo In India
Just weeks before its collapse, the Western-backed Afghan government sent dozens of army officers for training to India, a close ally. Among them was Captain Obaidullah Zahir, a rising star in the Afghan National Army, which was battling the Taliban insurgency.
After the militant group seized power in August 2021, the Afghan officers were stuck in India, unable to return to their homeland out of fear for their lives and left to fend for themselves by the Indian authorities.
That neglect led to Zahir’s death, according to his former comrades. The military officer died of cancer in New Delhi earlier this month.
"He died because of the long delay in getting treatment," Behzad, another ex-Afghan army officer who did not reveal his real name due to security concerns, told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi.
Behzad said he and other Afghan military officers initially funded Zahir’s treatment. Despite repeated requests to Indian officials, no help arrived. By the time the authorities sent Zahir to an Indian military hospital, it was too late. He died just a week later, Behzad said.
"We all contributed to arranging his funeral and sending him back to be buried in our homeland," said Behzad, who also resides in New Delhi.
Zahir’s death has put a spotlight on the plight of the scores of former Afghan military personnel who remain stranded in India, some 16 months after the internationally recognized Afghan government collapsed and the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan.
The former combatants fear returning to Afghanistan, where human rights groups have documented the killings, torture, and disappearances of hundreds of former members of Afghanistan’s security forces by the Taliban.
"I fear returning to my country will cost me my life," said Behzad, who along with Zahir was among the 120 military officers sent to India in July 2021.
Several dozen Afghan officers have returned to Kabul after completing their one-year training courses in India. The Taliban had guaranteed them safety and jobs. But it is unclear if they are now working for the Taliban.
Radio Azadi reached out to some of them for comment, but they refused to answer questions about their safety or employment.
New Delhi is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or the related 1967 protocol intended to eliminate restrictions on who can be considered a refugee. But, in the past, India has granted asylum to refugees from Afghanistan, mostly members of that country’s tiny Sikh and Hindu minorities.
As a longtime friend of the Afghan people, India should provide us with material support until the situation in Afghanistan changes."-- Behzad, former Afghan army officer
Many former Afghan military personnel are on temporary visas and ineligible to work or receive government help. Some have been offered one-year military courses.
Behzad said India should follow the example of Western countries that have granted asylum or agreed to resettle former Afghan military personnel to third countries.
"As a longtime friend of the Afghan people, India should provide us with material support until the situation in Afghanistan changes," he said, referring to Kabul’s close historic relations with New Delhi.
India has not commented on the fate of ex-Afghan military personnel residing in the South Asian nation. But the Afghan Embassy in New Delhi, which still represents the previous government, said it is in contact with the authorities.
"Together with the Indian authorities, we want to find a lasting solution to their problems," the Afghan Embassy said in a statement sent to Radio Azadi.
That is little comfort for many of the Afghan officers.
"We don't have a clear future," said Javed, a former Afghan army officer who did not want to reveal his real name for security reasons. "My only wish was to return to my country and to serve it, but that is not possible now."
Javed said many of the officers have family members and relatives in Afghanistan, a reality that fills them with dread. The Taliban has targeted the family members of former security personnel in Afghanistan.
"Our situation is terrible," he told Radio Azadi, adding that they are also "worried about what our families are going through back in Afghanistan."
Central Asian Universities Enrolling Afghan Women Amid Taliban College Ban
With the Taliban government banning women from attending universities in Afghanistan, an EU-funded project is being revived to bring dozens of Afghan girls to study in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.
More than 100 Afghan girls who were awarded five-year scholarships are already in the host countries to begin their studies, the organizers said.
The project to help empower Afghan women was initially launched in 2019, when a Western-backed government was still in power in Kabul.
The initiative aims to provide Afghan women an opportunity to study abroad and have better career opportunities when they return home as skilled professionals.
In its first phase, the project granted full scholarships to 50 girls to study in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan through 2025.
Participants for the second phase of the program were selected just months before the hard-line Taliban returned to power in Kabul in August 2021, throwing the future of both the project and the students into disarray.
The Taliban-led government has since banned girls' education after primary school and prohibited women from attending university. Women have also been excluded from many workplaces and banned from working for nongovernmental organizations.
Despite the Taliban’s stance on women’s education and work, the project organizers have managed to bring the 105 second-phase participants to Central Asia.
Sources told RFE/RL that the Kazakh Foreign Ministry played a crucial role in “negotiating with all sides” to arrange the women’s trip from Afghanistan.
The UN Development Fund (UNDP) office in Kazakhstan, which runs the project, told RFE/RL on January 27 that Kazakh universities will host 50 of the students. Thirty others will study in Uzbekistan, and 25 in Kyrgyzstan, it said.
The women are expected to complete their studies in 2027.
The EU has allocated some $5.5 million for the academic project’s first and second stages. It’s not yet known if the program will continue beyond that.
Asked about the future of the project considering the current situation in Afghanistan, the UNDP in Kazakhstan said, “key decisions, including a potential expansion, is a subject for close consultations with the donor.”
Contacted by RFE/RL on January 26, the Taliban-led government’s chief spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said he wasn’t aware of any agreement being reached between the officials in Kabul and the host countries or other parties involved in the project.
Mujahid said he would respond after discussing the issue with Afghan education officials and other relevant authorities, but had not done so as of the time this article was published.
What Does The Future Hold?
If the program goes according to plan, the 155 students in Central Asia will receive diplomas in fields ranging from agriculture, finance, and mining, to engineering, marketing, and computer science.
When it was first launched, project organizers envisaged that the women would return to Afghanistan as highly skilled specialists to help build up both their communities and their country.
With the Taliban in power, the women are unlikely to find work and a career when they go back to Afghanistan. Some of them may not want to return, fearing security risks and other hardships associated with living in an isolated country where women’s rights are severely curtailed.
The UNDP said “the final decision to return to Afghanistan remains at each graduate’s discretion.”
“An intention to return to [Afghanistan] is indeed encouraged by UNDP, but in no way requested as per the principles of do-no-harm,” the agency told RFE/RL.
“The program organizers must think about what these girls will do once they finish their studies,” says Barna Kargar, an Afghan woman who graduated from the Almaty University of Power Engineering and Telecommunications in 2021.
The 25-year-old native of Afghanistan’s Balkh Province received her diploma in the same month as the Western-backed government collapsed in Kabul. She changed her plans to return home and decided to stay in Kazakhstan.
Kargar says her life has been in limbo ever since. Her request for asylum in Kazakhstan has been rejected, leaving her with no legal right to live and work in the country.
“Too scared to go back to Afghanistan,” Kargar has appealed the court decision. Kargar is not a participant in the EU-funded project, but arrived in Kazakhstan with a scholarship from the former Afghan government in 2016.
“Afghanistan today is not a safe place for a woman who has studied in a foreign, modern country, and plans to have a career,” Kargar said.
Authorities in Kazakhstan and the other Central Asian host countries have not said whether they would offer asylum or other forms of residency if needed by the Afghan students once they graduate.
In Kabul, 23-year-old Rahila Yusafzai says she read online about the resumption of the program for Afghan girls to study in Central Asia.
Fluent in English, Yusafzai is keen to get a university education abroad and constantly searches for scholarships, grants, and other opportunities being offered to Afghan women.
“So many [female Afghan] students have had their studies cut short after the Taliban banned them from [attending university] last month. I hope there will be at least some scholarship programs for them to study abroad,” she told RFE/RL.
“We shouldn’t worry too much about what will happen after they graduate,” Yusafzai said. “Many things might happen, many things could change [in the next] five or six years.”
Death Toll In Afghanistan Cold Snap Rises To 166
At least 166 people have died in a wave of bitterly cold weather sweeping Afghanistan, the Disaster Management Ministry said on January 28. Afghanistan has been frozen by temperatures as low as -33 degrees Celsius since January 10, combined with widespread snowfall, icy gales, and regular electricity outages. Aid agencies had warned before the cold snap that more than half of Afghanistan's 38 million people were facing hunger, while nearly 4 million children were suffering from malnutrition. The ministry said on January 28 that the death toll had risen by 88 over the past week and now stood at 166. To read the original story by AFP, click here.
The Azadi Briefing: Afghanistan Plunged Into Darkness Amid Massive Power Outages
Welcome to The Azadi Briefing, a new RFE/RL newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan. To subscribe, click here.
I'm Abubakar Siddique, a senior correspondent at RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. Here's what I've been tracking and what I'm keeping an eye on in the days ahead.
The Key Issue
Large parts of Afghanistan have been plunged into darkness in recent weeks after neighboring Uzbekistan halted electricity exports to the country. The power cuts have hit industries hard and delivered another blow to the country's free-falling economy.
In the capital, Kabul, residents said they receive only one hour of electricity every two days. "Even one hour of electricity helped warm our home," Karima Rahimyar, a teacher in Kabul, told Radio Azadi. She said most Afghans do not have the money to buy coal or wood for heating.
The crippling power outages have coincided with a severe cold snap that has led to the deaths of at least 160 people and the hospitalization of hundreds of others, including children.
Why It's Important: The power cuts have exposed the Taliban-led government's mismanagement of the vital energy sector and highlighted Afghanistan's chronic dependence on electricity imports.
Landlocked Afghanistan imports more than 70 percent of the electricity it needs from Uzbekistan and neighboring Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Iran. But the supply of surplus hydroelectric power from these countries is unreliable. Rising domestic demand and falling production force them to cut the electricity supply to Afghanistan during winters.
The power cuts across Afghanistan began on January 16, when Tashkent halted supplies to Kabul. It went ahead with this despite the Taliban's claims it had reached a new electricity-supply deal with Uzbekistan. Tashkent’s decision to cut exports came amid soaring domestic electricity demand amid a cold snap in Central Asia earlier this month.
One expert tracking the issue said that even with financial penalties for noncompliance, Afghanistan's electricity suppliers would likely "not choose to cut off its own citizens" from power in order to meet its commitments to Kabul.
The Taliban appears to be paying for its past crimes. The militant group attacked vital infrastructure during its nearly 20-year insurgency and prevented the completion of ambitious power generation projects.
What's Next: In a positive sign, Uzbekistan resumed electricity exports to Afghanistan on January 25. This week, Turkmenistan also renewed an annual electricity supply agreement with the Taliban.
But the Taliban's unrecognized and internationally isolated government is unlikely to remedy Afghanistan's chronic energy crisis. It is doubtful the Taliban can attract donor funding and the technical support needed to complete existing hydroelectric projects or build new ones that could substantially boost domestic electricity production.
The Week's Best Stories
- Dozens of ethnic Kyrgyz families have sold their homes and livestock in Afghanistan's remote Wakhan Corridor and are seeking help from Kyrgyzstan to repatriate them to their ancestral homeland. The Kyrgyz government has said it is committed to repatriating the ethnic Kyrgyz, but there are many hurdles to facilitate their return. In video statements sent to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, ethnic Kyrgyz families said they are staying in rented homes near the Tajik border as they wait for Bishkek to help them relocate to Kyrgyzstan.
- For years the Taliban promised a more moderate and inclusive government once foreign forces left Afghanistan. But the rule of the hard-line Islamist group's supreme leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, has been defined by extremist policies that have alienated Afghans and isolated the Taliban's unrecognized government internationally. Michael Semple, a former EU and UN adviser to Afghanistan, told RFE/RL that resistance to Akhundzada's uncompromising approach could unleash another destructive civil war or even spill over Afghanistan's borders.
What To Keep An Eye On
In recent weeks, several international NGOs have resumed some of their lifesaving aid operations in Afghanistan. The move came after the Taliban allowed women working for local and foreign NGOs to restart work, although only in the health-care sector.
These aid agencies returned as senior United Nations officials continued to lobby the Taliban to rescind its ban on Afghan women working for NGOs.
UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed said she pushed "pretty hard" on women's issues during a visit last week to Afghanistan and sometimes "the reaction wasn't pleasant." UN officials hope more humanitarian sectors, including emergency food distribution and education, will be reopened for female workers.
Why It's Important: As Afghanistan grapples with one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, the resumption of some humanitarian aid operations is a positive sign.
But the Taliban's reluctance to allow many female Afghan aid workers to resume work severely impedes the humanitarian aid community's ability to provide lifesaving support to Afghans.
The UN estimates that nearly two-thirds, or 28 million Afghans, out of an estimated population of 40 million need humanitarian aid. Among them, more than 6 million are on the brink of starvation.
That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you have.
Until next time,
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.
'I'm Sitting Here Praying To God': Deadly Cold Sends Afghanistan's Humanitarian Crisis To A New Low
Sharafuddin stands on the side of a road in Afghanistan’s western city of Herat, fighting off his pangs of hunger with sheer determination to score enough work or food to get his family through another day.
It was already an exhaustive daily ritual amid the relentless economic and humanitarian crises that have besieged Afghanistan, but a deadly cold snap has left the 35-year-old father of three praying for survival.
"During the cold nights, we are awake with our children and cannot sleep," the Herat resident says as he tries to warm his hands with his breath. "It is already midday, and I have neither had breakfast nor drank tea. Since the morning I have only earned 20 afghanis ($0.22) and I’m sitting here praying to God."
The severe cold that arrived on January 10 has been brutal, worse than any winter that locals in the city can recall, and has compounded the difficulties faced by Afghans around the country.
In just over two weeks, at least 158 people and well over 70,000 farm animals have succumbed to the unprecedentedly low temperatures, according to the Taliban government, and officials are bracing for a higher death toll as remote areas dig out from heavy snowfall.
The central province of Ghor has experienced the lowest temperatures, with Afghanistan's Meteorological Department saying the thermometer dipped to minus 34 degrees Celsius.
Deaths have been reported in 24 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, Abdul Rahman Zahid, a director with the Taliban's State Affairs Ministry, said in a video message to RFE/RL's Radio Azadi on January 25.
Electricity outages in many areas, including the capital, Kabul, have compounded the problem, while soaring prices for coal, firewood, and other fuels have left many Afghans with no heat. As many as 5,000 children have been hospitalized in the past week alone, according to the Taliban’s Health Ministry.
Temperatures are expected to warm in the coming weeks, but the situation has prompted Zahid to call on the United Nations and donor countries to provide more humanitarian aid to help vulnerable Afghans.
'To Eat Or To Buy Heat'
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) projected this week that 28.3 million people will require humanitarian assistance this year.
Even before the Taliban seized power in 2021, Afghans were struggling from the effects of successive droughts and other natural disasters, as well as insecurity that pushed many from their homes and onto the streets or to crowded refugee settlements where they were at greater risk of contracting diseases.
Under Taliban rule, the country has faced even more challenges, including earthquakes, floods, drought, and rising unemployment and prices. The militant group, isolated and unrecognized by the global community due to its human rights abuses, has also had to deal with the loss or disruption of much of the international aid that Afghanistan depended on.
Aid organizations were bracing for the worst even before winter arrived, with the International Red Cross (ICRC) underscoring the troubling trend of rising disease and hunger among children.
"Afghan families face an impossible choice: to eat or to buy heat," ICRC director of operations Martin Schuepp said during a visit to Afghanistan in November. "And, really, they can’t afford either, resulting in a frightening rise in malnutrition and pneumonia cases."
The ICRC at the time described the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan as "alarming," predicting that 24 million Afghans -- more than half the population -- would require humanitarian assistance and estimating that 20 million were "acutely food insecure."
Saying that "aid organizations can’t answer all the overwhelming cries for help," Scheupp called on states and development agencies to return to Afghanistan to help.
But the distribution of aid has since become even more complicated, after the Taliban decided in December to bar women from working for local and international NGOs.
Following her visit to Kabul the same month, UN Women Executive Director Sima Bahous said that, by barring women from contributing to aid organizations, "the Taliban has in effect suspended aid for half the population of Afghanistan."
Last week, a top delegation of UN women officials met with the Taliban's leadership and pleaded with the government to "put the good of the country first."
Help cannot come quickly enough for Afghans like Khair Mohammad, a resident of Herat who told Radio Azadi that he is struggling to provide for his family.
"Every day we face this cold weather, but there is no work," the 48-year-old father of six said. "There is nothing left to eat. Rice and flour for one night and no more. In this cold weather, life is very difficult."
UN Food Agency Warns That Afghan Malnutrition Rates Have Reached A Record High
Malnutrition rates in Afghanistan are at record highs, with half the country enduring severe hunger throughout the year, a spokesman for the World Food Program said on January 26. The Taliban takeover in August 2021 drove millions into poverty and hunger after foreign aid stopped almost overnight. "Half of Afghanistan endures severe hunger throughout the year, regardless of the season, and malnutrition rates are at a record high for Afghanistan," said Phillipe Kropf, a spokesman for the UN food agency in Kabul. "There are 7 million children and mothers who are malnourished." To read the original story by AP, click here.
Charge Dropped Against Afghan Soldier Seeking Asylum In U.S.
Federal prosecutors have dropped an immigration charge against an Afghan soldier seeking asylum in the United States who was arrested months ago trying to cross the Mexico border after he fled Taliban rule. Abdul Wasi Safi remains in custody at a federal detention center in Eden, Texas, but the end of his criminal case means he will likely be released while his asylum claim is reviewed, an immigration attorney said on January 25. Wasi Safi fled Afghanistan following the withdrawal of U.S. forces in August 2021, fearing reprisals from the Taliban. To read the original story by AP, click here.
UN Pushes Taliban For More Clarity On Women Aid Workers
The United Nations aid chief, Martin Griffiths, said on January 25 that he had urged the Taliban authorities to offer more clarity on humanitarian sectors that could be reopened for Afghan women workers, warning that a "famine was looming" as the country faces a harsh winter. Afghanistan is confronting one of the world's worst humanitarian crises, aid agencies say, with more than half of its 38 million population facing hunger and nearly 4 million children suffering from malnutrition. The crisis was compounded when Taliban leadership banned Afghan women from working with NGOs, forcing several aid agencies to suspend their vital work.
Death Toll From Cold Spell In Afghanistan Rises To More Than 120
The death toll caused by a severe cold spell in Afghanistan has increased, claiming more than 120 lives in the past two weeks, an official said late on January 23. Shafiullah Rahimi, spokesman of the country’s National Disaster Management Authority, told dpa that more than 50 houses have been completely or partially destroyed and 70,000 animals have also perished. Respiratory diseases, mainly among children, increase annually during the cold season but this winter has been unprecedentedly cold, and more Afghans are suffering economically. According to Afghanistan's Meteorological Department, the lowest temperature recorded in January was as cold as -34 degrees Celsius (-29.2 Fahrenheit) in the central province of Ghor.
Afghanistan's Ethnic Kyrgyz Want To Escape The Taliban, But It's No Easy Task
Dozens of ethnic Kyrgyz from Afghanistan's remote Wakhan Corridor are calling on the government in Bishkek to repatriate them to their ancestral homeland so their children can get the education that the Taliban has denied them.
In video statements sent to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, the families say they are staying in rented homes near the Tajik border in the Ishkashim district of Afghanistan's northeastern Badakhshan Province as they wait for Bishkek to help them relocate to Kyrgyzstan.
One of the men said they had recently left their homes in Big Pamir and Little Pamir in the Wakhan Corridor -- the most remote parts of Badakhshan and home to at least 1,500 ethnic Kyrgyz, also known as the Pamir Kyrgyz.
"We sold all our belongings and livestock and moved here. We can't return to Pamir anymore," said Muhammad Abdulzhapar-uulu. "We're living here with this hope that our fellow Kyrgyz [in Kyrgyzstan] will find us and take us out of here."
Sitting next to his wife and their three young children, Abdulzhapar-uulu said the couple's fourth child, a girl, had recently died due to the extreme cold.
Kyrgyz officials say they are aware that nearly 90 ethnic Kyrgyz are waiting for Bishkek to facilitate their repatriation. Bishkek has said it's committed to repatriate all ethnic Kyrgyz from Afghanistan.
But the Kyrgyz Afghans' lack of passports and other logistical hurdles were making it difficult for the Kyrgyz government to arrange their return, the officials said.
The Taliban-led government in Afghanistan halted the issuance of passports in October 2022, citing "technical problems" and leaving many desperate Afghan citizens unable to travel abroad.
"There are 88 ethnic Kyrgyz in [the Badakhshan provincial capital of] Faizabad who can't get passports to come here," Kyrgyz parliamentary deputy Cholpon Sultanbekova told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. "As soon as we received appeals from our fellow Kyrgyz, we contacted the relevant Kyrgyz government agencies about it. We also sought financial aid to help the ethnic Kyrgyz there and are waiting for the government's decision.".
Kyrgyzstan's Foreign Ministry hasn't yet publicly commented on what measures it was planning to help the ethnic Kyrgyz stranded in Ishkashim. The Kyrgyz government relocated 50 Pamir Kyrgyz in 2017 and another 50 in 2019 from Afghanistan for permanent resettlement in Kyrgyzstan.
The returnees have been given homes, access to education and health care, and assistance in finding jobs. As part of a government program for repatriation of ethnic Kyrgyz from abroad, they have also been granted an expedited citizenship procedure.
Those repatriated in 2017 and 2019 have resettled in the eastern Naryn and southern Osh provinces, respectively. Despite the government's help, however, some of the returnees ended up going back to Afghanistan, saying they found it difficult to adapt to the way of life in Kyrgyzstan.
But that was before the hard-line Taliban came to power in Afghanistan. Now, the Pamir Kyrgyz are pleading with the Kyrgyz government, saying that they fear for the future of their children, especially their education.
The Taliban-led government has banned girls' education after primary school. And with international aid dwindling since the Taliban takeover, the country is also facing severe economic hardship.
In a video statement, one Pamir Kyrgyz man, Mazhyraiym Abdulzhalil-uulu, said that not only his teenage daughter, but his two sons were left out of school, as the Taliban closed down some of the boys' schools, too. "I bear responsibility for my children to receive an education. Therefore, I would like to relocate to Kyrgyzstan. I want my daughter to receive an education, so please take us out of here," he said. "If I die here, my children will be left uneducated."
Abdulzhalil-uulu said that in Afghanistan he had his own house and relatively comfortable life, but that his family wanted to leave Kyrgyzstan for good to be with their "own people."
In mid-July 2021, a month before the fall of the Western-backed government in Kabul, 345 Pamir Kyrgyz fled to neighboring Tajikistan as the Taliban advanced toward the north and northeast of Afghanistan.
Kyrgyzstan quickly announced that it was ready to accept the refugees. But Dushanbe sent them back to Afghanistan, saying the Afghan government had guaranteed their safety. The government, however, collapsed the following month.
As the Taliban returned to power, Kyrgyzstan reiterated its commitment to repatriate the ethnic Kyrgyz from Afghanistan.
In September 2021, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov officially launched the construction of a new residential area for the Pamir Kyrgyz in Osh's Chon-Alai district. The government allocated 30 hectares to build up to 400 residential homes in the area. The project also included various social centers, medical facilities, and a school for 275 children.
Japarov has said he wants to repatriate all ethnic Kyrgyz from Afghanistan to their ancestral home.
In July 2022, the Kyrgyz government said it was setting aside nearly $3 million to return and resettle the Pamir Kyrgyz within the following two years.
Ethnic Kyrgyz have lived in the Wakhan Corridor as far back as the 15th or 16th century, with nomadic Kyrgyz herders using the area to graze their livestock in warmer seasons, according to historians.
Hundreds Protest In Afghan City Against Koran Burning In Sweden
Hundreds of Afghan men staged a protest in the eastern city of Khost on January 24 to express anger at the burning of the Koran in the Swedish capital over the weekend. Swedish-Danish far-right politician Rasmus Paludan on January 21 set fire to a copy of the Muslim holy book in front of Turkey's embassy in Stockholm. Protests have been held since then in some Muslim countries, and on January 24 crowds of Afghan men condemned the incident in Khost, a city bordering Pakistan. "Death to the Swedish government, death to such politicians," protesters chanted on the city's main square, an AFP correspondent reported.
UN Aid Chief Raises Women's Rights Concerns With Taliban In Afghan Capital
The United Nations' aid chief visited Kabul on January 23 and raised concerns over women's education and work with the Taliban administration's acting minister of foreign affairs, an Afghan ministry statement said. The Taliban-run administration last month ordered NGOs not to allow most female employees to work, prompting many aid agencies to partially suspend operations in the midst of a humanitarian crisis unfolding during a bitterly cold winter. UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths raised the issue of women's education and work and how this affected the UN's operations, according to the ministry statement. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Taliban Leader's Dominance Results In Increased Oppression, Isolation
Few Taliban members can reach him, and even fewer Afghans have seen him. He refuses to meet foreigners, including the most distinguished religious scholars from the Muslim world.
Despite the Taliban's promises of moderation upon seizing power in August 2021, its man behind the curtain, supreme leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, has dominated decision-making as the hard-line Islamist group continues to restore many of the draconian policies it was infamous for when it ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.
And while there has been some consistent backlash within the Taliban's ranks, Akhundzada has cemented himself as the final say in virtually all matters by micromanaging the Taliban government and decreeing policies that deprive Afghans of fundamental rights.
Pure Islamic System
In his attempt to create what he sees as a "pure" Islamic system, experts say, Akhundzada has alienated Afghans and the outside world and is steering the Taliban and the country he rules down a destructive path.
Michael Semple, a former European Union and UN adviser to Afghanistan, says that resistance to Akhundzada's uncompromising approach could unleash another destructive civil war or even spill over Afghanistan's borders.
"Haibatullah's insistence on pushing through the radical program increases the likelihood of a new round of conflict," Semple told RFE/RL.
Upon returning to power, the Taliban claimed it had put an end to more than four decades of fighting in Afghanistan that began with a communist coup in 1978. The group's leaders have pointed to the relatively low levels of violence recorded since it took over the government as evidence that war in the country was over.
But more than 16 months of Taliban rule under Akhundzada's leadership has poured cold water on the hopes of Afghans and the international community for peace and stability.
Semple says the Taliban's political office in the Qatari capital, Doha, which negotiated the February 2020 agreement with the United States that was to pave the way for a cease-fire with the previous government ahead of the withdrawal of foreign forces, was essentially a public relations stunt. While the Taliban's diplomats in Doha talked about a peaceful transition of power and a broad-based government, they never had true authority.
"We can now safely say that this was never the policy of the Islamic Emirate and these diplomats never had the power within the movement to push through these ideas ... even if they personally thought it was a good idea," Semple said, referring to the Taliban by its formal name.
Semple attributes Akhundzada's success in exercising his power in part to the reality that Taliban leaders and foot soldiers obey his commands as a religious obligation.
Akhundzada, 56, is formally titled the "commander of the faithful." The Taliban also refers to him as the "sheikh" in a nod to his title of Sheikh al-Hadith, which denotes his status as an eminent scholar of the Prophet Muhammad's sayings.
Semple says that Akhundzada's loyal followers want to establish their extreme vision of Islamic rule at all costs, regardless of the consequences.
"The Taliban is an armed Islamist revolutionary movement, long committed to establishing their version of an Islamic state and society by force of arms," he said.
Sami Yousafzai, a veteran Afghan journalist and commentator who has tracked the Taliban since its emergence in the 1990s, says that following the Taliban takeover in August 2021, Akhundzada kept his distance from the group's caretaker government in Kabul by choosing to stay in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar.
Yousafzai says that in recent months Akhundzada has tightened his grip on power by appointing loyalists to key government positions and has even established his own administrative secretariat in Kandahar.
"Akhundzada is running a parallel governance system from Kandahar and has gradually concentrated all the power in his hands," Yousafzai said, adding that every ministry or governmental department now has at least one Akhundzada loyalist working for it.
"Everyone in that ministry knows that he reports to the big boss," Yousafzai said.
Yousafzai says that Akhundzada has surrounded himself with like-minded advisers who echo his thinking on religious and temporal matters. In recent months the supreme leader has also formed provincial clerical councils to supervise the Taliban administration in most provinces.
Akhundzada has also appointed prominent loyalists Mawlawi Habibullah Agha and Mawlawi Nida Mohammad Nadim as the ministers of education and higher education, respectively, two key enforcers of the Taliban's recent ban on women's education. The Taliban's chief justice, Abdul Hakim Haqqani, and Mohammad Khalid Haqqani, the head of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, are other vital confidants.
Akhundzada’s religious credentials raise questions as to whether he could become more extreme.
In an interview this week, Shahabuddin Delawar, the Taliban's minister for mining, revealed that Akhundzada approved of his son carrying out a suicide bombing after his father was selected as the leader of the group in 2016.
He has also taken a defiant stance against outside criticism.
"You are welcome to use even the atomic bomb against us because nothing can scare us into taking any step against Islam or Shari'a," Akhundzada told a gathering in Kabul in July.
Semple, now a Queen's University Belfast professor, says Akhundzada has increasingly exercised his authority over the past few months.
Akhundzada added to the Taliban's long list of restrictions by banning women both from attending university and working for domestic and international nongovernmental organizations. He also ordered the Taliban's judiciary to implement Islamic corporal punishments collectively called hudood, which prescribes flogging for drinking, amputation of limbs for theft, and stoning for adultery.
Such policies, Semple says, have alienated a growing cross-section of Afghan society. The Taliban's bans on women pursuing higher education and work, along with severe restrictions on mobility and how they can appear publicly, have taken away fundamental rights. Many men, in turn, have lost their livelihoods amid the economic downturn triggered by the Taliban's return to power. And ethnic and religious minorities have decried being marginalized by the Islamist government.
"The Taliban's recent revolutionary enthusiasm is alienating Afghan society almost as thoroughly as did the Afghan communists in 1978 and 1979," Semple said.
After seizing power in a bloody military coup in April 1978, the ruling Khalq faction of the Afghan communists embarked on a revolutionary program to remake Afghan society. The move quickly provoked a rebellion in the conservative countryside that dramatically expanded after the Soviet invasion in December 1979, which installed the Parcham faction of Afghan communists in power.
Semple says that under Haibatullah's leadership, the Taliban is also cultivating new conflicts with important neighbors. He says that longtime Taliban ally Pakistan is furious about the sanctuary the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which is engaged in fighting against the government in Pakistan, enjoys in Afghanistan. Iran, meanwhile, has expressed concerns about the activities of Sunni Baluch militants active in the southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchistan.
Semple says that many Muslim countries are alarmed that Taliban interpretations are giving Islam a bad name. Western donors, he says, are worried about restrictions on aid operations, women's issues, and terrorism. Highlighting the seriousness of the situation, many nongovernmental organizations suspended their operations in Afghanistan last month after the Taliban ordered them to stop employing Afghan women.
"Even countries which found it expedient to engage with the Taliban diplomatically rather than risking another round of civil war are finding it impossible or unpalatable to sustain that engagement," he said.
China, Russia, and two of Afghanistan's Central Asian neighbors, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, have consistently attempted to improve cooperation with Kabul. But the Taliban's draconian policies have kept them away from formally recognizing its government.
Akhundzada's extremism has also provoked consistent criticism within the Taliban ranks, including from Taliban Deputy Foreign Minister Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, a top negotiator in Doha, who has opposed Akhundzada's ban on women's education.
"You are only obliged to follow the orders in line with Shari'a Islamic law," he told a Taliban gathering earlier this month.
But while Akhundzada has steadily exerted his will, those who do put up some opposition to his policies are inconsistent and passive, according to Kabul-based academic Obaidullah Baheer.
And that "is hurting all of us," Baheer said.
The Azadi Briefing: Former Woman Lawmaker Slain In Kabul; Afghans Endure Brutal Cold Snap
Welcome to The Azadi Briefing, a new RFE/RL newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan. To subscribe, click here.
I'm Mustafa Sarwar, a senior news editor at RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. Here's what I've been tracking and what I'm keeping an eye on in the days ahead.
The Key Issue
Mursal Nabizadah, a 32-year-old female lawmaker who served in the previous Afghan government, was shot dead by unidentified assailants in her home in the capital in the early hours of January 15. Kabul police said that one of Nabizadah's bodyguards was also killed in the attack and her brother was wounded. The motive behind the shooting at Nabizadah's home in the city's Khushal Khan Mena district remains unclear, and no group has claimed responsibility.
In 2019, Nabizadah was elected to represent Kabul in the National Assembly, and served on the parliamentary Defense Committee. She was a critic of the Taliban and was reportedly working for a private NGO.
Why It's Important: Nabizadah's slaying marks the first time a former lawmaker from the previous government has been killed in Afghanistan since the Taliban seized power in August 2021. She was one of the few former lawmakers to remain in the country after the takeover, and her death puts a spotlight both on the hard-line Islamist group's difficulties in maintaining security and the dangers faced by women under Taliban rule.
Upon taking power, the Taliban extended an amnesty and offered security guarantees to Afghans who had worked with or for the former government, but the risk for those who chose to stay behind -- particularly for women involved in government -- is immense. Scores of women politicians told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi that they were shocked by Nabizadah's killing.
The deadly incident also drew widespread international condemnation. "She was killed in darkness, but the Taliban build their system of gender apartheid in full daylight," European Parliament representative Hannah Neumann said in response to the attack. The U.S. charge d'affaires for Afghanistan, Karen Decker, tweeted that she was "angered, heartbroken by [the] murder of Mursal Nabizada," calling it a tragic loss. "Hold the perpetrators accountable!" she wrote.
What's Next: Nabizadah was known for criticizing the Taliban's ban against women's work and education, and the silencing of such a prominent voice sends a clear warning to other women who continue to lobby for more rights in the face of increasingly repressive policies.
Some female politicians told Radio Azadi that they believe the Taliban, whose government has struggled to maintain security amid a wave of terrorist attacks, is incapable of preventing such targeted strikes in the future. While the Islamic State-Khorasan extremist group has claimed responsibility for many high-profile attacks, the silence that has followed Nabizadeh's killing has added to the concerns of protesting women.
What To Keep An Eye On
The extreme cold of this year's winter in Afghanistan has added to humanitarian concerns in the country. The Taliban-run government has said that at least 78 people and more than 77,000 livestock died in eight provinces in the course of a week due to temperatures that fell to as low as minus 28 degrees Celsius.
Caroline Gluck, the UNHCR spokeswoman in Afghanistan, told Radio Azadi on January 17 that "it became so cold that many had to dig holes in the ground to escape the cold and sleep there at night to stay warm."
Even before the cold snap, many Afghans had expressed concerns that they could not afford to buy coal and other fuel to keep their families warm. Jalil, a father of three and a Kabul resident, said this week that "1 ton of coal used to be 13,000 [afghanis -- about $146], is now 17,000 [about $191], " and that the cost of natural gas and staples such as rice have all risen sharply.
Why It's Important: The icy weather has further deteriorated living conditions for millions of Afghans who have already been hard-hit by food shortages and ever-increasing poverty and unemployment under Taliban rule. Contributing to the problem is the Taliban's recent decision to ban women from working for nongovernmental organizations, hampering their ability to assist ordinary citizens by delivering aid.
The United Nations has pledged more assistance, but observers have expressed doubt that it will be enough to cover the needs of people in hard-hit areas across Afghanistan. The brutal cold snap has only added to the challenges, with death tolls expected to rise as the situation in remote villages cut off by heavy snow becomes clear.
That's all from me for now. Remember to send me any questions, comments, or tips.
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.
UN's Top Woman In Afghanistan For Talks On Taliban Crackdown
The highest-ranking woman in the UN arrived in Kabul on January 17 at the head of a delegation promoting the rights of women and girls, a response to the recent crackdown by Afghanistan's Taliban rulers. Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, a former Nigerian cabinet minister and a Muslim, was joined by Sima Bahous, executive director of UN Women, and Assistant Secretary-General for political affairs Khaled Khiari, UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said. Haq said he could not disclose their schedule for security reasons. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Afghan Taliban Lashes Nine Convicted Prisoners In Public
Nine convicted prisoners were publicly lashed on January 17 in Afghanistan’s southern province of Kandahar for alleged homosexuality and theft. In a statement, the Taliban’s Supreme Court said the punishment was carried out at the Ahmad Shahi sports stadium. Local authorities and Kandahar residents were in attendance during the lashing. The spokesman for the provincial governor, Haji Zaid, said the convicts were lashed 35-39 times. Despite international condemnation, the Taliban has resumed the flogging and the public execution of criminals following a decree by the hard-liners' supreme leader.
Aid Groups Begin Return To Afghanistan Amid Assurances For Female Workers
Several international groups say they are returning to Afghanistan -- mired in one of the planet's worst humanitarian crises -- to administer aid after receiving assurances from Taliban officials that female workers would be allowed to carry out their duties.
CARE, Save the Children, and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) said they were returning to the country after suspending operations late last year after the Taliban authorities sharply curtailed women's rights, effectively banning women from working for NGOs operating in Afghanistan.
"CARE will be resuming its health and nutrition operations in Afghanistan after obtaining the necessary assurances from the Ministry of Public Health that our female staff will be able to carry out their work safely and unfettered, both in community-based and support roles," the organization, which focuses on working alongside women and girls to lift them out of poverty, said in a statement.
CARE, which has been working in Afghanistan since 1961 and operates 30 Mobile Health Teams in seven provinces, said it is "hopeful that the ban will be reversed, but in the meantime [we] will continue to look for ways to move forward that will allow both female and male workers to provide life-saving work –especially to Afghan women and girls – in all sectors."
Despite pledging to back away from the brutal rule it employed during its first stint in power from 1996-2001, the Taliban has moved to restrict freedoms for women since retaking control of the country in August 2021 as international troops withdrew.
Most recently, Taliban authorities on December 20 ordered public and private universities to close their doors to women immediately until further notice.
A few days later the country's rulers ordered all domestic and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to prevent female employees from working at their jobs.
Save The Children said earlier this week it was restarting some of its activities "where reliable assurances had been given for a full and safe return to work for its female staff."
The IRC said last week that it had restarted health and nutrition services in four provinces and was in talks with officials to return to more areas of the country "while also engaging to secure the assurances required to allow our female staff to safely return to work in other sectors."
Female Former Afghan Lawmaker Found Shot Dead At Kabul Home
A former female member of Afghanistan’s now disbanded lower house of parliament has been shot dead during a break-in at her home in the Afghan capital, Taliban officials have confirmed.
Mursal Nabidzadah was shot dead along with a bodyguard when gunmen broke into her house in the Ahmad Shah Baba area of Kabul on January 15, Khalid Zadran, a Taliban spokesman for the Kabul police said. He added that Nadidzadah’s brother was injured in the incident.
No further details were immediately available. No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack.
The killing has sparked international condemnation, including from Hannah Neumann, a German member of the Greens/EFA faction in the European Parliament.
"She was killed in darkness, but the Taliban build their system of gender apartheid in full daylight," Neumann wrote on Twitter.
Since returning to power in August 2021, the Taliban has taken a hard line, crushing women’s rights.
In the latest move, the Taliban on December 24 banned women from working for aid groups. It followed a ban imposed earlier that month on women attending universities. Girls were stopped from attending high school in March.
On January 13, the United States pushed the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution calling on the Taliban-led authorities in Afghanistan to reverse those bans on women.
The 15-member council met privately at the request of the United Arab Emirates and Japan to discuss the issue, Reuters reported.
The United Nations estimates that 85 percent of NGOs in Afghanistan have partially or fully shut down operations because of the ban, which is the Taliban's latest step to drive women from public life.
Earlier this week, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation -- an intergovernmental group consisting of all Muslim-majority countries -- rejected the Taliban's claim that its treatment of Afghan women and girls is in line with Islam's Shari'a law.
With reporting by AP and Reuters
Pashtuns Rally For Peace In The Face Of A Renewed Offensive Against The Pakistani Taliban
Sahib Khan, a political activist, is one of the organizers of a recent sit-in protest in Wana, a remote town near Pakistan's western border with Afghanistan.
Khan describes the weeklong demonstration that ended on January 12 as a "people's uprising" to show authorities that they will never accept a return to the violence and lawlessness that engulfed the region when it was allowed to fall under the control of various Pakistani Taliban factions.
Expectations are running high that the government, which has failed in its recent efforts to strike a lasting truce with Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban, will again rely on the weight of its military to counter the resurgent force it has been fighting since 2007.
But Khan and other protesters are hoping their efforts can stave off another round of devastation and secret dealings, and are demanding that Islamabad instead ensure the region's long-term security by strengthening the police and giving the local government more leeway to act.
In a sign that the effort did not fall on deaf ears, the sit-in ended with the government accepting the protesters' demands.
No Military Operations
Following Islamabad's secret negotiations last year with the hard-line insurgents, many TTP fighters who had sought refuge in neighboring Afghanistan for years returned to the region. Optimism that a peace deal could work out was crushed.
Mediation by the Afghan Taliban, which seized Kabul in August 2021 and was considered an ally of Islamabad, failed. Despite its close personal and ideological ties to the TTP, the Afghan Taliban failed to convince them to renounce violence. Thus, the past year saw a dramatic rise in attacks on security forces, kidnappings, assassinations, and extortion in places like Wana.
Residents accuse the government of reopening the door to the TTP and embarking on a failed policy of engagement and take the militants' presence as a dire reminder of life under their thumb.
Locals blame previous government moves for putting them in that position in the first place, saying Islamabad practically handed Wana to a Taliban faction courtesy of an agreement worked out to end fighting with the group in 2007.
As a result, they say, they were subjected to every imaginable atrocity at the hands of the militants, until they were pushed out by a local protest in 2018.
"We are concerned that violence here will increase to such a level that we will forget what we endured before," says Khan.
He was alluding to the mountainous region's recent troubled history that began in 2003 when violence erupted in Wana, today the administrative headquarters of the Lower South Waziristan district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.
Over the course of the next decade, the violence gradually extended to other parts of South Waziristan and the adjacent district of North Waziristan. Only in 2014, when the military finally succeeded in pushing the group out, did some sense of normalcy resume, but it came at a great cost. More than 1.5 million Waziristan residents were displaced as a result of the fighting, and thousands were killed when they were caught up in the cross-fire.
The sit-in in Wana is not the only "people's uprising" against a return to such a situation. Similar protests have taken place across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, where Pashtuns make up a majority of the region's estimated 35 million residents.
Since 2018, grassroots activists from the province have attempted to rewrite history by turning their homeland into a battleground for peace and civil rights instead of war. They have attempted to counter the narrative that Pashtuns are prone to join extremist organizations such as the TTP out of religious and tribal kinship, and instead blame underdevelopment, isolation, and Islamabad's security policies as the reason the predominantly Pashtun region came to be considered a breeding ground for jihadists.
These popular uprisings began in the northern alpine districts of Swat and Dir in the summer. The region's residents were terrorized by hundreds of TTP fighters who returned because of the secret deal with the Pakistani government.
In the following months, Islamabad's talks with the TTP stalled. But the group's fighters continued to pour into areas of northwest Pakistan.
Rather than drop their weapons, they quickly began attacking security forces, with the poorly trained and lightly armed police emerging as a favorite target. In addition to carrying out hundreds of fresh attacks, the militants have also been accused of extorting businesses, wealthy individuals, and politicians.
According to the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, a think tank in Islamabad, some 419 people were killed and another 732 injured in more than 260 terrorist attacks carried out by the TTP in 2022, a 25 percent increase over the previous year.
In many cases, TTP's attacks on local security forces in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province would be followed quickly by a people's uprising uniting members of various political parties, traders, and concerned residents.
For many Pashtuns, the sit-ins are seen as the only way to prevent the carnage of another large-scale fight between government forces and militants in the region. Pashtun leaders say they have paid a hefty price in Pakistan's war on terrorism.
Islamabad allied with Washington after the invasion of Afghanistan following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001 but failed to prevent the Afghan Taliban and its Al-Qaeda allies who carried out the attacks from carving out a sanctuary in Pakistan.
In 2003, Islamabad launched a series of massive military operations in what was then known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) -- which were merged into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2018 -- and eventually to the Swat district.
Over the next 11 years, more than 6 million Pashtuns were displaced. Pashtuns accounted for the lion's share of the more than 80,000 civilians and security forces Pakistani officials claim to have lost as a result of terrorist attacks and military offensives.
In the past, Islamabad's large-scale military operations adopted a scorched-earth approach using airpower, long-range artillery, tanks, and infantry maneuvers.
At the same time, according to Manzoor Pashteen, the leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) civil rights campaign, there is no justification for the TTP's violence.
"If they [the TTP] are fighting against infidels, then why are they killing our Islamic clerics?" he asked.
He says that to avoid the fallout from a renewed conflict in their homeland, Pashtuns are ready to "work very hard and make sacrifices for peace."
While the majority of Pashtuns do not want to see a return of the TTP, they also fear a heavy-handed approach, and many accuse the government of having ulterior motives.
Islamabad's Changing Outlook
The TTP's increasingly violent campaign appears to have put Islamabad in a hawkish mindset after months of talking about the prospect of peace. Discussions between civil and military leaders last week resulted in the government indicating it would soon undertake a military operation against the TTP.
The National Security Committee said that the threat of terrorism would "be dealt with the full force of the state" because "Pakistan's security is uncompromisable."
But Pashtun leaders are not convinced. Some accuse Islamabad of deliberately fomenting instability in their homeland to attract Western funding for counterterrorism operations, and others accuse the government of bowing to pressure by the Taliban in Afghanistan to allow TTP fighters to return.
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan recently revealed the thinking of his government, which ended with a no-confidence vote in April. He told a summit on terrorism in Islamabad on January 10 that he ultimately planned to bring back 5,000 TTP fighters and more than 35,000 of their family members from Afghanistan, where they have been sheltering since the military push in 2014.
He said the Taliban's seizure of power in Afghanistan in August 2021 provided Pakistan with a "golden opportunity" to reconcile with the TTP.
That opportunity fizzled when the TTP demanded that Islamabad hand over some eight districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that were formerly part of FATA.
Afrasiab Khattak, a former lawmaker, said Pashtuns in Pakistan had learned their lessons from their experiences over the past four decades.
He says that since the early 1980s, the various phases of the war in Afghanistan as well as in Pakistan's domestic war on terrorism left Pashtun society, economy, and way of life in ruins.
"They refuse to be used as cannon fodder," he said of the emerging grassroots efforts led by young leaders and activists, adding that they have realized that their calls for peace "present the most serious challenge to the Taliban and their Pakistani handlers."
An Afghan Factory Offers Hope Amid Power Outages, Joblessness
Wire spools turn in a factory in Paktia Province, Afghanistan, where youthful workers produce cabling needed for electrical devices -- but face electricity outages themselves. Workers and managers hope for investors to expand opportunity, but the World Bank forecasts a dramatically challenged Afghan economy, largely cut off from foreign aid since the Taliban takeover in 2021.
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