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Gandhara Briefing: Achakzai Persecution, Afghan Commandos, Secret Afghan Girls' Schools

Afghan special forces commandos prepare for a mission against the Taliban in Herat in February 2021.
Afghan special forces commandos prepare for a mission against the Taliban in Herat in February 2021.

Welcome to Gandhara's weekly newsletter. This briefing brings you the best of our reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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This week's Gandhara Briefing brings you insights into the Taliban's alleged persecution of the Achakzai Pashtun tribe, the recruitment of former elite Afghan commandos to join Russia's war in Ukraine, and a secret school for Afghan girls.

Taliban Persecutes Pashtun Tribe

I report on the Taliban's extensive alleged killings and persecution of the Achakzai, a large Pashtun tribe in southern Afghanistan.

Senior Achakzai political leaders told me that the Taliban has engaged in killings, forced disappearances, torture, detentions, displacement, and the seizure of tribe members' property. The community faces retribution for alleged atrocities carried out by the late General Abdul Raziq, an Achakzai and the most prominent anti-Taliban commander in the region.

While the Taliban officially denies it is allowing its members to retaliate against the Achakzai in violation of the general amnesty it issued shortly after retaking power, human rights watchdogs have documented some grave abuses.

"Afghanistan is hell for the supporters of the late General Abdul Raziq," said Akhtar Mohammad Khan Badezai, a former presidential adviser and spokesman for Raziq's family.

Former lawmaker Mohammad Naeem Lalai Hamidzai alleged an estimated 18,000 members of the Afghan security forces that Raziq once led are the primary target of Taliban persecution.

He claimed at least 300 of them, mostly Achakzais, were killed in the initial days of the Taliban takeover in July and August 2021.

"This persecution that began during the Taliban takeover 14 months ago still continues," he told me.

Patricia Gossman, an associate Asia director for Human Rights Watch, sees the Taliban determined to crush any potential resistance.

"They want to punish those who supported him [Raziq] or who might want to revive armed resistance," she said.

Vagner Recruits Former Afghan Commandos

Safiullah Stanikzai interviewed a former Afghan Army general who says Russia's private Vagner paramilitary group is recruiting Western-trained former Afghan special forces to boost the Kremlin's war effort in Ukraine.

General Abdul Raouf Arghandiwal, a former commander of Afghanistan's elite 207 Zafar Army Corps, says some 15 former Afghan commandos have already joined the Russians as mercenaries and many more could be recruited.

"[Vagner's] plan is to recruit 1,000 people in the first phase and 1,000 people in the second phase as a battalion and to gradually continue this process," Arghandiwal said, adding that former Afghan foot soldiers and officers who fled to Iran are being recruited with Iran's help.

In Moscow, Sergei Danilov, deputy director of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Center for Middle East Studies, says there's little motivation for the Afghans to put their lives on the line for a foreign country.

"They are trained, but they are not motivated," he said. "They don't pose a threat. Some were able to go to Pakistan -- or even to Iran -- and are now in the region and beyond.... But this is not tens of thousands or even thousands."

Cafés Close After Taliban Hookah Ban

Radio Azadi reports that the ban on hookah or shisha smoking is bankrupting the once-thriving café scene in Herat.

The Taliban considers hookah smoking -- a popular pastime among young Afghan men -- to be "un-Islamic" because of its adverse health effects. But the ban has affected the livelihoods of thousands.

"I will be forced to go to [neighboring] Iran to look for work," said Mohammad Qasim, who used to earn $100 a month working as a waiter at a Herat café.

The Café Owners Association in Herat estimates more than 2,500 people have lost their jobs because of the ban.

"How can I run a café when I have no income?" said Omid, an entrepreneur who had to dismiss seven staff members when he shuttered his establishment.

Not everyone in Herat is upset by the ban, however.

"This ban will prevent the youth from wasting their money and damaging their health," said Nazir Ahmad, a resident of Herat.

Secret School For Afghan Girls

In a video report, we take you to a secret school for teenage girls in an impoverished Kabul neighborhood.

The school is one of many operated by Afghan teachers and activists that aims to help girls from grades seven through 12 continue their studies, which were disrupted after the Taliban closed most secondary schools for girls after seizing power in August 2021.

"We can't forget about our future because of this government," said one of the students at the school. "Whatever happens, we come here secretly to get an education and move toward a better future."

That's all from me this week.

Until next time,

Abubakar Siddique

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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

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