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Gandhara Briefing: Afghan Collapse, Humanitarian Crisis, Uyghurs

Taliban fighters stand on a vehicle along the roadside in Herat on August 13.
Taliban fighters stand on a vehicle along the roadside in Herat on August 13.

Dear reader,

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

If you’re new to the newsletter or haven’t subscribed yet, you can do so here.

Afghanistan’s looming collapse

This week’s rapid-fire events raised the specter of Afghanistan falling to the Taliban, which took over the country’s second and third cities after securing at least 16 provincial capitals.

With an apparent balance of power in its favor, the militants are set to march on Kabul, where Washington and allies are rushing in fresh troops to help evacuate diplomats and other civilians. (See our interactive map of how Taliban control is expanding as the government’s authority shrinks across Afghanistan.)

As Frud Bezhan reports, the Taliban's capture of Herat and Kandahar is a major turning point in the war.

“The simultaneous fall of Ghazni, Herat, and Kandahar has definitely shifted the balance of power in favor of the Taliban,” Ali Adili, a researcher in Kabul, told us. “Residents of Kabul feel the inevitability of the city being the next possible target.”

The Taliban’s seizure of large swaths of Afghan territory and provincial capitals has given them a sense of invincibility, as Bezhan wrote earlier in the week.

“Their momentum has the potential to create domino effects via tribes, militias, and families deciding to bandwagon with the Taliban as the seemingly stronger side,” Jonathan Schroden, a former U.S. military adviser, told us. “The real strategic danger is that these actions further the Taliban’s narrative of inevitable conquest.”

The White House weighed in by saying no particular outcome is inevitable in Afghanistan as the Pentagon challenged the country’s leadership to fend off Taliban advances. But on August 12, the U.S. secretaries of state and defense assured Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that Washington "remains invested in the security and stability of Afghanistan” despite scaling down its diplomatic presence in Kabul.

The human cost of the conflict

The biggest toll of the Taliban’s sweeping offensive continues to be on Afghan civilians. The United Nations has issued a new warning about an impending humanitarian catastrophe, and officials in the EU and elsewhere are bracing for a potential migrant crisis on the scale of that seen in 2015. Several European countries have decided to suspend deportations of Afghan refugees.

For those Afghans who lack the means to escape the country, however -- a vast majority -- the situation on the ground is increasingly dire. Tens of thousands have been flooding into Kabul, one of the last few cities under government control. In this photo gallery, you can get an idea of the scale of the chaos in the capital as people seek shelter wherever they can find it. Unlike in the past, Afghanistan’s neighbors Iran and Pakistan in particular seem unwilling to let in Afghan refugees.

For those who’ve remained in the cities now under Taliban control, life is bleak and full of violence in the streets and skyrocketing prices. One of our videos this week takes you into the sieged cities of Ghazni, Herat, and Kandahar.

The added struggle for women

Most of the people crowded into a makeshift camp at one of Kabul’s parks are children and women, one of whom told us a harrowing tale in this video of how the Taliban forced her from her house at gunpoint before killing her sons and forced her daughters-in-law to marry fighters.

“They forcibly took three or four girls from each house and married them,” Zar Begum said.

In many places, too, women are scrambling to buy up all-concealing burqas. The hard-line Islamist militants have made a point of targeting women for their perceived state of dress. In this photo gallery, we take a look at the renewed demand for the conservative covering.

Horrific accounts of violence

The war-weary internally displaced persons arrive in Kabul burdened with accounts of the seemingly limitless atrocities committed by the Taliban, stories of summary executions, mistreatment of detainees, and revenge killings.

In the latest of a long line of attacks targeting media workers, a radio station manager was killed in Kabul and another journalist kidnapped in Helmand. (Watch our video of a female RFE/RL Radio Azadi reporter who’s continuing her work despite the risks.)

A former Afghan commando, Hasibullah Faizi, recounts for us how he was captured by the Taliban when his helicopter was shot down in 2016. In a video, he describes the brutal torture he suffered that left him praying for his own death.

“While torturing me, they beat me with the butts of their guns so hard, I still have black bruises on my back,” he said. “The Taliban tortured me by cutting my testicles,” he added, saying he broke off his engagement and his suffering continues to be “harder than death.”

Russia and Central Asia step in

Representatives of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Russia met with the Taliban in Doha this week after Moscow completed joint military drills with Dushanbe and Tashkent as the hard-line Islamist movement established control along Afghanistan’s northern border with Central Asia.

But, as Bruce Pannier noted, Central Asian “leaders have too often been at odds with each other, even in the face of common threats” even 30 years after independence. (Visit our photo gallery of a joint exercise among Tajik, Uzbek and Russian forces near Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan.)

Even as the leaders issued a joint statement calling for stability, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan -- who collectively share a more than 2,000 kilometers of border with Afghanistan -- are pursuing vastly differing approaches toward the country. Dushanbe is resisting talking to the Taliban, Tashkent is keen on pursuing a peace agreement among Afghans, and Ashgabat wants little to do with its neighbor’s troubles.

Echos of Panjshir’s past

The residents of Panjshir Valley, high in the Hindu Kush Mountains, are preparing to once again take on the Taliban to keep their homeland as the bastion of resistance that it has long been, first against the Soviet occupation and then against the Taliban’s regime.

"We are being trained so we have the skills that we need to fight the enemy,” said Yusef Ahmadi, one among hundreds of Panjshir’s youth being trained for the impending fight. “We are currently learning how to handle Kalashnikovs.”

China looks to Pakistan for Uyghur model

Reid Standish discusses a new report detailing Beijing’s use of economic incentives to gain Islamabad’s cooperation in targeting dissident Uyghurs -- a model China wants to export to other Muslim nations.

“Uyghurs who live in China’s neighboring countries are having their communications monitored, their movement limited, their businesses shut down, and they are being detained and extradited to China,” Robert Evans, one of the report’s authors, told us of the methods Beijing is encouraging various Muslim capitals to replicate.

I hope you enjoyed this week’s newsletter, and I encourage you to forward it to colleagues who might find it useful.

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Abubakar Siddique
Twitter: @sid_abu

P.S.: You can always reach us at

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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.

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