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Afghan Media, Iran And The Taliban, A Buddhist Discovery: Your Briefing From Afghanistan And Pakistan

A supporter of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), an alliance of political opposition parties, chants slogans at an anti-government protest rally in Lahore on December 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.

More Afghan journalists fear for their lives

Media workers in Afghanistan find themselves in a tight spot as they work to defend the country’s independent media, which is one of the country’s crowning achievements since the days of the Taliban. Increasing instances of mob violence and targeted attacks are now forcing many Afghan journalists to abandon their profession.

Following a mob attack on a radio station in Kunduz in January, local journalists say the situation is “deeply worrying” and cite staff walkouts. Haseebullah Hasas, a radio journalist for a station also called Kunduz, told Radio Free Afghanistan that before Radio Zohra was ransacked “we only worried about being attacked by terrorist groups, but now we fear fellow citizens, too.”

Violence against journalists is part of an insurgent campaign to target prominent Afghans during the deadlocked peace talks. A report by a U.S. watchdog this week noted that casualties from improvised explosive devices and magnetic bombs – two favorite insurgent tactics -- have risen significantly.

Pakistan’s opposition scrambles to rebrand

The Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) faces some difficult choices after Prime Minister Imran Khan refused to quit by the opposition alliance’s January 31 deadline. Its members have backed off their vows to resign from the parliament but are still planning to march on Islamabad next month.

Each of the PDM’s 11 member parties is driven by its own interests, analysts maintain, which complicates a show of unity. Past rivalries such as that between the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz party and Pakistan Peoples Party further sow discord in the ranks.

“This has created a kind of distrust among their top leaders that is not easy to overcome,” Suleman Khan Kakar, a political analyst in Islamabad, told me.

Pakistan’s debate over Islamic identity heats up

A new bill mandating Arabic lessons at Islamabad’s schools has revived a hot-button debate about whether Pakistan, 73 years into its independence, should push to create an Islamic nation or accept being a multicultural state.

“It is an old debate with potentially explosive consequences,” Farzana Shaikh, a Pakistan scholar at the Chatham House think tank in London, told me. “The idea that Pakistan is going to become some expression of a South Asian Arab polity is really not something people are ready to buy [into] in Pakistan today.”

Iran grooms its alliance with the Taliban

A high-profile visit by Taliban leaders to Iran this week coincided with a new U.S. report that calls on Washington to extend the May deadline for withdrawing the remaining 2,500 troops from Afghanistan as the fate of a crucial U.S. deal with the Taliban hangs in the balance.

Despite their rocky past, the Shi’ite clerical regime in Tehran and the Afghan hard-line Sunni group are mending fences for their mutual benefit. An analyst tells my colleague Golanaz Esfandiari that Tehran is hoping for a “long arm in Afghanistan, whether the Taliban become a part of the Afghan government or remain as a loyal or armed opposition.”

Female Afghan commandos

Fighting in Herat Province’s 207 Zafar Corps, over 100 women serve in an elite group of female Afghan commandoes. Many of them told us they fear the Taliban’s return to power will end their military careers.

“Women from other countries come here to serve in our country,” Mariam Noorzai, one of the soldiers, told Radio Free Afghanistan in this video report from their training. “Why can’t I do that and defend my people and my country?”

Unlocking Pakistan’s Buddhist past

In another video report, we introduce you to the archaeologists who recently discovered a 2,000-year-old Buddhist site in Swat Valley. The discovery adds to monuments across Afghanistan and Pakistan that bear testament to the once glorious Gandhara civilization.

Preservation efforts are under way on the newly unearthed school, shrines, and living quarters.

“We will rebuild it according to its original structure and it will be designated a religious site,” Saqib Raza, the lead archeologist, told us.

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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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