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Gandhara Briefing: Afghan Refugees, Russian Drills, Pakistan Tension

People who were displaced by fighting wait for government assistance at a temporary shelter in Herat Province on July 8.
People who were displaced by fighting wait for government assistance at a temporary shelter in Herat Province on July 8.

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.

A looming humanitarian disaster

Frud Bezhan reports on the mounting humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan where a surge in fighting has already displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians this year as aid agencies and neighboring countries brace for a flood of refugees fleeing their war-ravaged country in desperation.

“I was washing myself ahead of evening prayers when a mortar landed in our house,” Musa Jan, a resident of Kandahar, the scene of some of the toughest recent battles, told us. “I lost consciousness. When I woke up, my wife and children were crying over me.”

Jan is among the 270,000 Afghans displaced by the fighting this year. UNHCR estimates there are 3.5 million displaced Afghans while more than 18 million requires humanitarian assistance.

The Taliban says it now controls most of Afghanistan’s border crossings with neighboring countries -- a claim the government was quick to denounce as propaganda. You can use our interactive map to follow the militants’ territorial control.

In Kandahar, Afghan authorities allege at least 100 civilians were killed by Taliban fighters in raids on homes in Spin Boldak by the Pakistani border.

The growing humanitarian crisis has echoes of earlier cycles of war in the country hallmarked by massacres, large-scale displacement, and widespread hunger and abuses. Afghans comprise one of the world’s largest refugee communities, and the war has killed or maimed more than 5 million since 1978.

Pakistan’s Taliban divide

This week I delve into why some in Pakistani are cheering for the Taliban’s battlefield successes while others warn it opens up their country to extremism and terrorism, which have plagued Pakistan for two decades.

“The Islamist political parties and jihadist groups in Pakistan are celebrating the American withdrawal from Afghanistan as their victory,” Karachi-based journalist Zia Ur Rehman told me. “But many people are really concerned about the negative impact of the evolving situation in Afghanistan on their country’s security.”

The situation is even trickier considering the poisoned bilateral relations between Islamabad and Kabul, who have recalled their ambassadors while senior officials volley accusations and insults. Even a visit by Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, to Islamabad this week achieved little in mending fences.

Russia and China court the Taliban

In response to the vacuum left by the withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan, Russia and China are seeking to charm an unlikely partner: the Taliban.

China’s outreach is fueled by attempts to contain threats to its security and interests. “There’s always been a level of mistrust that the Chinese have toward the Taliban,” Andrew Small, a fellow with the German Marshall Fund, told us. “Regardless of what deals they strike and whether they are kept, [Beijing] is also concerned that the group’s success could provide inspiration to other groups.”

Russian attempts to woo the hard-line Islamists it still officially considers terrorists, however, are more complicated.

The Kremlin is taking a two-track approach in which its Foreign Ministry engages the Taliban while President Vladimir Putin’s Security Council keeps up appearances with the internationally recognized government in Kabul.

Political analyst Andrei Serenko calls this “political schizophrenia,” adding that “this is a sign that Moscow today does not have a clear position on the Afghan situation.”

Boosting regional trade

Bruce Pannier weighs in on a recent conference in Uzbekistan that indicated despite the upheaval in Afghanistan there is still great interest in building trade networks between Central Asia and South Asia.

“[This] provides added incentive for countries in both regions to work on bringing stability to Afghanistan and reaping the benefits of trade connectivity,” he noted.

But Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan -- Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors -- are taking no chances on security threats spilling over.

Moscow will join Tashkent and Dushanbe in military maneuvers near the Tajik-Afghan border, where Tajikistan has stationed thousands of troops. Moscow has also deployed tanks ahead of the drills. Meanwhile, Turkmenistan is stockpiling aircraft, heavy weaponry, and troops near its border to fend off possible repercussions of the Taliban offensive.

Afghan library is a women’s refuge

This week we visit a library in Lashkar Gah, capital of the embattled Helmand Province, that has become a refuge for many. Founder Homaira Nawrozi, 23, tells us in this video report of how she wants to give other Afghans a chance to learn outside of the classroom.

“We need to educate men and women in our society to get ourselves out of the crises we’re facing, like poverty, instability, and male domination,” Nawrozi, a part-time teacher, told us.

The library has become especially popular with women, many of whom are worried about what the Taliban’s increasing gains will mean for their access to schools, books, and learning.

Breathing room for hospitals

In another video report, we meet faculty and students at Kabul Medical University who have built an oxygen-concentrating machine that pulls the vital gas from the air.

All of the machine’s components were designed by the team, who says the device could help Afghanistan meet its own demand to battle a third wave of COVID infections without having to rely on imports from neighboring countries -- if it can get the investment needed.

“If we receive financial, technical, and personnel support, we will be able to produce more of these devices,” says Pashtana Banayee Ahmadzai, a professor at Kabul Medical University. “We could supply all of the country’s hospitals with medical equipment made here in Afghanistan.”

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

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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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