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Gandhara Briefing: Afghan Salafists, Female Protesters, Pakistani Inflation

Afghan women shout slogans during a protest to demand the Taliban-led government allow the reopening of girls' schools and to provide ample employment opportunities, in Kabul on October 21.

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

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Taliban cracks down on Salafists

I report on the Taliban waging a deadly crackdown on members of Afghanistan's small community of Salafists, a rival ultraradical Islamic sect.

Salafists in the eastern province of Nangarhar accuse the Taliban of detaining and killing members of their community. They also allege that the Taliban has raided and closed down dozens of their mosques and seminaries in recent months.

The Taliban’s clampdown on Salafists coincides with its escalating war with the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), a rival militant group. Many IS-K fighters are Salafists. There are believed to be several hundred thousand Salafists in Afghanistan, mainly concentrated in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar, Kunar, and Nuristan.

Hakimullah, a Salafist who spoke to RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi, says civilian members of the community are being caught in the middle of the intensifying conflict between the rival groups.

“Since the Taliban seized power and hastened war with Daesh, they have forced people who wear knitted caps and long beards out of their cars and abused them for being Salafists,” Hakimullah told Radio Azadi, using the Arabic acronym for IS-K.

Observers say the Taliban’s deadly crackdown on Salafists could backfire and be used by IS-K as a recruiting tool. “All this will eventually benefit Daesh because it will attract more recruits to its cause and will win broader support [among Salafists],” says Abdul Sayed, a Sweden-based researcher who tracks militant groups in the region.

(Watch our video of the funeral held for the more than 40 victims of a suspected IS-K bomb attack on a Shi’te mosque in the southern city of Kandahar.)

Afghan teen struggles to feed family

Radio Azadi reports on the plight of an Afghan teenager who is struggling to provide for his extended family of 30.

Ahmad Zia, 14, became the family’s sole breadwinner after the Taliban killed his father and three uncles in 2019, forcing him to earn an income for his widowed mother, aunts, and their 24 children.

Ahmad Zia worked for nearly two years as a water bearer for Afghan security forces who were stationed at strategic positions in the remote mountains overlooking his village. He earned about $60 a month by filling plastic water jugs from a creek near his home, strapping them onto the backs of three donkeys, and trekking up into the mountains to supply the Afghan army outposts.

But after the Taliban seized power in August, the family lost even that meager income. Ahmad Zia has called on the Taliban to help his family, but he doubts the militant group is willing to help.

“Our situation is very bad. We have no money,” Ahmad Zia told Radio Azadi. “I don’t know what I will do now. We have asked the Taliban to help us. But my only hope is in God.”

Ahmad Zia’s family is not alone. Millions of Afghans are struggling to survive amid a deepening humanitarian and economic crisis. The United Nations has warned that many Afghans face the risk of starvation.

Afghan women fight back

A group of about 20 women marched in the streets of Kabul on October 21 to demand their rights from the Taliban, which has banned unsanctioned protests.

When it seized power, the Taliban claimed it would show more moderation than during its brutal rule from 1996 to 2001, when girls were not allowed to attend school and women were banned from work, education, and sports.

But the Taliban has allowed secondary school education for girls in only five of Afghanistan's 34 provinces and has ordered the vast majority of women not to return to work, a move that has prompted widespread outrage.

The protests in Kabul demanded "work, bread, and education." The women held several placards, including one that read "Don't politicize education."

But the protest was short-lived, with Taliban fighters violently dispersing the women and journalists who were covering the demonstration.

At one point a Taliban fighter struck a foreign photographer with the butt of his rifle and kicked him, as another militant punched the journalist, according to AFP. At least two other journalists were hit as they scattered, pursued by Taliban fighters swinging fists and launching kicks, the news agency reported.

RFE/RL photojournalist Amos Chapple collected the dramatic scenes in Kabul in a photo story, which includes interviews with women and reporters on the ground.

A woman journalist in Kabul, whose name is being withheld for security reasons, told Radio Azadi that the protest is a sign of women rapidly running out of options after the Taliban stripped them of their freedoms. "Some families have no son or their father is really weak or they have lost their husbands in suicide bombings," she said. "Some women have the responsibility of their families on their shoulders."

A Kabul journalist who spoke to Radio Azadi said women want to “show the world that they won’t be silenced."

"Because they can't see their family suffering, so the only option is to take action even if that means the Taliban eliminates them,” the journalist said. “Because women here have already lost what they had, like their job, access to education. Right now they have nothing left."

Afghans have staged scattered street protests since the Taliban takeover, many with women at the forefront.

Rights groups have blamed Afghanistan’s new rulers for imposing “wide-ranging restrictions” on the media and using violence to curb dissent.

"The situation is that the Taliban don't respect anything: not journalists -- foreign and local -- or women," said Zahra Mohammadi, one of the protest organizers.

Pakistanis vent over soaring inflation

Anger is rising in Pakistan, with protests breaking out as inflation hits hard.

In the northwestern city of Peshawar, the price of naan bread jumped 25 percent in just two weeks as the cost of flour went up for bakeries.

“It’s not only the [rising price] of wheat flour,” says Mohammad Iqbal from the Pakistan Bread Bakers Association. “Prices of gas, electricity, and transportation are also high.”

The Economist has ranked Pakistan's overall inflation rate as the fourth highest in the world.

With fuel and food prices soaring across the country, opposition parties are holding protests across the country of some 220 million. Critics accuse Prime Minister Imran Khan of exacerbating the country’s economic woes.

Many Pakistanis have taken to the streets in cities across the country to demonstrate against inflation, such as this protest in Rawalpindi. The October 20 rally was part of a nationwide campaign launched by opposition parties, who accuse the government of having no economic plan.

I hope you found this week’s newsletter useful, and I encourage you to forward it to your colleagues.

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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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