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Gandhara Briefing: Looking Ahead To 2021 In Afghanistan And Pakistan

Afghans rally in Herat to support the Doha peace talks between Taliban and the Afghan government on September 21.
Afghans rally in Herat to support the Doha peace talks between Taliban and the Afghan government on September 21.

Dear reader,

Welcome to Gandhara's weekly newsletter. This briefing brings you the best of our reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan. This week, we look back on a tumultuous year for both countries and what to expect in 2021.

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

Afghan peace remains elusive

The year began with high hopes as an intense U.S. diplomatic effort culminated with an initial peace agreement with the Taliban in February. But many observers I have spoken with wonder whether the Taliban actually wants peace as violence continues unabated.

Looking ahead to 2021, my colleague Frud Bezhan asked experts what they see as possible implications of the withdrawal of U.S. forces. They expect more hostilities, more bloodshed, and difficult policy choices for U.S. President-elect Joe Biden's administration.

"There's the imperative for the Taliban to prevent any sort of lull in attacks to maintain the appearance in Qatar that they have the battlefield initiative," Ted Callahan, a security expert, told him.

Pakistan gears up for a showdown in February

The arrest of Khawaja Muhammad Asif, a senior leader of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N), will extend the power struggle between the opposition Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) and Prime Minister Imran Khan's administration that has heated up the country's political debate.

The PDM leaders openly challenge Khan's administration and the military generals, whom they accuse of undermining democratic processes. The PDM banks on gaining popular support as Khan's unfulfilled populist campaign promises of institutional reforms, prosperity, and greater accountability have fallen flat. The pandemic and its impact on the economy have only added to the public discontent.

This political soap opera's grand finale is expected in February, when the PDM plans another march on Islamabad. The critical test of the group's momentum will then be whether the protests deliver mass resignations from parliament.

'Most dangerous' countries for journalists

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) declared Afghanistan and Pakistan to be the most dangerous countries for journalists in a year that saw some 50 people killed because of their efforts to speak truth to power.

In particular, the watchdog noted an alarming uptick in targeted attacks on media workers in Afghanistan. One of the targets was our colleague Mohammad Ilyas Dayee, who was killed by a bomb attached to his car in November.

New U.S. sanctions against an alleged Iranian recruitment operation

After the U.S. imposed sanctions on Jamiat al-Mostafa earlier this month, we looked into accusations that the Iranian university, which controls training institutions in Pakistan and Afghanistan, had recruited fighters for Iran's proxy war efforts in Syria.

An analyst who tracked casualties in the Syrian war said his records suggest that "Jamiat al-Mostafa has never served as the primary recruitment ground."

Instead, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) recruited thousands of Afghan migrants and refugees within its borders and covertly drafted hundreds of Shi'a inside Afghanistan. The IRGC used the same strategy to recruit Pakistanis.

Remembering Ahmad Ali Kohzad, an iconic Afghan historian

In a moving tribute, Nilly Kohzad describes the Afghan legacy of her late grandfather: Ahmad Ali Kohzad was a pioneering historian and archeologist.

He uncovered Afghanistan's pre-Islamic past and helped define Afghans' historical identity. His over 70 books -- still referenced today -- detail a rich history in which Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Hinduism flourished in Afghanistan.

"Archeology witnessed a change after Kohzad's era and research," Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, a cultural anthropologist by training, once said of him. "We must ensure we preserve this national culture."

I hope you enjoyed this week's newsletter, and I encourage you to share it with colleagues who might find it useful. We will be back to our regular weekly schedule next Friday, January 8, 2021.

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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.

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