Fear Grips Afghanistan's Sufi Community Following Deadly Attacks
Mansur Sikandari was singing Islamic hymns inside the Khalifa Sahib monastery in the Afghan capital, Kabul, when a powerful explosion ripped through the building.
The monastery was packed with members of Afghanistan's Sufi community, who follow a mystical form of Islam and incorporate dancing, singing, and music in their religious practices.
The bombing killed up to 50 worshippers and wounded dozens of others on April 29, in one of the deadliest-ever attacks on Sufis in Afghanistan.
"What happened that day constantly flashes before my eyes," Sikandari, who was hospitalized with injuries, told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. "Nothing like this had happened before under any government."
No group claimed responsibility for the bombing, although it bore the hallmarks of previous attacks carried out by the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) group. Many IS-K members are Salafists, an ultraradical sect under Sunni Islam that views Sufis as heretics. The extremist group has staged devastating attacks against the Shi'ite minority in Afghanistan since it first emerged in 2015.
On April 22, IS-K claimed responsibility for bombing a Sufi mosque in the northern province of Kunduz that killed at least 33 people and wounded dozens of others.
Experts say that IS-K militants are attacking Sufis, a predominately Sunni sect, to incite a sectarian war and undermine Taliban rule. "For these reasons, there is a chance that this fire will spread further," said Sami Yousafzai, a veteran Afghan journalist and commentator who has tracked the Taliban since its emergence in the 1990s.
Since seizing power in August 2021, the Taliban has waged a ruthless crackdown against the rival IS-K. But IS-K has continued to launch regular attacks on Taliban officials and carried out high-profile urban attacks on mosques, schools, and hospitals.
'Fear Bomb Blasts'
Some Taliban members have been former followers of Sufism. But the Taliban's strict interpretation of Islam is opposed to mystical forms of the faith.
During the Taliban's first stint in power, from 1996-2001, some Sufis were forced to go into hiding. The Taliban stormed some Sufi monasteries and gatherings, beating members of the community and destroying their musical instruments. The Taliban banned music under its rule.
Sufis revere saints and use music to propagate the message of Islam. They focus on self-cleansing through devotion, in sharp contrast to the Taliban and IS-K, which follow a literal interpretation of Islam.
For more than 13 centuries, Afghanistan has been a center of Sufi Islam. Saints born in the areas comprising today's Afghanistan had a prominent role in spreading Islam to the subcontinent.
Sufi leaders in Afghanistan claim that at least 60 percent of the country's population are followers of Sufism, or at least support and respect Sufi values. "Ziyarats," believed to be the burial places of prominent Sufi figures, are popular pilgrimage sites all over the country. Many Sufi religious leaders enjoy respect and influence among the local population.
"Sufism is the practice of religion that focuses on self-cleansing through prayers," said Ahmad Madani, an Afghan Sufi.
Despite their image as being peaceful mystics, Sufis in Afghanistan have been actively involved in politics and military conflicts.
Late Afghan President Sibghatullah Mujadidi, the leader of the Naqshbandi order of Sufis, led a prominent mujahedin faction that fought against Soviet forces in the 1980s. Pir Sayyid Ahmed Gailani, the leader of the Qadiriyya order, also led a mujahedin faction.
With the Taliban in power and IS-K militants targeting Sufis, many members of the community live in constant dread. Some have even stopped going to Sufi monasteries and shrines for fear of being killed in an attack.
"My family is reluctant to let me go to mosques because they fear bomb blasts, particularly suicide attacks," said Ghulam Saeed, a resident of Parwan Province, located just north of Kabul.
IS-K Claims Suicide Attack Near Foreign Ministry In Kabul That Killed Six
Islamic State-Khorasan, an offshoot of the Islamic State militant group, has claimed a suicide attack that killed six people and wounded 12 others on March 27 near the Foreign Ministry in the Afghan capital of Kabul.
After the Taliban's return to power in 2021, Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) has emerged as the Taliban's main rival in the war-wracked country.
Ahead of the March 27 attack, security forces spotted the bomber and shot at him but could not prevent him from reaching a checkpoint in Malik Asghar Square, where he detonated his explosive vest, according to Khalid Zadran, a spokesman for the Taliban's security command in Kabul.
A Kabul hospital run by EMERGENCY, an Italian NGO, said on Twitter that it had admitted 12 wounded patients, including a child, as well as two people who were dead on arrival.
IS-K later claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing in a statement on Amaq, the militant group's news arm.
The attack took place a day after the Taliban claimed it had killed three key Islamic State militants during a raid in Mazar-e Sharif, the capital of northern Balkh Province.
Islamic State has staged several attacks in Afghanistan recently.
On January 11, an IS suicide bomber killed at least 10 people when he blew himself up near the Foreign Ministry, not far from the site of the March 27 attack.
IS also claimed a bombing near a checkpoint at the Kabul military airport on January 1 that killed up to 20 people and an attack in December on a Kabul hotel frequented by businesspeople. At least five Chinese nationals were wounded in the December attack on the hotel.
In September, two Russian Embassy employees were killed in an IS suicide attack outside Moscow's mission in Kabul.
The Taliban has responded to the attacks by stepping up raids on suspected IS hideouts.
Last month, Taliban security forces said they had killed two senior IS members -- Qari Fateh, the regional IS intelligence and operations chief, and another senior leader, Ijaz Amin Ahingar, in two separate raids in Kabul.
With reporting by AFP, AP, and dpa
Prominent Afghan Girls' Education Advocate Detained By Taliban
A prominent activist for the right to education for Afghan girls, Matiullah Wesa, has been detained by the Taliban, his brother and the United Nations said on March 28.
Wesa was detained outside his home in Kabul by Taliban security forces, his brother, Muhammad Wali Akhlaqi, told RFE/RL. He was beaten and thrown in a car that sped away, Akhlaki said.
After returning to power in August 2021, the Taliban adopted a hard line, crushing women’s rights and restricting freedoms, including imposing a ban on girl’s education beyond the sixth grade, despite initially promising to be more open to women’s rights.
Women were forced to cover themselves, banned from public spaces, and forbidden to work for domestic and foreign NGOs; traveling or working outside the home is largely restricted.
The UN Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported Wesa's arrest in a statement on Twitter on March 28, while UN Special Rapporteur Richard Bennett tweeted that he was "alarmed" by the news of the activist's arrest.
"Matiullah Wesa, head of PenPath1 and advocate for girls’ education, was arrested in Kabul Monday," UNAMA said. "UNAMA calls on the de facto authorities to clarify his whereabouts, the reasons for his arrest, and to ensure his access to legal representation and contact with family."
"Alarmed by reports that Matiullah Wesa, famous educator especially for girls, leading civil society member, & founder of PenPath1, has been arrested in Kabul by the Taliban. His safety is paramount & all his legal rights must be respected," Bennett tweeted.
The Taliban has not commented on Wesa's arrest.
Wesa, who is 30, launched the PenPath1 project some 14 years ago, campaigning for schools for girls and distributing books in rural areas.
PenPath also talks about the importance of girls' education to villagers in remote areas.
Wesa has continued to campaign for girls' education even after the Taliban's ban on secondary school education for girls.
With reporting by AFP and Reuters
Amnesty Report Says 'Hypocrisy' Of Western States Laid Bare By Russia's Invasion of Ukraine
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 unleashed numerous war crimes and generated a global energy and food crisis, but it also laid bare the hypocrisy of Western states that reacted to the Kremlin’s aggression, Amnesty International said in its annual report on human rights.
Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine
RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's full-scale invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensives, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.
Amnesty International said that while the response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was swift and forceful, countries applied human rights law on a case-by-case basis in a "staggering show of blatant hypocrisy and double standards" and left a lack of meaningful action on grave violations by some of their allies.
“States cannot criticize human rights violations one minute and in the next condone similar abuses in other countries just because their interests are at stake. It’s unconscionable and undermines the entire fabric of universal human rights," said Agnes Callamard, Amnesty International’s secretary-general, in a news release accompanying the report.
The organization said its report examining the human rights situation in 156 countries in 2022 highlights double standards throughout the world on human rights and the failure of the international community to unite around human rights and universal values. It also found that double standards and inadequate responses to human rights abuses around the world fueled impunity and instability.
The report said, for example, that while EU member states opened their borders to Ukrainians fleeing Russian aggression, many kept their doors shut to those escaping war and repression in Syria, Afghanistan, and Libya.
It also said that while the United States has been a vocal critic of alleged Russian violations in Ukraine and has admitted tens of thousands of Ukrainian war refugees, it expelled more than 25,000 Haitians between September 2021 and May 2022.
The report cited in particular the refusal to confront Israel’s "system of apartheid against Palestinians" and inaction against China's human rights violations against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang Province.
These double standards emboldened countries like China, and enabled Egypt and Saudi Arabia to evade, ignore, and deflect criticism of their human rights record, Amnesty International said.
Callamard also said that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a "chilling example" of what can happen when states think they can flout international law and violate human rights without consequences.
“Had the system worked to hold Russia accountable for its documented crimes in Chechnya and Syria, thousands of lives might have been saved then and now, in Ukraine and elsewhere. Instead, what we have is more suffering and devastation,” Callamard said.
Russia has been accused by other human rights groups and Western governments of being responsible for serious human rights violations and abuses in the North Caucasus region of Chechnya and of human rights abuses in Syria, including its participation in bombing of civilian targets.
Suicide Attack Near Foreign Ministry In Kabul Kills At Least Six
At least six people were killed and 12 others were wounded on March 27 when a suicide bomber blew himself up near the Foreign Ministry in the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Khalid Zadran, a spokesman for the Taliban's security command in Kabul, said security forces spotted the bomber and shot at him but could not prevent him from reaching a checkpoint in Malik Asghar Square, where he detonated his explosive vest.
A Kabul hospital run by Emergency, an Italian NGO, said on Twitter that it had admitted 12 wounded patients, including a child, and two people were dead on arrival.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack so far, but after returning to power in 2021, the Taliban has been targeted by Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), an offshoot of the Islamic State militant group that has emerged as the Taliban's main rival in the war-wracked country.
IS-K has staged several attacks in Afghanistan recently.
On January 11, an IS-K suicide bomber killed at least 10 people when he blew himself up near the Foreign Ministry, not far from the site of the March 27 attack.
IS-K also claimed a bombing near a checkpoint at the Kabul military airport on January 1 that killed up to 20 people and an attack in December on a Kabul hotel frequented by businesspeople. At least five Chinese nationals were wounded in the December attack on the hotel.
In September, two Russian Embassy employees were killed in an IS-K suicide attack outside Moscow's mission in Kabul.
The Taliban has responded to the attacks by stepping up raids on suspected IS-K hideouts.
Last month, Taliban security forces said they had killed two senior IS-K members -- Qari Fateh, the regional IS-K intelligence and operations chief, and another senior leader, Ijaz Amin Ahingar -- in two separate raids in Kabul.
With reporting by AFP, AP, and dpa
Afghan Women's Protest For Education Halted In Kabul By Taliban
At least 20 Afghan women marched in the capital, Kabul, on March 26 to demand the right to education for women and girls before being rounded up by a Taliban patrol.
The demonstration comes amid UN and other international condemnation over ongoing strictures under the Taliban-led government to keep women and girls out of schools, jobs, media, and other aspects of life since the hard-line militant group took power after U.S.-led international forces left in 2021.
Participants in the demonstration told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi that Taliban enforcers arrived shortly after they began their planned march from the Red Bridge area in western Kabul and corralled the protesters to prevent them from continuing.
Video footage shared on social media showed around two dozen veiled women marching with small signs with "education is our right" written on them.
The demonstration was organized by the Afghan Women's Political Participation Network.
Organizers reportedly planned to march toward the Asif Mayel Girls' School, one of dozens of schools violently attacked by Taliban fighters or sympathizers.
"For almost two years, the future and fate of Afghan women have been taken hostage and we have been completely removed from society," one of the protesters, Momine Eftekhari, told Radio Azadi.
"Education is a standard with an educational curriculum that is the right of everyone. Not only is it the right of boys but girls, but unfortunately we have been deprived of education, work, and sports for more than 19 months."
She said the situation was "no longer tolerable [and] that's why we took to the streets."
Taliban Claims Delegation Visited Afghan Consulate In Neighboring Tajikistan
The Taliban-led Afghan government's foreign office has claimed a delegation traveled to an Afghan consulate in Khorugh, the capital of Tajikistan's Gorno-Badakhshan region, although no Tajik official sources confirmed any such visit on March 25. Relations are strained between the Taliban leadership in Kabul and Dushanbe, which has been outspoken in its demand that the unrecognized Afghan government boost inclusiveness since it took over after the withdrawal of U.S.-led international troops in August 2021. The Taliban said its delegation was surveying repairs to the consulate following an avalanche that killed 16 people and buried dozens of buildings on February 15. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Tajik Service, click here.
Rain, Floods Kill At Least Three In Afghanistan
The Taliban rulers of Afghanistan say rain and floods over the past two days have killed at least three people and injured at least seven. Spokesman Shafiullah Rahimi said in a video message on March 25 that the floods destroyed 756 houses in Nangarhar, Laghman, Kunar, Balkh, Farah, Zabul, Faryab, Uruzgan, and Nuristan provinces. The Taliban rulers have been struggling to deal with natural disasters, including earthquakes, along with a deadly Islamic State insurgency since seizing power in August 2021. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, click here.
The Azadi Briefing: Another School Year Begins With Afghan Girls Shut Out Of Class
Welcome to The Azadi Briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan. To subscribe, click here.
I'm Abubakar Siddique, a senior correspondent at RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. Here's what I've been tracking and what I'm keeping an eye on in the days ahead.
The Key Issue
A new school year began in Afghanistan this week, but with girls above the sixth grade still banned from attending class.
Last year, the Taliban made a last-minute U-turn after promising for months to allow teenage girls to attend school. But this year, there were few signs before the academic year began that the militants would reverse their ban. In December, the Taliban also banned university education for women.
Human rights groups and female Afghan activists this week condemned the Taliban's ban. In a statement on March 21, UNICEF said the militant group's "unjustified and shortsighted decision has crushed the hopes and dreams of more than 1 million girls."
Former Afghan lawmaker Shukria Barakzai told Radio Azadi that the ban epitomized the Taliban's worldview, which she said fears educated women.
Afghanistan is the only country in the world where girls are prohibited from going to high school.
Why It's Important: The Taliban's restrictions on girls' education as well as its severe constraints on women's right to work and freedom of movement have signaled to Afghans and the international community that the militant group is bent on reestablishing its brutal regime of the 1990s.
The Taliban's draconian policies on girls and women appear to have backfired. The restrictions are considered one of the reasons the hard-line Islamist group has yet to gain international recognition and domestic legitimacy.
The education ban has even undermined the Taliban's religious credentials. The group has come under strong criticism from Muslim countries and Islamic clerics, who have called for the Taliban to rescind its ban.
What's Next: In the long term, the Taliban's education ban is likely to have a devastating social and economic impact.
In August, UNICEF estimated that the Taliban's education ban translated to a loss of at least $500 million for the Afghan economy in the last 12 months.
With the Taliban refusing to reverse its ban, some Afghans have called for the international community to impose further sanctions against the Taliban government.
"Sanctions against the Taliban leaders responsible for these bans would force them to rescind such policies," Shinkai Karokhail, a female former Afghan lawmaker, told Radio Azadi.
The Week's Best Stories
The preservation of Afghanistan's rich cultural heritage has been impeded by decades of war, destruction, and desecration. But while the Taliban's return to power has raised fears of a return to its ruinous old ways when it comes to the country's pre-Islamic history, preservationists continue to pick up the pieces with a surprising level of cooperation.
Norouz festivities are making a limited comeback among Pashtun communities in northwestern Pakistan. The traditional spring celebrations marking the arrival of the New Year died down a century ago due to calendar changes and imperial borders that limited their contacts with fellow Pashtuns in Afghanistan and other communities.
What To Keep An Eye On
The Taliban's influential finance minister, Mullah Hidayatullah Badri, was demoted and appointed as the new head of Afghanistan's central bank on March 22.
The demotion came after speculation that Badri had threatened to resign from his post because of differences with Taliban Supreme Leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada.
One account suggests that Badri opposed Akhundzada's 2021 decision to impose a blanket ban on opium cultivation without providing alternative livelihoods to the tens of thousands of farmers in southern Afghanistan, where Badri is from, who were dependent on the illicit drug trade.
During its 19-year insurgency, the Taliban is believed to have earned billions from the drug trade. Experts say the Taliban taxed poppy farmers and was involved in the trafficking of narcotics to neighboring countries.
In recent months, senior Taliban officials have publicly criticized Akhundzada, who has been accused of monopolizing power and empowering a cohort of radical clerics.
Why It's Important: Badri, also known by his alias Gul Agha, was among the founding members of the Taliban in the mid-1990s. He controlled the Taliban's finances for more than two decades.
Badri is a prominent Taliban figure from the southern province of Helmand. The so-called Helmand Shura, or council that Badri was a member of, led the Taliban insurgency for several years. In May 2016, a U.S. drone strike killed Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansur inside Pakistan, which weakened the faction.
Badri was the only minister appointed from this faction when the Taliban announced its government in September 2021. His departure from the top echelons of the Taliban government deprives this powerful Taliban faction of a share in power.
Badri also figures prominently on the UN sanctions list against the Taliban leaders. His appointment to Afghanistan's central bank could further complicate the group's international dealings.
Until next time,
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Migrants From Afghanistan, Pakistan Found In Truck In Serbia
Serbia's customs authorities said on March 24 they discovered nine migrants hiding among aluminum rolls in a truck headed to Poland from Greece. Customs officers on Serbia's border with North Macedonia spotted the migrants on March 22 during a scan that showed human silhouettes in the back of the truck, a statement said. The migrants were young men from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria, the statement added. Serbia lies at the heart of the so-called Balkan land route that refugees and migrants use to try to reach Western Europe and start new lives there. To read the original story by AP, click here.
U.K. Inquiry Vows To Get To Bottom Of Afghan Extrajudicial Killings Allegations
The chair of a public inquiry examining "extremely serious" allegations that British armed forces carried out dozens of extrajudicial killings in Afghanistan said on March 22 that any soldiers who had broken the law should face investigation. The independent inquiry was ordered by Britain's Defense Ministry in December 2022 after a BBC TV documentary reported that soldiers from the elite Special Air Service (SAS) had killed 54 people in suspicious circumstances. It also came after two families, who accuse the SAS of killing their relatives in 2011 and 2012, began legal action to demand judicial reviews of their cases. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Earthquake Kills At Least 13 In Pakistan, Afghanistan
A 6.5-magnitude earthquake with an epicenter in the northeastern Afghan region of Hindukush has killed at least 13 people and injured dozens in Pakistan and Afghanistan, authorities and local officials say.
Taimur Ali Mashal, spokesman for the Natural Disaster Management Agency (PDMA) in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal that nine people had died and at least 47 injured in the province bordering Afghanistan.
Rescuer Bilal Faizi told RFE/RL that the temblor caused material damage in 10 districts of Khyber Pakhtunkwa.
The quake was felt in several large Pakistani cities, including the capital, Islamabad, as well as Peshawar, Lahore, Rawalpindi, and Quetta.
Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif said he ordered disaster-management agencies to remain on alert.
In Kabul, Sharafat Zaman, a spokesman for the Taliban-led Ministry of Public Health, said the quake struck several Afghan provinces, killing four people, including one child, and injuring 70.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted that the Ministry of Public Health had ordered all health facilities to be on high alert.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the epicenter was located 40 kilometers south-southeast of Jurm in Afghanistan's mountainous Hindukush region, close to the border with Pakistan and Tajikistan.
The temblor was felt as far as New Delhi in India as well as Tajikistan, local media reported.
The mountainous Hindukush region, where the Arabian, Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, is prone to violent earthquakes. In 2005, a 7.6-magnitude tremor killed thousands of people in Pakistan and Kashmir.
In June 2022, more than 1,000 people were killed by 5.9-magnitude earthquake in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
With reporting by AP and dpa
Picking Up The Pieces
The recent past has not been kind to Afghanistan's pre-Islamic heritage. Will history repeat itself under the new Taliban government?
Just months before the Taliban was ousted from power in 2001, the hard-line Islamist group took a wrecking ball to Afghanistan's pre-Islamic history.
That spring, the Bamiyan Buddhas that had stood tall for more than 1,400 years were reduced to rubble over the course of a few weeks after Taliban fighters blasted them with artillery before finishing them off with dynamite.
That infamous assault on Afghan history reverberated around the world, but an equally destructive but lesser-known offense had also just been carried out in Kabul, leaving much of Afghanistan's vast collection of pre-Islamic art in pieces.
"The Taliban in 2001 went through the National Museum of Afghanistan and smashed probably thousands of sculptures," explained Gil Stein, a professor of Near Eastern archaeology at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute. "And curators of the museum, at very great risk to themselves...waited until the Taliban left the building and swept up all the fragments, and put them in trunks and hid the trunks in the basement."
It was only well after the Taliban appeared to be safely out of power -- and a full four years into their work with outside preservationists -- that the curators revealed their secret, according to Stein, who directed cultural preservation efforts in cooperation with the museum and the Afghan Institute of Archeology for more than 13 years.
Golden Age For Restoration
The revelation paved the way for the Hadda Sculptural Project -- a painstaking effort to piece together more than 7,600 fragments of rare Buddhist and Gandharian-style sculptures that had been excavated from an archeological site in southeastern Afghanistan, and which the Taliban had destroyed because the group considered representations of living beings idolatrous and un-Islamic.
It was just one of many ambitious archeological and cultural restoration ventures that were launched as funding and resources flowed in after the Taliban was toppled, and more attention was paid to reverse the cycle of destruction that began with the Soviet withdrawal and continued during the subsequent years of civil war and Taliban rule.
Hundreds of new archeological sites were discovered and mapped, cultural treasures were restored, and antiquities that had been held in safe keeping abroad were returned to their rightful home.
The nongovernmental Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), which had begun work in Afghanistan in 2002, launched hundreds of projects, including the restoration of Kabul's Bagh-e Babur, a garden and park that dates back to the 1500s and holds the tomb of Babur, the first Mughal emperor.
The French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan, whose cooperation with Kabul began in the 1920s, worked with AKDN to restore the oldest mosque in the country, the ninth-century Noh Gonbad, or Nine Cupolas, located in the northern Balkh Province.
The Afghan Museum in Exile, a collection of more than 1,400 artifacts that had been secured in Switzerland since 1999, was returned to the reconstructed National Museum of Afghanistan after UNESCO determined that it was safe to do so. Among the items, some of which had been taken from the museum, was a gargoyle of Alexander the Great's fighting dog and a foundation stone that is believed to have been laid by the conqueror himself.
The director of the Afghan Museum in Exile, Paul Bucherer, told RFE/RL in written comments that from the inception of the project, it was "clear that one day all the holdings would be returned to Kabul."
Items that had been smuggled out of Afghanistan to the United States and other countries were also returned, and by 2021 the Oriental Institute had succeeded in partially reassembling more than 480 of the sculptures that had been destroyed at the National Museum, using digital documentation to make 3D models of what had been lost.
The institute, in cooperation with the U.S. State Department, also compiled a database of antiquities for scholarly research and digitally mapped archeological sites across Afghanistan.
And then the Taliban returned.
Even before the Taliban seized power in August 2021, its leadership had affirmed its commitment to preserve and protect Afghanistan's cultural heritage, and forbade the looting of archeological sites and smuggling of artifacts. After retaking control of Kabul, it established a dedicated police force to monitor heritage sites to prevent looting and illegal excavations.
"The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan greatly protects cultural and historical places and monuments," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in response to questions from RFE/RL's Radio Azadi this month, referring to the formal name of the Taliban government. "All historical sites are safe and there is no danger to them."
Nevertheless, the Taliban's failure to fulfil many of its other promises, including upholding women's rights and press freedom, as well as its track record of destroying historical sites and relics, raised fears that it could return to its old ways.
"We're all too aware of the history," said Ajmal Maiwandi, head of Aga Khan Cultural Services, Afghanistan. "For those of us that work in conservation in Afghanistan, we initially held our breath in terms of the [Taliban's] approach this time around."
But Maiwandi says his organization has so far been uninhibited in its cultural preservation work. "What we've discovered is that there's a different policy that accepts all heritage, Islamic and pre-Islamic, as part of the national heritage of Afghanistan," Maiwandi said.
Work Goes On
One current AKDN project is the restoration and development of the Bala Hissar citadel, a fortress that takes up 55 hectares and is believed to date back to as early as the fifth century and is considered one of the oldest continuously occupied locations in Kabul.
In the western province of Herat, the AKDN is repairing one of the five surviving minarets that was on the verge of collapse and is part of a madrasah, or Islamic seminary, complex built by the Timurid Queen Gawhar Shad in the 15th century.
The Swiss Aliph Foundation, meanwhile, worked to restore the Stupa-e Shewaki, a Buddhist shrine from the first century north of Kabul that was once part of a pilgrimage route from India to the Bamiyan Valley in central Afghanistan.
And in October, the Taliban approved a project funded by the Aliph Foundation to prevent the collapse of the Yu Aw Synagogue in Herat Province, built at the turn of the 20th century, although virtually all of the northwestern region's Jewish population that once numbered in the tens of thousands fled abroad in recent decades.
The AKDN was founded in 1967 by Aga Khan IV, the current leader of the Ismailis, a branch of Shi'ite Islam. Most Ismailis live in Africa and Asia, including in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and Tajikistan.
Asked whether the AKDN's role as a prominent Shi'ite organization has affected its work under the Taliban, a radical Sunni group, Maiwandi said the entity "consists of nondenominational development agencies working across multiple regions of Afghanistan and our work aims to improve the living conditions and livelihoods of a wide range of Afghans across different communities and ethnicities."
Despite the efforts of foreign organizations, the preservation of cultural heritage remains in danger.
Funding and resources have fallen sharply and the looting of archeological sites and the smuggling of artifacts plague the country under Taliban rule.
Stein says that satellite imagery has revealed that dozens of archeological sites are being illegally exploited, some at an industrialized scale that involves the use of heavy equipment to uncover artifacts.
"It's really hard to know what the current status of heritage is in the country," said Stein, whose Oriental Institute closed its offices in Kabul ahead of the Taliban's return but continues outreach efforts from abroad. "One thing we've continued to do is we get fairly updated remote-sensing imagery. So, we are actually able to monitor the condition of a lot of the major archaeological sites around the country and we're able to see if they're being looted."
Taliban spokesman Mujahid denied that any such looting was occurring. "We don't have any cases where someone has done illegal excavations at archaeological sites or looted antiquities," he told RFE/RL, saying that any threats to historical and cultural monuments could be attributed to "natural disasters."
But Stein says that the reality is that even if the Taliban has issued decrees against the looting of archeological sites, it does not mean they are being enforced across the country.
Development -- The Biggest Danger
According to Stein, large-scale projects and the Taliban's dire need for revenue presents an even bigger danger to the preservation of Afghanistan's cultural heritage.
He cites Mes Aynak, located just south of Kabul in Logar Province, as the primary example. Mes Aynak is the site of an ancient Buddhist settlement, but it also sits on the second-largest source of copper on Earth, a resource potentially worth billions of dollars that Afghanistan has been trying to capitalize on for more than a decade.
The project to exploit the site, for which a Chinese mining company won the tender under the previous government, was suspended in 2019. But discussions are ongoing, now with the involvement of the AKDN at the Taliban's request.
Mujahid said the Taliban holds meetings with the AKDN "from time to time." "Some cultural and historical places the [AKDN] takes care of are also monitored and we work closely with them," he told RFE/RL. "We want to ensure that the ancient artifacts and historical heritages in Mes Aynak are either safely kept in the same area or transferred to another place more professionally and ensure their complete safety."
"By having a say it means that we can ensure that, where there is a large-scale salvage operation, that that operation could be done well, it could be done to standard," Maiwandi said. "It could be done in consultation with different groups and different interests."
The TAPI pipeline, another long-sought project that would carry natural gas from Turkmenistan to India by way of Afghanistan and Pakistan, also risks endangering archeological sites, leading to efforts by the Oriental Institute to encourage the Taliban to consider allowing a 5-kilometer-wide buffer zone on either side of the length of the pipeline.
And the large-scale Khush Tapa irrigation project, which the Taliban expects will result in what will be Afghanistan's largest canal funneling water to farmers' fields in Jawzjan, Balkh, and Kunduz provinces, has led to a push by preservationists to try to convince the Taliban to take into account the possible destruction of ancient sites along the way.
"There's at least some evidence that this kind of personal approach can work," Stein said.
Staying Out Of Sight
Stein expresses hope for the future, saying he was "astounded" by the Taliban's work with the AKDN on the Bala Hissar citadel in Kabul.
"So, there are things that can happen, but it's not going to be the way it used to be," he said. "The Taliban will be very selective with who they'll be willing to allow to work there.... if there were more examples like that, it would be wonderful."
As for the sculptures that barely escaped the Taliban's last stint in power, Stein is also cautiously optimistic, saying that the authorities are "behaving themselves."
Almost all Buddhist and other pre-Islamic art has been taken off display at the National Museum, he says. But from what he understands, the museum is being guarded by the Taliban and the exhibits have been placed in storage, although he is unsure in what condition.
"That's really the best step one could hope for, that they're not damaging things, although it's off display," Stein said.
He says the Taliban appears to be following an old saying among Pashtuns, the ethnicity of many members of the group: "A shame that is not seen is not a shame."
- By dpa
Grenade Blast Kills Mother, Five Children In Central Afghanistan
Five children along with their mother were killed when a grenade exploded in Afghanistan’s central Ghor Province, local officials said on March 20. Abdulhai Zaeem, the provincial director of information and culture, told the dpa news agency that the incident happened on March 19 in the provincial capital Firozkoh, while the children were playing with a hand grenade inside their house. Unexploded military supplies left from decades of war often cause casualties among children in Afghanistan. On March 17, two children were killed and two others wounded when they were hit by an unexploded mortar shell in Logar Province.
Top Afghan Taliban Leader Issues Decree Against Nepotism
The supreme leader of the Taliban has issued a decree against nepotism, barring officials in Afghanistan's Taliban administration from hiring relatives in government positions. The shadowy leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, also ordered all Taliban officials to sack their sons and other relatives who are working in their administration. The decree was posted late on March 18 on the Taliban government's Twitter account. It did not elaborate on the reasons behind the decree, but it followed rumors that many Taliban officials have appointed their relatives to high-ranking government positions rather than professionals or those with experience needed for the posts. To read the original story by AP, click here.
The Azadi Briefing: Afghan Refugees Complain Of Prisonlike Conditions In The U.A.E.
Welcome back to The Azadi Briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan. To subscribe, click here.
I'm Mustafa Sarwar, a senior news editor at RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. Here's what I've been tracking and what I'm keeping an eye on in the days ahead.
The Key Issue
After the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, the United States, the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), and other countries evacuated tens of thousands of Afghans to temporary facilities around the world.
The U.A.E. took in thousands of Afghans, housing them in makeshift refugee housing. Many of the Afghans were later resettled to the United States, Canada, and elsewhere. But up to 2,700 Afghans remain stranded in the Gulf nation after not qualifying for resettlement.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused the U.A.E. of “arbitrarily detaining” the remaining Afghans. In a report issued on March 15, the rights group said the U.A.E. was keeping “thousands of Afghan asylum seekers locked up for over 15 months in cramped, miserable conditions with no hope of progress on their cases."
The Gulf nation denied reports of dire living conditions and said it was working with the United States to resettle the remaining evacuees in a “timely manner.”
Dayan Fayez, an Afghan evacuee in the U.A.E., told Radio Azadi that they have limited access to basic services, including education. Another Afghan evacuee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they are “not allowed to go outside the camp.”
Why It's Important: The allegations highlight what activists have called the shocking plight of Afghans stranded in limbo in the U.A.E.
Thousands of other Afghan evacuees remain stranded in temporary housing in Qatar, Kosovo, and Albania as they wait to be resettled to third countries. Some Afghans in those facilities have also complained of mistreatment.
Many Afghan evacuees have protested what they call the protracted resettlement process to the United States and elsewhere, with rights groups repeatedly calling for Washington and other governments to fast-track the process.
What's Next: The fate of the Afghan refugees in the U.A.E., who are not eligible for resettlement elsewhere, remains unclear.
Many of the Afghans have said they cannot return to Afghanistan because they fear reprisals from the Taliban, which has been accused of widespread human rights abuses since seizing power.
Many Afghans who fled their homeland had worked in some capacity for the Western-backed Afghan government that collapsed, the NATO-led mission in the country, or for Western embassies or organizations, making them a target for retribution.
The Week's Best Stories
Dozens of Afghan refugees hoping to emigrate to the West have become stranded in Pakistan, sheltering in a squalid camp in the capital, Islamabad. They fled Afghanistan after the Taliban seized power in 2021. Women vastly outnumber men at the refugee camp. In this video, RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal visited the camp where refugees struggle to survive on handouts from charities.
March 11 marked the anniversary of the destruction of Bamiyan’s sixth-century Buddha statues by the Taliban in 2001. Archaeologists working to preserve what little cultural heritage is still present in the Bamiyan Valley have been dealing with illegal excavations, encroaching developments, and Taliban gunmen who use the remnants of the Buddhas for target practice.
What To Keep An Eye On
India offered Taliban diplomats and officials an online course in economics and leadership.
The four-day program -- called ‘immersing with Indian thoughts’ -- started on March 14 and was attended by several members of the Taliban, according to Indian media.
The training course was organized by India’s Ministry of External Affairs. The program covered India’s “economic environment, regulatory ecosystem, leadership insights, social and historical backdrop, cultural heritage, legal and environmental landscape, consumer mindsets and business risks.”
Why It's Important: India’s offer of training courses to the Taliban raised eyebrows.
India is a longtime foe of the Taliban. In the 1990s, New Delhi backed the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. After the Taliban regime was ousted in 2001, India was a close ally of the Western-backed Afghan government. The Taliban, on the other hand, is a historical ally of Pakistan, India’s archenemy.
Since the Taliban regained power, New Delhi has expressed concerns about the threat of terrorism emanating from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and criticized the militant group’s human rights abuses. But its offer of online courses to the Taliban could hint at India’s attempt to establish some sort of relations with the militant group.
India on March 16 said the offer of training courses did not mean it had recognized the Taliban government. No country in the world has yet to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate ruler of Afghanistan.
That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you have.
Until next time,
If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here. It will be sent to your inbox every Friday.
UN Security Council Asks For Advice On Dealing With Afghan Taliban
The UN Security Council on March 16 asked Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to provide an independent assessment on how to deal with Afghanistan's Taliban-led government. The 15-member council unanimously adopted a resolution that requires Guterres to submit the report in mid-November. The Taliban has banned women and girls from attending high school and university and working for aid groups. Women are also not allowed to leave the home without a male relative and must cover their faces. The Taliban says it respects women's rights in accordance with its strict interpretation of Islamic law.
U.A.E. 'Arbitrarily' Detaining Thousands Of Afghan Refugees, Says Rights Watchdog
The United Arab Emirates is holding up to 2,700 Afghans who fled their country as the Taliban returned to power in August 2021 following the withdrawal of the U.S.-led forces, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on March 15. Many Afghans who fled to U.A.E. were later resettled in the United States, Canada, and other countries, but "between 2,400 and 2,700 Afghans remain arbitrarily detained in the U.A.E.," HRW said. "The U.A.E. should urgently release those arbitrarily detained and provide access to fair and efficient processes for determining their status and protection needs," it said. To read the original statement by Human Rights Watch, click here.
Afghan Women Refugees Stranded In Pakistan See No Future
Dozens of Afghan refugees hoping to emigrate to the West have become stranded in Pakistan, sheltering in a squalid camp in the capital, Islamabad. They fled Afghanistan after the Taliban seized power in 2021. Women vastly outnumber men at the refugee camp and hope for asylum in the West but remain in limbo. RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal visited the camp where refugees struggle to survive on handouts from charities.
At Least 10 Miners Killed In Traffic Accident In Afghanistan
At least 10 employees of a gold mine died and eight were injured in a traffic accident on March 15 in Afghanistan's northern Takhar Province. Takhar police spokesman Abdul Mobin Safi told the media the pickup truck that was carrying the workers to the mine veered off the road and overturned in the Anjir area of Chah Ab district. Safi said some of the injured were in critical condition. The cause of the accident could not be immediately established. Deadly traffic accidents are frequent in Afghanistan due to reckless driving, bad roads, and poor vehicle maintenance. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, click here.
Russia Invited To Participate In Central Asian Soccer Event
Russia has been invited to participate in the inaugural Central Asian Football Association Championships in June along with seven other national teams. Russian teams have been barred from European and FIFA competitions since the invasion of Ukraine in February of last year. But the Tajik Football Association announced on March 13 that a Russian team could join the new regional tournament along with former Soviet republics Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Afghanistan, Iran and another country, yet to be confirmed, will complete the lineup for the games expected to be hosted in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and Tashkent, Uzbekistan. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Afghanistan Opens Four-Day Anti-Polio Vaccination Campaign
Afghanistan on March 13 kicked off a nationwide anti-polio vaccination campaign for children under the age of 5, the office of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Afghanistan told RFE/RL. The campaign is the second since the Taliban seized power in August 2021. Before returning to power, the Taliban had banned vaccinations in areas under their control, but then they agreed to allow such programs under a deal negotiated with the United Nations. Afghanistan and Pakistan are the only nations in the world where polio is still endemic. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, click here.
Islamic State Claims Responsibility For Afghanistan Blast
Islamic State has claimed responsibility for a March 11 attack in Afghanistan's Balkh Province, the extremist group's Telegram account said on March 12. The blast at a cultural center during an event for journalists in northern Afghanistan killed at least one person and wounded eight, according to authorities and journalists. The incident came a few days after the province's governor died in an explosion also claimed by Islamic State.
Young Afghan Women Training As Midwives To Save Lives In Remote Villages
In a small village located at the western end of the snow-covered Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan's Bamiyan Province, Aziza Rahimi, 35, mourns the baby she lost four months ago after a harrowing birth with no medical care.
Rahimi, who has five other children, said that riding a donkey to the nearest hospital was out of the question when she was jolted by pain while nine months pregnant in the middle of the night.
Stumbling and bleeding, she walked for two hours to her in-laws' house after her husband was unable to find help to take them to the hospital. She gave birth there. The baby boy died shortly after.
"It was hard for me when I lost my baby. As a mother, I nurtured the baby in my womb for nine months, but then I lost him. It is too painful," said Rahimi.
Rahimi is not the only mother who has lost her child. For many women living in Afghanistan's rugged and remote landscapes, the distance from their homes to hospitals can be the difference between life and death.
Isolation can become a death sentence in any difficult birth, doctors and aid workers say, contributing to Afghanistan's extremely high maternal and infant mortality rates, among the worst in the world.
However, a potentially life-saving improvement is on the way. Rahimi's village is one of several that have sent 40 young women to train in the provincial capital, Bamiyan, for two years as midwives, after which they will return home.
Since taking over in 2021, Taliban authorities have barred women from universities and most charity jobs, but they have made exemptions in the health-care sector. The UNHCR says local health authorities are supportive of the project.
The trainee midwife program has been spearheaded by the UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency, and the Watan Social and Technical Services Association, a local charity. They hope to expand the program, which also takes place in neighboring Daikundi Province.
Many of the trainee midwives, some with small children of their own, have faced logistical and financial challenges, often having to travel huge distances or live far from home to attend the program.
"We want to learn and serve the people of our village," said one 23-year-old trainee, who walks two hours each day to the hospital.
The UNHCR asked that the trainees not be named for safety reasons.
Women giving birth experience a very different situation in Bamiyan's main city hospital, where the trainee midwives work alongside staff and, with the help of a trainer, learn how to assess and guide pregnant women, deliver babies, and provide postpartum care.
"At first, I didn't want to study nursing or to be a midwife, but after I faced problems and pains during my pregnancy, I had a desire to study midwifery," said a 20-year old trainee, the mother of an 18-month-old son who struggled to access care in her village.
She said many women and families in remote areas did not have the information and support they needed to prepare for a safe delivery.
"We have to change such thoughts," she says. "I want to go to remote areas to treat women who face problems."
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