Welcome to Gandhara's weekly newsletter. This briefing brings you the best of our reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
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Al-Qaeda set to reclaim sanctuary
Now that their Taliban allies are firmly in charge, Al-Qaeda’s leaders are set to return to Afghanistan. Michael Semple, a former United Nations adviser, summed the situation up thus: “The kind of people that Al-Qaeda treats as their peers or supporters are now moving straight out of the suicide-bomber training camps into running the intelligence service.”
He cites the appointment of Mullah Tajmir Jawad as the Taliban’s deputy intelligence chief as evidence of how conducive the environment has become for Al-Qaeda. Before Jawad assumed this sensitive post, he was allegedly running a suicide bombing network and orchestrating some of the most lethal attacks of the past two decades.
Neither the Taliban nor Al-Qaeda, however, wants to repeat the actions that led to the demise of the Taliban regime in 2001 after the United States went after it for harboring Al-Qaeda. “Al-Qaeda would not like to waste the Taliban’s victory again but might like to use their presence in the country to strengthen their regional affiliates in the subcontinent, Yemen, Somalia, and the Sahil,” Abdul Basit, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told us.
The issue echoed this week in Washington, where security czars reiterated that Al-Qaeda could swiftly rebuild itself as they faced tough questions from lawmakers keen on understanding what led to the disastrous collapse of the Afghan government in August even before the final withdrawal of U.S. and allied forces was complete. In a sign that the international community is watching closely, a prosecutor from the International Criminal Court (ICC) is seeking urgent authorization to resume investigations into whether Taliban and Islamic State militants have committed war crimes.
Afghan women in hiding
Given the Taliban’s new dictates aiming at controlling education, employment, and public life, Afghan women have been virtually disappearing from sight as many hide at home fearing reprisal. The Taliban has made no secret of how it seeks to make examples of people, and women who are well-known in their fields are particularly worried.
Homaira Barakzai is the captain of the Afghan national women’s handball team, which was preparing to travel to an international championship in September before they were blocked by the Taliban’s de facto ban on women’s sports. Barakzai says she hasn’t left her house since the militants took power on August 15 and feels her previously bright future dimming around her.
“One of my biggest dreams was to compete in the Asian championships, which would bring us a step closer to the World Cup,” she told us, adding that she’s also been banned from completing her university studies. Now, she is afraid to go outside. “I’m afraid that if they [the Taliban] find out I’m an athlete, I might face bad consequences,” she added.
For some Afghan women, there’s danger in even being housebound. Women’s shelters and safe houses across the country have shuttered, and the women who relied on them as a lifeline have been sent back to their abusive families.
Activists fear that the girls and women who return could become victims of so-called honor killings -- the murder of women for allegedly dishonoring the family by, for example, running away from home.
“We should fear for their safety and their lives, as they have gone back to their abusers at a time when all restraints on violence against women have disappeared,” said Heather Barr, associate director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch.
Central Asia doubles down
Tajikistan is increasingly emerging as the only country in Central Asia confronting the Taliban as others seek ways to tolerate or even cultivate cooperative relations with their hard-line Islamist neighbors.
Dushanbe has portrayed the Taliban regime as a major threat to its national security by accusing it of supporting the infiltration of renegade militants from Tajikistan now allied with the Taliban. The deteriorating relations have now attracted the attention of Russia, where the Kremlin urged both sides “to search for mutually acceptable options to resolve the situation.”
Bruce Pannier weighs in on why Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, which do not share a land border with Afghanistan, are eager to engage the Taliban. Senior Kazakh and Kyrgyz officials recently met with Taliban leaders and even offered some limited humanitarian aid. “Both countries have now established direct contact and seem to hope that gestures like sending humanitarian aid or maintaining trade ties will keep them further shielded from any Afghan spillover,” Pannier concludes.
China’s support for the Taliban
Reid Standish reports on how China is proving to be a major supporter of Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers by actively seeking diplomatic engagement and financial and political support for their embryonic regime.
But Beijing’s cautious backing for international recognition of the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan is not yet backed by money and material support, which gives the United States some leverage in configuring Afghanistan’s immediate future. Taliban-sponsored rallies demanding the release of Afghanistan’s foreign reserves have so far attracted little attention, and Beijing is expected to back the Taliban further at G20 leadership meetings later this month.
Searching for Taliban pragmatism
In a quest to dig up the Taliban’s ideological roots, I turned to Maulana Syed Arshad Madani, the principal of Darul Uloom Deoband, home of the austere form of Sunni Islam that the Taliban follows.
True to its puritanical reputation, the 82-year-old cleric supports the Taliban’s gender segregation, arguing its enforcement might “mean the door to education for girls has opened.” His overall message to the Taliban, however, is to be just, tolerant, and pragmatic. "While embracing their religion, the Taliban should establish relations with the world and aim to develop their country," he told me.
Archaeological heritage in peril
In a video report, we take you to Nimroz, where the Taliban has helped preserve a medieval fort amid concerns that some of its leaders might revive its practice of destroying Afghanistan’s rich cultural heritage in the name of ridding their country of idols and other artifacts deemed “un-Islamic.”
“We are very worried about the below-ground archaeological sites because there we have no idea what they will find and what they will excavate and what they will either destroy or most likely put to the illicit trade in cultural property,” said Peter Stone, an archaeologist at the University of Newcastle.
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