- By Frud Bezhan
As U.S. Moves To Exit Afghanistan, Rivals Prepare To Swoop In
The U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was backed by most countries in the region, who shared the goal of ousting the extremist Taliban regime and eliminating the allied Al-Qaeda terrorist network.
The governments in Tehran, Moscow, and Islamabad readily helped the United States fight the extremist groups.
Iran provided crucial intelligence to support U.S. special forces and CIA teams orchestrating the invasion.
Russia supplied Soviet-era maps and intelligence and later allowed the U.S. military to send supplies to Afghanistan through its territory.
The stage has already been set, with many key actors -- including Russia and Iran -- increasing their ties with both the Afghan state and the Taliban."-- Michael Kugelman, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Even Pakistan, the chief backer of the Taliban, offered its assistance in helping hunt down Al-Qaeda militants and became the main supply line for NATO forces.
But in the intervening 19 years, the regional consensus favoring the U.S. troops in Afghanistan has eroded.
Though the U.S. military swiftly overthrew the Taliban and eliminated Al-Qaeda safe havens in Afghanistan, many feel it got bogged down in mission creep.
Meanwhile, Washington’s ties with many regional players -- including Pakistan, Iran, and Russia -- became toxic.
With U.S. forces scheduled to exit Afghanistan next year as part of a framework peace deal with the Taliban, Washington’s rivals see an opportunity to step in and expand their footprint in the war-torn country.
Those efforts have intensified since the United States and the Taliban signed a deal in February aimed at negotiating an end to the war, which began way back in 2001.
Under that agreement, U.S. forces will withdraw from Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which has pledged to negotiate a permanent cease-fire and power-sharing deal with the Kabul government.
The delayed intra-Afghan peace talks are expected to be complex and protracted, and will likely take years.
Impatient to end the costly and unpopular war, President Donald Trump is considering fast-tracking the exit of American troops ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November, according to U.S. media reports.
Experts say that in the absence of a peace deal, a U.S. military withdrawal could ignite a free-for-all that involves regional powers pursuing often competing interests in Afghanistan.
“The stage has already been set, with many key actors -- including Russia and Iran -- increasing their ties with both the Afghan state and the Taliban,” says Michael Kugelman, South Asia senior associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
“The objective is to develop more influence and generate more leverage with key actors across the board, so that they will be in a better position to pursue and achieve their goals in a post-America Afghanistan -- a place we can expect to be increasingly unstable and complex.”
Iran, Pakistan, and Russia -- with long histories of meddling in the country -- are hedging their bets. The three countries have sought to improve their relations with the Western-backed government in Kabul, while also reaching out to the Taliban in case it gains a role in a future Afghan government.
Islamabad has retained its long-standing ties with the Taliban and shelters the group’s leadership, while Tehran and Moscow have been tacitly working to bolster their ties with the militants, with the goal of expanding their own strategic interests in Afghanistan.
'Make The Taliban Even Stronger'
Pakistan has long been accused of playing a double game in Afghanistan, sheltering and aiding the Taliban while receiving billions in U.S. aid to clamp down on the militants.
Pakistan's ties to the Taliban date back to the 1990s, when it provided arms, training, and intelligence to the militants. Islamabad was one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban government when it took power in Afghanistan in 1996. After the regime's fall in 2001, many Taliban leaders took shelter inside Pakistan.
Observers say Pakistan sees the Taliban as an insurance policy for reaching its long-standing strategic goals in Afghanistan -- installing a pro-Pakistan government in Kabul and limiting the influence of its archrival India, which has close ties to Kabul.
Experts say Pakistan stands to be the biggest beneficiary of a U.S. military pullout from Afghanistan.
“If a withdrawal leads to a peace process that results in a settlement, then Pakistan would benefit as this would likely entail the Taliban holding a fair share of power,” says Kugelman. “If the peace process collapses and the U.S. withdrawal ushers in a period of extended destabilization, Pakistan would still benefit because it would make the Taliban even stronger.”
Iran has supported its traditional allies in Afghanistan -- the Shi’ite Hazara minority and the Persian-speaking ethnic Tajiks -- while recently establishing contacts with the Taliban, a predominately Pashtun group.
Iran and the Taliban were on the verge of war in 1998 -- when the group controlled most of Afghanistan -- after the deaths of eight Iranian diplomats in the Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif.
Tehran backed the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance before the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. But in recent years the Islamic republic and the Taliban have forged closer ties, with militant leaders even visiting Tehran.
The relationship between Shi’ite-majority Iran and the Taliban, a fundamentalist Sunni group, is complex. Iran officially opposes the Taliban, but experts say it provides some military support to the mainstream Taliban and even rival breakaway factions.
Analysts say that while Iran does not want the Taliban to return to power, Tehran is looking to maintain influence with the group as a hedge in case the Taliban becomes a political player in Afghanistan or it forcibly seizes control of the country.
“These initiatives serve the purpose of securing Iran's sphere of influence in Afghanistan and perhaps even creating a buffer zone on Afghan soil to protect parts of Iran's eastern borders from infiltration by forces hostile to Iran,” says Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
'A Great Power'
For more than a decade after the U.S.-led invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin praised Washington for taking on the “burden” of fighting terrorism in Afghanistan and urged it to “carry it to the end.”
But since 2014, the Kremlin has attempted to undermine the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, fueled by Moscow’s desire to be an international power broker and its rivalry with the West in Ukraine and Syria, where Russia joined Iran in supporting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Moscow said it has established contacts with the Taliban in recent years because of the common threat posed by the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Afghanistan. Washington has accused Russia of arming the Taliban, which it denies.
In the past two years, Moscow has hosted two international conferences on the Afghan peace process, inviting Taliban leaders and Afghan opposition members.
Earlier this month, U.S. media reported that a Russian military intelligence unit had offered secret bounties to the Taliban if they killed U.S. or NATO-member troops in Afghanistan.
Moscow and the Taliban have denied the reports, which are based on U.S. intelligence assessments. But the revelations have served to highlight Moscow’s murky dealings in Afghanistan.
“Russia's interests in Afghanistan are twofold: to avoid an explosion of chaos on the borders of what it considers its sphere of influence, and to use it as an opportunity to demonstrate and assert its claim to be a great power,” says Mark Galeotti, a Russia analyst and a senior associate fellow at the British-based Royal United Services Institute.
Nine Killed As Strong Earthquake Rattles Pakistan, Afghanistan
A magnitude-6.5 earthquake rattled Pakistan and Afghanistan on March 21, sending panicked residents fleeing from homes and offices. At least nine people died. More than 100 people were brought to hospitals in the Swat Valley region of Pakistan's northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province in a state of shock, Bilal Faizi, a spokesman for Pakistan's emergency services, told AP. Most were later discharged. Faizi and other officials said nine people were killed when roofs collapsed in various parts of northwestern Pakistan. The quake was centered in Afghanistan and was also felt in Tajikistan.
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 international funding and resources flowed into Afghanistan after the Taliban regime was toppled.
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 Babul, the first Mughal emperor.
The French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan, whose cooperation with Kabul began in the 1920s, restored 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 AKDN has also partnered with the Swiss Aliph Foundation 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."
Deadly Bomb Attack In Afghanistan's Fourth-Largest City Targets Journalists
A bomb blast at a journalism awards ceremony in the Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif has killed three people and left 13 wounded, Afghan officials said. Some of the wounded were reportedly journalists and children. No one has claimed responsibility for the March 11 blast, which came two days after a bomb in the same city killed Balkh Province Governor Daud Muzmal and two others. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi, click here.
The Azadi Briefing: Taliban Reels From Killing Of Senior Official
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
The Taliban’s governor of Afghanistan’s northern province of Balkh, Dawood Muzammil, was killed in a suicide bombing on March 9.
The Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) extremist group, a rival of the Taliban, took responsibility for the attack, claiming that a suicide bomber detonated his explosives inside Muzammil’s office.
Provincial police spokesman Asif Waziri told Radio Azadi that two other people were killed in the bombing.
Why It's Important: Muzammil is one of the most senior Taliban officials to be killed since the militant group seized power in August 2021. He is also the first Taliban-appointed governor to be assassinated during that time.
Muzammil was appointed as deputy interior minister when the Taliban regained power. He then served as the Taliban’s governor of the eastern province of Nangarhar, where he led operations against IS-K militants. During the Taliban’s insurgency, Muzammil was the head of the militant group’s military commission based in neighboring Pakistan.
Muzammil was part of a Taliban faction that is believed to have close links to neighboring Iran. In 2018, he was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury for aiding Iran-sponsored armed groups in the region.
His killing has highlighted the enduring threat posed by IS-K to Afghanistan’s new rulers. In the past 18 months, the Taliban has waged a brutal war against IS-K, killing several of its senior commanders. But that has not appeared to blunt its operational capacity.
What's Next: IS-K militants are likely to continue carrying out high-profile attacks against Taliban officials.
The attacks are aimed at undermining the Taliban government and puncturing its narrative about establishing security in Afghanistan.
Muzammil’s killing is likely to lead to another wave of operations against suspected IS-K cells in Afghanistan. In February, the Taliban said it had killed two senior IS-K members in separate operations.
The Week's Best Stories
Through their art, eight Afghan women depict life under Taliban rule, leaving their homeland, and their aspirations for a better future. "Women are a source of light, courage, and motivation in their own homes but also on a greater scale," one artist told Radio Azadi. "They are the core pillars of every society."
Afghan musician Farida Tarana's new song, Group Sex, in which she criticizes polygamy and Taliban restrictions on women, has caused an uproar in Afghanistan since it was released three months ago. "A man is allowed to have four wives. Isn't that called group sex? Or is it a death sentence for a woman?" she told Radio Azadi.
Women’s Day is intended to celebrate women around the world. In Afghanistan, it is a reminder of the violent resistance to girls and women seeking an education, and the highs and ultimate crushing lows they have endured in pursuit of an inalienable right. “Now that the gates of the universities are closed, I'm entering a scary and dark valley," said one high school graduate.
What To Keep An Eye On
Universities in Afghanistan reopened on March 6 after a winter break, but with the Taliban’s ban on higher education for women still in force.
"A girl cannot study because of [the Taliban’s] absurd mentality. So we remain like birds with clipped wings," Madina, who studied psychology at Balkh University before the ban, told Radio Azadi.
In an open letter issued this week, female students who studied at Kabul University demanded that the Taliban overturn its ban. The letter urged male students to boycott their classes.
On Women’s Day on March 8, dozens of women and girls staged a protest in Kabul and demanded their rights, including being allowed to attend high school and university.
Why It's Important: The Taliban has offered no signs that it will overturn its ban on female education.
The militant group has come under mounting international pressure to reverse its restrictions. On March 7, the European Union sanctioned the Taliban’s Higher Education Minster Neda Mohammad Nadim and the minister for the propagation of virtue and the prohibition of vice, Mohammad Khalid Hanafi.
The Taliban’s war against women’s rights is likely to further isolate its government, which has not been recognized by any country.
That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you have.
Until next time,
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Art As Therapy: Afghan Women Paint Their Experiences Under Taliban Rule
Mursal Ahmadzai, 20, lives in Kabul. Ahmadzai was a graphic design student until the Taliban banned women from attending university.
“Unfortunately, like other Afghan girls, I now stay at home," she says. "I portray the pain and suffering of Afghan girls, which I don't like because I want to portray the joys of Afghan girls and the beauty of my homeland.”
Ahmadzai, who was in her third semester of university at the time of the forced school closures, wants to depict the aspirations of Afghan women hidden behind the burqa.
Mina Mamik's family is from Nangarhar Province. Her family moved to the Netherlands when she was a child.
“Our motherland went through terrible times, but now we are in one of the darkest stages of our history, as we are the only country in the world where girls can't go to school and educate themselves and are being restricted from many more things,” she says.
Mamik painted Hope to express her desire that Afghanistan will rise from the ashes again one day.
"Women are a source of light, courage, and motivation in their own homes but also on a greater scale. They are the core pillars of every society, and so are they the pillars of our society," she adds.
Lema Sarwan is from Ghazni Province. She has been living in Prague for more than a decade.
“This painting symbolizes the oppression of women in Afghanistan. The school girl is all ready to attend school but cannot because of the system put in place by the Taliban,” she says.
Sara Rahmani was born and raised in Afghanistan. She moved to the United States five years ago and is currently studying civil engineering. Her untitled painting above depicts the three stages of life for refugees, especially girls, who fled to a foreign country after the Taliban returned to power.
"The first phase is of Kabul's beauty, happiness, and freedom, while girls went to school like boys," she says.
The second stage follows the chaos during Taliban rule.
"The sad situation of closing schools for girls, the struggle of women and girls to regain their rights, and the attempts of people to escape Afghanistan, where the Taliban have created an environment like prison," she says.
Rahmani ends her piece with "the stage of regret and nostalgia after migration."
Sara Barack is a native of the western Herat region. She won a scholarship to study art and film in Turkey after finishing high school. She is renowned for being Afghanistan's first female animator.
They made me unseen, shrouded and a nonbeing.
A shadow, no existence, made silent,
Denied of freedom, restricted to my cage.
Tell me how to handle my anger and my passion?
Tell me how can I be alive in this world?
Rokhsar Rahimi, 18, was born and raised in Kabul. She has held a number of art shows while a student in Kabul. She was in her final year of high school when the Taliban barred her and other young woman from finishing her studies.
Fearing persecution, Rahimi and her family fled Afghanistan. Her painting, Breaking The Chains, captures the plight of young women.
“As you can see in the picture, the chain tied to the girls' feet is breaking and they are moving toward the light for their future. The painting symbolizes the current situation of Afghan girls who are banned from education. But they do not accept this state, and millions of Afghan women and girls are fighting for their rights to education and work,” Rahimi says.
“Today, even though Afghan women are deprived of the right to education, they still study in secret and do not let others decide their fate.”
Atena Sultani is from Herat Province and is a graduate of the Faculty of Fine Arts at Herat University.
“In Afghanistan, women were and are victims of the war. These days, when Afghan girls are going through a ‘cold war’ waged upon them, I want to ask to please support them and speak out wherever you are in the world.”
Sultani is unable to continue her education elsewhere due to the Taliban's refusal to provide female graduates with their diplomas.
Maria Hosein-Habibi was born in Kabul and raised in Germany. She has been drawing and painting since childhood. She obtained a master's degree and since 2020 has been lecturing at a university, as well as teaching art and English at a secondary school.
“Through art, I try to highlight issues regarding Afghanistan and introduce Afghan culture," she says. "Other topics I refer to within my artistic work are questions of identity, social pressure and individual emotions.”
Her painting above is a metaphor for the current Taliban policies and her aspirations.
“It shows a girl with a chador, but underneath, she is reading a book that shines brightly," she says "It shows that education will grant a bright future. The book is called The Future Of Afghanistan."
Dozens Of Bodies Discovered After Taliban Clears Kabul District Known For Drug Use
The bodies of 59 Afghans who allegedly had substance-abuse problems have been found in fresh graves in Kabul after Taliban authorities cleared out the Pul-e Sokhta district. While the Taliban is using the cleanup to promote its crackdown on drugs, the country continues to suffer from a serious addiction crisis. Afghans using drugs in the area have been rounded up, many have been beaten, and others locked in prison cells with hardened criminals and forced to immediately give up drugs. Many of their families do not know if their loved ones are dead or alive.
Taliban Governor Of Afghan Province Killed In Blast
The Taliban governor of Afghanistan's Balkh Province was killed in a blast at his office on March 9, officials said.
"Mohammad Dawood Muzammil, the governor of Balkh, has been killed in an explosion this morning," the province's Taliban police spokesman Asif Waziri told RFE/RL.
Two other people were killed in the attack and two were wounded, Waziri said. The cause of the explosion was not immediately known.
Some local media reports said more than 30 people were wounded by the blast and were taken to hospital for treatment.
The Taliban-led government's spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, tweeted that Muzammil was "martyred in an explosion by the enemies of Islam" and said that an investigation into the attack has been opened.
Muzammil is one of the highest-ranking Taliban officials to be killed since the group returned to power in August 2021.
No group has claimed responsibility 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 that has emerged as the Taliban's main rival in the war-wracked country.
Muzammil was appointed governor of Balkh last year after holding the same position in the eastern Nangarhar Province, where he coordinated a crackdown on IS militants.
IS-K has staged several attacks in Afghanistan recently, including one in January in which a suicide bomber killed at least 10 people when he blew himself up near the Foreign Ministry in Kabul.
Last month, Taliban security forces claimed to have killed two senior IS-K members.
Qari Fateh, the regional IS-K intelligence and operations chief, was killed together with another IS-K member in a Kabul raid on February 27, the Taliban-led government said.
Another senior IS-K leader, Ijaz Amin Ahingar, was reportedly killed in a previous raid in Kabul.
With reporting by AFP
UN Warns Of Aid Cuts Over Taliban Crackdown On Women's Rights
The UN envoy in Afghanistan warned on March 8 that a Taliban crackdown on women's rights is likely to lead to a drop in aid and development funding in the country. The UN has asked for $4.6 billion in 2023 to deliver help in Afghanistan, where two-thirds of the population -- some 28 million people -- need it to survive, said Roza Otunbaeva. But she told the UN Security Council that providing that assistance had been put at risk by the Taliban's bans on women attending high school and university, visiting parks, and working for aid groups. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Afghan Broadcaster Airs Rare All-Female Panel To Discuss Rights On Women's Day
Afghan broadcaster Tolo News aired an all-female panel in its studio with an audience of women to mark International Women's Day on March 8, a rare broadcast since the Taliban took over and many female journalists left the profession or started working off-air. A survey by Reporters Without Borders last year found that more than 75 percent of female journalists had lost their jobs since the Taliban took over as foreign forces withdrew in August 2021. With surgical masks covering their faces, the panel of three women and one female moderator discussed the position of women in Islam. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Female Education In Afghanistan Is A Brutal Open-And-Shut Case Of Discrimination
To the outside world, women’s right to an education is an unalienable right. For girls and women in Afghanistan, it is an open-and-shut case of discrimination.
Zahra Azimi, who completed her studies through the 12th grade, has experienced firsthand the deadly shock, the renewed optimism, and the ultimate crushing low women have experienced in their pursuit of an education under Taliban rule.
She was among the hundreds of students taking practice university exams at the Kaaj Higher Education Center in west Kabul on September 30 when tragedy struck.
At least 53 people were killed when a suicide bomber targeted the center, located in an area of the Afghan capital predominantly inhabited by members of the Shi'ite Hazara community, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). Azimi was among the 110 who were wounded.
The unclaimed attack led to international condemnation and was followed by street demonstrations by girls and women across Afghanistan amid growing concerns about the environment for female education under the Taliban government.
Shortly after seizing power in August 2021, the hard-line Islamist group banned the education of girls past the sixth grade. While women were still allowed to attend universities, restrictions were imposed on those who did, including their segregation from males in classrooms, adherence to a newly introduced Islamic dress code, access only to women instructors, and a limited offering of fields to study.
Despite the limitations and her injuries, the knowledge that she might still have the opportunity to take the entrance exam in the hope of attending university provided some solace to Azimi.
Just weeks after the deadly Kabul bombing, she did manage to take the exam and passed with flying colors -- scoring high enough to enroll in a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Kabul University, the country’s most prestigious higher education institution.
“For two years, we worked day and night to achieve our goals and dreams. Finally, we went to the exam stage and passed the exam,” Azimi told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi.
But soon after, she lamented, “we saw that the gates of the universities were closed [to women].”
In December, the Taliban announced that it was banning women and girls from going to public and private universities. And in January, the Taliban warned universities that female students were banned from taking entrance exams scheduled for later that month, leading to a new wave of condemnations and calls by rights groups, foreign governments, and UNAMA to reverse the decision.
At the time, the spokesperson for the Taliban’s Ministry of Higher Education, Ziaullah Hashemi, said in written comments to Radio Azadi that “we are committed to the rights of all Afghans based on Islamic Shari’a [law] and we call on the international community to never impose such demands.”
Women like Amini still held out hope that the decision would be reversed. But optimism gave way to despair when, in February, the Ministry of Higher Education announced that spring semesters at public universities would commence with only male students.
Hashemi did not respond to Radio Azadi’s questions regarding the decision but had earlier said that girls and women would be expected to abide by official rulings regarding their education until further notice.
Baisarat Fitrat, who was also wounded in the bombing of the Kaaj Higher Education Center, was unable to take the university entrance exams due to her health.
Basirat said she had hoped to study engineering at Kabul University but fears that door has closed.
"I dreamed of becoming an engineer. I always wanted to become an engineer. I worked hard for two years,” Fitrat told Radio Azadi.
The harsh reality of their situation has left Fitrat and Azimi despondent and looking for ways to continue their education. Azimi, for one, is eyeing the possibility of studying abroad, potentially contributing to the brain drain of some of Afghanistan’s best and brightest young minds.
“I have a feeling inside that I can't express. Before, I thought that as an Afghan I was pursuing a goal for my country, and that as an Afghan I should fulfill my responsibility,” Azimi said. “But now that the gates of the universities are closed, I'm entering a scary and dark valley."
Written by Michael Scollon based on reporting by Radio Azadi correspondent Khujasta Kabiri
Afghan Female Singer Attacks Taliban With Controversial 'Group Sex' Song
Afghan musician Farida Tarana's new song, Group Sex, in which she criticizes polygamy and Taliban restrictions on women, has caused an uproar in Afghanistan since it was released three months ago. She told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi she's only just getting started.
Taliban Is World's Most Repressive Regime For Women, UN Says
The Taliban has implemented the world's most repressive regime for women, the United Nations mission to the country said in a statement to mark International Women's Day on March 8, calling on Afghanistan's rulers to scrap the severe restrictions it imposed on its female population since returning to power.
The UN statement came as dozens of women staged a rare protest in Kabul, demanding more rights.
The radical Islamist group, which came back to power in the war-wracked country in August 2021 as U.S. and NATO forces pulled out, had initially promised to allow for women’s and minority rights.
However, the Taliban has taken a hard line, further crushing women's rights and restricting freedoms, including imposing a ban on girls' education beyond the sixth grade.
Women were forced to cover themselves, banned from public spaces, and forbidden to work for domestic and foreign NGOs, while traveling or working outside their home is largely restricted.
The International Labor Organization said on March 7 that Afghan women's employment had fallen by 25 percent since the Taliban's return to power.
WATCH: Latifa Naziri is the only female dentist in Firozkoh, the capital of Afghanistan's central Ghor Province.
"Afghanistan under the Taliban remains the most repressive country in the world regarding women's rights," said Roza Otunbaeva, special representative of the UN secretary-general and head of the UN Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA), adding that the group's actions to stifle women's rights had been "methodical, deliberate, and systematic."
Aid agencies and humanitarian groups estimate that more than half of Afghanistan's 38 million people suffer from hunger, with children being most at risk of malnutrition.
"On International Women's Day, the United Nations in Afghanistan is renewing its call on the country's de facto authorities to halt and reverse harsh restrictions on the fundamental rights of women and girls," UNAMA said in its statement.
"The rights of women and girls must be restored immediately in order to build an inclusive, peaceful and hopeful Afghanistan," it said, adding that the effect of the harsh treatment of women is felt by all Afghans and "will resonate throughout generations."
Zhulia Parsi, one of the protesters in Kabul, told RFE/RL, "In Afghanistan, all women are under severe restrictions, the gates of all universities, schools, recreation centers, and even sports are closed to women. This is why we protested today, to show the world that the rights of all Afghan women are being violated."
With reporting by AFP and AP
Special Envoys Express 'Grave Concerns' Over Afghan Humanitarian, Economic Situation
Special envoys for Afghanistan from several Western governments and the European Union said in a joint statement on March 7 that they had "grave concerns" about the deterioration of the humanitarian and economic situation in the Taliban-led country. Envoys from Australia, Canada, the European Union, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Switzerland, Britain, and the United States released the statement. The group most recently met in Paris on February 20.
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