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Gandhara Briefing: Bamiyan Buddhas, Girls Education, TTP Cease-Fire

Secondary and high schools for girls reopened in Herat Province on November 3.
Secondary and high schools for girls reopened in Herat Province on November 3.

Dear Reader,

Welcome to Gandhara's weekly newsletter. This briefing brings you the best of our reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Michael Scollon writes this week's newsletter in Abubakar's absence.

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Bamiyan Buddhas targeted again

Ron Synovitz covers the emergence of a disturbing new video showing members of the Taliban using the remnants of the Bamiyan Buddhas for target practice.

The video, which shows fighters firing rocket-propelled grenades into the niches that once housed the giant statues, has raised alarms about the Taliban's commitment to protecting Afghanistan's cultural and historical treasures.

The Taliban had promised to protect the historical site during peace negotiations in Doha in February, and after the extremist group returned to power in August militants under the command of the governor of Bamiyan Province were tasked with guarding what remained of the UNESCO World Heritage site.

In 2001, during the Taliban’s previous stint in power, current caretaker Prime Minister Mohammad Hassan Akhund publicly endorsed the destruction of the Buddhas because they were "un-Islamic."

After standing for more than 1,400 years, the towering figures were reduced to rubble after being pounded by anti-aircraft artillery, dynamite, and other explosives.

Ahmadullah Wasiq, deputy head of the Taliban’s cultural commission, told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi that Taliban leaders have vowed there would be no further destruction of the site. When questioned about the recent video purportedly showing exactly that, however, he had no comment.

"If anyone commits this illegal act, the security organs of the Islamic Emirate will stop them," he said. "They will be handed over and brought to justice."

Online school for Afghan girls

I write about how hundreds of Afghans are using modern technology to skirt the Taliban’s ban on girls’ education.

"It sends a clear message to the Taliban," said online student Maryam, who told Radio Azadi that continuing her education under Afghanistan's new hard-line rulers is a challenge. "Bring it on; we can promote our classes online. We will never stop the progress of our country."

She is one of about 1,000 Afghan girls in Afghanistan and Iran to have signed up for classes with the Herat Online School.

The brainchild of Angela Ghayour, an Afghan-born educator who lives in Britain, the school is available free of charge and enlists hundreds of volunteer teachers.

"The goal is to prevent discrimination in education," Ghayour told RFE/RL. "In Afghanistan, gender discrimination has deprived girls and women of their right to education. In Iran, Afghan families are discriminated against in education because they do not have residence permits."

The Taliban’s ban is not being enforced in some parts of the country, and the militants recently announced the establishment of a women's institute in Kabul, the Moraa Education Complex. But Afghan girls, rights watchers, and educators like Ghayour are less than convinced about the Taliban's interest in maintaining the gains in girls' education made over the past two decades.

In Farah Province, educators at one school who spoke to Radio Azadi are calling on the Taliban to allow them to resume classes.

“I would like to graduate from high school,” says one young student in a video produced by Radio Azadi. "My demand for the Islamic Emirate is to let girls from seventh to 12th grade return to school."

Polio vaccination campaign kicks off

As winter approaches, UN agencies kicked off a polio vaccination campaign across Afghanistan on November 8. The campaign, which aims to inoculate 10 million children under the age of 5, is being conducted with the Taliban’s backing.

The house-to-house effort expects to reach 3 million children who had previously remained inaccessible to vaccination campaigns against the infectious disease, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Children's Fund.

Afghanistan and Pakistan are the last countries in the world where polio is still endemic. And with only one case of wild poliovirus reported this year in Afghanistan, compared to 56 in 2020, the WHO sees an "extraordinary opportunity" to eradicate the disease.

Regional meetings on Afghanistan

Envoys from the United States, Russia, and China met in Islamabad on November 11 as Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi urged the international community to provide funding and humanitarian assistance to neighboring Afghanistan.

"Nobody wishes to see a relapse into civil war, no one wants an economic collapse that will spur instability; everyone wants terrorist elements operating inside Afghanistan to be tackled effectively, and we all want to prevent a new refugee crisis," Qureshi told attendees of the "troika plus" group conference.

A joint statement issued after the talks, pressed the Taliban to “ensure unhindered humanitarian access...for the delivery of humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan to respond to the developing crisis.”

On November 10, Pakistan’s archrival, India, hosted its own regional security conference, which called for cooperation to ensure Afghanistan does not again become a safe haven for global terrorism.

That event was attended by representatives from Russia, Iran, and the five Central Asian countries -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan agrees to cease-fire

Following a breakthrough agreement on November 8 between the Pakistani government and the banned Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a monthlong cease-fire went into effect the next day.

The deal spurred hopes that the two sides could end 14 years of conflict but was also met with criticism that Islamabad was capitulating to militant groups.

The TTP, also known as the Pakistani Taliban, is responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians and members of Pakistan's security forces. The 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto is widely blamed on the TTP and is considered one of its most brazen attacks.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the slain Bhutto's son and leader of the opposition Pakistan People's Party, slammed the government for not consulting parliament before engaging in secret talks with the militants -- talks that were brokered by the Afghan Taliban.

"Who are they to decide to beg the TTP for talks and unilaterally engage the TTP?” Zardari asked. “Any policy without the approval of the parliament will have no legitimacy.”

The government has also come under scrutiny for a secret deal it reached with the radical Islamist party Tehrik-e Labaik Pakistan (TLP) on November 7. That deal ended a 10-day protest march on the capital in which thousands of TLP supporters participated.

The TLP agreed to end the march, which sought the release of leader Saad Rizvi, and promised not to stage violent protests in the future. Rizvi was subsequently removed from Pakistan's terrorism watchlist, paving the way for his release.

Rizvi’s party gained prominence in Pakistan’s 2018 elections, campaigning on the single issue of defending the country’s blasphemy law, which calls for the death penalty for anyone who insults Islam.

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