Welcome to Gandhara's weekly newsletter. This briefing brings you the best of our reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
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Afghans hopeful for change under Biden
There is relief that Washington is likely to review its deal with the Taliban and possibly leave behind a small counterterrorism force that Biden has long favored, effectively leading to a continued U.S. military presence in the country.
Many in Kabul are telling us they’re hoping the Biden administration pays closer attention to the peace talks and finds incentives for the Taliban to reduce its current killing spree. (Here’s an overview of recent attacks.)
Shahzada Masoud, a former presidential adviser, is one of these voices. “Biden needs to make sure that the American forces depart in a responsible manner,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.
Upping the religious ante against the Taliban
Meanwhile, President Ashraf Ghani has been trying to brandish his government’s religious credentials to dent the Taliban’s main argument that the secular government should be booted to the curb because it isn’t Islamic enough.
“This is an intentional and calculated move by the government to redefine the nature of the state further toward Islam,” said Omar Sadr, a Kabul-based political analyst.
But for the civic rights of millions of Afghans, these efforts have far-reaching consequences. In one such change, mosques would be turned into primary schools, which some say would give hard-line clerics the upper hand in radicalizing future generations.
Despair in Waziristan
My colleague Pamir Sahill investigated the targeted killings that have plagued Pakistan’s former tribal areas, which are once again becoming a Taliban hub. Some blame the government’s murky dealings with the militants for the killings.
“Waziristan is being prepared to be used against other countries [such as Afghanistan],” one activist told him. “These targeted killings and other security incidents are part of that plan.” And the security forces aren’t exactly helping, with allegations of abuse and a battle of their own against attacks from militants.
“Terrorism is being promoted again in Waziristan. As in the past, Waziristan is being prepared to be used against other countries [such as Afghanistan],” one activist told us. “These targeted killings and other security incidents are part of that plan. This is what the masses in Waziristan think.”
Meanwhile, the lack of faster and more reliable Internet connections is becoming a growing cause for discontent. It was no surprise that Prime Minister Imran Khan timed his visit to South Waziristan this week with the launch of 3G/4G Internet connections. (Our contacts there have not been able to confirm an increase in speed so far.)
Mercenaries join Pashtun tribal conflicts
My colleague Ashan Arian broke a major story by reporting on the changing dynamics of tribal disputes in Afghanistan’s Pashtun heartland, where mercenaries now replace tribal members who previously would have volunteered out of kinship and expectations of bravery and chivalry.
“War is ugly, it is messy, and it never brings us happiness, but we have no choice but to join in,” recounted one combatant, who’s paid $400 to fight on behalf of a Dubai-based patron. “Our circumstances have forced us into this war.”
Are Pakistan and Saudi Arabia ready to make up?
Islamabad is seeking to rekindle its ties with former ally Saudi Arabia after months of strained relations. The cold spell began last August over Islamabad’s public demands for greater Saudi support for its stance on Kashmir.
This week, Pakistan appointed Lieutenant General Bilal Akbar, who retired from the military just last month, to be its ambassador to Riyadh in a move that highlights the Pakistani’s military’s eagerness to mend fences.
The abuse of addicts in Afghanistan
Drug addicts in Farah Province told my colleagues there that they have been forced to work without pay for the local police. Watch their video report here.
The men say they were made to work away from prying eyes on construction sites inside military compounds. The provincial offices of Afghanistan's Labor and Social Affairs Ministry later confirmed their statements.
“They take us by force, wherever we are, and force us to work,” said Mohammad Hashem, a father of five whose addiction drove him away from his family. “They don’t pay us anything. They don’t even feed us well.”
The promise of pine nuts
In closing, I’d like to share this video report about a new pine-nut processing factory in the Afghan city of Gardez. It promises to create to 1,000 new jobs -- and bring hope for a bolstered economy. It points to the country’s potential as a major exporter of agricultural produce.
“Now that we have our own processing factory, no one will be able to reject our product or keep our money,” Sahel Khan, a pine exporter, said at the opening ceremony.
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