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Gandhara Briefing: China Policy, Iran Border, Mohammad Ilyas Dayee

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (right) greets his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in Kyrgyzstan, in June 2019.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (right) greets his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in Kyrgyzstan, in June 2019.

Dear reader,

Welcome to Gandhara's weekly newsletter. This briefing brings you the best of our reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

If you’re new to the newsletter or haven’t subscribed yet, you can do so here.

China hedges its bets in Afghanistan

Reid Standish and Ajmal Aand report on what China might be planning for Afghanistan, which shares a land border with Beijing and is potentially a major security headache if Muslim Uyghur separatists establish a foothold in the remote region bordering their Xinjiang homeland.

“Afghanistan is probably more trouble than it's worth,” said Raffaello Pantucci, a senior associate fellow at London's Royal United Services Institute, explaining Beijing’s cautious approach to developments in Kabul. “Unless things calm down, Beijing will look to keep the country’s problems at arm’s length.”

Iran's double-edged sword

Another neighbor, Iran, has deep cultural and religious ties to Afghanistan. As Golnaz Esfandiari reports, the U.S. withdrawal might position Tehran as a major powerbroker while exposing it to security and economic threats such as the return of a hard-line Sunni clerical Taliban government and an influx of Afghan refugees.

"While Iran has been beating the drum for a U.S. withdrawal for years, there are potential second-order effects that Tehran might struggle with,” Colin Clarke, director of research and policy at the Soufan Group, told us. "For the Iranians, I'd say, 'Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.'"

Balochistan’s brewing humanitarian crisis

In an incisive report, Kiyya Baloch takes us to meet the thousands of fuel carriers who are stuck along Pakistan’s southwestern border with Iran since Islamabad closed all border crossings to build a 900-kilometer fence.

"We have never witnessed anything like this,” Gulzar Dost, the general secretary of the Border Trade Union in Turbat, told us. He warned of a mounting death toll amid sweltering desert temperatures that have claimed the lives of four drivers so far.

The illegal fuel trade is a major lifeline for many in the impoverished province, which shares ethnic ties and underdevelopment with Sistan-Baluchistan Province in Iran.

“The border was sealed without any warning, and the thousands of traders and drivers stuck there have run out of their food supplies and are sleeping rough,” Dost said.

Is the U.S. repositioning in Central Asia, Pakistan?

As U.S. and NATO forces begin their withdrawal from Afghanistan, Bruce Pannier takes a deep dive into Washington’s options for retaining a military presence in Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors, where logistics hubs have supported Western troops for two decades.

He finds pressing domestic incentives for Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, thousands of whose citizens have joined shadowy armed Islamist groups in northern Afghanistan. This has sparked worried flashbacks to the 1990s, when the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan thrived under Afghanistan’s Taliban regime. The bases will also allow Washington to reposition counterterrorism resources not far from Afghanistan.

There is talk Washington might resume using drone strikes as a way of checking in on terrorist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, meeting with Pakistani army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa this week, emphasized “the importance of regional stability and the desire for the United States and Pakistan to continue working together on shared goals.” Until late 2011, Islamabad leased a remote airfield to Washington to target Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders.

Waziristan protest

Radio Mashaal has followed a little-reported protest in South Waziristan where residents successfully protested to hold accountable security personnel they accuse of killing two teenagers.

One of the protest’s leaders, Rahmat Shah Maseed, told RFE/RL that the head of the paramilitary Frontier Corps “admitted that the youngsters were shot mistakenly,” adding that “the security forces will evacuate the local houses.”

After protesters refused to bury the dead, authorities agreed to pay compensation to the victims’ families and provide jobs for their relatives. A murder case was registered against the accused paramilitary personnel. The broader issues of illegal killings by security forces, however, continue.

Remembering a slain colleague

In a moving video report, RFE/RL pays tribute to Radio Free Afghanistan reporter Mohammad Ilyas Dayee, who was killed in November 2020 in a targeted attack in his native Helmand Province. In Dayee, we lost an intrepid journalist whose life and promising career were violently cut short as part of the Taliban’s crusade of intimidation and silencing of Afghanistan’s embattled media and civil society.

Colleagues and others in his field remember Dayee -- who was 33 and left behind a wife, a 2-year-old daughter, and a large extended family -- as a brave and committed professional who dedicated 10 years of his life to reporting on the Taliban insurgency, the opium trade, and other urgent and poignant issues. An outpouring of grief and outrage followed his death in the country, where a string of targeted killings has led many media organizations to self-censor and journalists to abandon their profession.

I hope you enjoyed this week’s newsletter, and I encourage you to forward it to colleagues who might find it useful.

If you haven’t subscribed yet, you can do so here. Until next week, I encourage you to visit our website and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Abubakar Siddique
Twitter: @sid_abu

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

Radio Azadi is RFE/RL's Dari- and Pashto-language public service news outlet for Afghanistan. Every Friday, in our newsletter, Azadi Briefing, one of our journalists will share their analysis of the week’s most important issues and explain why they matter.

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