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Taliban, COVID, Illegal Hunting: Your Briefing From Afghanistan And Pakistan

AFGHANISTAN -- An Afghan security official inspects the scene of a suicide bomb attack in Kandahar, December 7, 2020

Dear reader,

Welcome to Gandhara’s weekly newsletter. This briefing aims to bring you the best of our exclusive reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Every Friday, you get select dispatches from our extensive network of journalists and all the context you need to make sense of the political, economic, security, and cultural trends in the two countries.

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

Another Afghan journalist murdered

The callous killing of another journalist in Afghanistan this week sparked outrage both domestically and internationally and underscored the mounting dangers for journalists in the country ahead of a crucial transition year with the expected withdrawal of foreign forces.

While writing a piece about the slain journalist, I was struck by how she represented a new generation of Afghans who have grown up amid the war but are determined to see peace in their homeland.

“The right to education, shelter, health care, work, and free speech can only be protected when there is peace in a society and the country,” she said ahead of the peace deal between the Taliban and the United States in February.

Taliban and U.S. bombing strategies

The targeted killing of journalists appears to be part of a larger militant strategy to silence critics ahead of intra-Afghan peace talks to determine the country’s political future. My colleague Frud Behzan reports on the Taliban’s most powerful weapon, suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, which are being deployed against the security forces with increasing frequency.

“The Taliban is attempting to pressure the Afghan government into concessions at the negotiating table by continuously conducting these attacks on a regular basis,” one expert said.

The U.S. military, meanwhile, rejected a probe by the Cost of War project that reported that civilian casualties rose dramatically since the Pentagon relaxed the rules of engagement in 2017.

The number of civilians killed rose from 250 in 2016 to 700 in 2019, more than in any other year since the beginning of the war in 2001, according to the report.

In Pakistan, COVID and politics make a deadly cocktail

In neighboring Pakistan, a rapid slide toward a political showdown is turning into a ticking time bomb amid rising coronavirus infections, which are filling up hospitals and translating into a mounting death toll.

Both the opposition and Prime Minister Imran Khan’s administration are attempting to use the pandemic to score political points.

The government is trying to halt the opposition’s protests by invoking the coronavirus numbers. But leaders of the Pakistan Democratic Movement, an opposition alliance, say the medical malpractice that led to the deaths of six patients at a Peshawar hospital is evidence of the government’s failure to tackle COVID.

Even birds are fleeing Afghanistan

From picturesque Badakhshan, we report on how unchecked hunting is forcing rare and endangered bird species to abandon the region. Like its population, the country’s delicate environment and rich biodiversity have been victims of the conflict in Afghanistan.

"When our animals and birds are hunted, our rural people witness that some of them perish as a result of the hunt, and others leave the country completely and fly to neighboring countries," one environmental protection official told us.

Afghan factory stems pollution through recycling

In an optimistic note, we bring you a video report about a factory that recycles plastic waste into material used for insulation, pillows, and even clothing in Herat.

“This factory recycles plastic waste that causes air and land pollution,” an environmental official said of the plant, which now employs 300 people.

Afghan women’s station wins international award

We also bring you a video report on a female-led radio station in Kandahar. Merman Radio received the 2020 Prize for Impact from press-freedom group Reporters Without Borders.

“Our real objective is to have programs for women, including on social issues and entertainment programs because we need to entertain our audiences,” one of the station’s 10 female employees said of their aims.

I hope you enjoyed this week’s newsletter, and I encourage you to share it with colleagues who might find it useful. Again, if you haven’t subscribed yet, you can do so here.

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Abubakar Siddique

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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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