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Female Antipolio Volunteer Shot Dead In Afghanistan

Afghan officials say two unidentified gunmen have shot and killed a female polio campaigner and seriously wounded her teenage granddaughter in the southern city of Kandahar.

No group claimed responsibility for the attack that took place in the morning of December 28.

The gunmen fled the scene, but security forces have launched a search operation to find them, a government spokesman said.

Kandahar health officials said the pair were eradication-campaign volunteers, going house to house when they were targeted.

"Today was the last day of the campaign and as the workers were leaving a house, the gunmen opened fire on them and fled," senior health official Abdul Qayum Pukhla told Reuters.

Militants in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan accuse antipolio health workers of being spies and say the polio vaccinations are part of a plot to sterilize Muslims.

Despite some violent opposition to vaccination in Afghanistan, its anti-polio campaign has had remarkable success for a nation at war.

The number of polio cases in Afghanistan has fallen from 63 in 1999 to just 14 in 2013.

Only eight new cases have been confirmed this year, compared with 108 in Pakistan.

Based on reporting by Reuters and khaama.com

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IS-K Claims Afghan Attack On Taliban Official's Funeral

Relatives accompany the bodies of slain victims in an ambulance after an explosion at the Nabawi mosque in the Hesa-e-Awal area of Fayzabad district, Badakhshan Province, on June 8.

The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for an explosion inside a mosque during a funeral service for a Taliban official in the northern Afghanistan province of Badakhshan. Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) claimed responsibility in a statement on June 9. The blast occurred on June 8 and killed at least 19 people, including the former Taliban security commander in the city of Baghlan, and wounded 38 others. The funeral was for the Taliban's provincial deputy governor, Nissar Ahmad Ahmadi, who was killed along with his driver in a suicide car bombing three days earlier. IS-K also claimed responsibility for that attack. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, click here.

The Azadi Briefing: Taliban Appears To Sharply Reduce Opium Cultivation In Afghanistan

Taliban security personnel destroy a poppy plantation in Sher Surkh village of Kandahar Province in April.

Welcome to The Azadi Briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan. To subscribe, click here.

I'm Abubakar Siddique, a senior correspondent 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 appears to have sharply reduced opium cultivation in Afghanistan, the world's largest producer of the illicit drug.

In April 2022, the militant group banned the cultivation, production, and trafficking of all illicit narcotics.

Annual opium cultivation has dropped by as much as 80 percent compared to last year, according to new research by David Mansfield, a leading expert on Afghanistan's drugs trade who worked with Alcis, a British firm specializing in satellite analysis.

Mansfield said the Taliban had "exceeded expectations and reduced poppy cultivation to levels not seen since 2001," when the militant group was ousted from power by the U.S.-led invasion.

Around 80 percent of the opium produced in Afghanistan comes from the southern province of Helmand. Mansfield said satellite imagery appeared to show that in Helmand "poppy cultivation has fallen from more than 120,000 hectares in 2022 to less than 1,000 hectares in 2023."

Why It's Important: Ending Afghanistan's status as one of the world's biggest producers of narcotics has been a priority for neighboring countries and the international community for years.

After 2001, the United States spent some $8 billion in a bid to eradicate the opium trade in Afghanistan. Washington destroyed poppy fields, offered alternative crops to farmers, conducted air strikes, and raided suspected labs. But the strategy largely failed.

For years, the Taliban earned hundreds of millions of dollars from taxing poppy farmers and trafficking narcotics to neighboring countries, from where they ended up in Europe and North America, experts have said.

Since regaining power, the Taliban appears to be succeeding where foreign powers have failed. In 2000, during its first stint in power, the Taliban implemented a similar ban.

Tom West, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, tweeted that reports documenting a significant decrease in poppy cultivation "are credible and important."

Michael McCaul, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a tweet criticized West for praising a group he said, "actively oppress Afghan women and girls, execute them in public, take Americans hostage, provide terrorist safe havens to Al-Qaeda, and are not recognized as a legitimate government by the United States." It appears that he later deleted the tweet.

What's Next: The complete eradication of the drug industry in Afghanistan still appears to be far off.

Even as opium production appears to have decreased, Afghanistan has become a major supplier of crystal meth in recent years.

The militant group is likely to face intense pushback from poppy farmers in southern Afghanistan if it fails to provide them with alternative livelihoods and crops. The Taliban's cash-strapped and isolated government could lose popularity in a region of Afghanistan that has historically provided most of its leaders and fighters.

The Week's Best Stories

International donors and aid agencies have suspended their operations in three provinces in Afghanistan after accusing the Taliban of attempting to divert or manipulate aid distribution. The move has deprived hundreds of thousands of people of crucial assistance as the country grapples with the world's largest humanitarian crisis.

China and Afghanistan's Taliban rulers appear keen on deepening their relationship, with the sides expanding trade links and pushing for deeper cooperation on security. But experts say the relationship is limited and largely transactional.

What To Keep An Eye On

In a new report, global rights watchdog Amnesty International accused the Taliban of committing the war crime of collective punishment against civilians in Afghanistan's northern province of Panjshir.

Since the Taliban seized power in August 2021, Panjshir has been the scene of low-level resistance to the militant group.

Amnesty's June 8 report said that the Taliban had targeted civilians with torture and unlawful killings, while it subjected detained members of the National Resistance Front to extrajudicial executions.

Agnes Callamard, Amnesty's secretary-general, said the Taliban engaged in extrajudicial killings, torture, hostage-taking, unlawful detention, and torching of civilian homes. "This conduct in sum amounts to collective punishment -- in itself, a war crime," she said.

Why It's Important: Amnesty's report, which is based on interviews with victims and witnesses in Panjshir and an analysis of open-source material, is yet another example of the grave human rights abuses allegedly committed by the Taliban.

The Taliban is unlikely to act on the recommendations of the report, which called on the hard-line group to investigate the alleged abuses and prosecute and punish the perpetrators.

The Taliban is likely to continue using brute force to silence its opponents and critics, including members of the former government and security forces, activists, journalists, and those from religious minorities.

Until next time,

Abubakar Siddique

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.

'In Dire Straits': Taliban's Alleged Interference In Foreign Aid Deprives Afghans Of Lifesaving Help

A Taliban fighter stands guard as women wait to receive food rations distributed by a humanitarian aid group in Kabul last month.

Ghulam Haider has depended on food and cash handouts from international aid agencies in order to survive.

He is among the millions of people who have received lifesaving aid in Afghanistan, where the Taliban's takeover in 2021 worsened a devastating humanitarian crisis and triggered an economic collapse.

But tens of thousands of Afghans have been forced to fend for themselves after aid agencies, including the UN's World Food Program (WFP), recently suspended their operations in several provinces.

The move came amid U.S. fears that funds it provided to UN aid agencies that are distributing aid in Afghanistan were ending up in the hands of the Taliban. Afghans and aid workers have accused the militant group of interfering in the delivery of foreign assistance.

The suspension of aid operations in the provinces of Ghor, Uruzgan, and parts of Ghazni appears to be already pushing more people toward starvation.

"People are miserable," Haider, a resident of Ghor, in Afghanistan's remote central highlands, told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. "People here are destitute."

He said the WFP suspended its delivery of food, cash, and other assistance in April. "There has been no help for a month," Haider said. "People are in trouble."

A woman and child beg on the street in Ghazni city.
A woman and child beg on the street in Ghazni city.

Wahidullah Amani, a spokesman for the WFP in Afghanistan, said the UN food agency stopped distributing food aid, including meals to schools, in late April. Amani estimated that nearly 500,000 people in Ghor now faced food insecurity.

"Families who expected to receive food aid will now be deprived of assistance until these interventions by the local authorities are resolved," Amani told Radio Azadi.

The United Nations estimates that two-thirds of Afghanistan's 40 million people, or more than 28 million, need humanitarian assistance this year. At least 6 million of them are on the brink of starvation.

Hikmat Laali, an activist in Ghor, said the humanitarian situation in Ghor was rapidly deteriorating. "The poorest are in dire straits," he told Radio Azadi. "Their miseries will increase if the people continue to be deprived of food aid."

Locals in Ghor have accused Taliban militants of confiscating food, money, and other assistance they received from NGOs. Observers have also accused the Taliban of trying to channel aid to its own fighters or communities that support the group.

"People were left with little food during the winter and had little fuel," Mohammad Hassan Hakimi, an activist in Ghor, told Radio Azadi.

'Funding For The Taliban'

Last month, the United States said its NGO partners had suspended aid in several Afghan provinces following "evidence of continued attempts by the Taliban" to divert assistance.

"We do not provide funding for the Taliban," Matthew Miller, a U.S. State Department spokesman, told journalists in Washington on May 24. "We require all of our partners that we work with to have safeguards in place to assure the assistance reaches those who need it."

Miller said that the WFP had halted operations in two districts of the southeastern province of Ghazni from January to April because local Taliban officials attempted to direct the delivery of aid.

He added that an aid organization that received funding from Washington suspended its activities in the southern province of Uruzgan in April "after the Taliban issued demands to provide transportation support to Taliban representatives and otherwise interfered in staff recruitment processes."

Newly recruited personnel joining the Taliban security forces demonstrate their skills during their graduation ceremony in the western city of Herat in February.
Newly recruited personnel joining the Taliban security forces demonstrate their skills during their graduation ceremony in the western city of Herat in February.

Miller's comments came after John Sopko, the U.S. special inspector-general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR), a government watchdog, said that "it is clear from our work that the Taliban is using various methods to divert U.S. aid dollars."

"Unfortunately, as I sit here today, I cannot assure this committee or the American taxpayer we are not currently funding the Taliban," Sopko told the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Accountability on April 19. "Nor can I assure you that the Taliban are not diverting the money we are sending for the intended recipients, which are the poor Afghan people."

Sopko added that the "Taliban generate income from U.S. aid by imposing customs charges on shipments coming into the country and charging taxes and fees directly on NGOs."

'Devastating Impact'

Philippe Kropf, the head of communications at WFP, said the United Nations briefly halted aid distribution in Ghor in January. Weeks later, the agency resumed its operations after Taliban assurances that its fighters would not interfere in the delivery of aid. But continued Taliban meddling, he said, forced the WFP to suspend its activities.

Kropf said the WFP did not channel funds or food aid through the militant group. "Our operations are guided by the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality, humanity, and independence," he said, adding that the WFP assists people directly through its vetted partners based on independent needs assessments.

A man carries a bag of wheat flour he received from the WFP in the southern province of Uruzgan in March.
A man carries a bag of wheat flour he received from the WFP in the southern province of Uruzgan in March.

"Any instance where interference with WFP assistance is detected that cannot be resolved locally will result in the suspension of deliveries," he said.

The Taliban has rejected allegations that it is interfering in aid deliveries. Chief Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the Taliban's Economy Ministry had formed joint operational procedures with agencies to ensure that aid distribution is transparent.

"If any problems are detected, the government will have to intervene to address those," he told Radio Azadi. "But such issues are rare."

The Taliban's ban on Afghan women working for local and foreign NGOs has also adversely affected the delivery of humanitarian aid in Afghanistan.

That decision in December led major international humanitarian organizations to halt or reduce their operations, including emergency food distribution, health services, and education. In April, the ban was expanded to include the United Nations.

On June 5, the United Nations revised its annual aid budget for Afghanistan from $4.6 billion to $3.2 billion this year, citing reduced funding from international donors. It said in a statement that a "changing operating context" in the wake of the Taliban's ban on female aid workers had contributed to the revised plan.

Kropf said the lack of funding had prompted the WFP to cut emergency assistance to some 8 million highly vulnerable Afghans this year.

"Such cutbacks in humanitarian food assistance will have a devastating impact on women, young children, and the elderly in particular," he said.

Updated

Explosion Rips Through Mosque In Northern Afghanistan During Funeral, At Least 19 Dead

Relatives carry the bodies of slain victims in an ambulance after a bomb explosion at a mosque in Afghanistan's Badakhshan Province on June 8.

An explosion has torn through a mosque in the northern Afghan province of Badakhshan during a funeral service for a Taliban official, killing at least 19 people, including the former Taliban security commander in the city of Baghlan, and wounding 38 others.

Moazuddin Ahmadi, the head of information and culture of Badakhshan Province, told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi that the explosion took place on June 8 in the city of Faizabad during the ceremony for a Taliban deputy governor, Nissar Ahmad Ahmadi, who himself was killed along with his driver in a suicide car bomb attack three days earlier.

"In this incident...the former police commander in Baghlan, was martyred," he said.

He later issued an appeal for local citizens to donate blood to help treat the victims.

No individuals or groups have taken responsibility for the attack, though the Khorasan Province branch of Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the attack on Ahmadi on June 6.

The United Nations mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) said the attack was "deeply disturbing."

"UNAMA unequivocally condemns this and a recent spate of appalling and indiscriminate attacks that have shown a total disregard for civilian lives," it said in a tweet.

Islamic State-Khorasan has been the key rival of the Taliban-led government since the group seized power in Afghanistan in August 2021. It recently increased its attacks, targeting both Taliban patrols and members of Afghanistan’s Shi’ite minority.

Taliban forces have responded by carrying out military operations this month against the IS group in several provinces of Afghanistan.

The UN Security Council warned in March about an increase in the number of militants and the threat of IS in Afghanistan.

The U.S. Central Command has estimated that 2,250 IS militants are in Afghanistan. It has also said that it is possible they would target American assets and those of their allies.

Tajik Authorities Detain Dozens of 'Armed' Afghan Citizens, Sources Say

A guard post along the Tajik-Afghan border

Sources in Tajikistan's government entities told RFE/RL on June 8 that dozens of armed Afghan citizens, including former Afghan military personnel, have been apprehended by Tajik law enforcement and security troops in the Central Asian nation's southern Khatlon region. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one of the Tajik officials said the detained Afghan nationals had been transferred to Dushanbe. The authorities of the tightly controlled former Soviet republic have yet to confirm the situation. After the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 2021, hundreds of Afghan citizens fled to other countries via neighboring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Tajik Service, click here.

Deputy Governor Of Northern Afghan Province Killed In Car Bombing

The deputy governor of Afghanistan's northern Badakhshan Province was killed by a car bomb on June 6, the provincial spokesman said. "Nissar Ahmad Ahmadi, with his driver, has been killed and six civilians were injured," said the head of the provincial information office, Mahzudeen Ahmadi. It was not clear who was behind the attack, which was the first known major blast in Afghanistan in several weeks. The Taliban administration has been carrying out raids against members of Islamic State, which has had claimed several major attacks in urban centers, including Kabul. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Budget For Afghanistan Aid Plan Revised Down To $3.2 Billion

Afghan women wait to receive food rations distributed by a humanitarian aid group in Kabul, Afghanistan, late last month.

The United Nations and humanitarian agencies have revised the budget for Afghanistan's aid plan for 2023 to $3.2 billion, down from $4.6 billion earlier in the year, the UN humanitarian office said on June 5.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a statement that a "changing operating context" in the wake of Taliban administration restrictions on female aid workers had contributed to the revised plan.

Taliban authorities have issued several orders barring many Afghan female NGO and United Nations employees from work, which aid agencies have warned would severely hamper delivery in the religiously conservative nation.

To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Official: Almost 80 Schoolgirls Poisoned, Hospitalized In Northern Afghanistan

Afghan schoolgirls attend an open-air primary school in Khogyani district of Nangarhar Province.

Nearly 80 girls were poisoned and hospitalized in two separate attacks at their primary schools in Sar-e Pul Province in northern Afghanistan, a local education official said on June 4. It is thought to be the first time this kind of assault has happened since the Taliban swept to power in August 2021 and began their crackdown on the rights and freedoms of Afghan women and girls. Girls are banned from education beyond sixth grade. The education official said the person who orchestrated the poisoning had a personal grudge but did not elaborate. To read the original story by AP, click here.

The Limits Of China's Budding Relationship With Afghanistan's Taliban

The Taliban's foreign minister, Mawlawi Amir Khan Muttaqi, (left) poses with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Kabul in March 2022.

China has played a visible role in Afghanistan since the Taliban seized power in 2021.

Beijing is among only a handful of countries to maintain a diplomatic presence in Kabul, where the Chinese ambassador regularly meets with Taliban officials.

There has also been a surge in Chinese traders visiting Afghanistan to explore business opportunities and ink deals.

The Taliban, meanwhile, has boasted of Beijing's interest in expanding trade and investing billions of dollars in Afghanistan's mining sector.

Last month, the hard-line Islamist group also announced the resumption of direct flights between Afghanistan and China after a three-year gap, saying it would help strengthen bilateral relations.

Despite the appearance that China and the Taliban are becoming allies, experts say the relationship is limited and largely transactional.

Experts say Beijing's primary concern in Afghanistan is the threat posed by members of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) -- an Uyghur extremist group that Beijing blames for unrest in its western province of Xinjiang and refers to by its former name, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).

Wang Yu, the Chinese ambassador to Afghanistan, runs an active diplomatic mission in Kabul.
Wang Yu, the Chinese ambassador to Afghanistan, runs an active diplomatic mission in Kabul.

The Taliban has been accused of sheltering Uyghur militants and done little to alleviate China's security concerns.

Policymakers in Beijing also continue to worry about instability spreading from Afghanistan into South and Central Asia, where China has significant economic and political interests.

Meanwhile, Beijing has provided only limited development assistance to Afghanistan and large mining projects backed by Chinese companies have failed to get off the ground.

"China is not a 'friend' of the Taliban and can be relied on only to pursue its national interest," said Barnett Rubin, an academic and former adviser to the U.S. State Department on Afghanistan. "China's economic engagement with Afghanistan is as much if not more about national defense than profit-seeking."

'Terrorist Forces'

During its rule in the 1990s, the Taliban allowed Uyghur groups to operate in Afghanistan and is believed to still have links with them.

Since the Taliban regained power, the Taliban has relocated Uyghur fighters from the northeastern province of Badakhshan, which is located along Afghanistan's 76-kilometer border with China, in a bid to allay Beijing's fears.

But China has demanded that the Taliban cut any ties with the militants and hand them over to Beijing. The exact number of Uyghur fighters based in Afghanistan is unknown, although experts believe they number in the hundreds.

"China's top priority in Afghanistan by far is to persuade the Taliban to turn these militants over to China," Rubin said.

If the Taliban refuses, then Beijing expects the group to keep the activities of the Uyghur militants "under strict surveillance and control," Rubin added.

A Taliban fighter walks in Mes Aynak. China is interested in mining copper from the deposit near Kabul.
A Taliban fighter walks in Mes Aynak. China is interested in mining copper from the deposit near Kabul.

In April, China's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Beijing "hopes that Afghanistan will fulfill its commitment in earnest and take more effective measures to crack down on all terrorist forces."

Rubin says Beijing's fears that Uyghur militants have been integrated into the Taliban's "military and terrorist structures" explain why China is eager to increase its diplomatic and economic engagement with the Taliban.

"Chinese interests in the Afghan economy are likely about trying to incentivize the Taliban to cooperate on counterterrorism," he said.

Economic Incentives

For the cash-strapped Taliban government, which remains internationally unrecognized, securing investment and economic assistance is seen as a top priority as it seeks domestic and international legitimacy.

The Taliban takeover triggered an economic collapse and aggravated a major humanitarian crisis, with international donors cutting crucial financial assistance to Afghanistan.

"Afghanistan's economic catastrophe overshadows all other problems in the country," said Hameed Hakimi, an Afghanistan expert at the Washington-based Atlantic Council think tank. "If the Taliban can demonstrate that they can deliver on the economy, their popularity and support will expand considerably."

Beijing has faced criticism for its infrastructure projects in developing countries around the world, which Western officials have described as exploitative. But that has not put off the Taliban, which has actively sought Chinese investment in Afghanistan's vast untapped mineral resources.

In April, the Taliban claimed that a Chinese firm was interested in investing $10 billion in lithium extraction, a project that it said would employ more than 120,000 Afghans.

"Afghans are looking forward to exploiting their lithium and other mining deposits for their benefit," Shahabuddin Delawar, the Taliban's minister for mining, said that month.

In January, the Taliban signed an oil-extraction contract with a Chinese firm. Under the deal, China's Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas Co is expected to invest up to $150 million during the first year. After three years, the amount is expected to increase to $540 million. The Taliban claims the project will provide around 3,000 local jobs.

But experts do not expect Beijing to invest heavily in Afghanistan, which lacks infrastructure and roads. Despite a dramatic increase in violence, the country is also still the scene of sporadic attacks by the Islamic State-Khorasan extremist group.

"The Taliban benefit from maintaining a relationship with the Chinese government and would also like to use it both as an insurance and leverage against Western nations," Hakimi said.

The Azadi Briefing: Taliban Attempts To Ease Its International Isolation

Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani (left), Qatar's prime minister and foreign minister, and Afghan Supreme Leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada (combo photo)

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 reclusive leader held a secret meeting with the Qatari prime minister in Afghanistan last month, according to media reports.

It was believed to be the first meeting between Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada and a foreign leader since the Taliban seized power in 2021.

Taliban and Qatari officials have not commented on the reported meeting, which is believed to have taken place in the southern city of Kandahar, the de facto capital under the militant group’s rule.

Why It's Important: It is unclear what Akhundzada and Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani discussed.

But the talks were seen as part of renewed efforts by the Taliban to ease its international isolation. The Taliban-led government remains unrecognized and has been hit by international sanctions.

The hard-line Islamist group’s restrictions on female education and employment as well as its human rights abuses have made it an international pariah.

Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch, however, said the Taliban’s reported willingness to engage with the international community is not new.

"I don't think it's a new willingness -- just new to see Akhundzada. The Taliban have always been keen, since [August 2021], to press their demands -- for engagement, aid, recognition, congratulations. Parallel to these talks, their crackdown on women/girls has steadily continued & deepened," Barr said on Twitter.

What's Next: It is unclear what effect the meeting will have. Akhundzada has so far been unwilling to reverse Taliban policies that have provoked widespread outrage inside and outside Afghanistan.

It appears unlikely that the international community will recognize the Taliban and resume crucial development assistance to Afghanistan until the group creates a broad-based government and ends its repression of women and girls.

The Week's Best Stories

Tensions remain high following the deadly clashes between Iranian and Taliban border troops over cross-border water supplies. But while both Tehran and the Taliban are doubling down on their water rights, they are leaving the door open for a diplomatic resolution.

The Taliban-led government in Afghanistan has ordered all taxi drivers in the capital, Kabul, to change the color of their vehicles to turquoise, infuriating many cabbies. Officials say the new color code will reduce kidnappings and other crimes.

What To Keep An Eye On

Taliban fighters and Iranian border guards exchanged heavy gunfire on May 27, leading to casualties on both sides.

The clashes occurred across the shared border between southeastern Iran and southwestern Afghanistan, with each side accusing the other of firing first.

Taliban officials said one Afghan border guard was killed, and several people were wounded. Iranian media said that up to three Iranian border guards were killed.

Since then, the sides have exchanged threats and reportedly sent reinforcements along the shared 900-kilometer border.

Why It's Important: The deadly clashes come amid a growing dispute over cross-border water resources.

Iran has accused the Taliban of violating a water treaty signed between Kabul and Tehran in 1973, a claim that the militant group rejects.

Disputes over water resources are likely to increase as both countries grapple with severe drought.

In the 1990s, during the Taliban’s first stint in power, the group was on the brink of war with Iran. But observers say the dispute over water resources is unlikely to lead to a conflict, with both sides calling for dialogue to help resolve their differences.

That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you have.

Until next time,

Mustafa Sarwar

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.

Taliban Turquoise Taxi Rule Has Kabul Cabbies Seeing Red

Taliban Turquoise Taxi Rule Has Kabul Cabbies Seeing Red
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The Taliban government in Afghanistan has ordered all taxi drivers in the capital, Kabul, to change the color of their vehicles to turquoise, infuriating many cabbies. Officials say the new color code will reduce kidnappings and other crimes.

Iran And Afghanistan's Taliban Clash As Water Dispute Boils Over

The Taliban has consistently denied the accusation that it was not complying with its 1973 treaty with Iran, by which it is bound to supply its neighbor with water from the Kajaki Dam. But Afghanistan's rulers say even it if were opened, there wouldn't be enough water to reach Iran.

Water has exposed cracks in the Taliban's fragile relationship with Tehran, with both sides exchanging pointed barbs over scarce supplies before coming to deadly blows along the Afghan-Iranian border.

Tensions remain high following the deaths of troops from both sides on May 27, with Taliban and Iranian officials digging in on their positions with increased military activity and fresh warnings.

But while disputes over water security are expected to intensify between the two drought-stricken countries, both sides appear to be keeping the door open for dialogue on the issue while boosting cooperation in other areas of mutual concern.

The deadly firefight took place across the shared border between southeastern Iran and southwestern Afghanistan, with each side accusing the other of firing first. Social media footage showed Taliban heavy weaponry streaming to the border in the Kang district of Nimroz Province, where officials said one Taliban border guard was killed and several people were wounded after an exchange of heavy gunfire.

Iranian media, meanwhile, said up to three Iranian border guards were killed and several people wounded in its southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan Province, where Iran has worked to fortify its border as tensions over water supplies rose over the past two weeks.

Women crouch in a former basin in Sistan and Baluchistan amid a severe water shortage on May 18.
Women crouch in a former basin in Sistan and Baluchistan amid a severe water shortage on May 18.

Following the incident, the Taliban has continued to push back on Iran's claim that it is not honoring a water treaty ironed out by the two sides in 1973.

"The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan considers dialogue to be a reasonable way for any problem," Taliban Defense Ministry spokesman Enayatullah Khawarazmi said in a statement on May 28, referring to the official name of the Taliban's unrecognized government. "Making excuses for war and negative actions is not in the interest of any of the parties."

Iran has continued its harder line, with national police commander Brigadier-General Ahmadreza Radan saying the same day that "the border forces of the Islamic republic of Iran will decisively respond to any border trespassing and aggression, and the current authorities of Afghanistan must be held accountable for their unmeasured and contrary actions to international principles."

But Iranian officials, too, have expressed the need for a diplomatic solution, with high-ranking security official Mohammad Ismail Kothari describing the dispute as "fighting between children of the same house" while rejecting that Tehran would resort to the "military option."

Big Dam Issues

Water is a precious commodity in both southwestern Afghanistan, one of the country's most productive agricultural areas, and in southeastern Iran, one of several arid areas of the country where water scarcity has fueled public protests.

But with Afghanistan in control of upriver water sources that feed low-lying wetlands and lakes in Iran's southeast, the Taliban finds itself with a rare tool for leverage in its relationship with Tehran.

The problem -- or the solution, depending on which side you consider -- stems from the construction of major dam projects in Afghanistan that in combination with increased drought and other factors have restricted the flow of water to the Sistan Basin.

The border-straddling basin depends on perennial flooding to fill what used to be a vast wildlife oasis and was home to the massive Hamun Lake, which now consists of three smaller seasonal lakes -- Hamun-e Helmand in Iran and Hamun-e Sabari and Hamun-e Puzak in both Afghanistan and Iran.

The longstanding issue of replenishing the basin with water came to the forefront earlier this month following comments by Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and President Ebrahim Raisi.

Amir-Abdollahian, in a call with his Taliban counterpart, Amir Khan Muttaqi, demanded the Afghan authorities open the gates of the inland Kajaki Dam that pools water from the Helmand River "so both the people of Afghanistan and Iran can be hydrated."

A view of the hydroelectric Kajaki Dam is seen in Kajaki, northeast of Helmand Province
A view of the hydroelectric Kajaki Dam is seen in Kajaki, northeast of Helmand Province

Shortly afterward, Raisi upped the ante during a visit to Sistan-Baluchistan on May 18 by warning the "rulers of Afghanistan to immediately give the people of Sistan-Baluchistan their water rights." He added that the Taliban should take his words "seriously" and not say "they were not told."

The Taliban has consistently denied the accusation that it was not complying with the 1973 treaty and said that even if the Kajaki Dam were opened there would not be enough water to reach Iran.

But just two days after Raisi's threats, the Taliban appeared to twist the knife by inaugurating a new irrigation project that involved completing the construction of the Bakhshabad Dam on the Farah River, which feeds the Sistan Basin from the north.

Contentious Water Treaty

According to the 1973 treaty, Afghanistan is committed to sharing water from the Helmand River with Iran at the rate of 26 cubic meters of water per second, or 850 million cubic meters per year.

But the accord also allows for less water to be delivered in cases of low water levels, which have been affected by persistent drought and the construction of new dams in Afghanistan, including the Kamal Khan Dam on the Helmand River that was completed in 2021 shortly before the Taliban seized power in Kabul.

Vanished wetlands in the Sistan Basin on the Iranian-Afghan border
Vanished wetlands in the Sistan Basin on the Iranian-Afghan border

The Taliban's deputy prime minister for economic affairs, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, said on May 22 that Kabul was "committed to the water treaty of 1973 but the drought that exists in Afghanistan and region should not be ignored."

"The pain of the people of Sistan-Baluchistan is our pain," he added. "Our hearts melt for them as much as they melt for the people of Afghanistan, but we also suffer from a shortage of water."

Cooperation on the water issue was previously seen as a sign of deepening ties between Afghanistan's Sunni Taliban rulers and Shi'a-majority Iran. In January 2022, the Taliban released water from the Kamal Khan Dam on the Helmand River in Nimroz Province into the Hamun Lake.

While their sectarian differences once made them enemies, their common interests in opposing Afghanistan's Western-backed government and U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan over the past two decades brought them closer.

Since the Taliban returned to power, the militant group has sought to build economic and security ties with Tehran. While Iran has not recognized the Taliban-led government, it has sought to work with the group on the issues of Afghan refugees in Iran and cross-border drug trafficking. In February, Iran formally handed over the Afghan Embassy in Tehran to the Taliban.

In January 2022, the Taliban released water from the Kamal Khan Dam on the Helmand River in Nimroz Province into the Hamun Lake.
In January 2022, the Taliban released water from the Kamal Khan Dam on the Helmand River in Nimroz Province into the Hamun Lake.

Afghanistan's and Iran's water crises require both countries to show a strong hand on the issue of water supplies, both for domestic consumption and to protect their national interests. But experts suggest the benefits of cooperation outweigh an escalation of the conflict.

"Neither country at this point in time needs a really hostile border," Marvin Weinbaum, director of Afghanistan and Pakistan studies at the Middle East Institute think tank in Washington, told RFE/RL.

"Economically it is an issue for both countries -- there would be no agricultural potential in Helmand Province without the water furnished by the dam. And very little of it gets into Iran. And southeast Iran is as dry as any place on the planet."

Weinbaum said neither the Taliban nor Tehran is going to exhibit weakness on the issue of short-term water shortages. "As the climate heats up, this is only going to grow more acute," he said.

But for both countries, Weinbaum said, "economic ties are really what matters the most," along with cooperating on other issues of mutual concern such as preventing the Islamic State extremist group from expanding its foothold in the region.

Ironically, just days after Raisi's threats and the inauguration of a new dam project in Afghanistan, the Taliban's Defense Ministry announced it had reached a new agreement on cooperating with Iran on defense and border issues. And on the day of the firefight that left border guards dead on both sides, officials had met earlier to discuss the water dispute.

After the deadly incident, Iranian and Taliban officials held another meeting to investigate the cause of the "tensions."

Path To Resolution

The construction of dams -- which both Iran and Afghanistan engage heavily in -- and their downstream impact stand out among the causes to discuss.

"What really triggers these disputes?" asked Weinbaum. "The intensification of them is obviously building dams, which represent simply a lower flow than they've been accustomed to and are not happy with."

Vanished wetlands in the Sistan Basin
Vanished wetlands in the Sistan Basin

Other observers suggest the decades-old water-sharing agreement that Iran and the Taliban accuse each other of failing to adhere to holds the answer to resolving the dispute.

The 1973 treaty does allow for the delivery of water from the Afghan side to be lower than the agreed-upon levels under certain circumstances, which would appear to include the drought and climate change that the Taliban has said have limited water supplies.

It also commits the two countries to follow a set course "in the event that a difference should develop in the interpretation" of the provisions set out in the treaty: diplomatic negotiations, turning to the "good offices" of a third party to help mediate a solution, and in the event neither step works, arbitration.

With additional reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Farda and Radio Azadi

Afghan Singer Arrested For Putting Taliban Verses To Music

Afghan Singer Arrested For Putting Taliban Verses To Music
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An Afghan singer who was well-known for supporting the Taliban has fallen foul of the militants. Khosh Naseeb was arrested after putting Taliban verses to music.

Iranian Official Says Conflict With Afghanistan Detrimental To Both Sides

The Taliban maintains that low water levels on the Helmand River -- which feeds lakes and wetlands in Iran's southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan Province -- preclude releasing more water.

An Iranian Foreign Ministry official has said following the outbreak of border clashes between Iranian border guards and Taliban fighters that any conflict between the two countries is detrimental to both of them.

The May 28 comments on Twitter by Seyyed Rasool Musavi, director of the Iranian Foreign Ministry's South Asia Department, came a day after deadly gunfire was exchanged along the countries' mutual border.

Abdul Nafee Takour, spokesman for the Taliban-led government's Interior Ministry, told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi that one Taliban fighter and one Iranian border guard were killed in the incident.

Iran's official IRNA news agency has said two border guards were killed and two civilians injured.

Each side has accused the other of shooting first.

Tensions over water rights have risen between Iran and Afghanistan in recent weeks. Drought-stricken southeastern Iran is heavily dependent on upriver water flows from Afghanistan, leading to calls for Afghanistan to release more water and accusations that Kabul is not honoring a bilateral water treaty signed in 1973.

The Taliban has denied it is in violation of the agreement, and said low water levels on the Helmand River -- which feeds lakes and wetlands in Iran's southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan Province -- preclude releasing more water.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian earlier this month demanded in a call with his Taliban counterpart, Amir Khan Muttaqi, that Afghan authorities open the gates of the inland Kajaki Dam on the Helmand River "so both the people of Afghanistan and Iran can be hydrated."

During a visit to Sistan-Baluchistan on May 18, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi warned "the rulers of Afghanistan to immediately give the people of Sistan-Baluchistan their water rights," adding that the Taliban should take his words "seriously."

The region is one of the most arid areas of Iran, which has seen multiple public protests over water scarcity in recent years.

Shortly after Raisi's comment, Taliban officials announced the construction of a new dam on the Farah River, which feeds agricultural land in southwestern Afghanistan and also drains into southeastern Iran.

In 2021, prior to the Taliban's seizure of power, Afghanistan completed work on the Kamal Khan Dam, which also sits on the Helmand River.

The Azadi Briefing: Deadly Floods Hit Afghanistan

An Afghan woman sits in front of a damaged house after flash floods hit the Madrasa village in Ghor Province on May 24.

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

At least 13 people have been killed and dozens injured in torrential rains and flash floods that struck a dozen provinces in Afghanistan.

The worst-affected areas were in the central province of Ghor, a remote and impoverished region where at least six people died.

Three women and a child from a single family perished in a village outside the provincial capital, Firoz Koh.

"The flood came suddenly around noon," Agha Jan, a neighbor of the victims, told Radio Azadi on May 24. "They could not get out of their home. Four people were killed, and one person is still missing."

Why It's Important: Hundreds of Afghans are killed every year in torrential rains, landslides, and floods, particularly in rural areas where poorly built homes are often at risk of collapse.

The United Nations has said that decades of war, environmental degradation, and climate change have made a growing number of Afghans vulnerable to natural disasters.

The latest floods are likely to exacerbate the devastating economic and humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, where millions are on the verge of starvation.

What's Next: It is unclear if the flood victims in Ghor will receive much-needed assistance.

Matthew Miller, the spokesman for the U.S. State Department, recently said that aid programs in Ghor and two other provinces had been discontinued by Washington and its partners due to "Taliban interference with humanitarian activities."

Nizamuddin, a resident of Ghor, pleaded for help. "The local government should address the problems of the people. Our houses were destroyed and people have been killed."

The Week's Best Stories

Afghanistan's extraordinarily high maternal mortality comes with the territory in a country marked by political upheaval, economic woes, and cultural restrictions, all of which have limited women's access to adequate health care. But while the Taliban government says the numbers of women dying during childbirth are holding steady, the conditions are ripe for disaster.

The Taliban is trying to revive the Afghan Air Force by using and repairing aircraft inherited from the former Afghan government. But the scarcity of trained pilots, a spate of deadly accidents, and international isolation are hampering the effort.

What To Keep An Eye On

Jan Egeland, the secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said the Taliban had agreed to negotiate exemptions that would allow female Afghan aid workers to resume work in the southern province of Kandahar.

In December, the Taliban banned Afghan women from working for local and foreign NGOs, in a move that led international organization to cut or end their operations in Afghanistan.

Egeland, who met with Taliban leaders this week, said he hoped that any exemption in Kandahar would be extended across the country.

"We cannot and will not work with male [staff] only," Egeland told Radio Azadi on May 25. "We would not be able to reach women in need with male [staff] only. So, I'm hopeful that we will get these exemptions and then that will be a breakthrough."

Why It's Important: The Taliban's ban on Afghan women working for NGOs has affected the delivery of humanitarian aid, including food assistance, to millions of people.

The hundreds of Afghan women employed by foreign NGOs are critical in delivering life-saving aid in Afghanistan, where the UN said nearly three-quarters of the population of 40 million needs assistance.

That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you have.

Until next time,

Mustafa Sarwar

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.

Rights Groups Slam Taliban Restrictions On Afghan Women As 'Crime Against Humanity'

A Taliban fighter stands guard as women wait to receive food rations distributed by a humanitarian aid group in Kabul on May 23.

Two top rights groups on May 26 slammed the severe restrictions imposed on women and girls by the Taliban in Afghanistan as gender-based persecution, which is a crime against humanity. In a new report, Amnesty International and the International Commission for Jurists underscored how the Taliban crackdown on Afghan women's rights, coupled with "imprisonment, enforced disappearance, torture and other ill-treatment," could constitute gender persecution under the International Criminal Court. Despite initial promises of a more moderate rule, the Taliban started to enforce restrictions on women and girls soon after their takeover in August 2021. To read the original story by AP, click here.

Taliban Effort To Resurrect Afghan Air Force Runs Into Turbulence

A Taliban fighter stands guard next to a helicopter in an area affected by an earthquake in the southeastern Afghan province of Paktika in June 2022.

Afghanistan's hard-line Islamist Taliban rulers are keen on showcasing their government's military prowess by frequently displaying repaired helicopters and planes from the country's inventory of aging aircraft.

But the once ragtag militant group that relied on small arms, rocket launchers, roadside bombs, and suicide bombers to wage war for a quarter century is struggling to get its dreams of building a modern air force off the ground.

On May 21, two pilots were killed after their U.S.-made helicopter crashed in the northern province of Samangan. The MD-530 multi-mission military aircraft was on patrol when it plunged to the ground after hitting an electricity pylon, according to the Taliban.

It was the latest of at least five verified military aviation accidents recorded since the Taliban seized power in August 2021. All involved helicopters from the previous government's patchwork fleet of mostly U.S.- and Russian-built aircraft, with pilot error considered the likely causes.

While the Taliban has shown it can make use of helicopters and some leftover planes in response to humanitarian disasters or for show, it is seen as being far from re-creating a functional air force capable of securing the skies in the event of foreign incursions or domestic insurgencies.

"I don't see the Taliban air force as something to worry about," said Amin Tarzi, director of Middle East Studies at the U.S. Marine Corps University. "If anything, it can become more symbolic."

Taliban fighters in the cockpit of an Afghan Air Force aircraft at Kabul Airport on August 31, 2021 -- the day the U.S. pulled the last of its troops out of Afghanistan.
Taliban fighters in the cockpit of an Afghan Air Force aircraft at Kabul Airport on August 31, 2021 -- the day the U.S. pulled the last of its troops out of Afghanistan.

Tarzi, an Afghanistan expert, says that the Taliban would need to conduct a significant amount of training for pilots and develop strategies for communication and coordination with ground forces, to build a viable air force.

"Despite the Taliban propaganda, this air force won't become a major threat to anyone in the region," he said. "For whatever reason, they think the air force makes you a more formidable or formal force."

In November, Taliban military officials claimed to have repaired some 70 helicopters and military planes. Taliban officials said their amnesty scheme for former Afghan military pilots and ground crews attracted more than 40 pilots and technicians to return and work for the Taliban's Defense Ministry.

The Taliban inherited more than 100 aircraft, most of which were inoperable, when it returned to power.

The Western-backed Afghan republic had 162 aircraft. Of these, 131 were airworthy just before the government's collapse in August 2021, according to the U.S. Special Inspector-General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

Some 25 percent of the aircraft were flown to neighboring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan as Taliban fighters advanced on Kabul. Dozens more were rendered inoperable as Western forces headed for a final exit. Fearing Taliban reprisals, hundreds of former pilots and ground crew fled Afghanistan.

A helicopter displaying a Taliban flag flies above supporters gathered in Kandahar in September 2021 to celebrate the U.S. withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan.
A helicopter displaying a Taliban flag flies above supporters gathered in Kandahar in September 2021 to celebrate the U.S. withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan.

Tarzi says that even before the United States indicated it wanted to withdraw from Afghanistan by signing a peace agreement with the Taliban in February 2020, the Afghan Air Force was an anemic institution. He pointed out as critical deficiencies its overreliance on Western support, a lack of discipline, and an incapability to operate independently.

"The idea that the Afghan Air Force was intact and operational was erroneous," he said.

Afghanistan's first modern air force emerged under King Zahir Shah in the 1960s with Soviet aircraft. During the Soviet occupation, the pro-Moscow socialist government established a formidable air force with hundreds of Soviet jets, cargo planes, and helicopters.

But the air force split into several rival aviation units controlled by warring warlords. During the Taliban’s first stint in power in the 1990s, its air force possessed some jets and helicopters operated by Afghan pilots and technicians who had defected to the group.

Author Lukas Muller's book, Wings Over The Hindu Kush, documents the history of the Afghan air force between 1989 and 2001. He says that currently only a small number of Taliban fighters serve in the air force, which is mainly manned by pilots and technicians trained by the United States and its allies. Some were even trained during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The Taliban is attempting to train new pilots but has not released figures showing the number of pilots and technicians it has, suggesting a shortage of qualified personnel.

Muller says that, based on photos and videos, the Taliban now has approximately 50 operational planes and helicopters.

"They consider their air force a crucial part of their military strength and openly boast about their accomplishments in repairing additional aircraft," he said.

The Russian-made Mi-17 transport helicopter, in several subtypes, is the most widely used Taliban helicopter. The group also has a small fleet of airworthy U.S.-made Black Hawk multi-mission helicopters, as well as U.S.-made MD-530s. Some A-29 attack fighters, a turboprop plane provided by the United States to the former Afghan government for air support and training, are believed to be serviceable. And the Taliban also possesses Russian Antonov transport planes and U.S. C-208 and AC-208 cargo aircraft.

Muller said that while the Taliban has utilized its planes and helicopters for transporting troops, military and humanitarian cargo, and regime officials, the actual deployment of combat aircraft remains unverified.

He says that the Taliban has not deployed its combat helicopters, such as the MD-530s or Russian-made Mi-35s, to actively engage opposition forces in the northern province of Panjshir, which has been a hotbed of anti-Taliban armed resistance.

"In essence, the Taliban's air force has yet to prove itself in combat," he said.

Bodies Of Migrants Who Died In Bulgaria Returned To Afghanistan, Taliban Says

The 18 Afghans were discovered lifeless on February 17 in an abandoned truck close to the Bulgarian capital, Sofia.

Afghanistan's Taliban-controlled Foreign Ministry says the bodies of 18 Afghan migrants who died of suffocation while attempting to cross into Bulgaria have been transferred to Kabul. The bodies were returned on the morning of May 24, Hafiz Zia Ahmad Takal, deputy spokesman for the ministry, said on Twitter. The 18 Afghans were discovered lifeless on February 17 in an abandoned truck close to the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. Seven suspected smugglers were arrested by Bulgarian authorities. Takal said the Taliban has paid for the repatriation. The bodies have been returned to their families, Takal said. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, click here.

Six Killed, 100 Homes Destroyed In Afghan Flooding

An Afghan vendor pushes a cart of footwear through a street as it rains in Kabul on May 23.

Six people have been killed and dozens of homes washed away in flooding in central Afghanistan, local authorities said on May 24. Abdul Wahid Hamas, a spokesman for the Taliban governor in central Ghor Province, said three women and a child were killed when their house in the town of Firozkoh was washed away on May 23. In Pasaband district, in the same province, a man and a woman were also swept away and later found dead, while another person remains missing, Hamas said. More than 100 houses and about 200 hectares of agricultural land were destroyed, with canals used to irrigate the fields damaged, he said. "We don't have more details of the financial losses for now," Hamas told AFP.

Taliban Mulls Guidelines For Letting Female NGO Staff Resume Work

Afghan women march for their rights in Kabul on April 29.

Jan Egeland, the secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said on May 23 that key Taliban officials told him in meetings that they are close to finalizing guidelines that will allow Afghan women to resume working for nongovernmental organizations. But they were unable to give a timeline or details when pressed. The Taliban last December barred Afghan women from working at NGOs, allegedly because they were not wearing the hijab -- the Islamic headscarf -- correctly and were not observing gender segregation rules. In April, the militants said this ban extended to UN offices and agencies in Afghanistan. To read the original story by AP, click here.

Traditional Potters In Afghanistan Face An Uncertain Future

An Afghan father and son have dedicated themselves to upholding a 1,000-year-old heritage of handmade ceramics in Kandahar.

'Every Midwife Is Afraid': Worrying Signs Over Maternal Deaths In Afghanistan

Afghan mothers of newborn babies get treatment at the Rezaei Maternity Hospital in Herat.

Giving birth is a life or death struggle for women in Afghanistan, where roughly one mother is believed to die every two hours from preventable pregnancy and childbirth complications.

Even mothers who survive face the stark reality that their newborns may not, with the Taliban's Health Ministry estimating 22 children die for every 1,000 live births.

"Why would a woman need to go to the hospital?" 31-year-old Zia Gul, a resident of the northern Parwan Province, recalled her husband saying during her difficult pregnancies. "There are only men at the hospital; there are no female doctors."

Gul told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi that her husband's refusal to let her see a doctor contributed to the loss of two of her newborn children.

Gul's experience is in line with those of many Afghan women, particularly in conservative rural areas, who are bound by the Islamic custom of mahram. The practice prohibits women from leaving their home without a male relative, bars them from being treated by male doctors, and gives them little say in their own health decisions.

Nurses deliver a baby in the maternity ward of a hospital in Mazar-e Sharif.
Nurses deliver a baby in the maternity ward of a hospital in Mazar-e Sharif.

But the traditional customs enforced by Gul's in-laws, who allowed no discussion on the matter, are just one of the many factors that contribute to high maternal mortality in Afghanistan's deeply patriarchal society.

Years of political upheaval, economic woes, the exodus of medical professionals, low literacy and public awareness on health issues, poor infrastructure, and the lack of access to medical care in remote areas all add up to astonishingly high maternal mortality rates.

Among The World's Worst

According to statistics compiled by the World Bank, the United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA), and other UN agencies, 1,450 mothers were dying for every 100,000 live births by 2000, shortly before the Taliban was ousted from power.

Over the course of the next 20 years, due to increased funding and attention paid to maternal health care and awareness by the UNPFA, international aid agencies such as Doctors Without Borders (MSF), and the Afghan government, that number was cut by more than half to 620 deaths by 2020.

The Taliban's seizure of power in August 2021 raised fears that the extremist group would reimpose the draconian policies of its first stint in power from 1996-2001, including the banning of female education and employment as it enforced mahram.

Many of those fears have been realized. Girls above the sixth grade have been barred from attending school, women are banned from pursuing university education, and women are no longer allowed to work for international aid agencies. Marham is also more prevalent, with women officially required to wear the all-encompassing burqa and remain at home unless accompanied by a male relative.

Once again, according to Aleksandar Sasha Bodiroza, the UNFPA's representative in Afghanistan, women's ability to freely access health facilities to seek maternal and newborn care has been restricted.

No outside nationwide statistics have been made available since 2020, but the Afghan Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, citing recent figures from the Taliban-led government's Health Ministry, told Radio Azadi that the maternal mortality ratio has risen only slightly under Taliban rule.

While the figure, 638 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, is the same number recorded by the international community in 2017, it is still high enough to rank Afghanistan among the world's 10 worst in terms of maternal mortality.

That the situation has remained relatively stable is also difficult to fathom, considering the vast numbers of doctors who fled the country as the Taliban regained power, the country's dire economic situation and multiple humanitarian crises, and the increased pressures on aid workers and on Afghan women.

The state health-care system, propped up by foreign aid for two decades, has also suffered from a dramatic drop in international funding since the Taliban takeover.

Health workers and outside agencies say the damage done to the health sector is undeniable.

"The system has changed in our country. Naturally, it had an impact on the country's economy and the services that the government provides to the people," Hamid Jabari, an Afghan physician who was expelled from the country by the Taliban, told Radio Azadi. "The negative effects are being felt, including the lack of professionals in government, especially the health sector."

A newborn baby is cared for at the Ataturk Children's Hospital a day after being rescued from a deadly attack on another maternity hospital, in Kabul on May 13, 2020.
A newborn baby is cared for at the Ataturk Children's Hospital a day after being rescued from a deadly attack on another maternity hospital, in Kabul on May 13, 2020.

Some of the losses are offset by the continued involvement of outside organizations, including private hospitals, the UNFPA, and MSF, which have been able to continue to employ women despite the Taliban's ban on women aid workers due to an exemption for health workers.

But tremendous obstacles remain. Bodiroza said in written comments that "despite the exemption of the health sector from the ban on female humanitarian workers, the sector is also suffering from the ban as there are NGOs that indirectly support efficient delivery of health services -- not as frontline health workers but as back office staff, for example."

Afghan women health-care workers, in turn, told Radio Azadi they are being prevented from carrying out their work or expanding their expertise, even as the contributing factors to maternal mortality become more severe. The result is that newborns or pregnant women are now at greater risk of preventable deaths during pregnancy, childbirth, and in the first few weeks after childbirth.

"Many pregnant women can't access antenatal or postnatal care, and the health system struggles to treat women who experience complications in pregnancy," Tomas Bendl, field communications manager for MSF in Afghanistan, told RFE/RL in written comments. "A shortage of qualified female health-care staff also affects access to health care, as maternity and sometimes pediatric wards are women-only spaces."

Dangers At Home

Hussain Sayer, a doctor from Parwan Province, told Radio Azadi that childbirth should ideally take place at a maternity hospital under the care of an obstetrician.

He said it was a "bad custom" for women to be denied access to health facilities during their pregnancies and warned that the only available option for many women -- home birth -- carries great risk.

In the event of births taking place at home, he said, they should be supervised by a trained midwife.

But while great emphasis was made over the past two decades to increase the number of professional midwives in Afghanistan capable of providing medical assistance during pregnancies, deliveries, and postnatal care, many Afghan women who entered the profession say they are unable to help.

Nadia, a midwife who spoke to Radio Azadi on condition that only her first name be used, said many of her colleagues who specialized in gynecology and obstetrics are "unemployed and stay at home" since the Taliban takeover.

Another midwife, who declined to give her name due to security concerns, said fear prevents many of her colleagues from working.

"Midwives don't go from place to place to assist with births -- that's why the problems have increased," she told Radio Azadi. "Every midwife is afraid for her life."

Restrictions on women's mobility have had a harmful effect on efforts to educate communities on women's health in remote areas of the country, according to the UNFPA's Bodiroza.

Even when male family members do allow women to visit health-care facilities, the difficulties in reaching them in rural areas limits the number of visits and can mean help is often administered too late.

Newborn babies at the Ataturk Children's Hospital in Kabul.
Newborn babies at the Ataturk Children's Hospital in Kabul.

"I took my wife to the clinic by motorcycle," Abdul Samad, a resident of the southeastern Ghazni Province told Radio Azadi, explaining he lived far from the nearest village with maternity facilities.

While Samad managed to get his wife to a doctor, shortly after he left to retrieve her mother, he received bad news. "Half an hour later, I received a call saying my wife was in agony," he said. "When I returned, I saw they were right" -- both his wife and their newborn child had died.

Continuing Efforts

It is difficult to assess where Afghanistan truly stands in terms of maternal mortality, but the benefits of continued outreach efforts and on-the-ground medical aid are obvious.

Bendl said MSF operates two projects in Afghanistan that focus on maternal health care, among other things, and employ more than 1,700 medical professionals in Afghanistan, of whom more than half are women.

Last year, MSF assisted in more than 42,700 deliveries, more than 8,000 of which were marked by obstetric complications. In Lashkar Gah, capital of the southern Helmand Province, MSF's support for a hospital resulted in an average maternal mortality rate of 0.1 percent. In the southeastern Khost Province, where MSF operates a maternity hospital, the mortality rate was 0.02 percent.

Bodiroza of the UNFPA said the agency continues "to deliver a full range of maternal health services in Afghanistan" and supports facilities and delivers essential reproductive health supplies in 32 out of the country's 34 provinces.

Despite the positives, those involved in providing health services in Afghanistan say much more needs to be done.

A newborn is seen in an incubator at the intensive-care unit of a hospital in Herat.
A newborn is seen in an incubator at the intensive-care unit of a hospital in Herat.

Bodiroza said the UNFPA estimates that without immediate and sustained support for reproductive health services, the situation could lead to an additional 51,000 maternal deaths by 2025.

Adding that "reproductive health services are therefore more critical than ever," Bodiroza said the UN agency is aiming to reach 10.6 million people -- including 6.8 million women and girls -- in remote areas with reproductive health support.

Bendl said that "there is no doubt that a dysfunctional health system, widespread poverty, and increased restrictions placed on women are at the heart of the current humanitarian crisis."

"If we want the situation to improve," he said, "policymakers, donors, and local authorities must urgently focus on strengthening primary medical care." And women, he said, "must be allowed to pursue further education and employment opportunities, to raise income for their families and to ensure there are sufficient female health workers in the country to meet the needs."

Written and reported by Michael Scollon, with additional reporting by Radio Azadi correspondents Ahmad Hanayish and Sahar Lewal
Updated

Afghan-American Journalist Freed After Detention In Kabul

Afghan-American journalist Ali Latifi said on May 19 that he has been released from detention one day after being held in Kabul, calling it a “misunderstanding.” The freelance journalist said he was “treated fine.” A Taliban spokesman a day earlier had said Latifi was detained by Afghan police over allegations of "suspicious behavior." The Afghanistan Journalists Center welcomed Latifi’s release and urged the freeing of other journalists held by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The Azadi Briefing: Who Is The Taliban's New Prime Minister?

Abdul Kabir (center), one of three deputies to ailing Prime Minister Hassan Akhund, is set to take over the post on a temporary basis. He's known for his diplomatic skills, which could help the isolated regime on the international stage.

Welcome to The Azadi Briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan. To subscribe, click here.

I'm Abubakar Siddique, a senior correspondent 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 appointed a new prime minister on May 17, saying the incumbent, Hassan Akhund, was suffering from ill health.

The militant group said Abdul Kabir, one of Akhund's three deputies, would take over on a temporary basis. But it is unclear whether Akhund, a 78-year-old cleric, will return to his post.

The 60-year-old Kabir was a military commander and shadow governor during the Taliban's 19-year insurgency against the Western-backed Afghan government. He served as an official during the Taliban's first stint in power from 1996 to 2001.

Like many Taliban officials, Kabir is on the United Nations' terrorism blacklist.

Why It's Important: Under the Taliban's clerical system, the prime minister carries out the day-to-day administration of the government. But Taliban Supreme Leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada has the ultimate say on all important matters of the state.

Sami Yousafzai, a veteran Afghan journalist and commentator who tracks the Taliban, said Kabir's appointment is unlikely to "mark a major policy shift."

But Yousafzai said Kabir and Akhund are "very different in how they operate and conduct themselves."

Unlike Akhund, Kabir has played a much more visible role. He was involved in negotiating the U.S.-Taliban deal in 2020 that paved the way for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan.

Since the Taliban seized power, Kabir has been pictured regularly meeting representatives of foreign governments and organizations visiting Afghanistan. Akhund, experts said, shunned public engagement.

Many Taliban leaders are Pashtuns from the southern province of Kandahar, the group's power base. But Kabir is a Pashtun from the northern province of Baghlan who hails from the Zadran tribe. Kabir's promotion is likely an attempt to placate those Taliban members who have accused leaders in Kandahar of monopolizing power.

What's Next: Kabir is known for his diplomatic skills. That could help the unrecognized and isolated Taliban-led government improve its ties with the outside world, including neighboring Pakistan.

Kabir is also known for his close links with Islamabad, the Taliban's longtime ally. But tensions have increased between the sides over the Taliban's alleged sheltering of the Pakistani Taliban, which has waged a yearslong insurgency against Islamabad.

The Taliban is unlikely to rescind its repressive policies, including its restrictions on women. But Kabir's appointment could mean the Taliban-led government has an interlocutor who is likely to be more open to discussing thorny issues with Afghans and representatives of foreign governments and organizations.

The Week's Best Stories

A growing number of Afghan families have been forced to send their children to work amid a devastating economic and humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, where incomes have plummeted, and millions are on the brink of starvation. There are at least 1 million child laborers in Afghanistan, with many polishing boots, washing cars, begging in the streets, or working in mines.

The parents and family of a 21-year-old Afghan migrant struck by a train in Serbia had to rely on public generosity to get his body home for a proper farewell. His death is a tragic facet of a decade-long battle between asylum seekers and populist, anti-immigrant governments in stepping-stone states like Serbia, on the border of the more affluent European Union.

What To Keep An Eye On

The UN Office on the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has said that climate change is reducing people's access to water across Afghanistan.

The agency said the proportion of Afghan household lacking access to water is rising rapidly.

"Households experiencing water shortages rose from 48% in 2021 to 60% in 2022," the OCHA tweeted on May 18.

The UN warned on May 17 that it was quite certain that 2023-2027 will be the warmest five-year period ever recorded.

Afghanistan is already one of the world's most vulnerable countries to climate change. Changing weather patterns have resulted in frequent flash floods and persistent droughts in the country.

Why It's Important: Afghanistan is already grappling with the world's biggest humanitarian crisis, which worsened when the Taliban seized power.

Receding access to water will further wreak havoc on the livelihoods of millions of Afghans who depend on subsistence farming and animal husbandry. Together, these sectors make up a large part of the Afghan economy.

Declining international humanitarian aid, in part due to the Taliban's restrictions on the work of foreign NGOs, is likely to worsen the blow for many Afghans.

That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you have.

Until next time,

Abubakar Siddique

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.

Updated

Iranian President Warns Afghanistan To Abide By Treaty On Water Flows

An aerial view shows the Helmand River in Afghanistan's Helmand Province. According to a 1973 agreement, Afghanistan is obligated to provide Iran with 850 million cubic meters of water annually from the Helmand River.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has warned the de facto Taliban regime in Afghanistan that its noncompliance with joint agreements on water rights in regions along their shared border is escalating tensions between Tehran and Kabul.

Raisi warned during a visit to the southeastern Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan on May 18 that the "rulers of Afghanistan" should "take the issue of...Iran's water rights seriously."

The warning follows a phone conversation between Amir Khan Muttaqi, the acting foreign minister of the Taliban administration, and Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian over several issues, including the transfer of water from the Helmand River.

Amir-Abdollahian requested the Taliban open the gates of the Kajaki Dam "so both the people of Afghanistan and Iran can be hydrated."

Taliban officials recently claimed that due to low water levels, even if they opened the dam, nothing would reach Iran. But Amir-Abdollahian said that can only be determined by a joint technical team, as per a 1973 treaty over water rights. Iran has proposed such a team inspect the Kajaki Dam to assess the situation, the minister said.

Raisi said that if the experts confirm the water shortage, Iran would drop its concerns, though he added that Iran would not allow the rights of its people to be "compromised."

According to the 1973 agreement, Afghanistan is obligated to provide Iran with 850 million cubic meters of water annually from the Helmand River. Iran has accused Afghanistan of not complying with the accord, an allegation that Kabul rejects. Disputes over the distribution of cross-border water supplies have plagued relations between the two neighbors for decades.

Water from the 1,150-kilometer (690-mile) Helmand River, Afghanistan’s longest, feeds the Hamun Lake in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province. The region relies heavily on the lake, and officials say it has suffered major issues because of a persistent lack of water.

Hassan Kazemi Qomi, Iran’s special representative to Afghanistan, stated that despite the Taliban-led government's repeated commitment to the Helmand water treaty, Iran has only received about 4 percent of the water to which it has a right.

The situation in Iran is becoming acute, with many cities facing water shortages. In turn, protests over the issue are becoming more commonplace.

Afghans widely celebrated the completion of the Kamal Khan Dam last March. Former President Ashraf Ghani said Afghanistan would no longer "give away free water" and suggested Iran should provide oil to Kabul in exchange for water.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda

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