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Gandhara Briefing: A Week Of Chaos And Tragedy

Taliban fighters pose for photograph in Kabul's Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood on August 18.
Taliban fighters pose for photograph in Kabul's Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood on August 18.

Dear Reader,

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

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Afghanistan’s First Week Under Taliban Control

This is our first newsletter since the Taliban returned to Kabul after the Afghan government had collapsed like a house of cards. The speed of the takeover has turned a chaotic evacuation effort into a humanitarian crisis. (See this interactive map of how the group has seized control.)

At the beginning of the week, the Taliban had still paid lip service to projecting a moderate image by promising an inclusive government and respect for some women’s rights.

But, as my colleagues in Kabul and elsewhere report, few were convinced. “The future political system is unlikely to be inclusive, leading many Afghans to perceive it as imposed and illegitimate,” Haroun Rahimi, an assistant professor of law at the American University of Afghanistan, said.

Afghan women, in particular, are doubtful that the Taliban’s assurances of respecting their rights “within the limits of Islam” will translate into anything other than the repression that was the hallmark of its previous regime.

Many women are now staying indoors. “Every woman is scared,” Liza Karimi, a Current Time freelance reporter in Kabul, told us in this video of life in Kabul.

A Stalled Exodus

Thousands of desperate people are still stuck near Kabul’s international airport, unable to enter the airport perimeter to join the evacuation efforts. NATO ministers are looking into speeding up airlifts and weighing future dealings with the Taliban to get more people out.

Among them, many tell us that they have travel documents that would, in theory, allow them to find shelter abroad. “I don’t know what’s more dangerous: going to the airport or staying and living under Taliban rule,” said a man holding a U.S. Special Immigration Visa.

As this video shows, entry points to the airport have been the scene of chaos punctuated by gunfire to disperse the crowds. The Taliban is making it nearly impossible to reach the airport and has started to hunt down some who have worked for U.S. and allied forces.

As the Taliban solidified their power, the façade of tolerance began to show cracks. This video shows the Taliban firing shots at protesters who were waving the Afghan flag in various cities to mark Independence Day on August 19.

The militants also killed a relative of a Deutsche Welle journalist and seriously wounded another on August 20 while conducting a house-to-house search for the journalist, according to the German broadcaster.

Reports suggest that similar searches for former Afghan government officials and people who have worked with the U.S. and allied forces have intensified.

Afghanistan’s vibrant local media scene has already changed dramatically. Countless journalists have been removed from their jobs, threatened, and gone into hiding.

Shabnam Dawran, a prominent presenter on state television RTA, became one of the first women who was stopped from working. “My male colleagues managed to enter the office, but I was threatened and told that I couldn’t continue my work because the system had changed,” she said.

Amnesty International, the rights monitoring group, reported this week that the Taliban had brutally tortured and killed several members of the mainly Shi’ite Hazara minority earlier last month.

The instability in Kabul has prompted the UN to temporarily relocate its staff there to Kazakhstan.

Leadership Movements

In Kabul, Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s main political leader, is widely tipped to lead the militants’ government this time around.

“He’s the one who struck a deal with the Americans very successfully,” Afghan journalist Sami Yousafzai said of Baradar, who led the Taliban insurgency before his arrest in Pakistan in 2010. “Even before his capture, he was known as a figure silently doing a lot of thinking [for the Taliban].”

It is noteworthy that Khalil Haqqani, the Haqqani network leader wanted by the U.S., attended Friday prayers at Pul-e-Kheshti, Kabul’s largest mosque, days after first appearing in Jalalabad.

What a future government will look like is still unclear, as is the amount of resistance it will face as some former government forces led by Vice President Amrullah Saleh and Defense Minister Bismillah Mohammadi have gathered troops in the Panjshir Valley.

President Ashraf Ghani, who reemerged in the United Arab Emirates, vowed to return to Afghanistan. But his deeply polarizing role and hasty departure make a significant role in any future government unlikely.

Biden’s Saigon Moment?

The crisis has prompted mounting criticism in the U.S. and among allies of how the Biden administration handled the U.S. forces’ withdrawal. President Biden, however, maintains he made the right call despite acknowledging that the Taliban might not have changed since their first period in power.

“I think Joe Biden’s advisers knew that the Taliban will take over Afghanistan,” Scott Lucas, a U.S. foreign affairs expert in Dublin, said.

The administration froze Afghan government reserves and denied the Taliban access to $450 million in IMF funds. President Biden is scheduled to speak on the issue later today.

In a damning assessment released this week, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction said that the U.S. had “underestimated” the time required to rebuild the country, but also spoke of “bright spots,” such as lower child mortality and increased literacy.

Regional Reactions

Tehran and Moscow welcomed the U.S. departure from what both governments consider their backyard. But they also remain uneasy about the Taliban’s newfound power.

Shahram Akbarzadeh, a regional expert at Australia’s Deakin University, says that despite its strong ties to the Taliban, Tehran’s Shi’ite clerical regime worries about the group reviving the anti-Shi’a policies that brought it to the brink of war with Iran in the 1990s.

“An anti-Shi’a and anti-Iran government in Afghanistan could present serious security challenges for Iran and make Afghan territory a haven for anti-Iran terror groups,” he noted.

Moscow, too, has cause to worry about what lies ahead. “The [Taliban] takeover doesn’t change Moscow’s fundamental policy toward Afghanistan: to keep the instability of the civil war away from Central Asia,” noted Ivan Klyszcz, a political scientist at the University of Tartu in Estonia.

As Bruce Pannier reports, Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan are already reeling from the spillover of instability from their neighbor: an unknown number of soldiers are among the many who have fled across their borders, dozens of them using Afghan military aircraft.

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

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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.

Azadi Briefing

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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