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Gandhara Briefing: Afghan Hunger, Pakistani Islamists, Makhdum Alem

A man distributes bread to burqa-wearing women outside a bakery in Kabul in December.
A man distributes bread to burqa-wearing women outside a bakery in Kabul in December.

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

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

Hunger killing Afghan children

I write about how mounting hunger in Afghanistan is threatening the life and well-being of millions of children. Aid agencies warn that more than 1 million children could die of severe malnourishment and millions more require medical treatment.

"My son couldn't walk because he was so weak," said Graana, a mother of five who for weeks trekked more than two hours a day to receive treatment for her malnourished 2-year-old son in Helmand. "Hunger had disfigured him to the extent that he started to look scary. I was hopeless."

The snowballing humanitarian crisis hits Afghanistan's young the hardest, with the UN warning that children account for some 14 million of the country's 23 million people facing starvation. "[We are] deeply concerned about the rapidly escalating malnutrition crisis across Afghanistan," Sam Mort, a spokeswoman for UNICEF, told me.

In a video report, we take you to meet desperate Afghans. Some have sold their kidneys to survive the winter, while others are considering selling their own children.

"No one can tell me to sell our children, but we are struggling to keep them alive," said one mother who has already sold a kidney for $1,500. "And that's why we thought of selling [some of] them."

The Taliban's political blowback in Pakistan

Ron Synovitz writes about how the Taliban victory in Afghanistan is now shaping politics in Pakistan. Islamist parties in the country are bolstered by the ascent to power of an Afghan ideological ally.

"There is no doubt that with the Taliban in power in Afghanistan, support for the religious parties will increase in Pakistan," said Nazr-ul Islam, an analyst in Islamabad.

Jamiat Ulema-e Islam (JUI-F), the main Deobandi party, is already cashing in on the Taliban's victory in Afghanistan by claiming the lion's share of seats in the first round of municipal elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in December. The JUI-F and Tehrik-e Labaik Pakistan, a far-right Bralevi group, are now poised to challenge the ruling Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf and other moderate or secular political parties in parliamentary elections scheduled next year.

Embryonic ethnic conflict within the Taliban

Bruce Pannier weighs in on brewing ethnic tensions within the Taliban ranks after the predominately Pashtun group recently arrested one of its most powerful Uzbek commanders for alleged criminal activities.

Makhdum Alem's mid-January detention prompted protests in his native Faryab. Fellow Uzbeks within the Taliban ranks warned of more unrest if he was mistreated. The issue even prompted Taliban Defense Minister Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob to visit Faryab to quell the unrest.

"Despite Taliban warnings about protests, there is no sign tensions in the region will ease anytime soon," wrote Pannier, pointing to rising grievances among ethnic minorities against the alleged excesses of the Taliban in the ethnically mixed regions of northern Afghanistan.

Emerald Mountains

In a photo essay, we take you deep into Afghanistan's Hindu Kush Mountains, where former police officers and soldiers eke out a living by digging for emeralds in frosty mines.

Miners in Panjshir, where emeralds have been mined since 1970s, barely make any money after selling raw gemstones for as little as 50 cents. "If they [the Taliban] call me back to work, I will go," said one former soldier-turned-miner who hunted the Taliban insurgents for years.

I hope you found this week’s newsletter useful, and I encourage you to forward it to your colleagues.

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Abubakar Siddique
Twitter: @sid_abu

P.S.: You can always reach us at

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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 also writes 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, the Azadi Briefing, correspondent Abubakar Siddique shares his analysis of the week’s most important issues and explain why they matter.

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